Office of Inclusive Excellence

Unlearning Assumptions and Misconceptions: A Pathway for Progress

November 22, 2021

By Darchelle Burnett, Signature Programs Student Coordinator, Alumna

In reflection upon our first year of heavy isolation, and even years before that, I have found it amusing how we have engaged in temporary dialogue of intersection and inclusion, just to find our peers and neighbors not being able to comprehend or correct their unjust ideologies. Those who have chosen to enhance their education through university studies, unknowingly and knowingly, have a call, more of a responsibility to mold their peers as they turn into up and  coming leaders, teachers, scholars, and more. This responsibility contains the pattern of unlearning, learning, showcasing, then teaching. It's not very poetic but it enhances ideas of prosperity with a goal of creating a better year than what we have had before. However, I must stress that this process is not easy nor is it attainable by the work of only a few. It is done through the engagement of the many, and the determination of a generation.

At CSUMB, I have learned that at the foundation of understanding is this somewhat simple pattern. I have witnessed it activate and empower student leaders to utilize their voice on environmental concerns, students of color resource accessibility, and housing insecurity. My fellow peers and I, who are students of color, have taken advantage of professional development opportunities that allowed us into spaces that foster the importance of unlearning to learn with the justification and inspiration of an equitable reality. Moving forward, I briefly describe how I see this process, and note the importance that I have found within each point. Keep in mind that the process should be and is fluid and flexible, and that my take on it will be different from others’. This is just how I see what changes are necessary to transform temporary dialogue into proactive conversation that produces meaningful response.


The preconceived battles between right and wrong have stemmed from personal and familial upbringings mixed with interpretations guided by the American societal education systems. Some have been taught to see through their eyes without acknowledging the perspective of being judged. Similarly for others, assumptions take over their willingness to actively converse and develop common ground, because of their belief that their opponents are more unwilling than they currently are. The act of unlearning in and of itself develops the space for both interpretation and perspective to create a common understanding. Scholar Cathy Davidson once wrote that “Unlearning is Required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back.” Sometimes our belief systems and social communities have embedded information that prevents us from moving forward with diversity and inclusion initiatives. But then we find ourselves at the breaking point, especially in higher education institutions, where we have to scramble to unlearn and comprehend the barriers and perspectives of the unheard population.


Taking the moments to set aside your assumptions and educate yourself on the injustices that our communities and peers face fosters the ability to learn and engage in dialogue about possible solutions. In my experience, unlearning takes place so that our upbringings and beliefs do not have to hinder the relationships that we make, which is why it is one of the important steps towards advancing racial and social justice. It is not necessarily working against your personal beliefs, although it seems like it does, it is just slightly altering the dynamics so that you can move past your constraints. In higher education, especially at CSUMB, there are moments that can divide a campus or bring it together. In this process, administration and student leaders' focus should be towards providing enrichment, cultural, and focus based activities that allow the student population to navigate the experience of understanding others to build networks and promote coalition.

Showcasing Then Teaching

Learning after unlearning seals the gap between the known and the unknown. And at the end, the recognized change is metaphorically equipped with a broom and a matchbook. The broom being positive utilization of what we have learned, and the matchbook being the consequences of not taking the time for unlearning. As mentioned before there is no easy way or fast way to complete the work that is necessary for advancement. During unlearning, we compete with ourselves to “sweep” away our general assumptions as we actively listen and gain opposition's perception. Then in learning, we take those ideas and lessons and find ways to properly engage with them.

In this, I also acknowledge that on some sides progress can also be associated with pain. The pain I mention is the hard moments we endure when we become intellectuals of our passions amongst our communities, peers and families. As we successfully travel from unlearning to learning, we arrive  at the point of teaching others, but it is difficult because the oppositions that one once had can also be deeply embedded into individuals that one  may seek to educate. Showcasing then teaching simply exemplifies that the process is fluid and flexible; however,  it is also a cycle of responsibility. 

The United States and its institutions that prepare the next generations of local and global leaders have a continuing responsibility. Unlearn their assumptions and misconceptions, learn about cultural and other focused perspectives for engagement, showcase that they understand and comprehend the process then teach other nations and citizens how to take the process to enhance and advance their relationships and networks in the eyes of racial and social justice. Like the phrase “all good things take time”, we can not rush ourselves or the folx that we move through the process with. We have to learn to be patient yet determined and the changes that are necessary will prevail.