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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Masking Tools of Oppression as Equity

I wrote this piece in the summer of 2021, but I've updated it and added some additional thoughts as things have shifted, but really not so much.

Being a teacher can be difficult (yet has been the most rewarding job that I've ever had.

It isn't the act of teaching, necessarily, that is the hardest. It's everything that goes with it - the transference of student trauma, the caring, the thinking of them at 3 am, the worries about their futures, the state standards, collaboration, and then, of course, trying to ensure students are at "grade level".

There are a lot of moving parts involved with teaching and teaching at all levels. And of course, education as a whole is quite the field - everything seems to be an expert, it isn't supported in the United States, funding is abysmal - it's a mess.

But one of the things I've observed in K-12 and community college is this odd understanding that getting students to graduate and finish at all costs tends to be manipulated, perhaps intentionally or not, into problematic ideals and practices that are rooted in oppression. In other words, education for equity instead ends up being a continued tool of oppression. And all very much rooted in a neoliberal understanding of the world

For instance, let's say a student is struggling with literacy skills. They face some issues with comprehension, they are reading several grade levels behind where they're "supposed to be," or maybe they just hate reading because the lived experience was never represented. Literacy interventions would be necessary, the teacher could do individual and small group sessions, scaffolding would be necessary, and helping students identify with the materials and texts could highlight the necessity of reading. I've even discussed reading as a political act as a means to encourage students to see the importance, and for some, it worked.

Instead, coursework that underestimates a student's abilities and interests is implemented, merely passing students through, and then a lack of preparation occurs, further marginalizing students based on assumptions rooted in white supremacy, ableism, sexism, and other levels of oppression. And I find that this happens within conversations of equity. Not that it is happening instead of equity, but rather in the name of equity.

Now, here's the thing - I am not saying that we should do whatever we can to fail students - this is antithetical to my philosophy. Instead, what needs to happen is genuine support, interventions, supports, and efforts to validate students, encourage them, and develop the necessary skills without sacrificing rigor, ethical teaching, and overall education as a whole. Of course, what tends to happen it seems is that there is still a level of dehumanization occurring, where those who are participating in those practices only see them as incapable students they want to save, rather than completely capable humans to work with, collaborate, and engage dialogically. Or, conversely, those in positions of power end up swooping in, in hopes of being the hero. It was clear that this was the case in one of my positions as a teacher.

Perhaps, as I've noted before, there is a concept of praxis from the Freirean sense that is missing: critical reflection and action. That is, perhaps they have adopted immediate action as necessary, but the critical reflection is significantly missing, understanding the concept of equity, but not liberation, knowing equity as a word, but not understanding what it looks like in practice. It seems the emphasis is on a singular concept of the outcome, rather than outcome, sustainability, longevity, and liberation. Or, perhaps the concept of liberation is rooted in saviorism rather than liberatory structures - which is part of the problem as well.

So often we're hyperfocused solely on the individual, which, don't get me wrong, is important. We do need to understand that each individual has different circumstances and we should be meeting students where they're at, but what is missing is an understanding of these individual circumstances as part of a larger structural and institutional issue. And when institutions are perpetuating the very oppressive practices they criticize structurally, it becomes a vicious cycle of oppression that only encourages white supremacy but is beautifully wrapped instead as equity. Institutional practices and protocols that are in place with flexibility are necessary, and meeting individuals where they are is vital, but neither of these can be done independently from the other, which seems to be what happens so often.

And on that note, I want to ask you to reflect on your practices, your institution's practices, and your own experiences, and think about ways that perhaps these practices are created for the sake of equity, but are perhaps reinforcing inequitable practices that will never challenge systemic oppression and in turn will continue forcing students to believe they are incapable and that the "professionals" around them believe the same, all for the sake of supposed equity.

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