Difference in African Educational Contexts

  • Yvette P. FranklinEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


Educational institutions pull together students of different genders, abilities, races, classes, and religions and are the microcosm of their communities. In African contexts, schools have been the location of “cultural parochialism” and “colonial epistemicide and the consolidation of colonization” (Lebakeng et al. 72, 2006). Thus an additional dimension of difference drawn along the fallacious line of the superior dominant Eurowestern colonizer versus the inferior indigenous African population has been institutionalized within the educational system. I engage in a philosophical examination of the African context of difference in the sphere of education. I consider the hopeful gaze philosophy offers in the light of difference, by considering the concept of pluralism, and argue for a view of difference that is both inclusive and appreciative of diversity and suggests ways educators can critically assess their own differences by considering their positionality. I conclude by applying the philosophical outlook that embraces pluralism to our classroom spaces and suggests multicultural theory that embraces difference by including both dominant and marginalized educators to impact education in an efficacious way.


Philosophy of education Positionality Pluralism Multiculturalism Critical theory 


Educational institutions by their very nature are locations of difference. They pull together students of different genders, abilities, races, classes, and religions. They are a microcosm of the communities they service, for good or bad. In African contexts, schools have been the location of “cultural parochialism” and “colonial epistemicide and the consolidation of colonization” (Lebakeng et al. 2006, 72); thus an additional dimension of difference drawn along the fallacious line of the alleged superior dominant Eurowestern colonizer versus the alleged inferior indigenous African population was institutionalized within the educational system.

From my experience of being a student during school integration in South Africa and now a scholar of education who locates my work at the nexus of theory and practice, I propose ways students and educators could consider new possibilities by knowing themselves and others through cooperative engagement in their learning spaces and developing awareness of those who have been marginalized (See Waghid 2014, 1). In this chapter, building on my earlier theoretical investigation (Un)Packing Your Backpack: Educational Philosophy, Positionality, and Pedagogical Praxis (2012), I want to contribute to a conception of a philosophy of education that seeks to transform and empower communities for the sake of their own development so that school spaces can foster inclusion and appreciation of difference and address, rather than perpetuate, the challenges faced in the African context. This is described by Yusef Waghid as “developing a conception of education that can contribute towards imagination, deliberation and responsibility – actions that can help towards enhancing justice in educative relations, specifically in relation to African education” (Waghid 2014, 1). Waghid’s egalitarian approach offers a way to balance the re-centering of indigenous philosophy while welcoming the “rich contributions from knowledge …developed elsewhere” (Waghid 2014, 3). This allows me, as a white African living in the United States, to channel my privileges for the sake of “achieving moral goods internal to the life experiences of Africans” (Waghid 2014, 8).

I attest to Kai Horsthemke’s challenge that philosophers of education, and indeed all philosophers, should feel the responsibility to consider the “philosophical concepts and arguments that are generated by educational policy and practice and consideration of (or reflection on) not only the nature, aims, and problems of education but also particular cases” (Horsthemke 2017, 686) instead of looking to apply universal principles. Waghid describes this approach as a philosophy of education that is more a means of inquiry and less a disseminator of objective truths (See Waghid 2014, 5). This kind of inquiry allows focused analysis of particular phenomena, such as the philosophical examination of the African context of difference in school spaces that I will consider in this chapter possible.

I begin in the first section by envisioning the hopeful gaze philosophy offers in terms of difference by considering the work of Maxine Greene and her concept of pluralism (See Greene 1993, 13–18). I will argue for a view of difference that is both inclusive and appreciative of diversity and suggest ways educators can critically assess their own differences through considering their positionality. I will conclude by applying the philosophical outlook that embraces pluralism to our classroom spaces by suggesting a multicultural theory that can harness difference and impact education in an efficacious way. As James Banks states:

The multicultural classroom is a forum of multiple voices and perspectives. The voices of the teacher, of the textbook, of mainstream and transformative authors – and of the students…. Teachers can share their cultural experiences and interpretations of events as a way to motivate students to share theirs….[T]hey should examine their racial and ethical attitudes toward diverse groups before engaging in cultural sharing. A democratic classroom atmosphere must also be created. The students must view the classroom as a forum where multiple perspectives are valued. An open and democratic classroom will enable students to acquire the skills and abilities they need to examine conflicting knowledge claims and perspectives. Students must become critical consumers of knowledge as well as knowledge producers if they are to acquire the understandings and skills needed to function in the complex and diverse world of tomorrow. Only a broad and liberal multicultural education can prepare them for that world. (Banks 1993, 12)

Philosophy’s Hopeful Gaze

As a philosopher of education, I seek to traverse the divide between positivist scientific research that seeks to determine facts that can be proved, disproved, verified, quantified, and replicated, and the metaphysical, abstract theory of “pure” philosophy for my practices seeks to link conceptual work to educational application (See Thayer-Bacon and Moyer 2006, 141–142). This approach affords me the license to consider what is and what should be and “try to make the case for what is the best, the right, the good, the beautiful, the fair and just, the true” (Thayer-Bacon and Moyer 2006, 143). In this hopeful vein, Maxine Greene asserts in her philosophical paper “The Passions of Pluralism: Multiculturalism and the Expanding Community” (See Greene 1993) that the answer to the challenge of shaping a common public culture amid differences is pluralism and multiplicity. Through passions, engagements, and imagining, Greene wants to find a way of referring to an expanding community that is made up of diverse people speaking as who and not what they are, whom come together in speech and action to constitute something common among themselves with openness despite distinct perspectives. It is worth considering that in a postcolonial African context, perhaps a new common ground might be imagined, one that moves beyond domination or reconciliation and onto a way of being in community as yet uncharted. She describes this as a community attending to difference, while being open to plurality, defining plurality as the shared experience of being human among humans that are each entirely unique. Greene acknowledges the challenge to confront pluralism and multiplicity in the face of incredible diversities and the need for a common public culture that is inclusive. She addresses the multiple concerns regarding pluralism, such as the discomfort that many feel regarding relativism, the subversion of authority, and the desire for a coherent heritage. But despite these challenges, consideration of Greene’s philosophical outlook causes us to see that a classroom could be the locus for continuous and authentic interactions, whereby categorizing and distancing can be challenged and the marginalization of the other reduced and their inclusion expanded.

