Centering the Views of Black Women: Activist Pedagogy
in the Psychology Classroom
Evangeline A. Wheeler
Towson University in Maryland
It is still the case that Europeanized scholars from Western culture develop and frame most psychological theories from their own perspectives (Wheeler, 2002). Even though one attempts in the modern psychological research laboratory to include more representative samples in recognition of prior biases due to findings based on young, white, middle-class college students, most research subjects still do not reflect a fair portion of African Americans and other minorities (except in some cases, Asians).
Most researchers and their research participants are women and men of European descent. Because of this, the generality of their theories is usually limited, especially when applying them to people of African descent whose life experiences are often radically different because of the lasting effects of hundreds of years of worldwide racial oppression. Throughout history, psychological and other scientific theories provided justification for imposing Western-culture rule around the world, since it could be demonstrated with scientific methods that European culture was - by definition of the European theorists - superior. The utility, then, of traditional theoretical approaches becomes very suspect when we try to use it to account for the normal psychological development of African peoples, including African Americans. Many people of Africa and the African diaspora harbor a tenacious distrust of scientific theory since history shows that slavery and colonialism were perpetuated with the support of scientists.
As an act of truly revolutionary activism in psychology, I suggest the exercise of de-centering the European view of what and how relevant psychological behaviors should be studied, and instead center the analysis from the point of view of African-descended people, in particular, its women. This is a radical notion because it challenges prejudiced beliefs that the viewpoints of black women cannot be central to the experiences of a so-called majority, yet the assumption that the white person’s experience is universal has for decades stood as axiom. This exercise could easily be done in a specially designed college course, which is to be explained in the remainder of this paper. The major emphasis is on exploring the intersection created between scholarship and activism, most profitably explored in a classroom environment when instructors center their teaching using the lens of women of African descent. A scholarly focus from a black woman centered position shows how scientific ideas and theories derive from the particular experiences of white people, and are subsequently applied as the universal standards by which to see and judge all others, often to their detriment.
Such an approach that actively attempts to raise awareness of social conditions while it simultaneously instills theoretical knowledge is not new to effective teaching, since the 1960s when the movement for changes in the curriculum, in the canon of higher learning, demanded that universities offer courses on women and minorities and non-American cultures. Yet, the approach is rarely practiced on a consistent basis except by a few professors who tend to be women, minorities, or members of non-white ethnic groups (Joseph, 1995; Wheeler, Ayers, Fracasso, Galupo, Rabin, and Slater, 1999). The approach suggested here offers new ways to sow seeds of social activism in the classroom, using the theories of black women that are built upon the tangled relationships among race, ethnicity, gender, and class variables. These considerations should be important points of departure in a variety of social analyses because they necessitate the consideration of different and sometimes conflicting perspectives. Using the literature and scholarship of African-descended women as models of social activism illustrates to students (and to their professors) the theory-derived possibility of redressing seemingly insurmountable odds, and explicates the variety of ways in which political resistance can manifest itself. For example, Black women face greater odds of contracting some of the worst diseases of our time, diabetes and obesity, and AIDS. Investigations of their coping mechanisms could be the starting point from where psychological theories are formed.
Once the seeds of activism are sown, it is possible that students will acknowledge social ills and will know how to blossom into socially and politically astute, mature, critical world citizens equipped to challenge racism, classism, and sexism in their communities. When combined with the appropriate course content, the approach presented here offers ways to assist students in transforming society as activists and can be effectively utilized in any academic discipline and in all institutions of higher education.
Activism, as used in teaching, is a response of people, and particularly of
women of African descent, to structural changes in socioeconomics, history,
and politics. Three questions structure what is happening in the classes in
which are planted seeds of activism:
1) How does their scholarship reflect the ways in which women of African descend use psychological processes to overcome legacies of slavery and colonialism?
2) What psychological mechanisms do women of African descent use to cope with current socioeconomic and political changes?
3) How can students apply this knowledge in understanding psychological theory?
Why Focus on Black Women?
Black American women are at a critical historical point (Reid-Merritt, 1996). Building on the scholarship of Toni Cade Bambara (who, ironically, urged black women to see the Euro-centered psychological construct of self-actualization as part of the political strategy in fighting oppression), Ntozake Shange, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and other black women academics from 1970s, African American women in the 1980s and 1990s developed a self-defined, collective black women's standpoint about black womanhood (Collins, 1990). Moreover, black women used this standpoint to "talk back" concerning black women's representation in theory and popular culture (Hooks, 1989). As a result, African American women's ideas and experiences have achieved a visibility in the academy unimaginable fifty years ago.
