Is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed Possible with the White, Middle Class?

20170724_074919by Dr. Herukhuti

I first read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed when I was in high school. I found an old copy of it somewhere and waded with relative ease through the translation that made his words feel more abstract and opaque than were probably the case in the original Portuguese. It would be years later in grad school when I returned to the text as assigned reading.

Educators from the United States who claim a progressive or liberatory stance in the field of education have imported the Brazilian ideas of education for critical consciousness, Freirean education, in a massive way. Everybody who has a degree in education from a program that embraces critical pedagogy has read Freire or at least claims to have read his work. What’s interesting, however, is the ways Freirean ideas have been appropriated and applied in the US, outside of their original sociocultural context. And even on pedagogical level, it seems slightly odd to witness K-12 teachers talking about creating learning environments using a model that was originally developed for adult literacy programs.

But I want to talk about something a bit different regarding the application of Freirean education in the United States. I want to talk about the politics, ethics, and dynamics of applying the Freirean ideas, which were designed as framework for working with some of the most oppressed and marginalized members of a society, to work with privileged folks, e.g., wealthy or middle class folks, people racialized as white, etc. Intersectionality theory offers us ways to consider how these folks may experience some forms of marginalization or discrimination due to one or more of their social identities e.g., wealthy or middle class women and women racialized as white experience the forces of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny within their socioeconomic and racial group respectively.

But how can a pedagogy of the oppressed be practiced among the privileged? It can’t. And that’s a reality that many folks who have appropriated and adapted Freirean educational philosophy for working with people who are not Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)–the oppressed of the United States–have yet to address. Freire coined a term conscientização or conscientization to describe the process and goal of his educational philosophy. It is the process by which an educator supports students in the development of critical social analytical skills that allow them to name, evaluate, and understand their world. It helps people get free from the entanglements of mainstream histories, news, explanations, investigations, and propaganda. And it inspires within them an oppositional consciousness, i.e., a consciousness that opposes the agenda, norms, values, and interests of those in power of the status quo.

What, therefore, could a conscientization of the privileged classes look like in the United States? It looks like processes that help them to develop more critical understandings of the system of oppression in which they live and which benefits them as well as the ways in which they participate in its perpetuation. Conscientization looks like the cultivation of a class of white race traitors, racial justice conspirators, and double-agents in service of racial equity who use their racialization in the society to tear up settler-colonizing, imperialist, white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy from the inside out.

One of the conscientization exercises Freire would facilitate in the literacy groups he called culture circles was to present the group with an object that was common to most if not all members of the circle like a soda can. Then he’d ask the group to name the object, i.e., to say what it was. This facilitated conversation would lead beyond a simple construction like “it’s a soda can” to naming the object’s role in and impact upon society e.g., “it’s a waste of water;” “it’s half a day’s pay;” “it’s a symbol of American imperialism;” etc. The exercise helps the oppressed practice naming the world from their perspective, which is an action heavily discouraged and policed by the powers that be. Those forces want the oppressed to think about the world through the perspective of the ruling class so that they will never question the realities they experience. They will internalize their oppression as a consequence of their lot in life or their personal or cultural flaws rather than as a product of an regulated system of injustice. The oppressed engaged in naming their world from their own perspective is a revolutionary act.

People who are privileged are used to having the world made and named in their own image and reflecting their perspective. Therefore, conscientization for them must include the process in which the privileged become conscious of the fact that their reality and perspective not only are but one among many but that they have also been used as the basis for everyone else by force. For the privileged, their process of conscientization must lead them to understand how settler-colonizing, imperialist, white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy has cuddled and coddled them as it has also eaten away at their spirit, soul, and psyche. It costs to dine out on the bodies, land, cultures, and labor of others.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire contrasted the form of education he was articulating, education for critical consciousness, with the dominant form of education, which he called banking education. In banking education, Freire asserted, the teacher deposits knowledge into the student like making a bank deposit into an account that starts out devoid of any knowledge. Freire believed that the existing educational system considered the oppressed to be empty vessels without an inherent knowledge. But he knew the oppressed had a wealth of knowledge that should be recognized, honored, and nurtured.

By contrast, the privileged are full with an inherent knowledge about their entitlements. They are full with privileges. They are full with social advantages. Therefore, for them conscientization means breaking the bank, raiding it to empty it of its hoarded wealth and ill gotten gains. Follow a trail of white tears and we’re likely to find a piggy bank that’s been cracked. That is because the privileged can experience equity and justice as a violence against them when they have internalized and identified with the social advantages and privileges that settler-colonizing, imperialist, white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy has granted to them. Frantz Fanon keenly observed this reality when he said, “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.”


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