Perceptual Patterns and the Learning Environment: Confronting White Racism

(Scipio A. J. Colin III, Trudie Kibbe Preciphs)

Chapter Seven in

Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra (Editor)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 50, Summer 1991

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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 "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of color-line" (DuBois, 1969, p. 36).

Perceptual Patterns and the Learning Environment: Confronting White Racism

Scipio A. J. Colin III, Trudie Kibbe Preciphs

As adult educators develop greater tools and resources for dealing with a multiracial society and world, we are challenged to enlarge our understanding of the influence of racism on perceptual patterns and the teaching-learning process. Therefore, an understanding of the role and importance of perceptual patterns must become an integral part of the educational process. This chapter focuses on the development of individual perceptual patterns and provides insights about how racism is reflected in adult education practice. Finally, potential solutions to the problem of racism in the educational system are offered, each designed to enhance learning experiences.

Racism is a social problem that adversely affects learning environments. As Hogan (1969, p. 148) asserts, "It is imperative that we [educators] examine critically the influence of racism and social class bias on educational personnel, the promulgation of racism through the theory and the attitudes of school personnel." As the field of adult education moves into the twenty-first century, it is imperative to acknowledge that this current period in American history continues to exemplify the historical contradiction between espoused democratic ideals and the separate racial societies that were created by law and are now maintained by tradition. The assumptions and implications of Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, and the Teutonic origins theory are the intellectual antecedents of the sociocultural racism that exists today. Disturbingly, these assumptions of racial superiority and inferiority still influence our perceptual, attitudinal, and behavioral patterns (Berkhofer, 1978; Gosset, 1963; Jordan, 1968; Stanton, 1960).

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If the field of adult education is to meet the needs of all adult learners, practitioners must acknowledge the existence and ramifications of racism and understand its overall impact on their perceptions. For example, perceptions are capable of influencing beliefs, attitudes, and behavior that, in turn, affect teacher-learner interactions.

It is difficult to offer a single definition of racism since the ideology is illogical in principle and diverse in practice. Many social researchers have concluded that the exclusion and subordination of nonwhite groups is based on color (Delaney, 1970; Ehrlich and Feldman, 1977; Fredrickson, 1971; Kovel, 1971; Sealacek and Brooks, 1976; Welsing, 1972). But the most widely used and accepted definition is provided by the U .S. Commission on Civil Rights (1970, p. 5): "Racism may be viewed as an attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of color. It is the visibility of skin color--and of other physical traits associated with particular colors or groups--that marks individuals as 'targets' for subordination by members of the white majority. Specifically, white racism subordinates members of all groups primarily because they are not white in color."

Given this definition, it would seem that white Americans are racist as a result of the connotative meaning that is given to their skin color. Adult education practitioners may be discomforted by the use of the descriptor "white racism," but it is our contention that (1) racism permeates the roots of American society and is reflected in all its societal institutions, and that (2) racism was created by white Americans and is perpetuated by them. Racism may be conscious or subconscious and is expressed in actions or attitudes initiated by individuals, groups, or institutions that treat human beings unjustly because of their skin pigmentation. Therefore, racism is reflected in attitudes, behavior, and institutions.

Adult educators must clearly understand the power and privilege of skin pigmentation in American society. Past research has shown that it is indeed color that determines the quality and quantity of interaction between educational practitioners who are members of the dominant racial group and learners from nonwhite racial groups (Rosenthal, 1973; Rosenthal and Jacobsen, 1968; Rubovitz and Maehr, 1973). Almost nowhere in adult education literature and research is racism recognized as an integral and influential part of American life that requires our immediate attention. Instead, the field has chosen to focus on the non-threatening manifestations of racism, such as low socioeconomic status (SES), motivation, and participation. We believe that as a result of this avoidance behavior, many adult educators are totally unaware of the extent to which theories and research reflect and reinforce white racist attitudes and assumptions about the purported inferiority of nonwhite learners. This behavior influences adult education practice and sustains perceptions that impede learning.

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Perceptual Patterns

Perceptual patterns are consistent views of the world based on mental images formulated from the standards and ideals of the individual's social reference group. Perceptual patterns are reinforced through images, attitudes, and behavior.

