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5.1: Challenging Dominant Ideology: An Introduction

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    Consider the following scenario: You have been assigned to write a paper in one of your college classes. Under which conditions would you expect your professor to accept a paper that was handwritten in crayon on colored construction paper? Note those conditions below:

    This is the exact scenario that author Anne Wysocki (2004) presents in her article “awaywithwords.” She says that if you couldn’t think of any conditions under which you would submit that paper, then for you, the “color of paper and technologies of print typography are like water or stones: things whose natural properties (seem to) necessarily constrain how we can use them. We do not attempt to make soup from stones nor do we imagine early hominids attacking mammoths by throwing water at them” (p. 55).

    Here, Wysocki sets up an analogy for us to consider: water and stones are like construction paper and crayon–the natural properties of all of these objects seem to determine how we can and cannot use them. When you think of water, which uses come to your mind? Perhaps you think of drinking, showering, cleaning, swimming, etc. Among the common uses of water, we might not think of it as a weapon used to enact violence–this is largely because the natural properties of water don’t seem to lend themselves to that use.

    However, water has historically been used as a weapon. Wysocki references some of those instances, such as when police used “high-pressure hoses on 1960s Civil Rights marchers in the southern United States. The lesson is that things can be put to many uses, often neither just nor humane” (p. 55). Therefore, instead of strictly focusing on the natural properties of objects, we must consider the contexts and purposes in which they were used. In this example of the inhumane use of water as a weapon against Civil Rights activists, we might question the following: What does this reveal about the relationship among water technology, law enforcement, and White readings of Black bodies? How can different understandings of material objects - and resistance against objects - facilitate social change?

    This analogy allows us to see that if our understanding of water cannot be separated from time and place - if it must be situated within the sociopolitical contexts in which it is used - then the same must hold true for crayons, construction paper, and the materials that we use to compose. The constraints that we perceive in regard to our viable communication materials, many of which are social and historical, must be challenged; if we accept these constraints unquestioningly, then we risk perpetuating “social practices we may not otherwise wish to reproduce” (Wysocki, 2005, p. 56).

    Now, let’s return to the initial question that you pondered in regard to construction paper and crayon. This might strike you as speculative nonsense, but it raises some important questions: Why are we expected to type academic assignments in Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, with one-inch margins? Where did these academic expectations come from? How were they determined? Even more significantly, is there something inherent about construction paper and crayon that makes it unsuitable for sophisticated, intellectual work? In which other ways does higher education perpetuate limited, exclusionary ideologies of what constitutes “academic”? Who is validated by this exclusionary ideology and who is marginalized or disadvantaged? How can we challenge this dominant ideology?

    Of course, the answers to these questions depend upon some familiarity with the word ideology. (See “Ideology” Activity). While there are many different ways of defining this term, we use the word ideology to refer to “a system of beliefs, shared by a social group, with the power to evaluate and explain the social world” (Fabiszak et al., 2021, p. 408). Ideologies are powerful because they both encompass our values and shape our worldviews. Ideologies are intertwined in our language-based practices, which means that language also functions as a way of constructing, critiquing, and further transferring them. As we engage in literacy practices—reading, writing, speaking—we can reaffirm, resist, and reproduce ideology. Since language shapes our social lives and institutions, ideology can cast a wide influence on the structures and practices that we encounter on a daily basis. Consider Cornelius Minor’s description of white liberalism: he identifies some of the values that this ideology encompasses, including competition to be viewed as “the wokest” and excessive concern with appearances, especially through purchases, voting, and friendships. Minor says that some people who operate from this ideology cite the fact that they voted for Obama or had friends of Color as evidence of their wokeness. Minor provides this example to illustrate the fact that all ideologies need to be interrogated and challenged.

    As one focuses on the meaning of ideology, they often gain a better understanding of the importance of challenging them, especially ones that are dominant. Since there are many different and potentially competing ideologies that individuals and groups bring to texts, interactions, situations, etc., not everyone’s ideology will align. Even more specifically, some ideologies will be privileged or dominant because those in positions of power are able to reaffirm and perpetuate them, while other ideologies will be marginalized or excluded, particularly because they pose a threat to those who have power.

    Throughout this section, the diverse collection of texts demonstrates writers’ attempts to challenge dominant ideologies with a close examination of prevalent ideological stances on the written English language. Through a micro analysis of language, we, the authors, push back against dominant ideologies. Similarly, in other texts, writers use language as a form of resistance. For example, in Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick’s essay “Gangster to Geek,” he describes the process of using incarceration as a means through which he challenged his own ideology–an ideology that he describes as a “trap.” In a similar challenge to ideologies that limit or impose traps on ourselves, former DCCC student Katelyn Durst demonstrates how she utilized the memoir genre in her piece “The Butler '' to challenge the belief that she wasn’t, nor couldn’t be, a writer.

    As we know, ideologies don’t just manifest within individuals; rather, they shape the broader structures in our lives. In Kate Chopin’s (1894) short story “The Story of an Hour,” she depicts a character who struggles to push back against both dominant, patriarchal ideologies and the oppression of institutions like marriage. A glimpse into this ambivalence–of being expected to accept and yet wanting to reject–reminds us that challenging dominant ideologies isn’t simple or easy. Throughout this section, we’ve integrated opportunities for you, our readers, to name ideologies and explore the areas that you feel need to be challenged.

    To start this exploration, let’s reflect on our educational and language-learning experiences, both of which are shaped by ideologies. More precisely, what has your spelling instruction entailed? (See “Reflection on Spelling” Activity).

    Examining the spelling instruction or approaches you’ve been exposed to through your schooling will provide you with some insight into dominant spelling ideologies. For instance, were you taught to memorize the spelling of words and vocabulary meanings? If memorization was a consistent practice in your learning experiences, then that is a dominant ideology of spelling instruction that can be challenged. We could challenge this belief by drawing on the philosophy of our teacher, Pete Bowers, who frequently reminds us that “we only memorize things we don’t really understand.” When you truly understand a word (e.g. what it means, where it comes from, how it is structured), you will not need to resort to memorization.


    5.1: Challenging Dominant Ideology: An Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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