The struggle for racial and ethnic identities in a transformative community of activist learners

This presentation addresses the dialectics of affirming and rejecting racial and ethnic identities as tools to bridge learning and development among students participating in the Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC). Despite minority students constituting a large segment of the student body in most urban community colleges in New York, race/ethnicity are not often discussed in course curricula, and when they are discussed, this often happens in isolation from learning. Plagued by identity questions related to race/ethnicity and perplexed by the contradictory nature of these concepts, community college students are left to their own devices to make sense of racial and ethnic issues. This paper describes how participants collectively developed an agenda to address these issues through critical-theoretical learning (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2011; Rifino, Matsuura, & Medina, 2014), implemented as weekly discussions and academic readings from a plethora of socio-cultural theories on race and ethnicity at the intersection of class, culture, and colonialism. As a result, students began to challenge their own preconceived notions, stereotypes and narrowed understanding of race. This paper focuses on how critical-theoretical learning about race/ethnicity impacted the trajectories of Latino students as it increased participants’ awareness of their struggle to develop racial/ethnic identities amidst pressures to assimilate to mainstream White-American culture, distance themselves from racial struggles, and endorse a colorblind rhetoric. In particular, I discuss common shared struggles for ethnic/racial identity identified by participants, namely (1) the rejection of race as a way to avoid stereotypes, (2) the construction of race and ethnicity in limited and damaging ways, (3) cultural poverty arguments and self-defeating discourses, and (4) alienation from the Eurocentric practices of the college. In conclusion, I will argue that activist racial/ethnic identities are centrally connected to learning and development, specifically to how students positioned themselves toward education and social justice.
Presenter
Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)

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