McGuire's research engages societal taboos

August 07, 2018
Meghan Krein

Just because people aren’t talking about race doesn’t mean they aren’t really talking about race, Keon M. McGuire, assistant professor of higher and postsecondary education in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College says. He’s referring to his experience with coded language during his time in Germany. For two weeks this summer, McGuire served as a visiting professor with the Institute for Special Education at Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany — an opportunity presented to him by Alfredo Artiles, dean of graduate education at ASU.

Race in post-WWII Germany

Before arriving in Germany, McGuire says he was told that many Germans purposefully avoid talking about race, and any attempt to do so would be met with silence. “This is viewed as a liberal and positive rejection of Nazi Germany’s endorsement of racial hierarchy,” McGuire says, adding, “This was an ideological and sociopolitical perspective that justified the dehumanization and ultimate genocide of Jews, Roma peoples, gay and lesbian men and women, and people with mental disabilities. As a result, many Germans would argue that any invocation of race is a return to a dreaded, racist past.”


That said, McGuire met with black Germans who were members of the Initiative of Black People in Germany and told him this perspective is racialized in a one-sided way — meaning that while many white Germans may not discuss race, it’s a conversation black Germans can’t afford to ignore. “In Germany, the quintessential stereotype of the Other is immigrant, Turkish and Muslim. In this way, nationality, ethnicity and religion are used to determine who is or is not authentically German,” McGuire says.

Culture is often used as an acceptable substitute that does much of the same social and political work that race does in determining who belongs and whose rights should be protected, McGuire says. “So, while it may not be acceptable to say we don’t accept immigrants, Turks or Muslims, it’s more acceptable to say their cultural values are not consistent with those of Germany.” This cultural dissimilarity may include ways of worship, dress and language, which has led to the protest of new mosques by some political parties, says McGuire. “In many ways, this mirrors the language and ideology of Americans’ claims of being post-racial,” McGuire added.

Social justice work

While navigating coded language and all that comes with it, McGuire gave a public lecture, visited with students, met with faculty and doctoral students to discuss his research and explore potential collaboration. He also taught seminars related to his research, which is primarily devoted to the intersectionality of race, religion and gender.

McGuire’s research has two focuses. The first is related to issues of race and gender equity — for example, how students at the collegiate level experience, respond to and resist racism, sexism and ethnocentrism. His other focus is using intersectionality from a black feminist perspective to understand how students both experience and respond to multiple forms of marginalization and how those things shape their identity and experience. “Looking back,” McGuire says, “I always had a concern for issues related to equity or social justice work.”

McGuire didn’t grow up thinking he was going to be a professor. “My career as a researcher is due to the amazing mentorship I received and my own lived experience,” he says. McGuire comes from a lower-working class background in the South. “Racism was always present,” he says, along with over-policing and the lack of access to quality education and healthcare. So when he went on to college at a wealthy liberal arts school in North Carolina, he was met with an intense case of culture shock. “I didn’t have access to the same sort of social or cultural capital that many of my peers did.” Nonetheless, McGuire says his interactions with educators, particularly through the Office of Multicultural Affairs, provided him the emotional, psychological, and at times, financial support critical to his success.

Uniting race, gender and religion

As McGuire continues to research topics people are uncomfortable talking about, it’s a relief, he says, for people to be allowed to process and understand. “It’s empowering for students to have a place to be able to name things that have historical context and theoretical specificity to make sense of what their experiences are.”

McGuire’s research unites identity issues: race, gender and religion. “When most people talk about issues of identity, they usually talk about it in a context that doesn’t include how power, privilege and oppression shape those experiences; for example, who has the privilege to define themselves for who they want to be and who has the safety and security to show up as their full self,” he says.

Engaging societal taboos is a significant part of McGuire’s work, and he doesn’t shy away from it. “We can’t just talk about religious or spiritual identity without talking about how some individuals’ spiritual and religious identity is always treated with suspicion or their language practices are always interrogated.” McGuire notes that in most research on underrepresented communities, there’s an idea that these communities are always impoverished and don’t bring anything to the table. McGuire says that instead of looking at the communities as the problem, we must look at the institution as a whole and the ways in which we can change it.

He offers the example of the critique of SAT and GRE scores, “One might say we need to get people resources to train to be better prepared to succeed on these exams so they can go to selective colleges. Another way to look at it is to ask, why do we continue to put so much weight on a standardized exam that consistently marginalizes individuals who come from certain income backgrounds that disproportionately affect people of color? My questions are always how do we transform our institutions to be more inclusive, more equitable, instead of asking how do we fix underrepresented, marginalized communities or individuals.”

McGuire says that too often, educational institutions fail to interrogate how their own practices and policies may be contributing to multiple forms of inequity for the most marginalized students. The student is often blamed, McGuire says.

“For example,” McGuire says, “some college and university administrators would attribute the underrepresentation of women of color in STEM to lack of academic preparation, absent motivation or fundamental biological differences. However, a more appropriate question may be: How do structural, institutional and individual manifestations of racism and sexism undermine the access and success of women of color in STEM?” McGuire says he is much more interested in the latter, which he believes can lead to effectively remediating institutional practices and policies to better serve marginalized students.

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