Recently, the influence of racism on the development of perceptual, attitudinal, and behavioral patterns of nonwhite adult learners has been analyzed and discussed within the theoretical framework of self-ethnic reflectors (Colin, 1988, 1989). What have yet to be discussed are the impact of racism on the development of practitioners' perceptual patterns and how these patterns impede the teaching-learning process.

Racism is rooted in dysfunctional belief systems resulting from distorted perceptions formed over a period of time. We cannot ignore the significant role of the sociocultural environment in shaping perceptual patterns. According to Doobs (1947, p. 138), attitudes are a "readiness or proclivity of an individual to respond in a certain way toward something." This response readiness is the result of overt and covert learning that eventually becomes automatic. Blair, Jones, and Simpson (1963, p. 217) state that attitudes endure because "they operate in perception . . . [People] tend to see what [they are] looking for and hence will find reinforcement for already existing attitudes even though there is evidence to the contrary." This tendency illustrates how perceptions are formed into patterns and then perpetuated. One can surmise that the image construct is a major factor in the development of perceptual patterns. Image construction is visual; what one sees initially with the "mind's eye" forms attitudes that are based on assumptions regarding racial superiority and inferiority. These attitudes in turn govern or dictate behavior.

Wolpe's (1973) research has shown that habits are not perceived by the individual as either good or bad. Therefore, the images that whites have of nonwhite racial groups have been so ingrained that questions of validity simply do not arise. Such is the habitual nature of the visualization process. When there is continued reinforcement through miseducation, the negative perceptual process is strengthened. This reinforcement triad of images, attitudes, and behavior affects both the personal and professional lives of practitioners. These perceptual patterns are reflected in the attitudinal and behavioral "baggage" that the white practitioner brings into the learning environment. For example, upon seeing nonwhite students, the internal connotative meanings given to color are triggered. As stated by Blair, Jones, and Simpson (1963, p. 227), "Attitudes are wrapped up with a person's feelings, needs, and self-concept. To let them go requires a change in self. Furthermore, attitudes are easy to maintain because [persons] see what [they] want to see and may distort reality so as to find evidence to support any position [they] want to hold."

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Because practitioners tend to hold onto negative perceptions, white racism is perpetuated. Consequently, distorted perceptions lead to what we refer to as "perceptual deprivation," or the inability of individuals to observe experience, actions, and behavior without biased interpretation. Illustrations of perceptual deprivation are as follows.

Writing Skills and Standards. A white practitioner encounters a Hispanic student who is in fact a third-generation American citizen. When the learner's writing does not meet "the standard," the practitioner assumes, as an explanation, that English is the student's second language, rather than realizing that the learner simply has not mastered good writing skills.

Perceptions of Self-Ethnic Image. When an African-American student is encountered, the practitioner assumes that the learner has a low self-ethnic image and lacks motivation, both of which are major obstacles to learning. The perception produces certain assumptions regarding the abilities and capabilities of the learner. Therefore, if the work of learners does not meet "the standard," the assumption is that substandard work is the best they can do. In turn, this assumption influences the quantity and quality of teacher-learner interaction.

The influence of culture on individuals is significant in the learning process. Lovell (1986, p. 88) asserts that "all changes in an individual's social behavior involve learning. The process by which . . . [individuals] come to accept attitudes, values, and norms of the social group of which . . .[they are] members is referred to as socialization." Because it is the dominant racial group's culture that is transmitted through the socialization process, the result is "perceptual deprivation." The two major socializing factors within American society are education and the media.

Education and the Media. All adult education practitioners have one characteristic in common--the ethnocentric content of their prior education experience. For white Americans, the curricular content has always reflected their sociocultural and intellectual histories and their worldview. Thus, they have been socialized to see themselves in a positive-primary mode, and nonwhite racial groups in a negative-secondary mode. These perceptions are neither challenged nor contradicted by the media. The term media here refers to television, print, and motion pictures (Lapides and Burrows, 1971; Randall, 1980).

An illustration of how the media reinforce distorted perceptions involves the publication of the revised edition of Great Books of the Western World. The exclusion of the intellectual works of African-Americans has created a controversy (McCalope, 1990). In explaining this exclusion, the editor-in-chief, Mortimer Adler, stated the following: "I think probably in the next century there will be some Black that writes a great book, but there hasn't been so far" (McCalope, 1990, p. 14). In reply, Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., an African-American historian, stated, "Intellectually, we are still represented in this society as not being smart enough and that is just an

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undeniable remnant of racism" (McCalope, 1990, p. 14). Racism is further reinforced through motion pictures and television, which portray African-Americans as athletes and entertainers rather than as scholars.

