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Fishbowl Colonialism

The White Colonial Gaze on the Sound of Black America in Education 

By Maya Cunningham


To counter anti-Black racism in the current post-civil rights movement era and to serve the needs of African American students whose cultural experiences have been historically marginalized in U.S. education (Mustaffa, 2017), schools and school systems should strive to provide culturally responsive and sustaining curricula (Paris & Alim, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2014). However, when attempts have been made to practice cultural responsivity in English language arts and music education, the result has been an alarming and emotionally charged public backlash (Smitherman, 2006). This article explains this backlash and the resistance to Black sound culture in the classroom by exploring the colonial gaze (Kaplan, 1997) on the Black auditory body. I call this phenomenon “fishbowl colonialism,” which describes how Black American music and language are exploited for entertainment but historically have not been considered worthy of serious study or inclusion in formal education. My aim in this essay is to historicize the stigmatization and subalternity of Black sound culture (Keyes, 2003) and to analyze how this stigma hinders efforts to provide culturally responsive education for African American students. If those who shape educational policy and curricula understand how the fishbowl colonialism of Black sound culture influences education policies, African American language (AAL) and music can be reframed in the classroom as a culturally responsive practice that centers on the culture of Black students. 

Keywords: colonialism, Black sound culture, culturally responsive education, African American language, Black music


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