But African American and all black women now stand at a different historical moment. Though black women appear to have a respected voice, as idealized by the phenomenon of Oprah and the high-profile political position of Condoleezza Rice, with this newfound voice comes a new series of concerns. For example, black women must be attentive to the absorption of black women's voices in college classrooms where, often still, black women's texts are more welcomed than black women themselves. Giving the illusion of change, this strategy of symbolic inclusion masks how everyday institutional policies that suppress, and research programs that exclude black women remain virtually untouched.
Similarly, popular culture that transforms black women's writing into a marketable commodity also threatens to strip their works of any critical edge. Initially, entering public space via books, movies, and print media proved invigorating and empowering. But in increasingly competitive global markets where anything that sells will be sold regardless of the consequences, black women's voices now flood the market (especially in the area of popular fiction). Like other commodities exchanged in capitalist markets, surplus cheapens value, and the zeitgeist of today - the black woman’s point of view - becomes the historical footnote of tomorrow.
Based on a common history of oppression, whether from colonialism in Africa or slavery in the United States, most black women scholars have as their focus not the traditional Western feminist concern for individuality, but a more expansive and immediate concern for their larger communities (Smith, 1995). They struggle in many ways to overcome social and political oppression that is racist, sexist, and classist in nature. Like their predecessors, contemporary women of African descent have created alternate visions of survival. They have found ways to mobilize their communities through an activism that emphasizes spiritual, psychological, socioeconomic, and political survival. Historically, African American women have emerged as leaders from the field to the factories, in church basements and pews, and at the fronts and backs of the buses. It is important to find ways to use this knowledge of black women's activism in classrooms in higher education and in our communities.
Applying the Activist Model to the Classroom
There are myriad courses in a typical undergraduate or graduate psychology program to which this particular activist approach can be applied, such as: Systems and Techniques of Psychotherapy, Multicultural Counseling, Health Psychology, Personality Psychology, Human Sexuality, Psychology of Women, Community Mental Health, or Experimental Research Methods, among others. The American Psychological Association guidelines which now mandate a multicultural perspective in all courses, does not go far enough to decentralize a European viewpoint. The decade-old criticism is still valid: the multicultural approach is largely “additive,” appearing as interesting side points rather than as centralized points from which to begin an analysis. Below, some specific texts are mentioned that could be used as supplemental or primary sources of content in courses taking the activist perspective.
So few academic texts exist which center the psychological perspective of African-descended women that one is challenged to uncover them and sometimes must rely instead on collections of journal articles, and on books in the popular literature (Danquah, 1999; Hooks, 1993; Boyd, 1997). In a course on research methods, students can center a black women’s perspective by investigating psychological reasons behind the reluctance of many black women (and men, for that matter) to volunteer as participants in research studies. This is a very complex issue of motivation since black women now demand inclusion in medical studies, yet are conflicted about participating in them. History documents many abuses of black women in the name of scientific advance. One of the most outrageous examples is the case of the pioneering gynecologist J. Marion Sims, who discovered techniques of repairing the tearing that some women suffered in childbirth by experimenting, sans anesthesia, on enslaved African women that he purchased solely for the purpose of his research.
In a course on Social Psychology or Health Psychology, one could assign field projects where students conduct semester-long internships at local mental health clinics, senior citizens homes, safe houses, and homeless shelters. A student researcher at the Black Mental Health Alliance in Baltimore, for instance, may be trained to facilitate a discussion with a group of women dealing with issues of psychological depression concomitant with HIV infection. As the students and their clients discuss various factors related to the feelings and causes of depression, each from their different perspectives are able to dissect the history of oppression that has culminated in present-day instances of psychological disturbance. This is an example of the activist approach that is based on theory discussed and developed in the classroom. By working in the local community at internships and organizing teach-ins and educational workshops around campus, students begin to develop a deeper understanding of the state systems that affect lives on a routine basis. When students take knowledge out of the classroom into the community (and vice-versa), they can effect change as they educate people and learn to become more empowered themselves. I agree with James (1993) that activism is an "indispensable component in learning...Action promotes consciousness of one's own political practice...”
