Decentralizing Eurocentric Focus in Sexuality Education

“What do you think about female genital mutilation in Africa? What’s the black perspective about this native practice?”

“Studies show that blacks and Latinos have the highest rates of unplanned teen pregnancy. Why do you think this is, Armani? Do you feel pressured to have children young?”

As a queer black-identified sexuality educator, I am very familiar with how ignorance, often informed by systems of oppression, impact the learning environment for students of oppressed identity groups. At various levels of my education, I have experienced many uncomfortable incidents caused by very well-intentioned educators. I have sat through sexuality classes where the only focus was on heterosexual relationships without any mention of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or differently-identified relationships. I have sat through gender studies courses where the gender was discussed only as a fixed category, without any allusion to transgender experiences, or the experiences of those people who do not identify neatly within the male/female dichotomy. Though I recall feeling undervalued for my gender and queerness frequently in the classroom, more than anything else I recall feeling my blackness, specifically my blackness in the scope of racism and Eurocentrism.

The official definition of Eurocentrism as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is anything “centered on Europe or Europeans, reflecting a tendency to interpret the world in terms of European or Anglo-American values and experiences” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). The United States has primarily utilized this specific perspective in the classroom while ignoring the much needed variation that would benefit students from non-European/Anglo-American cultural backgrounds (Baker, 2008). In plain terms, the North American education system has been, and is still being, whitewashed.

Eurocentrism, like all ideologies, has both positive and negative components when used in the classroom. For many students their cultural values and experiences align with Eurocentrism, so much so that they may not even realize that it is the norm. But for students of color a Eurocentric framework is palpable in ways that inhibit learning and intellectual development (Irvine, 1990). Sexuality education, which is often abstinence-based and inadequate in meeting the needs of even the most mainstream students, fails students of color even further (SIECUS, 2015). Sexuality education often ignores cultural variations that affect students at individual and systemic levels. Here are two examples:

Example 1:

Sexuality education is multifaceted and intersectional. For this reason, neither gender nor sexuality can be taught without mention of the other (gender differences in rape statistics, HIV/AIDS statistics in gay men compared to lesbian women). Many sexuality educators make the discussion of manhood and masculinity a staple topic in their classes or sessions. Regardless of the pedagogical perspective used by the teacher and/or learning institution, there will almost definitely be a discussion on external condom, or male condom, usage to reduce the changes of STI transmission and unplanned pregnancy. Eurocentric methods may take a step further and also provide baffling statistics about the racial differences in teen pregnancy rates, specifically comparing rates of certain racial minority groups to white students. White students may feel empowered by the differences in the statistics, while Latino students may feel really embarrassed or uncomfortable (Levesque, 2003). Though statistics are an important part of sexuality education, it is just as important to also discuss the environmental and systematic factors that contribute to the statistics. Latino students are failed by a sexuality course or lesson taught only from a Eurocentric focus because even though unplanned pregnancy rates in their community may be discussed, there is often no mention of the machismo culture, which several studies have linked to resistance to condom usage (Perez-Jimenez, Seal & Serrano-Garcia, 2009). By discussing environmental factors and cultural factors students could engage in meaningful discussion about the cultural influences that lead to worrisome statistics, instead of simply stating statistics that reinforce negative cultural stereotypes.

Example 2:

The Body Mass Index (BMI) scale, which takes weight and height into account to determine how healthy a person is, is often used in health courses to encourage healthy eating and exercising. In a society that focuses so heavily on physical appearances, the way that a person feels about his/her/zir body (zir being used here as a gender-neutral pronoun) has a very real effect on how one feels about zirself and how one interacts with other people. If a woman feels negatively about her recent weight gain and is uncomfortable being naked around others, she may refrain from having sex with a new potential partner, or may only feel comfortable having sex in certain positions that hide her stomach, even if that means she will not be able to climax. There is a very real connection between how women feel about their bodies and how they behave sexually (Pujols, Meston, & Seal, 2010). Black women are one of the groups that consistently have higher BMIs than what is deemed the “healthy average”. For black women in health/sexuality courses who do have higher BMIs than their white counterparts, this deviation from the norm may contribute to the development of body image issues, negative cognitions about their bodies and their self-worth, and unhealthy sexual behaviors. However, new research has shown that black women who have higher BMIs may not face the same health risks as white women who have higher BMIs. Several studies have shown that BMI variations in different racial groups may not be a bad thing, but that different body types may need to be studied using different, racially-specific measures (Bhanoo, 2009; Norton, 2011). So, even though statistics may show that black women are larger and less healthy according to Eurocentric health standards, further research into cultural variations may show that the numbers are not fully accurate.

Eurocentric education frequently reports quantitative research concerning racial minorities, without actually delving into potential roots and influences that may be contributing to the potentially problematic statistics (Irvine, 2002). This highlighting of negative statistics leads to negative self-concepts and classroom experiences for students of color, whereas a more diverse pedagogical style could use this information to engage in productive and empowering dialogue.

Having said all of this, there are ways to maintain a sexuality education curriculum that reaches white students while also making non-white students feel supported. All students, regardless of race, deserve to be given the information that encourages their growth into responsible, mature sexually aware beings. First, Eurocentrism must be acknowledged, discussed, and dismantled. Defining Eurocentrism and talking about it is crucial to empowering students of all races. This cannot be done without discussing the power dynamics and historical interactions between races that allowed Eurocentrism to thrive (Baker, 2008). In addition to this much-needed history lesson, the educator must take responsibility to make his/her/zerself as culturally competent as possible so that she/he/ze can have the most positive effect possible on the students. Villegas and Lucas (2002) list six characteristics that a successful teacher has in relation to a more inclusive classroom:

  • Sociocultural Consciousness: understanding that how one thinks is shaped by sociocultural factors
  • An affirming attitude toward students from culturally diverse backgrounds
  • Commitment and skills to act as agents of change
  • Constructivist views of learning: providing scaffolds between the knowledge that students have the knowledge that they need to succeed
  • An interest in learning about students
  • Culturally responsive teaching strategies: views that support constructivism and building on cultural strengths (p.14).

In addition to this, Schmitz (1999) says the curriculum must:

  • Clearly define learning goals. To do this, a sexuality educator would have to assess what students know and still need to know about identity formation, diversity among different identities, and structures of power and privilege that affect different identities.
  • Question traditional concepts. Abstinence-only programming and topics centered on cisgender, heterosexual relationships are example of traditional concepts that could be questioned when transforming a curriculum.
  • Understand diversity among students. Students have different levels of knowledge, experience, and openness surrounding different topics of sexuality and sexual health. Students are also very diverse themselves, racially, ethnically, sexually, and in class and gender.
  • Use materials and activities that will maximize effectiveness among different learning styles
  • Evaluate effectiveness so that errors can be addressed.

By following these personal and curriculum-planning steps teachers can create a learning environment that supports all students by making the classroom and the educator a safe space.

Getting away from Eurocentrism is not a task that can be achieved by one educator in one session. On the contrary, it is a journey that must be accepted as a personal responsibility by each and every educator. Teachers rarely choose education as a profession to get rich or to gain fame. The need to use oneself to educate others often goes beyond salaries and prestige. Instead, those who enter the field of education, including sexuality education, usually do so because they have a desire to empower students, and to sculpt them to be the best people they can be, and to make the best decisions that they can make (Marsh, 2015). It is not about anti-whiteness nor is it about pro-blackness. Teaching from a multicultural culturally competent perspective is about being pro-student and pro-education. By emphasizing and celebrating cultural differences educators teach students that statistics are important, but that qualitative research that studies what cannot be measured numerically is just as important. It teaches that all students should and must have a voice in order to meet the needs of the audience, which vary as frequently as the audience does. Eurocentrism should not be shunned entirely, but instead should be used as a teaching tool to dialogue about systematic oppression and the diversity of learning styles. This is not to say that Eurocentrism should be replaced with Afrocentrism, which places Black experiences and rhetoric at the center of the classroom (Honeman, 1990). American education systems are becoming extremely diverse and no race should be considered superior or inferior to other races. It is not necessary to centralize any group if it disadvantages other groups.

Ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power. Though it may be easier to live a simple life unburdened by cumbersome truths, one cannot deny that the access to knowledge and education opens door and creates opportunities that the uneducated will likely never experience. Unfortunately, far too often we as educators witness the benefits of education opening doors for a privileged statistical minority. The content of a sexuality education course or lesson is influenced heavily by the norms of the society and culture of the geographical environment that the lesson is taking place. Some may argue that it is logical, even necessary, to teach culturally-relevant information to students living in a given culture (Eurocentrism as an ideology in a mostly-white area). However, issues arise when certain information is withheld from students who would otherwise benefit from its inclusion (McKay, 1997). It is unfortunate that, for some, the Land of the Free has also been a strong enforcer of a brutal glass ceiling. The current pedagogical culture of North American society is that of a systematically oppressive structure. Non-heterosexual students suffer from heterosexism, gender non-conforming students suffer from cissexism, female students suffer from sexism, and the list continues. It is our duty as educators to facilitate a space where our students can and will leave as better people than when they entered.

References

Baker, M. (2008). Teaching and learning about and beyond eurocentrism: A proposal for the=

creation of an other school. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/1516858/Teaching_and_Learning_About_and_Beyond_Eurocentrism_A_Proposal_for_the_Creation_of_an_Other_School

Bhanoo, S. (2009). Study suggests bmi scale is weighted against african americans. Retrieved

from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/13/AR2009041301823.html

Eurocentric. 2015. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eurocentric

Honeman, B. (1990). Rationale and suggestions for emphasizing afrocentricity in the public schools. Retrived from http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.libcat.widener.edu/ehost/detail/detail?sid=e4cedb4b-7f82-4b72-861e-062ece5ab73c%40sessionmgr4001&vid=0&hid=4106&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=eric&AN=ED321268Irvine, J. (1990). Black students and school failure. Policies, practices, and prescriptions. Greenwood Press, Inc. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED320992Levesque, R. (2003). Sexuality education: What adolescents’ rights require. Nova Publishers. Retreived from https://books.google.com/books?id=WfZIAH_pE3cC&lpg=PA145&ots=QWw_AQ6v1z&dq=sexuality%20education%20eurocentrism&pg=PA144#v=onepage&q=sexuality%20education%20eurocentrism&f=false

Marsh, S. (2015). Five top reasons people become teachers- and why they quit. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/27/five-top-reasons-teachers-join-and-quit

McKay, A. (1997). Accommodating ideological pluralism in sexuality education. Journal of Moral Education, 26(3), 295-30

Norton, A. (2011). “Healthy” waist may be a bit bigger for black women. Retrieved from

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/25/us-healthy-waist-idUSTRE70O4H320110125

Perez-Jimenez, D., Seal, D., & Serrano-Garcia, I. (2009). Barriers and facilitators of HIV

prevention with heterosexual latino couples: Beliefs of four stakeholder groups. Cultural diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(1), 11-17.

Pujols, Y., Meston, C. M. and Seal, B. N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction

and body image in women. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7: 905–916. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01604.x

Schmitz, B. (1999). Transforming a course. CIDR Teaching and Learning Bulletin, 2(4), 1-2.

SIECUS: Fact Sheet. (2015). Retrieved February 13, 2015, from

http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1271

Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. (2002). Educating culturally responsive teachers. Albany, NY: State

University of New York Press.