Greene’s argument for pluralism and multiplicity implies that our classrooms need to be inclusive, both epistemologically and pedagogically, that means incorporating the knowledge and learning styles of those who have been historically underrepresented, discriminated against, or dominated in some way. It also means including one’s own culture as cherished but not absolutized (as this impedes one’s understanding of other ways of thinking and doing). Greene conveys that via conversation with others, education might be an invitation into the dialogue where we learn to determine voices and their context. Greene hopes for an ongoing dialogue of people with distinct perspectives who are open to others.

To remedy the invisibility of some voices, Greene recommends openness and inclusiveness, not the replacing of domination with another. In attempting to draw in marginalized groups, efforts should be made to move beyond defining people by the oppression or discrimination they have faced. Injustice should move us to imagine things as they could be so we go beyond where we are to a better future. Greene suggests that learning through multiple perspectives advances pluralism by building bridges and attending to human stories, resulting in healing and transformation. The challenge is to make sure that the power structures already in position do not eclipse or dominate marginalized voices. This is a difficult dance for the teacher. Power manifest in a teacher’s authority needs to be utilized in a positive way to protect class community members from hearing “inflexible proclamations” that harm other community members (Applebaum 2003, 161). Silencing and censorship seem incongruent to inclusivity, but are at times necessary. For example, in one of my classes where students engage in critical texts and analyze an author’s rhetorical strategies, I have students complete journal responses, whereby they employ their own argumentative devices to put forth their views. When it comes to sharing, I use an online device that randomly selects a student to present their argument. However, because I want the classroom to be as democratic and student-focused as possible, students have the right to pass on their opportunity to share. Two young men began to dominate our times of sharing with their polemical political views. The young women especially were often passing on their turns to these men as the class found their bombastic approaches comical. However, as an instructor, I eventually intervened. Albeit seemingly willingly, the class had yielded their voices to two strong-willed men, and this had limited inclusion and diversity of viewpoints, and I had to censor these two students, by limiting their time to share, for the sake of class community inclusion, healing, and transformation. The ideal, however, remains that as a community attentive to difference and open to the ideal of pluralism, appreciating the life affirming good of diversity is Greene’s answer to the problems of conformity, individualism, and the need to maintain the integrity of voices. Although we cannot predict all the possibilities or provide an objective ground for hope, by speaking about justice, caring, love, and trust, Greene hopes that democratic pluralism will be championed.

Greene recommends extending the reference of “us” as far as we can through creation of classrooms that are just and caring, full of various conceptions of the good, inclusive of many voices, where human solidarity is expressed in concern for others, friendship, and demonstrate consciousness of worth and possibility. Encouraged by Greene to extend the reference of “us” in just and caring classrooms, teachers are called to establish class environments that are fair, care for the students, and where differing opinions and values are elicited, explored, and encouraged. In applying Greene’s work, I suggest teachers would need to provide opportunities for dialogue involving as many voices as possible, such as living people, historical figures, or literary characters, and create situations or act on situations that cause students to engage in exchange of ideas. Codes of conduct in such dialogues, modeling and encouraging concern for others and consciousness of worth, would need to be instituted. This may take the form of mentoring, facilitating peer groups, social activism, community service, and school programs. For example, each class group I teach, I facilitate their selecting a project to work on. I make broad suggestions and then leave the room and let the class decide what and how they will implement their activism or service. This fosters intrinsic motivation, community belongingness, and other-focus, be it hosting birthday celebrations for each other or collecting money for the drilling of wells. Additionally, community members need to support educative endeavors that support pluralism, such as community roundtables, cultural awareness programs, neighborhood forums, and settings designed to encourage dialogue. Cultural awareness would need to be increased and fostered on the commonalities and differences in cultural groups and encourage diversity. Multicultural focuses in communities, schools, and government would need to be directed toward inclusion. Schools would need to demonstrate inclusiveness in hiring, encourage authentic interactions with diverse students through caring classrooms, and educate regarding culture with the goal to break down barriers and dismantle stereotypes.

Critical Theory as Eye-Opener

With the hopeful gaze of Greene’s philosophical scholarship as a means to “advance educational practice,” (Thayer-Bacon and Moyer 2006, 141) I now turn to critique to further our discussion of difference in African educational contexts. The call to end oppression in the school setting requires appreciation of the critical theory that is often infused within these ideas. I am referring to critical theory in the general sense, namely, a philosophical approach that forms the basis of my inquiry that has an explicitly social justice and action-based goal (See Bohman 2016). Critical theory, especially when it intersects education and critical pedagogy (see Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998, 24), is woven into philosophy of education, the idea of positionality, and the concept of multicultural education that I am espousing and informs these disciplinary fields in nuanced and differing iterations. For example, multicultural education scholar Geneva Gay has noted the “ideological, conceptual, and operational parallels between multicultural education and critical pedagogy,” as they relate to “issues of educational access, equity, and excelling in a culturally pluralistic society and world” (1995, 155). Gay describes multiculturalism and critical theory as both philosophies and methodologies that adhere to the ideals of “personal liberation, critical democracy, and social equality and an acceptance of the political and partisan knowledge, human learning, and the educational process” (1995, 156). Critical theory supports a mindset that “promotes criticism in the search for quality education” and enables “critique in order to forge alternative and less oppressive social arrangements” (Leonardo 2004, 11). This is an especially necessary tool for dominant culture members, such as myself, to come to understand how domination and oppression occur and how social systems influence individual experiences and vice versa (See Leonardo 2004, 11). Additionally, critical theory focuses on how domination occurs and does the work of stimulating “an individual’s consciousness of himself or herself as a social being” (Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998, 23). In my high school and university courses, I often incorporate autobiography and personal narrative as a means to connect students to the material in a personal way. Learning encounters are consequently much more engaging and transformative for students as the theory illuminates and impacts their own experiences. Conversely, I provide activities for students to imagine things beyond their experiences, such as writing from the perspective of someone of another race, social class, or gender based on their scholarly readings of experiences of these “others.” As critical multiculturalists Kincheloe and Steinberg explain:

An individual who has gained such a consciousness understands how and why his or her political opinions, socio-economic class, role, religious beliefs, gender role and racial self-image are shaped by dominant perspectives. Critical theory thus promotes self-reflection that results in changes of perspective. Men and women come to know themselves by bringing to consciousness the process by which their view points were formed. (Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998, 23–24)

In educational contexts the consciousness that critical theory brings to bear helps educators see issues of power, privilege, illusions of neutrality, misapprehensions of objectivity, and inequity within school structures and curriculum (See Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998, 24).

Soyini Madison quoting Jim Thomas states: “[Social critique] implies evaluative judgment of meaning and method in research, policy, and human activity….Critical thinking implies freedom by recognizing the social existence, including our knowledge of it, is not simply composed of givens imposed on us by powerful and mysterious forces” (2005, 13). Consequently, critical theory creates a space to seek “possibilities in institutions and agency in individuals” (Leonardo 2004, 16). Madison later articulates her role or agency as it is informed by critical theory as to name the hidden forces, turn our gaze to include others, to make power structures blatant, to attend to what is intuitively sensed, and to “provide insight and inspire acts of justice” (2005, 13). This balance between institutional and individual possibility is essential when engaging teachers in my social foundations of education graduate courses, who often feel powerless to change the monolithic educational system, but can be inspired to daily undermine negative community forces and promote social justice in the microcosms of their classrooms. For, with critique comes possibility (the wonderful coupling of theory with action), but this often brings with it a sense of responsibility and even culpability.

However, critical examination of Africa’s education systems is not an exercise to simply place blame at the feet of teachers or regimes, be they former colonizers or indigenous Africans, for the institutional inequities of the continent. I encourage critical reflection to expose inequities for the sake of germinating possibilities within individuals and institutions, not to assign or assuage guilt. For example, at a recent teacher’s meeting, the educators were discussing student apathy and the conversation moved from blaming society, parents, and students to devising ways the school could positively promote student autonomy in care. We are now enacting these constructive actions after our critical examination. Carol Morgaine, a professor and coordinator of child and family studies, offers an example of the possibilities of critical theory to guide family life educators and teacher educators in helping their students think about their assumptions and expectations to better understand our complex educational spaces in a “Critical Theory of Self-Formation” (Morgaine 1994, 325). Morgaine notes that critical theory perceives that systems are in place that advance certain communities at the expense of others and that critical theory exposes the ways “social and cultural realities may be hindering the human potential of all people” (1994, 325). I suggest that oppressed and dominant community members need to examine societal structures as well as their own values, beliefs, and assumptions about everyday life – in other words, their positionality – to be, as Morgaine frames it, “enlightened about hidden influences in [our] own personal and social situations” (1994, 325).

During a process of personal critical inquiry, Morgaine as a family life and teacher educator realized that mastery of the content and skills was not prevailing over her preprofessional student’s original values, beliefs, and assumptions despite her attempts to seek to facilitate praxis. “[I]instead of valuing diversity and justice, the students allowed their value judgments to influence their actions” (Morgaine 1994, 325). Morgaine’s reflections revealed that student acknowledgment of bias and prejudice was often shaming or resulted in denial. I have often experienced this with my white, middle-class students, who deny white guilt, racism, classism, or problems of sexism because they fail to see their own privilege is what makes these problems nonissues to them. To encourage students to move beyond being paralyzed by guilt or becoming resistant, Morgaine helped her students look at subordination and domination to critically examine their own oppressive life experiences. This fostered empathy through understanding other’s experiences through connecting them to one’s own, which in turn spurred emancipatory action toward making equitable changes in the professional behavior of her students (praxis). Students using critical inquiry to look at their own experiences of oppression and how oppression works were more inclined to increase just and ethical professional actions. Morgaine models the process of critical inquiry by paying attention to herself: listening to her own processes of thinking and feeling while teaching and being mindful or thoughtful of her pedagogy and her student’s responses. I refer back to Greene’s vision of commonality and difference that is sensitive to inclusion. I suggest we need to pay attention to what our biases are causing us to ignore and our partialities are favoriting through a process of constant self-reflexivity. By evaluating student resistance, our emotional responses, verbal feedback, and self-awareness of our own raced, classed, engendered, politicized selves, we can consider if we are being sensitive to all our students’ experiences and understanding of oppression and adjust our practice accordingly. It was in this process of critical reflection that Morgaine was able to perceive her student’s presuppositions based on prior learning that were impeding their coming to consciousness regarding issues of difference and equality.