Labeling. Another form of socialization comes about through labeling. According to Colin (1987, 1988), the connotative meanings of low SES are "disadvantaged," "culturally deprived," "dropouts," and "minorities." Such language reinforces the distorted perceptions of nonwhite learners. SES is used in the literature to explain the lack of motivation, the minimal or total absence of participation in education, and the peripheral position of nonwhites in America. The SES label only serves to describe where these groups are in the social hierarchy in regard to status. Why they are there is not really considered outside of the standard explanations of poverty, cultural depravity, and inferior education. Yet, to glibly dismiss race as possibly the major determinator of educational attainment, occupational status, and income is to take a dangerous leap of faith. Sociologists and historians are still deeply divided over whether race or class is more important in terms of influencing SES. Adult educators must be wary as well in assuming that "class" is more important.

Mislabeling basically serves two purposes: (1) It provides researchers with a rationale for not focusing on race as an impact factor. And (2) it places responsibility and blame for failure on the learner. Studies that have examined the influence of race on SES have clearly shown that there is a direct correlation between race and educational attainment, occupation, and income. Even when there is no discrepancy relative to the amount of formal education between whites and nonwhites, there is still a significant gap in income (Alba and Moore, 1982; Colin, 1987; Ogbu, 1978; "Report Defines Three Levels of Black Life," 1990).

Role of Adult Education. Adult education philosophies, purposes, goals, and programs generally have been developed by white Americans for white Americans, and that white Americans have not relinquished or shared this power, raises two questions: In what way does the field reflect and reinforce negative perceptions of nonwhite adult learners held by practitioners? How does the practitioners' perceptions of nonwhite learners impede the learning process?

In addressing the first question we need to examine the content of 15 graduate programs. In courses focusing on the historical development of adult education, both intellectual and institutional, nonwhite racial groups in the United States are rarely mentioned as the creators of concepts or ideas, or as producers of curricula. Typically, they are only mentioned in courses with such titles as "Teaching the Disadvantaged Adult" or "Teaching Strategies for Special Populations," or in courses dealing with participation research. On the basis of these experiences, learners reach one of two conclusions: (1) These groups made no contribution, which suggests intellectual inferiority and deficiencies, or (2) there is a conscious exclusion of

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their involvement. Adult education, by it nature and design, is ethnocentric, and nonwhite involvement simply does not meet the dominant racial group's standard (Colin, 1988).

Teaching-Learning Transaction. The teaching-learning transaction is a basic component of an effective learning environment. This component can be measured by the degree of interaction between practitioner and learner. Park and Burgess (1924) stated that one manifestation of racism is the social distance that dominant racial group members put between themselves and other racial groups.

A result of perceptual deprivation is that social distance adversely affects the quantity and quality of the interaction between the practitioner and nonwhite learners. The distance is reflected in either a lack of interaction or a negative interaction. We cannot ignore the implications of Sowell's (1972) observation that the perceptions held by white educators about nonwhite learners are the source of the problem, not the learners.


Because perceptual deprivation is best addressed and confronted in the learning environment, adult educators should assume a functional role in eradicating distorted perceptions that foster cultural oppression and racism. For example, in a case study of adult volunteers, the findings supported dramatic change in the belief systems of a majority of the study population after efforts to eradicate distorted perceptions (Preciphs, 1989). Such changes occurred as a result of both informal and formal learning experiences that focused on racism and other social issues. Formal learning experiences consisted of structured events such as workshops, presentations, oral histories, and explications of traditions through storytelling, sensitivity groups, and focused group sessions. Informal learning experiences were unstructured, wherein unexpected and unanticipated learning was facilitated by peer dialogue relative to prior structured events. The key study components identified as responsible for changing perceptions were (1) acknowledgment by adult education practitioners that racism exists, (2) commitment by adult education practitioners to address racism in the learning environment, (3) exchange of information about other cultures and life experiences, (4) utilization of the affective domain of learning to facilitate critical self-reflection, and (5) assessment of learning experiences.

