Literature Synthesis 

How  can we help students employ language to challenge and counter systems of oppression?


Critical Consciousness


To support students in developing their critical consciousness, we must first understand what critical consciousness means. The first definition folks tend to read is Paolo Freire’s definition which is “the ability to recognize oppressive social forces shaping society and to take action against them” (Smith, 2020). To break it down even further, it is about anti-oppressive thinking and anti-oppressive action. In Cultivating Critical Consciousness in the Classroom, Smith (2020) brings in a new definition from Watts, Dreamer, & Voight. In this definition, they specify even further the skills it would take to have critical consciousness: focus on social analysis, political agency, and social action. Although both Freire and Watts, Dreamer, & Voight share the same idea of anti-oppressive thinking and anti-oppressive action, Watts, Dreamer, & Voight’s specificity allows for actionable ways to bring it into the classroom. Furthermore, in the article Why Ethinic Studies? by Saugher Nojan, they discuss the ways in which critical consciousness is beneficial to students. These include supporting students in making meaningful connections to their own life, developing the capacity for social action, and being able to hold contradictory beliefs. By developing critical consciousness, it will also mitigate the harms of microaggressions and lead to healing. To understand the system that is harming students of color and finding ways to dismantle it supports healing (Mosley et al, 2021). 



Microaggressions are the subtle remarks or actions towards marginalized groups.  There have been multiple studies that discuss the toll microaggressions have on students. Kwong (2020) discusses three key ways we can see the effects of microaggressions: the minority stress model, intersectionality theory, and the social identity model. The minority stress model recognizes the chronic stress that is present due to microaggressions. Intersectionality theory connects microaggressions and health disparities. Lastly, the social identity model has four key elements: 

  • accepting and internalizing the dominant narrative 

  • questioning, rejecting or resisting dominant narrative 

  • exploring, redefining, and developing a new sense of social identity

  • integrating and internalizing new identity 

By understanding the social identity model we are able to see the journey students of color take while understanding their identity. This is a way for educators to identify where students may be in this model and can work to support students to undo the damage microaggressions have caused these students. For example, having teachers who have developed critical consciousness and critical race pedagogy, they are able to support in the rejecting or resisting dominant narrative and help students move to developing a new social identity. Other ways to mitigate microaggressions include acknowledgement of suffering, revolutionary love, and radical love. Revolutionary and radical love brings in the humanity of people and those who are harmed by microaggressions and systemic racism. A key way to truly act upon revolutionary love is to acknowledge the black suffering in schools and to sit with the gravity of black suffering in schools so that we know how to listen and change the harm school is doing (Krueger-Henney, 2016). Furthermore, Mosely et al. (2021) specifically discusses how the best way for black people to heal from anti-black racism is by developing critical consciousness around anti-black racism.


Classroom implementation

To understand how to support students in developing critical consciousness we need to understand critical race theory, critical race pedagogy, and culturally responsive pedagogy. Critical race theory is centering Black, Indigenous, and people of color to challenge and transform the dominant narrative. The goal for this concept is to eliminate racism by critiquing and transforming systems of oppression on an institutional, interpersonal, and intimate level (Nojan, 2020). Lac (2017) suggests that key ways to incorporate critical race pedagogy is: 

  • building trust 

  • student-agency in the decision process 

  • having a range of critical texts not just what we deem as important or legitimate (i.e. poems as well as academic articles) 

  • using kinesthetic activities to teach white privilege and racism 

  • using dialogue to construct knowledge 

  • the teacher cannot operate as neutral 

It is also important to equalize the playing field between teacher and student and push back on the inherent hierarchy. Furthermore, schools can take classes on social engagements to observe the world around them, have students learn from other students, create opportunities for political engagement, and give real-world assignments (Smith, 2020). Ways to support development of critical consciousness is by having teachers with similar racial/ethinic and socioeconomic status backgrounds to students (Nojan, 2020). Students and faculty having diverse backgrounds can lead to emotional exchanges and strong fear of discourse. Managing classroom dynamics can be challenging if there is silence from white students and BIPOC students becoming angry because of that and that can lead to an anxious teacher. When implementing this work for staff and students there can be a fear of sharing personal beliefs because it can show their biases. A very important challenge is if the facilitator doesn’t check their own biases and is not practicing what they are trying to teach. This can be mitigated through reflective, experiential, and collaborative learning components. Those are tools for content mastery, critical thinking, action and social change, personal reflection, and awareness of multicultural group dynamics (Kwong, 2020). Major challenges in implementing curriculum around critical consciousness is teachers not being well versed in this area and the fact that the majority of the teaching force is white (Nojan, 2020). 



Krueger-Henney, P. (2016). What are we listening for? International Journal for Critical Pedagogy, 7(3), 49-66. Ebsco. 21571074

Kwong, K. (2020). Teaching Microaggressions, Identity, and Social Justice: A Reflective, Experiential and Collaborative Pedagogical

Approach. International Journal of Higher Education, 9(4), 184-196.

Lac, V. T. (2017). In Real Time: From Theory to Practice in a Critical Race Pedagogy Classroom. i.e.:inquiry in education, 9(1). :

Mosley, D. V., Hargons, C. N., Meiller, C., Angyal, B., & Wheeler, P. (2021). Critical Consciousness of Anti-Black Racism: A Practical

Model to Prevent and Resist Racial Trauma. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61(1), 1-16. HHS Public Access. doi:10.1037/cou0000430.

Nojan, S. (2020). Why ethnic studies? Building critical consciousness among middle school students. Middle School Journal, 51(2), 25-35.

DOI: 10.1080/00940771.2019.1709259

Smith, K. (2020). Cultivating Critical Consciousness in the Classroom. Facing Today: A Facing History Blog.