To facilitate enlightenment Morgaine attempted to equalize power between herself and her students, created a dialogue between herself and the students to encourage reflection, included students in curricular choices, and integrated interpretive forms of knowledge (personal journals, films, novels, etc.) into her course texts. This involves sometimes changing the curriculum or pedagogy to meet the requests of your students. I did this one year for a group of senior boys. It changed the tenor of the class – we were able to have very frank, egalitarian conversations while covering their educational needs because I had positioned them as equally important in decision-making and discussions. Morgaine then began to “peel back the layers of meaning” though dialogue that attempted to be non-elitist and non-manipulative while engaging in dialectical thinking that looked for contradictions and competing arguments. Discrepancy analysis identified the gaps between the desired ends and the realities. For example, in an advanced level high school class, the students were making negative assertions about immigrants and refugees. By providing them with current and reliable data and letting them freely analyze the material, they were able to see how fallacies were driving their prejudices. Finally, rational arguments were given to persuade the students regarding privilege and other hidden forms of oppressive social relations, often taking the form of narratives of those with firsthand experience of oppression. Morgaine suggests that the students were consequently more likely to begin to see themselves as being positioned (by their race, class, gender, etc.) and the potential was fostered to change their views of themselves and others upon examination of their self-formation.

This critical theory of self-formation suggests that an individual’s self-formation is negatively influenced by power and assumes that human beings’ authentic selves are distorted when they live in hierarchical social systems, such as colonialism. As individuals reflect upon concepts embedded within the theory, conscience raising may be facilitated. Praxis or emancipatory actions – both personal and societal – are expected as enlightenment begins. This action creates a transformative effect as it critiques and seeks alternatives (See Morgaine 1994, 333).

Morgaine notes that her student’s, through exposure to her critical theory of self-formation, were more likely to develop greater awareness of “diverse realities of life and realization of the ways historical and macro-sociopolitical factors have influenced individuals and families” and become committed to addressing injustice. With this sort of expanded critical theoretical outlook, I am hopeful that teachers might embrace pedagogies such as strength-based instruction, promote talent potential and cultural assets, and develop African communal and individual funds of knowledge (See Milner IV 2009, xxii–xxiii). This is of course contingent on how these suggestions compliment the diverse array African educational contexts.

Positionality: Focusing on Personal Preparation for Sensitivity to Difference

With a philosophical view that looks at difference with hope and careful critical consideration of difference as it relates to education, we now must focus our attention in this section on positionality. To enact pluralism and critical theory of self-formation, educators must engage in a process of personal preparation for sensitivity to issues of difference. Such ethical, epistemological, and pedagogical outlooks, however, require attention to context. This leads me to the area of positionality as it relates to personal preparation in educators for situation sensitivity. I take up positionality as the concept that our race, class, and gender are “markers of relational positions rather than essential qualities” (Tetreault and Kay 1993, 139). Positionality influences and affects our relationships with our contexts and others (See Alcoff 1988; Mayer and Tetreault 2001, 164). Our positionality informs our “goals, knowledge, beliefs, strategies, and other normative frames of reference” (Rehm and Allison 2006, 261) as educational researchers and practitioners. Thus “[w]e don't see things as they are, we see them as we are” (Nin 1961, 16).

This can be traced back to one of the most important epistemological findings of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Kant explains that “[h]itherto it has been supposed that all our knowledge must conform to the objects” (Kant 1922, 693 = B xvi). However, “all attempts to establish anything about them a priori, by means of concepts, and thus to enlarge our knowledge, have come to nothing,” (Ibid.) and this is why Kant suggests to turn around the perspective and what he compares to Copernicus revolution of thought. Copernicus was not “able to get on in the explanation of the movements of the heavenly bodies, as long as he assumed that all the stars turned round the spectator” (Kant 1922, 693 = B xvi). But then Copernicus turned the perspective around. He revolutionized the perspective in the literal Latin meaning of revolutio, “a turn around,” this is why Copernicus’ called his famous work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. That means Copernicus now tried “whether he could not succeed better, by assuming the spectator to be turning round, and the stars to be at rest” (Kant 1922, 693 = B xvi). This revolution of thought is what Kant in the Critique of Pure Reasons attempts to introduce into metaphysics or, as we would say today, epistemology. He wants to check whether we should not “succeed better with the problem of metaphysic by assuming that the objects must conform to our mode of cognition, for this would better agree with the demanded possibility of an a priori knowledge of them, which is to settle something about objects, before they are given us” (Kant 1922, 693 = B xvi). Kant thus assumes it is not the objects that determine our cognition, but our modes of cognition that determine what we cognize.

Our excavation of positionality reminds us that we are raced, classed, and gendered and that our knowledge is socially and self-constructed. An analysis of our situatedness and embodiedness, the questions of dominance and power, and the negotiated, contested, and mediated working out of our identities is a critical endeavor (See Martin and Van Gunten 2002, 46). Since educators are positioned, their identities and knowledge are situated. Thus the work of perceiving the social construction of knowledge from multiple perspectives is “essential to understanding how to create equitable and culturally representative pedagogical strategies” (Martin and Van Gunten 2002, 46) in African education. The connection is made between educational philosophy, critical theory, positionality, and multiculturalism in that “many potential teachers remain unaware of their positionality as racially privileged, class dominant and heterosexually oriented as advantaged [or disadvantaged] because of gender;” these theoretical bedfellows can be the site of developing consciousness of oppression and challenging of our perceptions of ourselves and others (See Martin and Van Gunten 2002, 46–47).

Since I do not assume such a thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to address difference in Africa’s educational institutions, I take up Gay’s focus on personal preparation (See Gay 2003, 4) and at “the heart of this personal becoming is self-knowledge” (Gay 2003, 4). This belief is particularly evident in Gay’s focus on the way who we are determines how we teach and her recognition that teaching is a “personal and professional process,” (Gay 2003, 4) which confirms for me the need to carefully consider positionality to encourage teachers in being “reflective and critically conscious” (Gay 2003, 4) especially regarding issues of difference. Gay utilizes “self-studies and personalized reporting of teachers,” referred to as “reflection, narratives, storied research, and autobiography,” (Gay 2003, 4) as a means to explore the intersections of our positionality and practice. Her work claims the legitimate use of narratives as a pedagogical tool in educational research, theory, and practice as educators interpret the “broader…educational messages that are embedded in their personal stories” (Gay 2003, 9).

