“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:
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.
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.
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Written by Armani Beck