Centering and Sustaining Us through Education

by Django Paris & H. Samy Alim   
Students at Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools (Credit: N’DIGO | Hartman Publishing Group)

Across the centuries, countless philosophers and teachers—and legions of students—have asked that “age-old” educational question: What is the purpose of schooling? In the context of the United States and other nation-states living out the legacies of land theft, genocide, and enslavement, the answer to this question for communities of color has been rather clear: the purpose of state-sanctioned schooling has been to forward the largely assimilationist and often violent White imperial project, with students and families being asked to lose or deny their languages, literacies, cultures and histories in order to achieve in schools.  In the U.S. and beyond, this saga of cultural and linguistic assault has had and continues to have devastating effects for the access, achievement, and well-being of students of color in public schools.

Continued social and educational inequality coupled with the massive demographic changes sweeping the U.S. and Europe, among other regions, have brought to the fore an urgent, more pressing iteration of this “age-old” question: “What is the purpose of schooling in pluralistic societies?” This has been the most important question for us over the past several years as we have worked to offer a needed change in pedagogical theory and practice—culturally sustaining pedagogy. Building from the foundational, ongoing work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and others, CSP seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation. CSP positions dynamic cultural dexterity as a necessary good, and sees the outcome of learning as additive, rather than subtractive, as remaining whole rather than framed as broken, as critically enriching strengths rather than replacing deficits. Culturally sustaining pedagogy exists wherever education sustains the lifeways of communities who have been and continue to be damaged and erased through schooling.

By proposing schooling as a site for sustaining the cultural ways of being of communities of color rather than eradicating them, CSP is responding to the many ways that schools continue to function as part of the settler colonial project. We seek to disrupt the pervasive anti-Indigeneity, anti-Blackness, and related anti-Brownness (from anti-Latinidad to Islamophobia) and model minority myths so foundational to schooling in the U.S. and many other colonial nation-states. For us, Black educational pasts and futures are intimately bound with Indigenous ones, which are together bound with collective education liberation for all communities.

In our conceptualization of CSP, we have moved away from (sometimes even progressive) pedagogies that are too closely aligned with linguistic, literate, and cultural hegemony. Instead, we have worked with others to develop a pedagogical agenda that does not concern itself with the seemingly panoptic White gaze that permeates educational research and practice with and for students of color, their teachers, and their schools. In a 1998 interview Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison responded to misguided critiques of her books with the rebuttal, “As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the White gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the White gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

As we think about teaching and teachers, we ask: What would our pedagogies look like if this gaze (and the kindred patriarchal, cisheteronormative, English-monolingual, ableist, classist, xenophobic, Judeo-Christian gazes) weren’t the dominant one? What would liberating ourselves from this gaze and the educational expectations it forwards mean for our abilities to envision new and recover traditional community-rooted forms of teaching and learning? For Morrison, as soon as she jettisoned this White gaze, she found herself in a new territory that allowed for boundless creativity, a world of imagination and possibility. “This was brand-new space,” she said, “and once I got there, it was like the whole world opened up, and I was never going to give that up.”

What kinds of transformative experiences can we offer our students, such that a “whole world” of learning opens up for them, one that, like Morrison, they would never want to give up (versus one that continually gives up on them)? What can educators of color and other educators in solidarity with us learn from Morrison’s courage and conviction to decenter Whiteness; to envision a world where we owed no explanations to Whiteness about the value of our children’s culture, language, and learning potential?

Cover Art by Favianna Rodriguez (www.favianna.com)

Our vision of CSP calls for sustaining and revitalizing that which has over the centuries sustained us as communities of color struggling to “make it”—to resist, revitalize, and reimagine—under enduring colonial conditions that constantly work to diminish our intellectual capacities, cultures, languages, and, yes, our very lives. As we mention love and lives here, we hold up the work of Black queer and trans women and all who have forwarded #BlackLivesMatter. This Movement for Black Lives and distinct, coalitional, intersectional justice work in Native (most especially in this moment, the Indigenous sovereignty, land, and water Protectors at Standing Rock and across the globe), Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, and LGBTQ communities–in many ways led by young people–is calling out systemic racism across institutions, including schools. And it has transformed our thinking about the need for CSP as being literally about sustaining our minds and bodies as communities of color within a schooling system that has often had the exact opposite goals.

We believe that CSP, is at heart about survival—a survival we want to sustain through education—and about changing the conditions under which we live and work by opening up new and revitalizing community rooted ways of thinking about education. Toward this effort, we agree wholeheartedly with Carol Lee, who shares in her chapter in our book:

[I]f particular cultural  practices  and  belief  systems  allowed  people of African descent in the U.S. and the diaspora to survive and thrive through enslavement and Jim Crow—America’s two centuries of legal apartheid—then it seems reasonable that sustaining these practices and strategic transformations in response to changing conditions is a worthwhile  goal.

The gravity of this statement, and this work writ large, is laid to bear starkly and beautifully by Lee, and provokes further critical questions: Under the latest iterations of White Supremacist, capitalist, cisheteropatriarchal ideologies, systems, and practices, what knowledges must we sustain in order to overcome and survive when faced with a power that seeks to sustain itself above and beyond—and sometimes shot through—our bodies? CSP is indeed about providing our children with the opportunities to survive and thrive, but it is also centrally about love, a love that can help us see our young people as whole versus broken when they enter schools, and a love that can work to keep them whole as they grow and expand who they are and can be through education.

In our new book we join a collective of educational justice workers to forward examples of CSP across Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and immigrant communities in the U.S. and also in South Africa. As we continue to think through the promises and challenges of culturally sustaining pedagogy, we are hopeful this work can join young people, educators, communities, and scholars in our collective struggle against an educational system that contains us and toward one that sustains us.


Django Paris is Associate Professor of Language and Literacy and Core Faculty in the African American and African Studies Program at Michigan State University. Follow him on Twitter @django_paris. H. Samy Alim is Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Their new book, Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World was published this month by Teachers College Press. Follow him on Twitter @HSamyAlim.


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