I Am More Than A Theory

While working on my final paper with Cynthia, I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing a Native American graduate student. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia—I grew up in a black/white paradigm. White meant power, privilege, first, and boss. To be black concluded that you were ghetto, poor, infectious and unpolished. In the next part of this blog, I will write about the CRT tenet counterstory in relation to Roberto and his experiences at a PWI in Southern Arizona. As a side note and disclaimer, I am no expert on Native American culture. However, this interview impacted me heavily concerning culture, traditions, and how Eurocentric frameworks destroys knowledge and attempts to deduce non-white experiences into manageable boxes.

Counter Story

The dominate epistemology in most Westernized (white) countries is a Eurocentric paradigm. A Eurocentric paradigm is a theory of knowledge that investigates through the schema of scientific observation in which certain cultural norms and practices performed by Africans, indigenous, and native peoples are viewed as backwards, ungodly, and inferior. To use a Eurocentric scope to evaluate life is to value, “reason as opposed to ignorance; scientific knowledge instead of indigenous knowledge; philosophies of mind versus folk psychologies; religious truth in lieu of primitive superstition; and professional history as opposed to oral mythologies,” (Kincheloe and Steinberg, 1998). Scientific knowledge or Cartesian/Baconian knowledge “is characterized by an emphasis on binary distinctions, and an epistemology which operates through categorical difference and exclusion,” (Schertz, 2006, p. 170). Eurocentric knowledge values the individual over society, an atomization of the person from the group but the narrative of most native and indigenous people is they value the chemistry of the group over the atom, feelings over reason.

I said all of that to imply that a counter narrative is an epistemology outside the framework of European interpretation. Therefore, it is a counter narrative beyond the traditional objectification of non-white bodies. According to Lopez (2003) & Milner IV (2013), counternarratives are stories told by people of color because racism is at the centrality of their narratives. For example, in our history books, we call the king of Ancient Greece that colonized and conquered Egypt, Persia and Syria, Alexander the Great but the Syrians in their history books call him Alexander the Cursed. In my eyes, he is just Alexander the Greek. This is a counternarrative.

In their ground shaking article Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education, Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) emphasize that a major tenet in the work of Critical Race Theorists is to name your own reality because according to Tate (1997), counter narratives by people of color can counter the stories of the oppressor. Counternarratives or as Yosso, Smith, Ceja and Solórzano (2009) call them, counter-storytelling, manifest in different ways such as oral histories, parables, testimonies, proverbs or for the students in this study a scathing critique of the dominant epistemology and then embracing their own cultural roots.

Roberto, a Native American-male and master’s student, explains what he sees in the curriculum and Western philosophy as the basis for interpretation:

One of the challenges I face is how do I discuss native identity. There have been times in papers or class discussion where it gets squashed or instructors are looking for a theoretical definition.     No, you can’t go on your native experience. The difficulty I’ve had is ok, well, that is the western view of knowledge and how knowledge is created and coming at it from my perspective of how I was raised and intersectional.

In the narrative embedded in the graduate coursework, Roberto points out that the Native American identity is either ignored or reduced to a Eurocentric theoretical definition that typically finds it foundation in the perceived inferiority of people of color. Roberto wants to offer a counter narrative but he struggles with that. According to Bell (1988), “A major function of racial discrimination is to…blame all the manifestations of exclusion-bred despair on the asserted inferiority of the victims…the widely shared belief that whites are superior,” (p. 767). Even though it is not spoken that whites are superior in Roberto’s class, the ignoring of Native American epistemology lends to the traditional Eurocentric belief that the word “Indian” was equal to a gentile (unclean), a savage, and the Indians were influenced by the devil (Fanon 1988, Goldhagen 2011).

Solórzano and Yosso (2002) explains that CRT challenges the dominate discourse of Eurocentric frameworks of race and racism in relation to education by critiquing educational theories used to describe certain racial and ethnic groups. Roberto offers a counternarrative or counterstory in response to his coursework and the instructors inability to see Native Americans:

In my culture that is not true, obviously, we live in a western culture because I am native but we are excluded from this idea of western culture, but indigenous knowledge theory, and different things I have learned from my elders, is this idea that you can’t reduce things to simply framework, which is what western knowledge tries to do… I just reached out to a native elder on campus that does spiritual ceremonies, I told her I am feeling out of balance and are you available, she said yes let’s set up an appointment.

Roberto critiques Western epistemology as being too narrow as far as reducing things to a simple framework but his counternarrative is to continue with his cultural traditions of spiritual ceremonies to get him back “in balance.” According to Descartes, “all human knowledge which is based on the senses and on the reasoning applied to them is imperfect and defective,” (Siljander, Kivela & Sutinen, 2012, p. 26). For aboriginal people of the world, there is no separation between religion, the arts, dance, agriculture, childbirth, etc., which are all based on the senses. If science, in and of itself, is applied to understanding history without the metaphysics of native testimony, then the “collective memory…placenta of myths, legends, identities, and popular imagery,” (Florescano, 2002, p. xiv) will be unheard of or misrepresented. Cultural knowledge is not less important because it does not fit into the category of scientific knowledge. Cultural norms empower people to function in their social and physical environments.

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