In explaining the process of examining a “personal and professional process” (personal preparation) at the “intersections of person and performance” (Gay 2003, 4) (positionality), Gay is informed by Sonia Nieto’s texts The Light in Their Eyes (1999, 2010) and Affirming Diversity (1992, 2000). Nieto expresses that “student learning is not simply a personal discovery but also a social act; it is also deeply connected with the beliefs and daily practices of teachers” (Nieto 2010, 27). Nieto speaks to the transformative process that is a “personal awakening and call to action” (Nieto 2010, xviii). This transformation has its genesis in the individual, and these stories of the origins and consequences of transformation can in turn inform other educators (See Nieto 2010, 26). Nieto asserts that “the reflections of teachers can have a profound impact on educational theory and practice” (Nieto 2010, 26). Nieto writes regarding transformation:

I have participated with teachers in reflecting and learning about the power and the limits of education. With teachers I have considered the tremendous chasm that exists between the rhetoric of equality and the reality of oppression. I have listened as they have described fundamental changes they have made in their beliefs, or their teaching, or both. And I have continued my own transformation as a teacher and a learner… It is these experiences that have convinced me that unless and until teachers undergo a personal transformation, little will change in our schools. (Nieto 2010, 27)

Nieto extends this transformative process beyond individual lives of teachers and connects it to the broader societal context (See Nieto 2010, 28). She sees the potential for good and harm embodied by each educator and maintains that the sharing of stories of educator evolution within the tension of individual action interacting with societal conditions such as racial, class, gender, religious, epistemological, and ontological oppression and discrimination is useful for personal and collective transformation (See Nieto 2010, 30–31, 155). Transformation can occur in the spaces of examining our identities (what I am calling positionality), becoming students of our students, identifying with our students, becoming multicultural, challenging racism and other biases, and finally in joining with others with the same critical hope (See Nieto 2010, 155–183).

Gay draws on Nieto’s contention that “becoming a multicultural teacher…first means becoming a multicultural person” [emphasis in original] (Gay 2003, 5; see Nieto 1992, 275). Nieto tells us this means, among other things, gaining understanding of other cultures, tackling issues of personal racism and bias, and attending to other viewpoints (See Nieto 1992, 275). Nieto goes on to describe how moving from being monocultural to multicultural may not guarantee that everyone exemplifies her list of attributes, but it lays “the groundwork for it” (Nieto 1992, 275–276). There is no surety of making this internal shift occur. In light of the philosophical voices and critical theories that inform me, I can only claim that this lays groundwork for potential growth. As Gay explains, “we can offer guidance, resources, encouragement, support, models, but how or whether to act on these is always an individual decision. Each of us must make our own journey…” (Gay 2003, 5).

For example, in the ongoing work of interrogating my positionality, I try to trace the development of my identity, whereby I acknowledge and value my own personal context and experiences (See Madison 2005, 19) and must evaluate my specific identities regarding my race, class, and gender (See Murillo 2004, 156). I do this based on the counsel of qualitative research scholar, Enrique Murillo. He warns against being complicit in colonial agendas. Since I am literally a white former colonizer from Africa now residing in another former colony, the United States, I carefully heed the caution. As a dominant community member, I must avoid the act of colonizing knowledge for my own benefit in the guise of reclamation of marginalized knowledge and ways of knowing. I must circumvent the imposition of colonizer power within my classroom by reserving primacy for the marginalized and establishing power-sharing and power-transferring strategies. If I neglect my particular positions of privilege, they remain intact and unchallenged, and I fail to disrupt inequity. Murillo points out the need to navigate the dilemma of being self-serving in my efforts, since I am often an outsider of the communities I study and teach. I continually challenge myself to question if my attention to difference is simply a means for advancing my career, making me look better as a human being, or if it turns attention onto me rather than others (See Murillo 2004, 156). Oxymoronically, I suggest then attending to oneself for the sake of others.

I suggest that our epistemological orientation is another thread of our positionality. Murillo’s work challenges objectivity and the deprecation of subjectivity, ideology, or emotion (See Murillo 2004, 166). Our conceptualizations regarding “[t]heory about the nature of knowledge; how what exists may be known,” (Glesne 2005, 6) determine what we see as knowledge and how it is constructed. This determines how we assume learning occurs and what should be taught. And, as the line of dominoes tumble, this affects how we teach (pedagogy) and what we teach (curriculum). Our epistemological positioning must be made explicit for us to assess its role in establishing equitable practices in our classrooms.

Multiculturalism to Make Seeing Believing

We have considered how philosophy infused with positionality can impact the transformation of educators to positively deal with difference in the diverse educational settings of African education. In this final section, we will address how teacher’s practice may enact this philosophical and critical awareness. The concept of multiculturalism itself means different things to different people. Conservative multiculturalists, for example, see it as a means to explore the problems caused by diversity. But they perceive difference as divisive and seek to promote a “common culture” (Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 4). This sort of discourse sounds like a binary us and them. Liberal multiculturalists wish to address inequality by promoting equal social and economic opportunities through education. However, within this approach, Eurocentric culture is the norm referenced. Sameness in the form of individualism and citizenship is pursued by liberal multiculturalists (See Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 10–14). This discourse sounds like us but the “us” is the dominant cultural group. Pluralistic multiculturalists “celebrate diversity and equal opportunity,” but this often manifests in a separate-but-equal focus on “heritage and cultural differences” (Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 16–17) and a “cultural tourism” (Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 18). This discourse speaks of us knowing about them. Left-essentialist multiculturalism sounds like us, but “us” is the marginalized group and has “concerned itself more with self-assertion than with the effort to build strategic democratic alliances for social justice” (Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 22). Critical multiculturalism is concerned with how domination occurs and issues of power. Critical multiculturalism promotes self-reflection and positions class as an essential concern, although acknowledging its intersections between race and gender (See Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 23–25). However, despite marginalized groups seeking new alliances with whites from the working and middle classes, there still remains a discourse of us, the have-not’s and them, the have’s.

