Rebeca Burciaga is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and a member of the Core Faculty for the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San José State University. Dr. Burciaga’s research centers on understanding and challenging educational practices and structures that (re)produce social inequalities for historically marginalized communities, including/specifically Latino students.  Her research in schools and communities spans over 20 years and includes mixed-methods research on pathways from preschool to the professoriate, the experiences of students who leave high school before graduation, and the ways in which geographic regions structure inequalities. She specializes the study of qualitative research methodologies including testimonio and ethnography. Her current research and teaching is focused on cultivating asset-based mindsets in teachers and administrators that work with youth of color.  Dr. Burciaga is a co-founder and co-coordinator of the Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of California at Los Angeles.  Her research has been supported and recognized by the Spencer Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the American Association of University Women. Her most recent scholarship can be found in Equity & Excellence in Education, the Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, and the Educational Administration Quarterly.

Email Message from local administrator: “Hi Rebeca, […] Do you know of anyone at SJSU who is an expert on Latino issues in education maybe in the area of decolonizing epistemology?”

My thoughts as I read the email: I have known this school administrator for five years and I’ve discussed my work with her on this very topic, so why was she looking for someone else? Perhaps I need to be more clear. I have “this nagging preoccupation of not being good enough.”

I decided not to respond to her email immediately because I was not sure if she did not remember our conversation, or because she presumed me incompetent and wanted to speak with someone else. I am becoming more accustomed to seeing surprise when I tell people I am a faculty member – their faces convey a clear message that I am not the one they are expecting. There are assumptions people make about what professors look like – I am not a White male.

Similar to my experiences as faculty outside of the academy, I spend the bulk of my time as an Assistant Professor in the field of Educational Leadership challenging deficit thinking about Students of Color – the belief that students and communities of color carry inadequacies (e.g. lack of motivation) that are often attributed to poverty and/or inadequate socialization from home (Valencia, 2010). To this end, some of my work is focused on decolonizing epistemologies of deficit thinking. In other words, my research and teaching focuses on critiquing everyday forms of power and privilege that have become rigid standards by which students of color – and ultimately adults of color – are judged. Deficit thinking marks difference and deviance from societal standards. How we think about students, for example, shapes our ability to see them as having potential for developing competencies.

I recently co-facilitated a seminar with a group of teachers from various schools throughout Northern California about addressing the needs of English Language Learners. Towards the end of our time, I asked, “What if we imagined your English Language Learner students as future educators? How might you teach them to become the teachers who will replace you?” The silence that ensued was palpable. The looks on many of their faces communicated that few had ever considered their students as future teachers. Still, a few heads shaking in doubt as if they did not believe these students had the potential to develop enough competencies to become teachers. This is an example that demonstrates how we are products of our environment and how deficit thinking of People of Color pervade formal learning spaces. Indeed, deficit thinking is so deeply embedded in our discussions of schools and the schooling of students of color, that we have normalized labeling all Latina/o students “at-risk” or calling them minorities in a school where they are 97% of the student body.

Additionally, I teach in an administrative credential program where the majority of my students are teachers and, similar to national demographics, are predominantly White. I was initially surprised by the questions they asked, “I have this Hispanic kid in my Algebra I class who doesn’t care about math, no matter what consequence I give him. When is it okay to give up?” I have learned to respond with a calm I didn’t realize I had before teaching in this field. I began with “Never. We would never want someone to give up on our children,” and continued to probe about what school structures were in place to support students struggling with math. There were none.

I have come to understand why people feel so comfortable asking me questions that would otherwise be taboo to ask most People of Color. Born with green eyes, a light complexion, dark blonde hair (as a child), and a name that is often mistaken for Italian (Bur-chi’aga!), to many I pass as White. Repeated comments such as “but you’re not that kind of Mexican!” taught me early that people’s acceptance of Latinas/os is a spectrum based on perceptions. Other comments rendered me invisible – “I never thought of you as Mexican!” I first heard from high school friends who prided themselves on being colorblind. A childhood friend recently suggested that race was my “hangup.” But given how people have felt free to publicly comment on my identity since I was a little girl, this “hangup” is a daily reality for me. Be it a blessing or a curse, I have become accustomed to living as a nepantlera -– one who lives in a borderland of double-consciousness (Anzaldúa, 1999 & DuBois, 1904). I have always looked at myself – my familia, my cultura – through the gaze of others. No matter that I am Chicana, to many I am seen as White.

