Education-line Home Page

Using counter narratives to construct a dialogue
on race, positionality, and authority: a research tool

Elaine Manglitz

Clayton State University, USA

Talmadge C. Guy

University of Georgia, USA

Lisa R. Merriweather Hunn

Ball State University, USA

Paper presented at the 36th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 4-6 July 2006, Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds

Dialogues around race, gender, sexual orientation and other socially significant forms of human difference are frequently constrained by the emergence of an ideologically conservative, hegemonic discourse that reframes and rearticulates the experiences of marginalized persons. This rearticulation bears little resemblance to the actual experiences perhaps because ‘existence is recognized or refused, significance is assigned or ignored, beings elevated or rendered invisible’ (Goldberg 2000: 155) within hierarchies. This translates into cultural influences that impact the research process and systems of knowledge production

Critical race theorists argue that counter-storytelling, as a ‘method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told’ (Solorzano & Yosso 2002: 32 ) may be a useful mechanism to challenge and change racial dominance (Tate 1995). Researchers, using counter-storytelling as a ‘tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories of racial privilege, can shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform(Solorzano & Yosso 2002: 32). As Delgado (1989) says, ‘oppressed groups have known instinctively that stories are an essential tool to their own survival and liberation’ (2436). The purpose of this paper is to examine the potential of counter-storytelling as a research and pedagogical tool used to challenge hegemonic racist discourses. It explores concerns around voice, positionality, and authority within adult education. Key questions guiding our analysis are: What is the source of identity claims that resist racism? And how can we address these counter claims in adult education without becoming mired in identity politics that keep us isolated and excluded?

These questions arise out of a two-fold concern. First, mainstream adult educational discourse is imbued with majoritarian stories which by definition ‘privileges Whites, men, the middle and/or upper class, and heterosexuals by naming these social locations as natural or normative points of reference’ (Solorzano & Yosso 2002: 28). Second, as a useful pedagogical and research tool strategy, counter-storytelling helps adult educators to undermine racism. We start with a brief overview of critical race theory (CRT) and the nature and purpose of counter-stories in order to highlight issues of voice, positionality, and authority within adult education.

Critical race theory and counter-storytelling

According to CRT, racism is not aberrant or rare but so ingrained in American political, legal, and educational structures as to be almost unrecognizable (Delgado 1995). CRT scholars portray the dominant claims of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, and meritocracy as camouflages for sustaining the self-interest of the powerful groups in society. Education scholars have recently begun to employ CRT to understand the invisibility of racism in educational theory and practice. Solorzano and Yosso (2002) view CRT in education as a set of perspectives, methods, and pedagogy that seeks to identify, analyze, and transform the structural, cultural, interpersonal aspects of education that maintain the subordination of people of color.

Counter-storytelling is a tool that CRT scholars employ to contradict racist characterizations of social life and expose race neutral discourse, revealing how white privilege operates to reinforce and support unequal racial relations in society. While majoritarian stories draw on the tacit knowledge among persons in the dominant group (Delgado & Stefancic 2000), they also distort and silence the experiences of the dominated. Counter-stories facilitate social, political, and cultural cohesion, as well as survival and resistance among marginalized groups. By acknowledging subjugated discourses we not only recognize there is more than one way to view the world, but we also open up possibilities for understanding phenomena in new and different ways (Lopez 2001).

Counter-storytelling and voice

In our conceptualization of ‘othered’ voice in relationship to the majoritarian story it is clear that these voices are muted (silenced) and mooted (irrelevant). Whose voices matter or matter most in research and in the classroom? Lisa’s story illustrates how voice is used in mainstream academic discourse to minimize and silence the lived experience of race or in this case to deny the salience of race in relation to gender.

During my graduate program, I facilitated a session in a Multicultural Issues in Adult Education class. We completed an activity developed by the professor of record for the class in which the learners assumed the positionalities of persons different than themselves and were asked to critically reflect on the impact this would have on them. This was a unique and safe way to get people to discuss difference and its significance within the context of adult education and our society.

I participated as a co-learner in a small group comprised of two European American and two African American women. When the positionality characteristic was class, or gender, the discussion insightful and dug far beneath the surface. Unfortunately, when the positionality characteristic was race, the depth of the conversation was shallow. I and the other African American woman tried many different ways to express how significantly race impacts one’s positionality but the European American women had difficulty understanding why race mattered. Their position was that they could, in large measure, relate to the dimension of African American because of the oppression and discrimination that women face. Talking about race and connecting with the underlying forces that shape its contours proved to be impossible. As the small group ended, I felt very frustrated. When we debriefed the activity as a class, I realized that in all of the groups, race was the least explored aspect. Facilitating race talk was not an easy task.