Because the aforementioned five components have been shown to facilitate the kind of critical self-reflection necessary for change in perceptions and beliefs, they are recommended bases for confronting white racism in adult education learning environments:

Stage One: Acknowledgment of Racism. First, the task of confronting perceptual deprivation in learning environments requires that practitioners acknowledge the existence of racism. Second, white practitioners must then

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understand the role that they play in perpetuating racism. Implicit in this acknowledgment is the significant part adult educators can play in confronting distorted perceptual patterns that foster not only racism but also other forms of harmful "isms." Likewise, acknowledgment of personal racism promotes greater sensitivity with regard to course planning, program development, research, and classroom facilitation. Failure to acknowledge racism serves to perpetuate it in learning environments and in society at large.

Stage Two: Commitment to Address Racism in the Learning Environment. Following acknowledgement of racism, it is essential that practitioners utilize the learning environment to actively address and confront racism. While racism may be the focus of a particular seminar, ongoing attention to this problem is necessary. Both white and nonwhite practitioners may assume a role in sharing personal histories as apart of the course content. Key to this stage is the importance of practitioners' examination of personal perceptions and roles related to dominant racial group behavior. Furthermore, practitioners must become more conscious of the subtle and direct forms of racism that they are capable of transmitting to learners. Nonverbal behavior is one form of subtle racism that is conveyed by social distance and trivialization of issues. Only by confronting individual racism can practitioners enhance the learning process.

Stage Three: Exchange of Information About Other Cultures and Histories. It is vital that the curricula within adult education adequately reflect the cultures and histories of nonwhite groups. The importance of this stage rests in its potential to confront perceptual patterns that have been distorted due to inadequate information about nonwhite groups. Therefore, appreciation for other cultures and histories is a necessary precondition for confronting racism in the learning environment.

Stage Four: Utilization of the Affective Domain of Learning. This stage tends to be the most painful for practitioners, for here they recognize the ramifications of their dominant racial group behavior. Perceptual deprivation can be confronted and even eradicated by exposing adults to significant emotional experiences within learning environments (Preciphs, 1989). Such experiences are for purposes of learning rather than for manipulation, indoctrination, or establishment of guilt. Significant emotional experiences, in the context of the learning environment, serve to subconsciously trigger a connection between painful aspects of individual life experiences and the controversial issue at hand. Specifically, significant emotional experiences, conveyed through oral histories and traditions (storytelling) and shared life-experiences, enable learners to relive painful experiences within their own lives. This recollection, in turn, elicits greater empathy for another person's pain and discomfort, thereby creating openness and critical self-reflection. A necessary component of critical self-reflection is the ability to recognize that one's humanity is linked to or holds much in common with the lived experiences of others, regardless of their race or background (Preciphs, 1989).

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For learning in this domain to be effective, dialogue is required to enable individuals to get in touch with their feelings and to share these feelings with others. Furthermore, while dialogue is necessary to foster reflection, additional insights may occur from hearing the perspectives of others. Because of the emotional nature of the learning experience, practitioners may want to maintain journals and share new insights with peers.

Stage Five: Assessment of Learning Experiences. It is very difficult to assess the impact of learning that occurs within the affective domain. New insights may occur gradually for some individuals and more dramatically for others. While the aim is to eradicate distorted perceptions, the primary success of this learning is based on sensitizing individuals to how perceptions are formed and become distorted.

Practitioners' attention to white racism requires continuous attention. Exhibit 1 provides a checklist that practitioners can use to help them think about and confront issues of racism and to counter perceptual deprivation.


Adult educators have been consumers of distorted information. As a result, they encounter difficulties in perceiving nonwhite learners as people with unlimited cognitive abilities. As stated by Preciphs (1990), "Adult education can no longer debate whether or not to address social change. To do so represents a debate of luxury because for many, education for social change is a requirement for survival. Furthermore, the debate is elitist, as it responds to a first-world mentality which is void of a global perspective." Basically, such a debate is a form of perceptual deprivation based on color, power, and geography. As white practitioners address racism in America, the additional challenge is to confront global racism as well.

Exhibit 1. Checklist for Countering the Effects of Perceptual Deprivation

_____ 1. The curriculum, assigned literature, and course content reflect different racial groups.

_____ 2. The contributions and perspectives of nonwhite learners are invited, respected, and valued.

_____ 3. The issues of white racism receive primary attention in the learning environment.

_____ 4. The adult education practitioner communicates the importance of addressing racism as a part of the educational process.