Multicultural scholar Sonia Nieto’s definition of multicultural education offers a critical hope. She defines it as “embedded in a sociopolitical context and as antiracist and basic education for all students that permeates all areas of schooling, and that is characterized by a commitment to social justice and critical approaches to learning” (Nieto 2010, 26). And here I suggest new discourse emerges as Nieto goes on to describe multiculturalism: “My definition is an expansive one, comprising not only race, ethnicity, and language but also gender, social class, sexual orientation, ability, and other differences. Students from the majority culture certainly are included in this definition” (Nieto 2010, 26). Us and them becomes all of us, diverse but inclusive. I certainly do not want to re-center a former dominant culture group, but by engaging the teaching force en masse, the large-scale work of praxis-driven conscious-raising regarding issues of difference and equality can harness the broad reach of this group for the benefit of all students.

Scholars agree “that a race-centered, cultural and diversity-focused, and multicultural curriculum are essential for student academic and social success,” (Milner 2010a, 6; see also Nieto 2010; Gay 2000) and some suggest that teacher education programs should “provide an encompassing study of cultures, a repertoire of appropriate teaching adaptations, reflective and critical thinking, and multiple experiences with culturally diverse people” (Rehm and Allison 2006, 260). Additionally, by acknowledging the teacher’s positionality as “a significant factor in the learning experience of students,” issues of teacher perceptions that “cultural difference” is somehow “culturally deficient” can be addressed (Rehm and Allison 2006, 261). This opens the door to culturally responsive/relevant pedagogical strategies and curricula, as suggested by Gay, for example, being utilized by former dominant culture group educators (See Gay 2000). If dominant community teachers can be encouraged to develop the dispositions that “include eagerness to learn as much as possible about cultures, willingness to make appropriate adaptations, self-reflection and desire to grow in skill and personal interest in students,” one can only imagine the gains for the student population (See Rehm and Allison 2006, 261) that will contribute to changes to the status quo on a micro and macro level. I suggest Gay’s focus on “personal preparation for being multicultural educators” (Gay 2003, 4) and employing multiculturalism “as broadly conceptualized” and as a “philosophical underpinning” to help guide myself and others to acquire the “skills, knowledge and critical awareness to become productive members of a diverse and democratic society” (Nieto 1992, 269).

The work of recent educational scholarship, especially that of multicultural theorists, not only points to the need for a change but also offers a starting point to push the scope of theory and pedagogy that seeks to create equity for oppressed groups. I argue that we must reach beyond those marginalized and oppressed groups and their educators to include members of the dominant group in a jump start on Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of all [people] in the process of permanent liberation” (Freire 1993, 36–37) to confront and transform the educational setting. Freire has two distinct stages, the first being the liberation for oppressed peoples, which is then followed by a “pedagogy of all people.” In the microcosm of my classroom, this might look like time I spend with girls discussing issues they are struggling with while still working with the whole class to build inclusion through mixed-gender groupings and classroom expectations of gender-sensitive language. It is in extending the reach of theory and pedagogy to all educators and students that true diversity, inclusion, and social transformation may be nurtured. I suggest that we must begin to teach like a people being transformed while simultaneously addressing oppression, so we live out the process of liberation. I make this claim aware of the complexity that comes with such a call to inclusion given the realities of past and current experiences of oppressive structures and the problem of creating opportunities for all of us to be educated together.

By harnessing the reach of the dominant culture African teacher through “a more central and explicit focus on self-determination, racism, and…epistemologies,” strategies such as culturally responsive teaching will increase their impact, rather than being “reduced to essentializations, meaningless generalizations, or trivial anecdotes” (Castagno and McKinley Jones Brayboy 2008, 941). By open acknowledgment of identity and vulnerability, discomfort, and confusion dominant culture teachers feel as they “teach across difference,” we will not sacrifice critique for the sake of “safety” and “comfort,” and the identity-perception gap that “forces teachers to relativize their experiences and question their perceptions” can be viewed as a resource rather than a hindrance to teaching (Toshalis 2010, 16–33). Teachers will model how to have their own viewpoint while acknowledging the viewpoints of others while not being expected to perform identity gymnastics and have a view from everywhere. This is not an either/or process but a both/and vision of difference.

By purposely engaging all the teaching force for all our students, racism, classism, and sexism can be explicitly dealt with. For example, teachers can be guided in an understanding that “racism is a pervasive and consistent element in the schooling experiences of youth” experienced in multiple ways, including “paternalism, prejudice, harmful assumptions, low expectations, violence, and biased curriculum materials” (Castagno and McKinley Jones Brayboy 2008, 950). When teachers begin to question and, in the words of Maxine Greene, “reflect on their own lived lives and the lives they lead in common with one another, transformation…to the end of overcoming oppressiveness and domination,…[through] collective self-reflection…[and] attentiveness to one’s own history,” then they can start to learn to “promote the redistribution of privilege and social justice” (Greene 1978, 54, 100, 103) for all Africans.

In the multiracial and multicultural communities of Africa, it has become increasingly evident that multicultural education cannot simply be added to school curriculum (See Perry and Fraser 1994, 3). Multiculturalism is too large to be merely supplementary. It addresses issues of identity, values, inequities/privileges, history, power, and economics of the nation that extend far beyond the walls of our schools (See Perry and Fraser 1994, 4–9), and it is deeply personal as it addresses individual lived experiences that come with us into our schools. This is a visioning of multiculturalism that is not assimilation, multiplicity, or separate-but-equal: it is sensitivity to diversity for equity with the imperative of inclusion for equality, because dealing with diversity without the end result of equality is simply oppression re-manifested.