Research and pedagogical strategies that attempt to foreground the salience of race in all our lives are dismissed and discounted as subjective and less scientific. That is, they are muted and mooted. Seen against the tenets of CRT we understand that giving this research credence would be an admission of the centrality of race, not just in the lives of people of color but within the unspoken and privileged norm of Whiteness. Using counter-storytelling to challenge the status quo, even though it may still be questioned, provides a way to counter the normative voice.

Counter-storytelling and positionality

Whose experience is seen as paramount when we talk about teaching and research? The race, gender, culture, class, sexual orientation and other dimensions of societal privilege and oppression of the teacher and learner significantly impact the learning environment and learning opportunities (Maher & Tetrault 1997). These aspects of one’s identity matter and are "positioned" relative to the dominant culture, which is privileged when we talk about learners, research, and teaching (Tisdell 2001). Thus curriculums (how and what is taught) are designed for the generic learner. Research based on generic issues is more likely to lead to success with publication and tenure. In both instances generic is equated with the majoritarian normative experience which privileges those with that experiential base.

Elaine’s story speaks to the impact of positionality and whiteness.

Several years ago, an African American colleague and I co-wrote a paper that was accepted at an African American pre-conference reserved for presenters who were graduate students of African descent. When one of the pre-conference originators became aware that I was a White female, a discussion ensued as to the appropriateness of my presenting at the pre-conference. Based on protocol and past practices, it was decided that I would be acknowledged as a co-researcher during the presentation but my colleague should do the presentation alone. We talked and both felt that the rules should have been made clear as we had not been told ahead of time that I could not present because I was white before we traveled the distance to present. My colleague refused to present the paper without me since we had done the piece together. She left for home the next day. The next day I spoke with the pre-conference originator who voiced the initial objection to me presenting. She explained that the pre-conference was started to provide African-American graduate students a forum to present in their space with colleagues and experienced members of the field who supported them. The pre-conference began at a time when the vast majority of presenters at the primary conference were white. I understood the reasoning behind the decision.

I believe this story fits well with the idea of positionality. It speaks to the theme of who can speak for whom, and the importance of having a safe space, but I am left at a loss for how we can move forward. Is our society still so encumbered by racism that we need separate spaces for some issues? Is this because all space is by default our (white) space and those separate spaces still need to exist? And how can we form coalitions to challenge white supremacy if we can’t listen to each other in a common space? Maybe this is the key – to have spaces where we can listen, talk, and interact respectfully but also have separate spaces until we no longer need them.

Counter-storytelling and authority

The usefulness of CRT as an explanatory theory is no place more powerful than when we look at what is taught and researched and who makes those decisions. Presently research topics and funding are chosen for the most part based on the mainstream academic discourse and clearly answers the questions of whose knowledge counts when we talk about how and what we know? To begin the process of changing this privilege, we must acknowledge that conversations about race are difficult. Whereas minorities frequently engage in ‘race talk’ among them(our)selves, whites rarely do (Scheurich 1993, Sleeter 1993). Whites miss opportunities to engage in a reflective and reflexive conversation about race because the topic is viewed as uncomfortable and unprofitable at best, and unimportant or irrelevant at worse. Consequently, the counter-stories of African Americans undermine the authoritative perspective of dominant white discourse that sees race as a meritless pursuit. The voice of whiteness then, as Kincheloe (1998) observes, is one of having no position from which to speak with the consequent effect that there is no standpoint in relation to blackness from which whites need to engage in self-examination. Denying the relevance of engaging in race talk amounts to an authoritative endorsement of race as an activity of ‘those people’ (people of color) that does not concern ‘us’ (whites). Even well-intentioned whites may see the concerns of blacks as being marginal since to be white is to be ‘normal’. As Sleeter, a white woman, observes (1993) whites "evade a discourse on racism to protect our own interests" (14). This exercise of power means that the absence of a white voice in conversations about race or racism protects white identity and privilege. Researchers confronted with knowledge that contradicts the norm then are confronted with the challenge of understanding and explaining it. Of course, education plays a central role in socializing both whites and blacks into accepting whiteness as normal.