_____ 5. Practitioners are enabled to better understand how negative perceptual patterns foster biases about other racial groups.

_____ 6. Research projects include nonwhite sociocultural histories, orientations, and interpretations.

_____ 7. Learning experiences about racism are ongoing and not confined to a few comments.

_____ 8. Practitioners are becoming more aware of the subtle forms of racism that they perpetuate through their interaction, instructional strategies, and methodologies.

_____ 9. Practitioners exhibit sensitivity toward and awareness of other cultures.

_____ 10. Practitioners become sensitized about the pain and hurt experienced by nonwhite learners who must function within a racist society.

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Berkhofer, R. F. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Blair, G. M., Jones, R. S., and Simpson, R. H. Educational Psychology. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Colin, S. A. J., III. "SES: The 'Humpty-Dumpty' Method of labeling." Unpublished manuscript, Graduate Studies in Adult Continuing Education, Northern Illinois University, 1987.

Colin, S. A. J., III. "Voices from Beyond the Veil: Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Education of African Ameripean Adults." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northern Illinois University, 1988.

Colin, S. A. J., III. "Cultural Literacy: Ethnocentrism Versus Selfethnic Reflectors." Thresholds in Education, 1989, 15 (4), 16-19.

Delaney, L. T. "The White American Psyche-Exploration of Racism." In B. Schwartz and R. Disch (eds.), White Racism: Its History, Pathology, and Practice. New York: Dell, 1970.

Doobs, L. W. "The Behavior of Attitudes." Psychological Review, 1947, 54, 135-156.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: New American Library, 1969. (Originally published in 1903.)

Ehrlich, P. R., and Feldman, S. S. The Race Bomb: Skin Color, Prejudice, and Intelligence. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

Fredrickson, G. M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny. 1817-1914. New York: Harper &: Row, 1971.

Gosset, T. F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963.

Hogan, E. O. "Racism in Educators: A Barrier to Quality Education." In R. L. Green (ed.), Racial Crisis in American Education. Chicago: Follen Educational Corporation, 1969.

Jordan, W. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Kovel, J. White Racism: A Psychohistory. New York: Vintage, 1971.

Lapides, F. R, and Burrows, D. (eds.). Racism: A Casebook. New York: Crowell, 1971.

Lovell, R. B. Adult Learning. London, England: Croom-Helm, 1986.

McCalope, M. "Blacks Furious Over Exclusion from Great Books of the Western World." Jet, Nov. 17,1990, pp. 14-18.

Ogbu, J. Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1978.

Park, R. E., and Burgess, E. W. Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924.

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Preciphs, T. K. "Understanding Adult Learning for Social Action in a Volunteer Setting." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1989.

Preciphs, T. K. "The Legacy of Myles Horton: Education for Social Change--The Past as Prologue." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, Salt Lake City, Utah, November 1, 1990.

Randall, M. M. (ed.). The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups. Englewood, NJ.: Ozer, 1980.

"Report Defines Three Levels of Black Life. Jet, July 2, 1990, p. 9.

Rosenthal, R. "The Pygmalion Effect Lives. Psychology Today, 1973, 7, 56-63.

Rosenthal, R., and Jacobsen, L. Pygmalion in the Classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart &: Winston, 1968.

Rubovitz, P., and Maehr, M. L. "Pygmalion Black and White." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 25, 210-218.

Sealacek, W. E., and Brooks, G. C., Jr. Racism in American Revolution: A Model For Change. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976.

Sowell, T. Black Education: Myths and Tragedies. New York: McKay, 1972.

Stanton, W The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Racism in America, 1815-1859. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Racism in America. Clearinghouse Publication Urban Series No.1. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970.

Welsing, F. L. C. The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy). Washington, D.C.: Frances L. Cress-Welsing, 1972.

Wolpe, J. "Psycho-Therapy by Reciprocal Inhabitation". In C. H. Patterson (ed.), Theories of Counseling and Psycho-Therapy. New York: Harper &: Row, 1973.


Scipio A. J. Colin III is assistant professor of adult and continuing education at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Trudie Kibbe Preciphs is an adult education practitioner working with volunteers in the United Methodist Church. She is adjunct faculty member at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

July, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.