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Questions I Ask Myself as a White Researcher

Eli Tucker-Raymond is currently a Co-Principal Investigator on the Developing a Network to Coordinate Research on Equity Practices and Cultures in STEM Maker Education project (NSF #2005898), the first Research Coordination Network funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program and the recent recipient, with coauthor Brian Gravel, of the Society of Professors of Education Book Award for their 2019 STEM Literacies in Makerspaces, Implications for Learning, Teaching and Research book, based on work from NSF award (#1422532) of the same name.

 

I am an education researcher working at the intersections of STEM, literacy, and the media/arts. From time to time, I am asked what it is like to be a white male doing research with Communities of Color and how I see myself in relation to this work. Ever since I worked as a classroom teacher, early in my career, I have always felt that the larger purpose of my work ( teaching, researching, and designing learning spaces) was to promote racial equity. Some efforts have felt more successful than others, but every experience has shown me that equity is both a process and an outcome.

My purpose as I write this reflection is to share some questions I ask myself when I am engaging in research with my colleagues. I think it is important to acknowledge my identity as a white male and my assumption that others see me that way also. But, rather than focus on my whiteness here, I want to propose some things that white researchers can do to support struggles for freedom and high-quality learning opportunities in and out of school with Communities of Color. I am a qualitative researcher and activity/setting designer, so what I suggest is applicable to those kinds of work, although it may be applicable in other contexts as well.

I’m writing this as a sole author so that it’s clear that I am speaking for myself. I realize that this approach may again evoke erasure or marginalization of People of Color, and others, those who taught me to ask these questions. However, I think it can also be helpful to hear from white people about how they translate the work for themselves. It’s important to note that I don’t work independently in a vacuum. I’d like to express my profound gratitude to my colleagues, who are my heroes, for doing this work with me and for helping to keep me honest about when I get it wrong (and right). With every project, I continue to learn about how I can be a better researcher as a white person who cares about racial equity.

Over time, I have developed a list of questions that I ask myself when engaging in research. In some cases, my years of experience have given me basic answers to the questions. Others continue to surface perennially. When I am working with new community partners, I try to have explicit conversations about what they bring to projects and where I may need help and the ways in which I see myself contributing. The questions have arisen in conversations with educators, students, and other researchers, some of whom are white and some of whom are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars who have emphasized different dimensions of research relationships. Some questions have also arisen when I engaged with literature by Scholars of Color on decolonizing epistemologies and methodologies, critical race theory, and humanizing and dialogic education. A partial list of citations is at the end of this piece.

In my two professional roles, I ask these overarching questions:

As a designer of learning environments, I ask what aspects of the environments my colleagues and I design are assimilative and what aspects are transformative. By assimilative, I mean the ways we ask learners to change themselves to fit in or to learn canonical disciplinary ways of being that have historically limited who can bring their whole, true selves into a space labeled STEM. By transformative, I mean the ways we change the conditions of learning so that its purpose becomes the learners’ purpose by reflecting, responding to, and building on learners’ whole, true selves. Transformative learning environments work to dismantle inequity in structures, not just protect people from those structures, or help them get to along in them.

As a researcher, I ask what I can do to mitigate the “othering” that often comes along with this type of research (see Ladson-Billings, 2000, and Smith, 2013). How do I avoid intentional and unintentional appropriation of people’s ideas? How do I make sure that I am not speaking for people but alongside them? And how do I make sure that I am not performing extractive research, but am creating a resource for the people with whom I am working?

Across my roles, the following issues and questions have become important and useful to consider:

  1. Community can mean so many things. What does community mean to me, and which community or communities do I identify with? Why am I doing work with Communities of Color?
  2. What are the relationships I have in the communities in which I am working (Moses & Cobb, 2002)? Are my relationships with one person? Multiple people? Multiple people of all ages? What are the power dynamics in those relationships?
  3. Research can be an imposition (Bang et al., 2016). Whose research proposal am I trying to enact? Did I engage my collaborators at the outset, or did I formulate my question first? How does my research question reflect the partners with whom I am going to work? What will be the impact of answering my research question? For whom?
  4. As a white person, I know I have blind spots that keep me from fully appreciating the activities and meaning making in which people engage (Milner, 2007). Am I collaborating with scholars and educators of Color to co-construct shared, deeper, and more well-rounded understandings?
  5. From my research perspective, communities of Color are rich in resources (Yosso, 2005). Still, I recognize my responsibility to be an additional resource and not simply an agent of extraction. How do communities in which I am working want me to reciprocate? Money? Material resources? Labor? Political advocacy? (Mangual Figueroa, 2014)
  6. Every project is different, and community members often do not have time to participate regularly in making project decisions. How should I check in with them about those decisions? How are community partners contributing to the research process in ways they value (Eglash, 2016)? Once I analyze the data, how will I do member checking? Are others contributing as I analyze?
  7. How am I including the voices, words, and actions of my participants? How much space is given to their words, versus my words, in disseminating my findings? How and when am I speaking for them, or how are we speaking together? (Paris & Winn, 2014
  8. Is the research a resource for the people/community with whom I did the research? What kinds of dissemination am I doing? To whom am I speaking? Are community members contributing to dissemination?
  9. Will I exit the partnership when the research is over? How will I do that? Have I been explicit about my plans with my partners? If not, what’s next? What are expectations from others? (Mangual Figueroa, 2014)
  10. Am I working with newer Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars in a professional development capacity? How am I uplifting the work of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars? In my arguments, have I cited the work of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars?

Some of the texts that have informed my work as I’ve thought about these questions and my own methodologies include: 

Bang, M., Faber, L., Gurneau, J., Marin, A., & Soto, C. (2016). Community-based design research: Learning across generations and strategic transformations of institutional relations toward axiological innovations. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 23(1), 28-41.

Eglash, R. (2016). An introduction to generative justice. Teknokultura, 13(2), 369-404.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). Racialized discourses and ethnic epistemologies. In Denzin, N. K., Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 257-277). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Mangual Figueroa, A. (2014). La Carta de la Responsibilidad: The problem of departure. In D. Paris & M. T. Winn (Eds). Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Sage Publications. 129-146.

Milner IV, H. R. (2007). Race, culture, and researcher positionality: Working through dangers seen, unseen, and unforeseen. Educational Researcher, 36(7), 388-400.

Moses, R., & Cobb, C. E. (2002). Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Beacon Press.

Paris, D., & Winn, M. T. (Eds.). (2014). Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Sage Publications.

Sandoval, C. (2013). Methodology of the oppressed (Vol. 18). University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, L. T. (2013). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

A recently developed resource is this bibliography:

Lowery, A. and Wiseman, A. M. (co-editors). (2020). Decolonizing Your Research/Methods (crowd-sourced document). Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TZgHT1vOMBe7w7thSYk0_otR2reWIgwANbJ4OvXpcro/edit?usp=sharing

Posted by Eli Tucker-Raymond