Taking Multicultural, Anti-racist Education Seriously

An Interview with Educator Enid Lee

The following is condensed from an interview with Enid Lee, a consultant in anti-racist education and organizational change, and author of Letters to Marcia: a Teachers’ Guide to Anti-Racist Education. Based in Toronto, Lee is the former supervisor of race/ethnic relations for the North York Board of Education in metropolitan Toronto. She was born and raised in the Caribbean, and has been working in the field of language, culture and race for more than 15 years in Canada and the United States. She was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

What do you mean by a multicultural education?

The term multicultural education has a lot of different meanings. The term I use most often is anti-racist education.

Multicultural or anti-racist education is fundamentally a perspective. It’s a point of view that cuts across all subject areas, and addresses the histories and experiences of people who have been left out of the curriculum. Its purpose is to help us deal equitably with all the cultural and racial differences that you find in the human family. It’s also a perspective that allows us to get at explanations for why things are the way they are in terms of power relationships, in terms of equality issues.

So when I say multicultural or anti-racist education, I am talking about equipping students, parents, and teachers with the tools needed to combat racism and ethnic discrimination, and to find ways to build a society that includes all people on an equal footing.

It also has to do with how the school is run in terms of who gets to be involved with decisions. It has to do with parents and how their voices are heard or not heard. It has to do with who gets hired in the school.

If you don’t take multicultural education or anti-racist education seriously, you are actually promoting a monocultural or racist education. There is no neutral ground in this issue.

Why do you use the term anti-racist education instead of multicultural education?

Partly because in Canada, multicultural education often has come to mean something that is quite superficial: the dances, the dress, the dialect, the dinners. And it does so without focusing on what those expressions of culture mean: the values, the power relationships that shape the culture.

I also use the term anti-racist education because a lot of multicultural education hasn’t looked at discrimination. It has the view, “People are different and isn’t that nice,” as opposed to looking at how some people’s differences are looked upon as deficits and disadvantages. In anti-racist education, we attempt to look at — and change — those things in school and society that prevent some differences from being valued.

Oftentimes, whatever is white is treated as normal. So when teachers choose literature that they say will deal with a universal theme or story, like childhood, all the people in the stories are of European origin; it’s basically white culture and civilization. That culture is different from others, but it doesn’t get named as different. It gets named as normal.

Anti-racist education helps us move that European perspective over to the side to make room for other cultural perspectives that must be included.

What are some ways your perspective might manifest itself in a kindergarten classroom, for example?

It might manifest itself in something as basic as the kinds of toys and games that you select. If all the toys and games reflect the dominant culture and race and language, then that’s what I call a monocultural classroom even if you have kids of different backgrounds in the class.

I have met some teachers who think that just because they have kids from different races and backgrounds, they have a multicultural classroom. Bodies of kids are not enough.

It also gets into issues such as what kind of pictures are up on the wall? What kinds of festivals are celebrated?

What are the rules and expectations in the classroom in terms of what kinds of language are acceptable? What kinds of interactions are encouraged? How are the kids grouped? These are just some of the concrete ways in which a multicultural perspective affects a classroom.

How does one implement a multicultural or anti-racist education?

It usually happens in stages. Because there’s a lot of resistance to change in schools, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect to move straight from a monocultural school to a multiracial school.

First there is this surface stage in which people change a few expressions of culture in the school. They make welcome signs in several languages, and have a variety of foods and festivals. My problem is not that they start there. My concern is that they often stop there. Instead, what they have to do is move very quickly and steadily to transform the entire curriculum. For example, when we say classical music, whose classical music are we talking about? European? Japanese? And what items are on the tests? Whose culture do they reflect? Who is getting equal access to knowledge in the school? Whose perspective is heard, whose is ignored?

The second stage is transitional and involves creating units of study. Teachers might develop a unit on Native Americans, or Native Canadians, or people of African background. And they have a whole unit that they study from one period to the next. But it’s a separate unit and what remains intact is the main curriculum, the main menu. One of the ways to assess multicultural education in your school is to look at the school organization. Look at how much time you spend on which subjects. When you are in the second stage you usually have a two-or three-week unit on a group of people or an area that’s been omitted in the main curriculum.

You’re moving into the next stage of structural change when you have elements of that unit integrated into existing units. Ultimately, what is at the center of the curriculum gets changed in its prominence. For example, civilizations. Instead of just talking about Western civilization, you begin to draw on what we need to know about India, Africa, China. We also begin to ask different questions about why and what we are doing. Whose interest is it in that we study what we study? Why is it that certain kinds of knowledge get hidden? In mathematics, instead of studying statistics with sports and weather numbers, why not look at employment in light of ethnicity?