That others identify me as White has afforded me positions and placed me in conversations that many People of Color are less likely to be a part of. I am often caught between feeling honored to be asked to be on a committee and feeling as though I am a mascot representing all Latinas/os. As documented in the book Presumed Incompetent, this feeling is not new for women of color. My Mother also felt this way.

From childhood through my adolescence, my Mother was the highest-ranking Chicana administrator at Stanford University. Despite a generation gap, differences with postsecondary opportunities, and differing phenotypes, we shared many similarities as women of color in higher education. As I made my way to the professoriate, my Mom and I had many conversations about our experiences with feeling invisible and tokenized. Our token presence was often signaled by a sign-in-sheet yet our suggestions during meetings were often ignored. Our White colleagues could repeat or rephrase what we had just said and their suggestions were accepted as brilliance (Peggy McIntosh also references this phenomenon). Our sense that others presumed us incompetent drove us to do more – to prove them wrong. Like my mother, I catch myself working harder to prove myself. To research more, to publish more, to present more, and to serve on more committees than I have time for. In the process, I am less likely to sleep well, eat well, and spend time with my husband and two children. I am still making sense of what it means to carry my parents’ legacy as I work towards tenure knowing that their cancers were partially the result of their experiences with institutional racism and sexism still so prevalent alongside many phobias and isms in higher education. As a young woman, I swore I would not follow my Mother’s path to higher education – her success as an administrator and as a mentor to many cost my Mother her health, and ultimately, her life. As I approach filing for tenure, however, I am realizing that presentations and publications can help with tenure but cannot change this world. I am continuing my parents’ incessant push against the grain because – unlike the sense that I am presumed incompetent by some – I am beginning to see exactly where I am making a difference.

I am beginning to see the role that I play in changing mindsets. The assumptions that people make about adults of color are full-grown seeds planted much earlier in our childhoods. If prejudice is not taught in homes, it is certainly reinforced by the salience of racism in our schooling alongside sexism, classism, homophobia and other markers of difference and deviance from societal norms. As I prepare for my classes with teachers, I focus on how to prepare the next generation of educational leaders – and ultimately students – to recognize and challenge deficit thinking in the hopes of curtailing the pervasive presumptions of incompetence towards women of color specifically, and people of color generally. In my “Leader in the Community” course, for example, I am less concerned with training my students “how to be principals” than I am with their close study of the community cultural wealth of the students and communities they serve. Graduate students also conduct ethnographies of their students and are asked to report only what they observe. It is often difficult for gradate students to avoid prescribing a treatment – to not try and “fix” their students. Graduate students also read and write and discuss their reactions to readings of race, privilege, and power. They write a cultural/racial autobiography, and for many, it is the first time they have ever wrestled with how race, class, gender, and sexuality (to name a few) influenced their own schooling and their approach to teaching. We work on how to recognize and curtail deficit thinking, how to cultivate culturally rich learning environments that support teachers in developing critical thinkers and yes, how to see their students as future teachers and advocates for social justice.

I have been deeply moved and inspired by new pockets of hope (de los Reyes and Gozemba, 2002) developed by my graduate students that challenge deficit thinking and presumptions of incompetence. I see a pocket of hope in the after-school math tutoring program that my former student coordinates – the aforementioned teacher who almost gave up. I see pockets of hope in the new lesson that two of my students developed as a result of our class discussions on how children internalize racism and notions of beauty. In addition to modeling the lesson, they brought beautifully laminated samples of student poems, “My skin is like the canela that my Mom stirs into our chocolate,” read one poem from an 8-year old Latina. Some of my students decide they do not want to become administrators. Yet, what I have seen time and again is that they teach differently because of our work together. I love what I do because I get to witness teachers reach realizations like this one.

“I am mostly struck by a realization that, while *Manuel* certainly has areas he can work on to make more growth in our current learning environment, I cannot help but feel that our environment should be the one to bend instead. *Manuel* is verbally nimble and witty, endlessly entertaining and endearing, and unavoidably unique. He doesn’t color inside the lines. He won’t follow the rules without questioning them. He doesn’t sit still. He won’t be quiet. And at the end of the day, I don’t want him to. What would be the benefit of that? And in learning to conform, what would get lost along the way?”

