The following is part of a series of blog posts I wrote while taking an education PhD course on Epistemologies. A summary of all posts in the series is included in this paper: Developing an Appreciative Understanding of Epistemologies in Educational Research: One Blogger’s Journey.
For those that are not familiar with research epistemologies, critical theory is a participatory and advocacy-based research methodology that is specifically intended to address issues of systemic racism. It is this weeks topic in our epistemologies course.
Going into the reading of the week, I was not unfamiliar with critical race theory – at least at a very high level. I had taken some anti-oppression/anti-racism (AO/AR) training when I worked with youth, so many of the anti-racism concepts were not completely new to me. I was particularly eager to learn the theoretical reasons behind some of the things I learned in AO/AR training. The reading this week was “Race, culture, and researcher positionality: Working through dangers seen, unseen, and unforeseen” by H.Richard Milner IV. In reading the article, my emotions ran high around specific areas. I debated how much to share in this blog post, as some of my observations may be interpreted as not polite conversation within a Canadian context, but in the end, I decided that my experiences are a valid.
Key ideas in the chapter are:
- “Power and interests are connected” (p.391): Change is only possible when the change is something that the group in power agrees to. Milner further states “it is difficult for a group of people to critique and work to change and transform the world when the world works for that group of people” (p.392).
- Colour-blind and culture-blind is a bad thing. Researchers that ignore colour or culture are in essence privileging the dominant colour or culture in their research.
- Narrative and counter-narrative: When the researcher and the research participant do not agree on a perspective, it is important that the researcher include both the researcher’s narrative and the participants counter-narrative in the research report.
The area that struck me the most was the idea of “colour-blindness”. I was taught to be “colour-blind” in middle school and high school. I went to multi-cultural schools, and from a young age I was taught to ignore a persons colour or race, and to simply see the person as a person. To this day, in Canadian society, it is not politically correct to talk about the race of a person. Even with an emphasis on multiculturalism in Canadian society, it is more often than not considered not polite to mention the race or ethnic background of a person – and yet, it is often that background that makes the person who they are. I agree with how colour-blindness is a bad thing in research and in teaching. The way I see it, if I ignore the race and culture of the participants in my research, then I am assuming they share my race and my culture. Given that I’m most likely to research that is global in scope, I cannot simply choose to ignore the impact of race and culture on the participants in my research.
However, I am still rather sensitive over the concept of “colour-blindness”, and those feelings came out when I read the article. First off, the article is set within the context of the USA – and so often racism is equated to anti-African American, and as a result, all the examples where given in that context. At one of the AO/AR trainings that I attended (in the USA), I had left an anonymous comment that I was not always able to determine if the person I was speaking to identified as “a person of colour”. The comment was immediately dismissed as being “colour-blind”, which I found rather offensive. The person leading the training completely dismissed my issue – and to this day I regret not speaking up. I’ve since learned that in the USA, kids learn to identify “people of colour” (specifically those of African American decent) informally based upon not just a persons skin colour, but also based upon other visible characteristics such as mannerisms and facial structures. Being from Canada (northern rural Canada at that), this is something that I never learned, and as a result, some people in the room with lighter skin tones, identified as “persons of colour”, where I honestly couldn’t tell. You see, I was looking for skin-colour as the only identifier, and frankly, some people of southern European descent also have darker skin tones and are considered “white”. In the same training, I was also told that is wasn’t appropriate to expect an oppressed person or a person of colour to self-identify, I am just supposed to magically know? – so, to this day, I’m left confused about what the appropriate methods are for identifying a person of colour within the USA context. I was left feeling that no matter what I do, I’m wrong.
I think that as I researcher, I will allow myself to ask questions that may not be considered polite in Canadian Society. I think it is my responsibility to check my narratives and ask for counter-narratives I think it is OK to ask for the perspective of others, and even necessarily. I will not assume that a person shares my racial or cultural identity. I truly enjoy the conversations that I have within those in my PhD cohort, as we seem to be free to ask those tough questions of one another without judgement. Their perspectives help enrich my world view.
For those that are reading this from other places, can you talk about race in a manner that is considered “polite” conversation? How does it affect your research?
Milner, H. R. (2007). Race, culture, and researcher positionality: Working through dangers, seen, unseen, and unforeseen. Educational Researcher, 36(7), 388-400. doi:10.3102/0013189X07309471