To end current oppressive education practices in African spaces and to create a generation of students that are ready to embrace diversity for equity and inclusion for equality, as I have argued, the scope of multicultural education will have to be broadened. To get at the roots of inequity (myth of meritocracy, funding inequality, segregation, inequitable access to learning, underrepresentation of teachers of color, practices of cultural assimilation (See Nieto 2010, 51–69)) and privilege, a paradigm shift is needed in all teachers. They need to see themselves as social reconstructivists naming neglected histories and ways of being and thinking. All educators need to teach their students, as teacher educator and scholar H. Richard Milner (channeling his mentor Asa Hilliard) states, “how to dismantle systems of racism, inequality, and oppression;” to advocate for others; to “tackle issues of structural inequality;” and to “address apathy, ignorance, and racism wherever they exist” (Milner 2010b, xii).

The question then becomes, how will members of the formerly dominant groups in Africa be prevailed upon to confront the educational setting, for it will ask much of them? They will have to acknowledge that at this point in our society, we cannot escape the bounds of race, class, and gender and that it has become necessary to use one’s positionality to further the goal of educational equity and equality in the face of difference. Formerly dominant culture members must become allies (See Titone 1998, 167). Adapting Titone’s concept, I frame an ally as a teacher willing to be aware of their positionality. She/he is willing to engage the subjects of race, class, and gender and is pedagogically mindful of the interplay of race, class, and gender. She/he encourages the exploration of positionality for enlightenment and emancipation in the lives of her/his students. It is a teaching role that is proactively working to combat inequity and positions the teacher as an antiracist (and anti-classist and anti-sexist) role model. An ally’s dominant community power precludes being an insider within the marginalized community, but is offered as a resource if the marginalized community should choose to utilize it. Allies use their influence to trouble “collective positions of privilege,” to “identify actions we can take to share power with non-white [minority] people,” and to engage in “dialog and coalition building” (Sleeter and McLaren 1995, 22). This will require dominant culture members to learn to step aside, listen, share, find ways to connect with minority culture members in meaningful ways, and be students of culture and alternate pedagogies (See Rehm and Allison 2006, 260). The seemingly simple act of listening to criticisms from minority communities is part of the large-scale actions of engagement, empowerment, and equity in African educational contexts (See Kincheloe and Steinberg 2002, 101). Dominant culture members will need to engage in serious personal reflection to address the disconnection between liberal ideologies that support equity and equality in education in theory, but in practice manifest in self-interested educational choices (See Brantlinger et al. 1996, 572). Dominant culture members will have to confront their own ideologies that allow them to “bridge disparate streams of thought and salve the dissonance that results from the contradiction between their desired liberal identity and [their actual] positionality” (Brantlinger et al. 1996, 572). Prevailing attitudes demonstrate that many whites still perceive injustice can be rectified without alteration of their status (See Milner 2007, 391; Ladson-Billings 1995, 55). However, this is not a process of retaining superiority but increasing its base, rather it is the desuperiorizing (Freter 2019) of the dominant group so that privilege becomes a moot point.

Through confronting one’s own positionality as it effects one’s own reality in education in this context, powerful change is made more possible. Partnership can then alternately be garnered by the acknowledgment that teachers pragmatically have to have the competency to teach in the face of difference because the demographic reality is that the African landscape is highly diverse. Teachers need to be able to meet the needs of all the students in their classes and prepare their students for life in a multicultural society. Additionally, educators are compelled by economic reasons to equip themselves and their students to function cross-culturally in a globalized marketplace.

Inclusion of formerly dominant members becomes a vital part of changing the trajectory in education in Africa because extending the audience without engaging them can be just as detrimental. In teacher education courses that prepare dominant culture members for the classroom, Milner identifies the danger of teacher resistance, “silence in the face of important information about racism, injustice, and inequity,” inadvertent continuation of negative stereotypes, and the misinterpretation of what the needs are of students. He advocates a process of inquiry into oneself, oneself in relation to others, and oneself in relation to larger systemic structures. Milner suggests that this racial and cultural introspection is vital in settings that are seemingly homogenous (either predominantly dominant culture or predominantly minority communities) and settings where dominant and minority groups converge (See Milner 2007, 397). It is by knowing our positionality and our cultural and social values, viewpoints, and biases on an individual and societal level, creating affective awareness, and exposing these values and behaviors in the classroom context that I perceive we will be able to more ably confront practices that impede equity and equality (See Milner 2007, 397; Perry and Fraser 1994, 105).

Inclusion of dominant groups for the purpose of situational sensitivity to difference will not only require teacher introspection regarding their positionality (See Perry and Fraser 1994, 99) but a commitment to teacher education that develops skills for sensitivity to cultural diversity with a view to developing cultural competence. Texts and courses “delineating characteristic and issues, lesson ideas, and varied strategies pertinent to specific cultures,” coupled with “immersion in experiences with people of other cultures to stimulate genuine relationships” to foster “understanding and responsive actions when working with students of varied backgrounds,” is one scholar’s recommendation (Rehm and Allison 2006, 263). By developing a degree of cultural competence, educators will be able to become sensitive to the different ways of knowing (epistemologies), (See Milner 2007, 395) engaging the community they will teach in (participating and collaborating in community projects), and embrace a culturally responsive curriculum that understands that knowledge is co-constructed (See Thayer-Bacon 2003) and connects the curriculum to the students’ culture and language (See Castagno and McKinley Jones Brayboy 2008, 947).