Tal’s story shows how hundreds of years of one type of knowledge is so ingrained as "truth" that to even imagine an alternative is difficult for some.

I taught a class on multicultural issues in adult education. One evening we discussed the topic of the social construction of knowledge. I brought several props to illustrate the idea including a Peters Projection World map. I showed the map to students and asked them to talk about the image. Most thought it quite different from the Mercatur Projection, the usual representation of the earth. We talked about why those differences existed and why we seldom, if ever, saw the Peters Projection. (The Peters Projection represents the continents of the earth in relative proportion to each other.) Students commented how Africa seemed so large in relation to the rest of the continents. I suggested that in the traditional Mercatur projection Africa was smaller in comparison to Europe and North America and that there might be political reasons for doing so. We went on to talk about how little we know about Africa and discussed some of the reasons for this.

After class, a student, a white male, approached me and said, ‘It’s too bad about Africa. We really need to know more but it’s a shame that Africa hasn’t really contributed anything to world civilization.’ I asked why he thought that. He replied that his teachers told him that and the absence of any significant information about Africa in most of his school books validated this. I told him that I thought similarly until I learned Africa was the cradle of humankind and that the first civilizations were there in northeast Africa (Egypt). Furthermore scholarship in a number of disciplines, e.g., anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, history, had begun to show a strong connection between classical Egyptian civilization and other parts of Africa as well as Greece and Rome. As I spoke, the student ‘glassed over’. I suggested that we were both victims of mis-education and he nodded affirmative in response. I gave him several references to look at and he politely said thank you and departed.

Implications for adult education: research and pedagogy through the lens of CRT and counter-storytelling

When our societies were pre-literate, stories served to inform and entertain. Sages and griots conveyed history and moral lessons through storytelling. Stories like Ananse, the spider, continue to captivate the attention of today’s children because they are so rich, riveting and compelling. Likewise stories continue to capture the attention of all generations and serve as a connector between and within cultures. Case in point is how contemporary story tellers, hip hop artists, movie makers, and musicians have turned African American stories into pop sensations. Whites, in particular, are infatuated with black narratives embodied in the blues, R&B, and rap and with comedians like Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris Rock. The popularity of hip hop for example among white teenagers is astounding.

This is, of course, primarily for entertainment and leisure. But the same cultural repertoire can be employed in counter-stories to draw in Whites. Polkinghorne (1988) writes, ‘Cultural traditions offer a store of plot lines which can be used to configure events into stories…. The ordering of events by linking them into a plot comes about through an intermixing of the various elements of the cultural repertoire of sedimented stories and innovations’ (p20). Those same cognitive and affective components of stories used to impart moral lessons, history, and to entertain can be used to further extend our discussions and make connections between social groups. That is, the telling of black stories can bridge the black narrative as entertainment/ cultural expression to black narrative as an advocacy, antiracism, knowledge system.

Race and racism in adult education pedagogy and research often goes unaddressed in the literature of the field. Few adult educators have acknowledged or theorized around those important issues. Brookfield, in a recent set of articles, recognized the absence of meaningful discourse about racism and proposed ‘racialising the discourse’ of adult education (2003, 2003). Other scholars have described the ‘invisible’ hand of race that shapes theory and practice in the field (Johnson-Bailey, Tisdell, Cervero, 1994; Brown, Cervero, Johnson-Bailey 2000). We suggest that the absence of meaningful discourse around race resides in the proactive exercise of power to protect white self interest and privilege. Further the exercise of power is tied to systems of authority and control in which colorblindness equates with white privilege (Bonilla-Silva 2003). The exercise of power, then, based on a colorblind stance toward racial inequity is countered by counter stories. The ability of stories to foster meaning transferred across cultural boundaries opens up the possibility of creating insight for those in positions of privilege.

Anderson and Hill Collins (1995) write, ‘Who has been excluded from what is known and how might we see the world differently if we were to acknowledge and value the experiences and thoughts of those who have been excluded?’ (p1). Through challenging the majoritarian voices, positionality, and authority through our counter-narratives, we sought to decenter dominant ideology and construct a more pluralistic knowledge base. By transposing our individual experiences onto an institutional and societal landscape as suggested by Scheurich and Young (2004), we begin the process of examining how racism operates through multi-layered systems of privilege.

