In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Feire (1970) discusses what is still a serious issue in society; oppression and how education can either eradicate it or perpetuate it. According to Freire, oppression happens when a wealthier upper class undermines an economically lower class in order to maintain its power (that being its economical, political, or social power or some combination of them). This oppression can happen in two different ways: in the first—an external top-down approach—the oppressors are constantly reminding the oppressed that they are ‘less’ because of their socioeconomic status. In the second, oppression is disguised as the status quo, and the oppressed are led to believe they are immersed in the ‘real world’ where oppression is expected and accepted as normal. Thus, these citizens are often unaware of their own oppression.
As Freire (1970) explains, the oppressors see the oppressed as tools and not necessarily human beings. By objectifying the lower class and deeming them as unworthy, lazy, or stupid, the higher classes justify their actions and perpetuate the oppression. For Freire, a possible solution for this problem would be an education for the oppressed classes that promotes critical thinking and awareness. He believed that by understanding their place in society and the oppressive situation in which they were immersed, the oppressed would then be able to challenge and question their oppression and find a way to change it. Freire saw education (or critical pedagogy, to be more specific) as an important tool in this process. (For more about Freire’s ideas, please watch this video). His ideas go hand in hand with the ideals of social justice.
Social justice is a concept used to refer to actions “in support of various groups perceived as marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged, as a convenient shorthand for those sharing similar interests and concerns, and, for some academics, as a goal for all education” (Woodford, 2011). When advocating for social justice, one often faces challenges, especially as it relates to respect for those we want to have included in our society. Topics such as prejudice, stereotypes, and authenticity are often discussed. For that reason, it is important to know how to advocate for social justice in order to promote change rather than perpetuate the oppression to which Freire (1997) refers.. In this blog post, I want to point to one of these practices that might promote oppression rather then social justice: the vocabulary we use in our everyday conversations and academic work.
In Silverman’s (2009) study report Rethinking Music “Appreciation” I came across an example of said vocabulary misuse. In this study, the author explores “the strategies developed in teaching music appreciation in a large urban secondary school” (p.1), where her students came from diverse backgrounds. When discussing her praxis, the author mentions her student’s assumptions that “Western classical music [was] music for ‘rich people’ and ‘white people’ who ‘live in mansions’” (p.18) and concludes her thoughts about their “labeling” of said music with the following statement: “Whether this is an example of ‘reverse discrimination’ or not, it is not the issue” (p. 19).
As an educator, Silverman (2009) advocates for social justice and feels “a professional responsibility to broaden […] students’ personal and musical identities” and the responsibility “to protect and enhance their abilities to develop musical expressions of their self-identities, as these are manifested in their local, racial, gendered, socio-economic, and political circumstances” (p.11). However, she seems to do it from the point of view of someone who feels great sympathy for her students, but who hasn’t personally experienced many of the injustices from which she wants to protect her students. As a consequence, she uses expressions such as “reverse discrimination,” that, in my opinion, are complicit with the oppressive discourse.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary Online, reverse discrimination is “the act of giving advantage to those groups in society that are often treated unfairly, usually because of their race, sex, or sexuality.”(Retrieved here) Although this definition seems reasonable at first glance, I argue that the simple belief that it is possible to reverse discriminate is a problem on its own. The word reverse means “change to opposite” in the British definition and “the opposite direction,” and “defeat or failure” in the American definition of the same Cambridge Dictionary Online. But what would the opposite of discrimination, or even the “failure” of discrimination be?
Discrimination has many definitions that include “worse treatment,” “seeing a difference,” “different treatment” (Cambridge Dictionary Online, n.d.). So “reverse discrimination” should, in my opinion, refer to something positive such as equality or even equity. Yet, it is used to describe possible injustices against those who are usually not seen as disadvantaged in our society. For those who believe in such idea, “reverse discrimination” is the oppression of the oppressor. One considers it “reversed” because the “normal,” or correct direction, would be to oppress those that we refer to as “minorities” (another one of those interesting terms we use in the social justice discourse).
My argument here is that by using terms such as “reverse discrimination” we are actually being complicit with those who believe that the norm is to oppress and discriminate “minorities.” Please note that I am not saying that those who use such terms (or other terms that in my opinion are oppressive) agree with such injustices. However, I am arguing that if we don’t consider injustices from an oppressed point of view, we might promote oppression while fighting against it. As Serres (n.d.) explains, the way in which we communicate is “influential in shaping human values and ideas.”
While advocating for social justice is absolutely important, it might be time for us to rethink the vocabulary we use to advocate for it, and to take action in promoting these ideas. One possible strategy was given by Silvelamn (2009) in the same paragraph that she talks about “reverse discrimination”: to encourage students to “challenge stereotypes of all kinds” (p.19). In the music classroom we can take action by using mindful vocabulary, promoting critical thinking, and constructing with students learning experiences that really respects different values. Hopefully, critical pedagogy can help us in this task so more of those who are usually “oppressed” can be active agents in the process of challenging oppression and fighting for equality from an empathic rather than sympathetic point of view.
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