In learning/teaching about different forms of psychological therapy, one can instruct students to create a detailed comparison of different therapeutic styles and evaluate each as to the extent to which it mirrors the cultural values that women of African descent might bring to a therapy session. Pack-Brown and her colleagues (1998), present specific techniques for therapeutic group work with African-descended women. In discussions of male and female heterosexual relationships, encourage students to consider how the brutal institution of slavery in the United States was designed to destroy the black family and to corrupt traditional, African-inspired ways of relating between men and women, and use a text that discusses how body image myths shape black women’s sexual identity (Wyatt, 1997).
In the course on Cross-Cultural Psychology, students explore the major topics using the lenses of African women from different cultures (Steady, 1981). The class explores coming-of-age rituals for young women in Ghana, the treatment of post-partum depression in Senegal, the wide variety of what is considered “abnormal” in Yoruba society, reproductive decisions of women of color around the world, African spirituality (Wheeler, Ampadu and Wangari, 2002) and women’s special place in it, the psychology of oppression and racism, and the psychologies of women of color, among other topics. The goal of the course is to encourage students to recognize the validity of different perspectives, emphasizing that of African-descended women, and to teach them how to apply their newfound knowledge to finding solutions to problems in their immediate community.
All students, but especially those who are women of African descent, should be encouraged and supported in their efforts to conduct research on psychological issues using the lens of political and social history. Through their research, students will come to learn of the omissions and distortions in the literature of psychology and can proceed to write synthesis papers and make oral presentations to other students about how the distortions should be redressed. This level of activism is available to all students. Rodriguez (1996), an anthropologist, teaches activism in her courses by “developing historical ethnographies on local Black women activists”. Using Collins’ framework of the principles of theorizing from the point of view of women of African descent, Rodriguez and I approach our scholarship and teaching confident that, “our intellectual interests in the lives of people of Africa and its diaspora are both scientifically legitimate and socially valuable”.
If in our classroom teaching, we sometimes focus on alternative viewpoints as the center and starting point for analysis of psychological behavior, then we are engaged in activist work and, furthermore, modeling for our students what activism means. Not only is this valuable for the sake of activism itself, but taking an alternative view often deepens our understanding of human behavior and instructs us about the limits and expanses of generalizability. I begin to suggest here the use of black women’s perspectives as one possible alternative because their voices and views have historically been ignored, yet there is now ample written evidence of their unique scholarship and their ways of addressing many different psychological issues.
Boyd, J. A. (1997). In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem. New York: Plume Books.
Collins, P. H. (1991). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge.
Danquah, M. N. (1999). Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression. New York: Ballantine.
Hooks, B. (1993). Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Discovery. Boston, MA: South End Press.
Hooks, B. (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston, MA: South Ends Press.
James, J. (1993). Teaching theory, talking community. Spirit, Space, and Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe. Eds. Joy James and Ruth Farmer. New York: Routledge. 118-35.
Joseph, G. (1995). Black feminist pedagogy and schooling in capitalist white America. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: The New Press. 462-71.
Pack-Brown, S., Whittington-Clark, L & Parker, W. (1998). Images of Me: A Guide to Group Work with African-American Women. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Reid-Merritt, P. (1996). Sister Power: How Phenomenal Black Women Are Rising to the Top. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Rodriguez, C. (1996). Anthropology and womanist theory: Claiming the discourse on gender, race and culture. Womanist Theory and Research 2: 3-11.
Smith, B. (1995). Some home truths on the contemporary feminist movement. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: The New Press. 254-67.
Steady, F. (Ed.). (1981). The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Cambridge, Mass: Schenkman.
Wheeler, E. (2002). And, does it matter if he was racist?: Deconstructing concepts in psychology. Race, Gender, & Class, 9, No. 4, 33-44.
Wheeler, E., Ampadu, L., & Wangari, E. (2002). Lifespan development revisited: Spirituality through an African-centered lens. Journal of Adult Development. 9 (1): 71-78.
Wheeler, E., Ayers, J., Fracasso, M., Galupo, M. P., Rabin, J., & Slater, B. (1999). Approaches to modeling diversity in the college classroom: Challenges and strategies. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 10, 79-93.
Wyatt, G. E. (1997). Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality,
Taking Back Our Lives. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Evangeline A. Wheeler is Associate Professor of Psychology at Towson University in Maryland. She writes frequently on issues of black women, and pedagogy in psychology. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org