Matthew, Jonae, Harbin, and Lula

Title: Matthew,Jonae,Harbin,and Lula

Critical Race Theory Counterstory

By Johnnie Jackson, MBA

Jonae: African American female student who is the lead character and undertaker of African American history through geography.

Lula: Originally from Salvador, Brazil his parents moved to the U.S. when he was in middle school. He and Jonae have been very close because they share a common secret.

Professor Choi: Multiracial professor whose father is Egyptian and mother is Filipino Korean. Professor Choi teaches a course on international studies for a small liberal arts university where she is going through the tenure process.

U.S. Ambassador Chuck Toll: Ambassador Chuck Toll graduated from this liberal arts university and has a middle size endowed scholarship in the international studies department. He has served on the Board of Trustees for fifteen years now. He has seen the landscape change in higher education and believes study abroad and international education need more minority students and minority faculty led trips.

Scene: U.S. Ambassador Chuck Toll has been on a mission to promote more faculty members of color and students of color to study abroad, travel abroad, and live abroad while being immersed in the higher education environment. However, his narratives about who has helped lead the American journey abroad historically seems to reflect all majoritarian narratives and leave out people of color. The audience is a cadre of students of color and faculty of color who have been invited to start the dialogue about people of color studying and living abroad.

Questions: 1. From reading the story, to what extent is Ambassador Toll’s narrative about American exceptionalism exclusion a white dominated tale? 2. Jonae and Lula discuss the history around Ambassador Toll’s story and amend it by adding the story of Matthew Henson, which tenets of Critical Race Theory might this fall under? 3. Critical Race Theory recognizes the experiential knowledge of people of color is legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing, and teaching about racial subordination,” how does this story legitimize the historical stories of people of color? How does this act to delegitimize the historical story of people of color?

American Exceptionalism

The American has always chartered the waters of freedom. Stories of Abraham Lincoln, Warren G. Harding, Robert E. Peary, and Ronald Reagan stand tall in the history books for our children to look up to. Take the legacy of Robert E. Peary, this fine fellow fought against hunger, weather, and even the tyrant Inuit people to find the North Pole. As the purveyor of exploration in 1911 our dear American Robert E. Peary reached the North Pole accomplishing a feat no other American had completed yet. A true great American story, after Peary graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1877, he went to work as a local surveyor, then would later take a post with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. By 1881, Peary entered the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Survey….

 While the Chuck Tool, U.S. Ambassador tolled on about great American achievements throughout the globe, the sense of American exceptionalism spread amongst and between the American guests and distinguished faculty members. Professor Harbin Choi’s international studies class was in the audience taking note of the accomplishments of “great Americans.”

Lula, Afro Brazilian American whispered to Jonae “wasn’t there some African American man who helped that guy Peary reach the North Pole? We were just talking about that brotha last week in our media class and how the media gave him only a footnote after reaching the North Pole.” Professor Harbin Choi looked back at both Jonae and Lula with a serious eye, cutting their vocal cords to silence, but Jonae stared right back without an ounce of fear. “She ain’t my momma and I know my history. Professor Choi did you know that Matthew Henson is said to have helped find the North Pole, along side the Eskimo people, sled dogs, and Mr. Peary?”

History Lesson

Jonae had been researching Matthew Henson for her Advanced Geography course, and she was quite enamored and amazed to find out how much his accomplishments with the Inuit language and helping find the North Pole were underpublished and underappreciated.

Right before Jonae could skip to her next thought, Professor Choi chimed in “Jonae, how did you know that and where do you find that information?” In a jiffy Jonae spoke up proudly “Well Prof. Choi my grandmother would frequently have Henson’s son over our house for Sunday dinner. At first when I asked who he was he wouldn’t tell me, then my grandmother told me the legacy of Anauakaq had and how his father was one of the first Black Americans to reach the North Pole.”

Critical Race Analysis

A critical race theory analysis is important to get at some of competing and coalescing themes in the aforementioned story. Our characters present very complex views on the way they discuss history, historical events, and historical characters. Take for example Ambassador Toll, although his intentions are to stir the curiosity of studying abroad, living abroad, and traveling abroad to the crowd of mostly minority students and minority faculty, the majoritarian narratives used do little to stimulate the minority epistemic curiosity. Solorzano and Yosso (2002) tell us there should be at least five elements to dismantling racist practices in education. The five elements include:

  1. The intercentricity of race and racism with other forms of subordination.
  2. The challenge to dominant ideology.
  3. The commitment to social justice.
  4. The centrality of experiential knowledge.
  5. The transdisciplinary perspective.

The aforementioned taken together can be used to critically analyze the story above. Ambassador Toll, while well intentioned he may have been, used the names and political stances of Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan, two presidents who were known for their deficit narratives and tropes about black and brown youth. Going even further, an investigation of the narratives Ambassador Toll uses to discuss American exceptionalism notes no women of color and only white males who have been historically privileged in all American social institutions.


We do know that incentivizing faculty of color to lead study abroad is an issue we face in higher education. Many scholars note that students of color face various barriers when deciding to study abroad. Brux and Fry (2009) explain “academic scheduling difficulties, absence of relevant programs, lack of information to be the main factors prohibiting more students of color from studying abroad” (p.509). Ultimately, the way that Ambassador Toll needed the story of Peary to feel prideful about being an American, students of color need a critical race theory perspective of study abroad to feel welcomed.



Murray-Brux, J., & Fry, B. (2009, August). Multicultural Students in Study Abroad: Their Interests, Their Issues, and Their Constraints. Journal of Studies in International Education.

Solorzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.

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