Written by Armani Beck

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6 responses to “Decentralizing Eurocentric Focus in Sexuality Education

  1. I honestly had no idea about the BMI differences, but I also just hate the concept of the BMI in general as it is can be pretty shaming.
    I also appreciate your use of gender neutral pronouns!
    I think you provided some fantastic lists of classroom and curriculum goals for being more inclusive. All educators, regardless of field would benefit from reading this post. It astounds me that so many teachers do not see the importance of being inclusive. When students feel like they are included they are bound to be more likely to pay attention instead of tuning out in a “this does not apply to me” moment. Thanks Armani!

  2. Armani, this post was not only well written, but also incredibly eye opening for me. I, too, have used statistics regarding HIV/AIDS and racial/ethnic heritage without considering the all important “why”, as well as the, “what now?” It had not occurred to me that this can be an alienating experience, rooted in a culture of academic Eurocentrism.
    As you stated, we need to strive for an experience of sexuality education that is human-centric rather than ethnocentric. At the core of this will have to be discussions about Eurocentrism in sexuality education, an experience that will serve both students and teachers well in challenging their sexological worldviews and expanding their cultural intelligence. I believe that you are correct in stating that the process will be difficult, but I believe your humanistic approach to sexuality education is necessary and will prove to be worthwhile.

  3. Thank you, Armani. Your post is captivating and a truly crucial conversation to be had. We all need to take it upon ourselves to become culturally competent individuals. I love that you note “Eurocentrism should not be shunned entirely, but instead should be used as a teaching tool to dialogue about systematic oppression and the diversity of learning styles.” There has been a lot of discussion lately about “white guilt”, and how white people feel bad because of the systemic oppression that their race has historically and still currently places on people of color. Teaching in a context that may make students of any race feel shame is most certainly unhelpful and could be cause for many negative repercussions, as you mention with teaching statistics as standalone and not looking at the environmental and systematic factors that contribute to them. By elucidating the context of white privilege in an open and judge free environment that allows each student to examine it critically, we are starting the conversations that will help empower our students and hopefully pave the way for a future where inclusivity is the norm. Thank you again.

  4. Armani,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. It put much of the exclusivity of the Western teaching ways into perspective. I especially loved these statements: “It is not about anti-whiteness nor is it about pro-blackness. Teaching from a multicultural culturally competent perspective is about being pro-student and pro-education.” With these two sentences, you seem to have perfectly explained why we need to move away from the Eurocentricity within our educational system.
    You brought to light how much of our education is rooted in “othering” especially when it comes to statistics with more negative connotations. Honestly, I think you highlighted some crucial issues and hopefully your suggestions are what our educational system is moving towards.

  5. I slow clapped at the end of your post. It spoke to me. I identified so much with all of it. What really got me and I mean really got me was your use of the word, “suffer,” because that is exactly it. Students who do not meet the Eurocentric norms suffer a lot for it. And they have to suffer silently. They suffer not because they wish they could fit the Eurocentric norms but because they are made to feel invisible or their communities are only mentioned when the curriculums come to negative statistics. (I remember everyone looking at me when the high rates of pregnancy for Latin@s was discussed.) But were intervention plans that addressed my culture discussed? Nope. I was left wondering, “Does it make me more Latina if I have a kid in my teens?” Who could I talk to? Who could address my questions?

    This is such a well written post that really just covers all the areas that are important when addressing diversity. What I really like was when you said, “It is not about anti-whiteness nor is it about pro-blackness. Teaching from a multicultural culturally competent perspective is about being pro-student and pro-education. ” This is key because so often when discussing diversity people try and argue that you’re erasing one culture to fit in another and it not like that at all. Its about inclusivity. Every narrative is important and valid and should have a place in education.

  6. Like this article addressed, there are so many other things that should go into sex education besides the simple facts. Talking about the factors as to why certain things happen and certain things don’t is huge in understanding our current issue in pregnancy and STI rates. No matter what race, socioeconomic status, education level, etc. a student is a child who needs this crucial information. They all have the same decisions to make and the same consequences to live with, why should they get different information along the way?

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