It has been my experience that despite the limitations of curriculum, and in many instances pedagogy, teacher’s philosophical positional awareness and situational sensitivity can value constructive thinking and various epistemological approaches and create democratic learning communities. Even teaching in a private religious school in a highly conservative, wealthy predominantly white community, I have been able to facilitate the examination into difference and promote inclusion through creating a classroom environment of social inquiry and community. Nieto confirms this, stating that it is beliefs and values that produce affirmative learning communities, beliefs such as: “all students have talents and strengths, all students are capable of high levels of learning, students’ families and communities are meaningful partners in promoting learning, students learn best when they are engaged, active, and working in collaboration with others, student learning is promoted when there is a strong connection to teachers, schools, and learning” (Nieto 2010, 101–129). Nieto encourages dominant culture teachers to confront and transform the education setting by learning about their students, connecting with student families, and developing collaborative relationships with fellow educators. Through reflection on issues of positionality, it is my hope that a positive transformative effect to advance educational equity will start with the educators when they perceive systemic inequities, personal experiences of domination and oppression, and different ways of knowing and being and begin to rationally distinguish the effect race, class, and gender have on educational outcomes. This awareness of equity, diversity, and inclusion will then affect educator’s choices of curriculum and pedagogy which will positively impact student achievement and ultimately undermine the oppressive forces in play that perpetuate the inequities within education.

There are a number of challenges and questions regarding the inclusion of more diverse and inclusive voices, the most glaring being that the risk of decentering (See Gallagher 2007, 23) of the marginalized. Decentering is a process whereby those who have been marginalized create a new center on the edges of the dominant discourses and create their own counter-narratives that foster stories which can be shared with dominant groups to address their blindness to issues of oppressive power. My goal would be to encourage an inclusive discourse incorporating multiple voices and a dialogue between dominant and marginalized groups to counteract domination, but the risk is that white voices will shift focus away from the margins or supersede new centers of marginalized discourse. The call for inclusion of dominant voices in the field of multicultural education may simply be the need for white scholar’s and educators such as myself to find a niche (See Hernandez Sheets 2000, 15). The specter of the “White Savior” looms as dominant group members attempt to address issues of equity and equality without being prescriptive, paternalistic, or patronizing. When does inclusion become encroachment and reenactment of domination? Do formerly dominated communities want to collaborate with those from the formerly dominant group members given histories of oppression and marginalization in Africa?

Additional difficulties include challenging unjust high-stakes testing practices, finding consensus, and compromising when it comes to curriculum (See Nieto 2010, 180) and adjusting pedagogical practices to reflect a focus on equity (See Nieto 2010, 181). Conversely, the challenge remains to create teachers with a transformative agenda and the skills to “participate competently and responsibly in a reciprocal, complex teaching-learning process with our children” (Nieto 2010, 17). Another difficulty is the “situated nature of oppression (whereby oppression plays out differently for different people in different contexts) and the multiple and intersecting identities of students” (Kumashiro 2000, 30) hence the need for what I call a situated sensitivity. Formerly dominant voices will continually have to resist essentializing and generalizing. They will have to remain ever sensitive to issues of oppression as they manifest themselves uniquely. They will have to realize that they can never fully know or teach about the “Other” and that they will only ever have a partial perspective (See Kumashiro 2000, 34). Navigating what oppression is, critique, and transformative action and the discomfort that comes with this process will be a lifelong endeavor that may not appeal to members of the dominant group. Additionally, they will be compelled to navigate a “different route to ensure the growth and development of their students” as their philosophy, pedagogy, and personal commitments change (Ladson-Billings 1994, 15–29). They will be challenged to redefine what a “normal student” is, disrupt their own “deficit discourses and beliefs,” (Milner 2007, 389) trouble their views of the pervasiveness of the effects of socioeconomic status, (See Milner 2007, 390) and deal with race and racism (See Milner 2007, 390), not to mention reflect on who they are in relation to their students, the community they serve, and the society they are members of (See Milner 2007, 394–397), and confront the effects of their power and privilege.

However, there are benefits. Exposures to theories such as critical theory help educators examine race, privilege, and normativity (See Kumashiro 2000, 30). Connections can be made between race, class, and gender, and new social vision can be envisaged as the specific groups converge (See Kumashiro 2000, 33) with a view to developing sensitivity to diversity while striving for inclusive equality in education in Africa. We can find inclusion and transformation in solidarity, rather than seeking consensus (See Kumashiro 2000, 34) and work together to bring about mutually beneficial change. Educational benefits include the valuing of multiple epistemologies (See Castagno and McKinley Jones Brayboy 2008, 952) and the extension of pedagogies employed (Castagno and McKinley Jones Brayboy 2008, 954) to improve achievement for all students. Students also benefit from these curriculum and pedagogies, not simply by being able to achieve academically, but by being equipped to be change agents.


I am a philosopher, a teacher, and a white woman from Africa. As a philosopher I have the role of envisaging things as they may be. As a teacher I am required to educate my students for the way things could be. As a privileged product of colonization, I have a responsibility to try to be an ally in making things as they should be. This chapter has sought to instigate a hope that difference in our African schools need not be a source of conflict and shame, but rather our classrooms can be inclusive and yet pluralistic. But to do this, we need to end oppression by educators engaging in a process of personal preparation for sensitivity to issues of difference by critically assessing their own self-formation and contexts. The awareness philosophy infused with positionality can bring is demonstrated by the personal experiences of myself and other multicultural educators who witness how theory impacts the transformation of educators to positively deal with difference in diverse educational settings. Hope is not unfounded. Philosophies of education, critical theories, and multicultural theories help us attend to issues of difference in the context of African education. Through coming to consciousness via this critical engagement, pedagogical practice can be impacted so that difference is an asset not a liability and inclusion unfettered by former hierarchies of dominance and subordination.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Theory and Practice in Teacher EducationUniversity of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA

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