“The Undamaging of Communities”

The idea that discourse creates the conditions for the implementation of discriminatory social policies while creating problematic self conceptions of those depicted has been explored by academics at length. The tendency of educators and social scientists to present communities/schools as “damage centered” in hopes of drawing attention or funding to their topic of study contributes to larger long-term problems that undermine the very efforts of those producing “damage centered” studies.

SUNY-New Paltz professor Eve Tuck acknowledges the one-time importance of damage centered approaches but pushes back, advocating new approaches based around desire: “Desire is the song about walking through the storm, a song that recognizes rather than denies that pain doubtlessly lies ahead.”[1] For Tuck and several others she references, desire emerges from “an assemblage of experiences, ideas, and ideologies, both subversive and dominant, necessarily complicates our understanding of human agency, complicity and resistance.”[2] In this way, desire effectively reveals the countervailing forces that make human existence without oversimplifying their terror, inspiration or anything in between.

Tuck’s desire framework points to important aspects of memory and history. Her formulation enables people to both assert and confront their desires, to mediate the pain of the past while celebrating the accomplishments of yesteryear and thinking about the promise of future. However, the contradiction of human agency that Tuck herself notes proves cautionary. Focusing on desire may not prove the panacea for which Tuck hopes. For example, scholars Judith Butler and Luis Alvarez have, in their respective works, examined the role of desire and dignity in marginalized communities. Both scholars argue that the desire of one group or individual can overlap and contradict those of equally marginalized peoples. For example, commenting on Paris Is Burning, bell hooks argues that the documentary’s gay male performers’ conceptualization of women reify problematic gendered stratifications. “Livingstone does not oppose the way the hegemonic ‘whiteness’ represents ‘blackness,’ but rather assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way progressive or counterhegemonic,” according to hooks.[3] Carrying this further, one might argue that even the ways interviewees articulate their hopes and dreams reflect ideas concerning capitalist accumulation and traditional domesticities. In this way, Paris’ most prominent example, Willie Ninja, who found fame working with Madonna and others, could be framed as a sort of American dream, built on a “realness” that reinforced dominant normative behaviors and economies.

Similarly, Alvarez (The Power of the Zoot) explored how the competing attempts at dignity by male and female zoot suits sometimes violated the desire or dignity of the other. However, Tuck seems aware and even animated by this contradiction. For Tuck, desire as an analytic or alternative frame of discourse fails to create unquestioning fact about a people but rather serves as a more inclusive and less “damaging” way of exploring a community and its needs. Fulfilling desire sounds promises a more positive outcome at least in the abstract than addressing damage, while emphasizing the “survivication” of its residents.

At the very least, Tuck’s article invites academics, educators, administrators and social service providers to reexamine how they conceptualize and describe the communities they serve. Perhaps Tuck’s vision may prove naive or infeasible, but it’s worth contemplating.

Click here for a pdf Tuck’s article in the the Fall 2009 Harvard Ed Review, and here for her work with CUNY’s CREDD Project.

Ryan Reft


[1] Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79 (3) 419.

[2] Tuck, “Suspending Damage,” 420.

[3] bell hooks in, “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion,” in Judith Butler, ed., Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”( New York: Rutledge, 1993).