Then there is the social change stage, when the curriculum helps lead to changes outside of the school. We actually go out and change the nature of the community we live in. For example, kids might become involved in how the media portrays people, and start a letter-writing campaign about news that is negatively biased. Kids begin to see this as a responsibility that they have to change the world.

I think about a group of elementary school kids who wrote to the manager of the store about the kinds of games and dolls that they had. That’s a long way from having some dinner and dances that represent an “exotic” form of life.

In essence, in anti-racist education we use knowledge to empower people and to change their lives.

Teachers have limited money to buy new materials. How can they begin to incorporate a multicultural education even if they don’t have a lot of money?

We do need money and it is a pattern to underfund anti-racist initiatives so that they fail. We must push for funding for new resources because some of the information we have is downright inaccurate. But if you have a perspective, which is really a set of questions that you ask about your life, and you have the kids ask, then you can begin to fill in the gaps.

Columbus is a good example. It turns the whole story on its head when you have the children try to find out what the people who were on this continent might have been thinking and doing and feeling when they were being “discovered,” tricked, robbed and murdered. You might not have that information on hand, because that kind of knowledge is deliberately suppressed. But if nothing else happens, at least you shift your teaching, to recognize the native peoples as human beings, to look at things from their view.

There are other things you can do without new resources. You can include, in a sensitive way, children’s backgrounds and life experiences. One way is through interviews with parents and with community people, in which they can recount their own stories, especially their interactions with institutions like schools, hospitals and employment agencies. These are things that often don’t get heard.

I’ve seen schools inviting grandparents who can tell stories about their own lives, and these stories get to be part of the curriculum later in the year. It allows excluded people, it allows humanity, back into the schools. One of the ways that discrimination works is that it treats some people’s experiences, lives, and points of view as though they don’t count, as though they are less valuable than other people’s.

I know we need to look at materials. But we can also take some of the existing curriculum and ask kids questions about what is missing, and whose interest is being served when things are written in the way they are. Both teachers and students must alter that material.

How can a teacher who knows little about multiculturalism be expected to teach multiculturally?

I think the teachers need to have the time and encouragement to do some reading, and to see the necessity to do so. A lot has been written about multiculturalism. It’s not like there’s no information. If you want to get specific, a good place to start is back issues of the Bulletin of the Council on Interracial Books for Children.

You also have to look around at what people of color are saying about their lives, and draw from those sources. You can’t truly teach this until you reeducate yourself from a multicultural perspective. But you can begin. It’s an ongoing process.

Most of all, you have to get in touch with the fact that your current education has a cultural bias, that it is an exclusionary, racist bias and that it needs to be purged. A lot of times people say, ‘I just need to learn more about those other groups.’ And I say, ‘No, you need to look at how the dominant culture and biases affect your view of non-dominant groups in society.’ You don’t have to fill your head with little details about what other cultural groups eat and dance. You need to take a look at your culture, what your idea of normal is, and realize it is quite limited and is in fact just reflecting a particular experience. You have to realize that what you recognize as universal is, quite often, exclusionary. To be really universal, you must begin to learn what Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, the aboriginal peoples and all silenced groups of Americans have had to say about the topic.

How can one teach multiculturally without making white children feel guilty or threatened?

Perhaps a sense of being threatened or feeling guilty will occur. But I think it is possible to have kids move beyond that.

First of all, recognize that there have always been white people who have fought against racism and social injustice. White children can proudly identify with these people and join in that tradition of fighting for social justice.

Second, it is in their interest to be opening their minds and finding out how things really are. Otherwise, they will constantly have an incomplete picture of the human family.

The other thing is, if we don’t make clear that some people benefit from racism, then we are being dishonest. What we have to do is talk about how young people can use that from which they benefit to change the order of things so that more people will benefit.

If we say, we are all equally discriminated against on the basis of racism, or sexism, that’s not accurate. We don’t need to be caught up in the guilt of our benefit, but should use our privilege to help change things.

I remember a teacher telling me last summer that after she listened to me on the issue of racism, she felt ashamed of who she was. And I remember wondering if her sense of self was founded on a sense of superiority. Because if that’s true, then she is going to feel shaken. But if her sense of self is founded on working with people of different colors to change things, then there is no need to feel guilt or shame.

