Arash Daneshzadeh
Jun 19, 2015 · 8 min read

Academic Imperialism & Inoculating Spaces of Black Excellence…………(A spoken word thesis)
by Arash Daneshzadeh

On its semiotic face, colonialism denies the oppressed an opportunity to express an acutely fundamental and primordial human impulse — curiosity. There is a widening disequilibrium between Euro-colonial definitions of achievement and definitions synthesized by students themselves. There are scores of hysterically revisionist attempts at bleaching this nation’s insidious legacy of genocide and oppression, away from the blood-soaked mantle of historical textbooks:

1.) Less conspicuous is the soft bigotry of educational “norming”, that operates on the false binary of achievement and its diametric opposite of under-achievement. Bell curves and GPA are racialized as quantifiable debris from our malignant prison industrial system.

2.) When fourth-grade reading scores are paramount to forecasting prison matriculates, the social fabric is not only torn but also seismic shifted from protecting vulnerable members of our society, given the correlation between school persistence and mass incarceration and employment.

3.) If the idyllic version of community-centric schools is an expression of social inclusion of knowledge, then youth incarceration represents the symbiotic underside of social exclusion — vis-a-vie managing resistance (see: increased school surveillance and militarized zero-tolerance policies).

4.) The compendium of condition 1, 2, and 3 regulates what it means to be a scholar and whose history is worth teaching. Propagating institutional definitions of achievement supersedes the persistence of black lives. But achievement, according to whom? And “under” what so-called universal frame of reference can achievement possibly are assessed?

Divested from students’ cultural wealth, socio-emotional schema or their frames of reference, and political will are academic standards in schools. Common Core itself, the latest educational fad to hit the edu-sphere, was conceived by plutocrats. The members of this task force, whose bountiful successes as luminaries of industry and commerce hardly represent the ideals of a democratic and pluralistic society — those vaunted by the likes of John Dewey, Jean Anyon, and John Taylor Gatto. Black lives in this country have always been co-opted by white suspicion and held hostage by the impetuous whims of exploitive constructs of capitalism. As a result, in this nation’s history black lives have only mattered to the white establishment when it usurped as commodity of labor, rather than intellectual capital.

Frantz Fanon has reiterated throughout his prolific trove that the dialectic of colonialism is pronounced in “the creation of inferiority” (Fanon, 1967, 93).

5.) Education, as an epicenter to society’s ecological nervous system, is the hub that sends and receives its messages from powers that reinforce and aim to dispatch these hierarchies that result in institutionalized poverty and trappings of growing police presence in spaces like Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD.

6.) As a result of these colonial machinations, childrens’ (particularly those from socioeconomically blighted communities of color) insatiable appetites for knowledge are squelched like empty calories for growling stomachs. Thirst for answers that spurs children to raise their hands in class despite active forces intent on debilitating their critical inquiry, however, to unlearn the normative language of racism and hyper-consumerism that operates beneath the aegis of self-hate, one must unlearn the language of passive obedience, but rather active inquiry.

To question power, to legitimize one’s existence, and thereby extend the constructs of knowledge is the purpose of school. Survival must not be the minimum standard. Students are sold on the idea of bare minimums through a towering beacon of testing, and alphabet soup peppered throughout their socially sterilized transcripts. These arbitrary codes are racially inflected to standardize achievement as a political neutral and systemically “fair” operation…

7.) …on the heels of burgeoning and transcendent campaigns to recognize the humanity of black lives…

8.) …in all its diasporic inflections, and the political contradictions that continue to incarcerate many pioneers such as Mumia Abu-Jamal.

9.) Schools serve as a microcosm for society’s polarizing tensions. The corollary to these tensions belies the existential contradiction of education — that is, whether resistance to oppression and survival within oppressive confines can co-exist. One of the conflicts in the preeminent and technocratic schooling paradigm continues to be the unproven notion, that we can learn to subvert and transform systems of colonization while simultaneously perpetuating them. Before one can learn to decolonize any imperial relic such as balkanization, achievement, and individual bootstraps, one must unlearn obedience to it. Unfortunately, the quotient for what constitutes “learning” still hides behind an edifice of objectivity and “earned” merit. This edifice is as immutable as the “black box” on airplanes, able to withstand a myriad of punishment, resistance, and non-academic confounders such as social inequity, poverty, and racism — all proven to play a critical role in academic outcomes

10.) Enter: the germs wrought by Academic Imperialism.

There exists a contentious relationship between colonized proxies for achievement and macrosystemic inequities in our society. Gerald Vizenor’s postulate for ‘survivance’ was borne from the concept of both survival and resistance as inextricably linked and co-dependent variables . However, academic imperialism is a death wish for children

11.) Particularly children of color and other historically marginalized communities. The monologue of top-down norm referencing — that is the instrumental and capitalistic metric for calibrating academic standards — has replaced the bilateral relationship between teacher and pupil. By proxy, the closed police state has displaced open intellectual dexterity of curricula that validates and capitalizes upon the cultural background of students. Terri Yosso…

12.) …Gloria Ladson-Billings…

13.) …and Luis Moll.