These are some of the pockets of hope that sustain me. In addition, my ability to thrive in the academy is because of a phenomenal network of family, friends, colleagues, and allies. I am also fortunate to have the opportunity to work with amazing Teachers of Color from across the country- who already apply transformative social justice lenses to their work- at the annual summer Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice. My current research and teaching is possible because of the foundation laid by mentors and other elders who have come before me. While the academy would like me to believe that tenure and full professorship is my primary goal, I am beginning to see these as a by-product of my life-work to support future generations on their paths to and through higher education. I cannot control how people perceive me. However, I can control my efforts in the academy in spite of these presumptions. Unlike the sense that I am presumed incompetent by some – I am beginning to see exactly where I am making a difference. In (re)claiming my place in the academy, it is one step towards transforming my own internal experiences and possibly (slowly) external academic structures that can often be disempowering for so many.

I am still left wondering about the email I received from a local administrator and what it means to not be seen for the work I do in advocating for a community that some do not consider me a part of, and how I might email her back and tell her it’s me you’re looking for.


Anzaldúa, G. E. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

de los Reyes, E. & Gozemba, P. A. (2002). Pockets of hope: How students and teachers can change the world. Westport: Bergin & Garvey.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and sketches. Cambridge: University Press John Wilson and Son.

Valencia, R. R. (2010). Dismantling contemporary deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

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9 Responses to “Presuming Incompetence: Decolonizing Epistemologies of Deficit Thinking by Rebeca Burciaga”

  1. Victor Diaz on 11/7/14 12:16 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for sharing your insight and reflection — this piece in and of itself is a pocket of hope for me, and something that will give me great strength in my own work with teachers and my own struggles with the identities placed on me by others’ perception of my identity and competence.

  2. Rita Kohli on 11/8/14 1:15 AM US/Eastern

    Great piece! So thankful for your words and our work together.

  3. Martha Cervantes on 11/8/14 1:24 AM US/Eastern

    Very insightful! I wish I could take your classes. As a teacher of students in a community like you describe it’s easy to be discouraged but not by the students rather by the social issues that make their lives difficult. I like your question of how we might teach students differently if they were to replace us. I teach every child as what he/she is…our future! Adelante!

  4. Lorraine on 11/10/14 9:32 AM US/Eastern

    Thanks for sharing. The piece was motivating and encouraging. I’m doing similar work at NYU’s Metro Center and you speak to many of the challenges we face when working with schools. I’ll be following you. Thanks!!

  5. Rosahn Jones on 11/10/14 3:54 PM US/Eastern

    Dr. Burciaga- thank you for your work, insight, passion and commitment to educational equality! I am the mother or two beautiful children of color, who are in 2nd and 3rd grade. We live in a small community with excellent schools (as far as the API scores are concerned). I always knew that my children would attend a good school with a diverse student body. I forgot how important it is for the teachers to reflect the community they serve. On a daily bases, I am faced with the fear that my children’s teacher have Deficit Thinking. As, I don’t see the passion or commitment to making sure that my child is receiving an excellent education. This deeply concerns me, and recently I mentioned the importance of expanding recruiting efforts to bring diversity to the faculty to our Principal but I believe my concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Never one to give up, I am going to the Superintendent
    Of schools until we have required, diversity and inclusion training for our teachers. I, like you, believe that I can make a difference.

  6. Jason Nextdoortoyou on 11/12/14 3:24 AM US/Eastern

    Yet another thoughtful and moving offering from you! I appreciate YOUR brilliance…

  7. David Bueford on 12/2/14 1:49 AM US/Eastern

    Ms Burciaga that is a very passionate article. The presumption of incompetence is prevalent in a public school systems. Once this occurs in the early years it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy in the later ones. Keep up the good work and continue allow all kids to reach for excellence.

  8. Meadow Haughey on 12/23/14 12:08 AM US/Eastern

    Dr. Burciaga, As your student, I want to thank you for your “incessant push against the grain.” My classmates and I, and our educational practice, are the better for it. Looking forward to continuing this conversation in years to come.

  9. Pam on 1/19/15 9:41 PM US/Eastern

    Dr. Burciaga,

    I am currently a student in a Transition to Teaching program, and our cohort is currently studying multicultural education. We have recently completed assignments and group discussions on deficit model thinking and community cultural wealth, so coming across your post was very timely. The fond appreciation, respect, and admiration that I have for the diversity in this world was heightened when I took a multiculturalism class in my undergraduate studies years ago. I do not inherently subscribe to deficit model thinking, and I must admit I was disappointed when I read that a peer/colleague at the level you have attained may be knowingly overlooking your contributions. As an upcoming elementary teacher, your post was also personally meaningful to me as I share your views here, particularly on curtailing deficit thinking and the importance of developing critical thinkers. Above all, I found your post inspirational. Best wishes, and I look forward to reading your past and future writings.

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