Where does an anti-sexist perspective fit into a multicultural perspective?

In my experience, when you include racism as just another of the “isms,” it tends to get sidetracked or omitted. That’s because people are sometimes uncomfortable with racism, although they may be comfortable with class and gender issues. I like to put racism in the foreground, and then include the others by example and analysis.

I certainly believe that sexism — and ageism and heterosexism and class issues — have to be taken up. But in my way of thinking I don’t list them under multicultural education.

For me, the emphasis is race. I’ve seen instances where teachers have replaced a really sexist set of materials with non-sexist materials — but the new resources included only white people. In my judgement, more has been done in the curriculum in terms of sexism than in terms of racism.

Of course, we must continue to address sexism in all its forms, no question about that. But we cannot give up on the fight against racism either. As a black woman, both hurt my heart.

How can a teacher combine the teaching of critical thinking skills with a multicultural approach?

I don’t think there is any genuine multicultural approach without a critical posture. But I am concerned when people say critical thinking, because I am not sure what they mean. I think people sometimes say critical thinking, and all they mean is thinking.

When I say critical thinking, I mean that we help youngsters ask questions about the social state of things, the social origins of things. What interests me are the kinds of questions one asks within the framework of teaching critical thinking skills.

For example, there are situations in which we have the kids thinking about the same old material from the same old Euro-centric point of view. Take the example of kids trying to resolve conflicts. In that process, we never challenge them to think about the unfair treatment, the racism, that may have led to the conflict in the first place, and that it is the unfairness that has to be changed if the conflict is to be really resolved.

What are some things to look for in choosing good literature and resources?

I encourage people to look for the voice of people who are frequently silenced, people we haven’t heard from: people of color, women, poor people, working-class people, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians.

I also think that you look for materials that invite kids to seek explanations beyond the information that is before them, materials that give back to people the ideas they have developed, the music they have composed, and all those things which have been stolen from them and attributed to other folks. Jazz and rap music are two examples that come to mind.

I encourage teachers to select materials that reflect people who are trying and have tried to change things to bring dignity to their lives, for example Africans helping other Africans in the face of famine and war. This gives students a sense of empowerment and some strategies for making a difference in their lives. I encourage them to select materials that visually give a sense of the variety in the world.

Teachers also need to avoid materials that blame the victims of racism and other “isms.”

In particular, I encourage them to look for materials that are relevant. And relevance has two points: not only where you are, but also where you want to go. In all of this we need to ask what’s the purpose, what are we trying to teach, what are we trying to develop?

One of the things I haven’t talked about much is the outcome of the educational process. We need to ask ourselves: what is it that the student is experiencing as a result of their interaction with the materials? If the human beings we are working with aren’t acquiring skills, knowledge, and attitudes that help them see themselves in a positive relationship with other human beings, then we have a problem.

Are we enabling African Americans and African Canadians, Native Americans and Native Canadians, in particular, to find and create a range of employment opportunities so they have financial resources and are able to make decisions about their lives? And does the education encourage them to maintain healthy connections with their own communities and reject the racist images that are frequently portrayed of them in the media and elsewhere?

What can school districts do to further multicultural education?

Many teachers will not change curriculum if they have no administrative support. Sometimes, making these changes can be scary. You can have parents on your back, kids who can be resentful. You can be told you are making the curriculum too political.

What we are talking about here is pretty radical; multicultural education is about challenging the status quo and the basis of power. You need administrative support to do that.

In the final analysis, multicultural or anti-racist education is about allowing educators to do the things they have wanted to do in the name of their profession: to broaden the horizons of the young people they teach, to give them skills to change a world in which the color of a person’s skin defines their opportunities, where some human beings are treated as if they are just junior children.

Maybe teachers don’t have this big vision all the time. But I think those are the things that a democratic society is supposed to be about.

When you look at the state of things in the United States and Canada, it’s almost as if many parts of the society have given up on decency, doing the right thing and democracy in any serious way. I think that anti-racist education gives us an opportunity to try again.

Unfortunately, I feel that this educational movement is going to face a serious challenge. The 1980s were marked by very conservative attitudes, and some of the gains of the social change movements in the 1960 and 1970s were rolled back.

A major struggle is taking place in the 1990s to regain those victories of the 1960s and 1970s. I think that anti-racist education can help us do that. But the conservative forces are certainly not going to allow this to happen without a battle. So we’d better get ready to fight.