14.) Their groundbreaking research studies underscore the need to utilize culturally responsive pedagogy build on pre-existing student understanding. In the case of Hip Hop pedagogy…

15.) …which is gaining traction across the curricular landscape, students are afforded an opportunity to utilize a counter-narrative that punctures holes in the glass house of institutionalized racism that pathologizes black students that inherently lazy, reduces their excellence to outliers and exceptions to the dogmatic rule of white supremacy.

To follow historical trends, colonization is a magician that erases student identities and self-interest without the reciprocal chains of transcontinental slavery. It’s legacy still lives in today’s standards of high achievement. Once the landmark Brown v. Board (1954) decision sent ripples through the ossified stations of educational colonization, in municipalities all over the United States, from Brownsville…

16) …to Topeka.

17.) Black teachers were forced to protest academic gerrymandering that aimed at dismissing them from their posts as qualified instructors. These movements peddled the Ponzi scheme that black students couldn’t possibly be taught by black teachers whose cultural frameworks were considered on par with students branded as “under-achievers”. Post reconstruction forced many black teachers out of jobs. Albert Shanker, whose ideological proclivities were debatably akin to contemporary neoliberal veins of laissez-faire, market based reforms, was an original protagonist for the inception of charter schools. Shanker was also a strong proponent of school desegregation, so long as academic excellence was initiated by veteran white faculty, who were predominantly transplants into majority black communities.

8.) Today, black bodies in predominantly white institutions, or known more colloquially as PWI’s, are regarded as tools for exploitation on the neocolonial plantation that propagates imperialism of mind, body and spirit. Last month’s NCAA basketball tournament featured many prominent institutions of higher learning whose failures to graduate much less retain black students and other students of color, tokenize the black experience on campus.

9.) Many students blame themselves for these horrendous graduation rates, and this internalized hate and unfounded sense of inferiority has long-lasting effects tantamount to post-traumatic stress20. This is similar to the colonized mind presumes assumption of guilt on its own part, and that guilt is tantamount to academic snake oil — paid in full by the taxpayer and morally bankrupt hedge funder21. By default, disincentivizing democratic schooling in which high school students of color and families can conceive their own standards of achievement incentivizes martial law (zero-tolerance), erasure (testing) & cultural sorting (jingoistic curriculum). Until you can recognize the vision that drives education, it’s difficult to unearth its purpose. Our value is measured by what we contribute. Students become political grist for the mill of public perception. Standards of excellence are the flotsam of harvesting a product — a confirmation that testing is unobjectionably neutral, that education standards are post-racial, and school are divorced from politics. But once again, black lives are relegated to projects of labor and fulcrums for industrialization and rapid dehumanization. This only bolsters the political chains of capitalism and whiteness, as a social construct for achievement.

This calculated divorce from overlapping social Venn diagrams — that account for inequities from poverty to racial gerrymandering — inadvertently fortifies a white supremacist space where violence towards Black students is completely invisibilized, under the auspice of educational missionary or charity work. It’s as archaic and played-out as a horse-yoked carriage competing at a NASCAR race. To create a relationship of trust, one must develop pedagogy that reciprocates respect for student cultural experiences, constructs of achievement, and sustains narratives of excellence to transcend narratives of reduction that have besieged education since Brown v. Board. The veneer of achievement is not transformation nor is it achievement define by matters of excellence most important to students but rather institutions that would rather treat them as grist in the political mill of capitalism.

In a school system in which race and ethnicity determine access to basic support services, some students are consigned to the coffins of history. Denuded is the language of citizenship, at the behest of the language of advertising and consumerism. To shut down the notion of democratic schooling by virtue of indicting cultural resistance. Despite the fact that research shows that while schools nationwide that have adopted prison-like sum-zero policies of discipline, and despite the fact that a bevy of global research shows that while suspension rates have grown precipitously in many districts across the country by as much as 640%, the number of yet you see many plutocrats from the prison industry lobbying the department of education for stricter discipline — knowing that research shows that a student suspended twice between middle school and high school is exponentially more likely to be incarcerated as an adult22. So how can education grapple with these opportunists willing to exploit the lives of children for personal gain? The subtext of colonization is always ownership and representation. Whose veritable voice continues to echo throughout history but fails to reach the curriculum that serves its offspring? This is the soft bigotry of hidden curriculum23. Ownership of space; meaning, a reincarnation of community investment into standards for the people co-constructed by the people.

5 Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

7 Steele, Claude M. “Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students.” The AtlanticOnline, August 1999.
“What does the SAT really measure?”



23 Bieber, J. (Producer). (1994). Learning Disabilities and Social Skills with Richard Lavoie: Last One Picked…First One Picked On. Washington, DC: Public Broadcasting Service.

    Arash Daneshzadeh

    Written by

    Refugee Ed activist and doctoral researcher; Professor of Education at the University of San Francisco