The functions of counter-narratives in adult education research and pedagogy are five-fold: (1) prepare researchers to do cross cultural research; (2) introduce data collection strategies for research methodologies; (3) ground adult educator practitioners in pedagogical strategies designed to bridge cultural borders; (4) create race-based dialogues among practitioners; and (5) ground knowledge in multiple realities of lived experience which produces knowledges that more completely reflect the social world as it is. Polkinghorne (1988) says ‘Narrative explanation involves a special kind of understanding which converts congeries of events into concatenations, and emphasizes and increases the scope of synoptic judgment in our reflection on experience’ (p22).

Synoptic (whose Greek root means to ‘see together’) judgment, is that quality in reflection that allows one to appropriate meaning grounded in a different cultural frame (or set of experiences) as part of one's own cultural frame (or set of experiences). Features of the experiences (the facts) become less important than the functions of narrative that produce an emotional response such as sadness, anger, joy, etc. The ability of the narrative to reorganize events from ‘congeries’ into concatenations -- changing strange and disparate events into a sensible series of meaningful events -- is where the impact of counter-stories lies for adult education research and pedagogy. Through the development of synoptic judgment, we increase our ability to conduct research and teach courses that are sensitive to and honors intercultural experiences. Counter-stories become the bridges across racial, gender, class, and sexual orientation lines. They convert the individual experience to a collective societal understanding at both an emotional and intellectual level. Counter-stories when used judiciously create opportunities for adult educators to honestly and respectfully examine the impact of differences in all our lives with the ultimate goal being a transformation of the material realities within the world in which we all live.


Anderson, M and Hill Collins, P (1995) Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology (2nd Ed.), Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont, CA.

Bonilla-Silva, E (2003) Racism without racists: color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md.

Brookfield S (2003) ‘Racializing criticality in adult education’, Adult Education Quarterly, 53, pp. 154-169.

Brookfield S (2003) ‘Racializing the discourse of adult education’, Harvard Educational Review, 73, pp. 497-524.

Brown, A H, Cervero, R M and Johnson-Bailey, J (2000) ‘Making the invisible visible: Race, gender, and teaching in adult education’, Adult Education Quarterly, 50, pp. 273-288.

Delgado R (1989) ‘Storytelling for oppositionists and others: A plea for narrative’, Michigan Law Review, 87, pp. 2411-2441.

Delgado R (1995) ‘Affirmative Action as a Majoritarian Device: Or, Do You Really Want to Be A Role Model?’ In R Delgado (ed) Critical race theory: the cutting edge, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Delgado, R and Stefancic, J (2000) Critical race theory: the cutting edge, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Goldberg D T (2000) ‘Racial knowledge’ In L Black and J Solomos (eds) Theories of race and racism: a reader, Routledge, New York.

Johnson-Bailey, J, Tisdell, E J, and Cervero, R M (1994) ‘Race, gender and the politics of professionalization’ In E Hayes and S A J Colin, III (eds), Confronting racism and sexism, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Kincheloe, J L (1998) White reign: deploying whiteness in America, St. Martin's Press, New York.

Lopez G R (2001) ‘Re-visiting white racism in educational research: critical race theory and the problem of method’, Educational Researcher, pp. 29-33.

Maher F and Tetrault M (1997) ‘Learning in the darkness: how assumptions of whiteness shape classroom knowledge’, Harvard Educational Review, 67, pp. 321-347.

Polkinghorne, D (1988) Narrative knowing and the human sciences, State of New York University Press, Albany, NY.

Scheurich J J (1993) ‘Toward a white discourse on white racism’, Educational Researcher, 22, pp. 5-10.

Scheurich, J J and Young, M (2004) ‘Coloring epistemologies: Are our research epistemologies racially biased’, Educational Researcher, 26, pp. 4-16.

Sleeter C E (1993) ‘Advancing a White discourse on White racism: A response to Scheurich’, Educational Researcher, 22, pp. 13-15.

Solorzano D G and Yosso T J (2002) ‘Critical race methodology: counter-story telling as an analytical framework for education’, Qualitative Inquiry, 8, pp. 23-44.

Tate W F (1995) ‘Critical race theory and education: history, theory, and implications’, Review of Research in Education, Vol. 22, pp. 195-247.

Tisdell E J (2001) ‘The politics of positionality: teaching for social change in higher education’, In R M Cervero, A L Wilson & Associates (eds), Power in practice: Adult education and the struggle for knowledge and power in society, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 27 June 2006