Multiculturalism? “We did that back in the ’80s,” seems to be the attitude of many educational leaders these days. The birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. was included in the holiday pantheon, new textbooks were purchased, the most offensive materials discarded, ethnically-themed assemblies added, staff in-services held. Been there, done that.
This waning interest is in part the product of relentless haranguing by the right. The Lynne Cheneys and Rush Limbaughs slam multicultural education as divisive, Balkanizing, politically correct, ethnic cheerleading. These criticisms coincide with a broader offensive against people of color and people who are poor: the repeal of affirmative action, skyrocketing incarceration rates – especially of Black men, families kicked off welfare with no other supports in place, and jingoistic anti-immigrant initiatives.
And the proliferation of high stakes standardized testing has begun to strangle the life out of anything in school that can’t promise to increase students’ scores. Who has time for multicultural education when there are multiple choice tests to prepare for? Indeed, the push to subordinate teaching to state standards and tests is explicitly regarded by some as a means to eliminate multicultural education.
A FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
What is multicultural education? At its best, multiculturalism is an ongoing process of questioning, revising, and struggling to create greater equity in every nook and cranny of school life- whether in curriculum materials, school staffing policies, discipline procedures, teaching strategies, or course offerings. And it is part of a broader movement to create a more equitable society. It is a fight against racism and other forms of oppression, including those based on class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, or national origin and language. It is a fight for economic and social justice.
But this is not to say that multiculturalism is polemical or politically partisan in a narrow sense. In curriculum, for example, academic rigor is impossible without a multicultural standpoint. Suppose one is teaching about the American Revolution. Traditional – non-multicultural- curricular approaches to the revolution focus on the actions of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and other “great men.” But in 1776, the majority of people in the 13 colonies were women, African Americans, or Native Americans. They pursued their dreams in ways that profoundly impacted the revolution. For instance, when enslaved African Americans in the South discovered that the rhetoric of freedom excluded them, they fled in droves, dramatically influencing the course of the war, leading to what some scholars have called “the largest slave insurrection in American history. “There is no way to make sense of events following the Declaration of Independence – or any other historical era – without a multicultural perspective.
Such a perspective is not simply about explaining society, it is about changing it. Multiculturalism interrogates the world from a critical and activist standpoint: Who benefits and who suffers from any particular arrangement? How can we make it more just? At a superficial level, multicultural education celebrates diversity. More deeply, it equips educators, students, and parents to recognize and critique how some differences lead to deficit and others to privilege. And it compels us to seek alternatives.
In the classroom, multiculturalism means examining teaching materials for bias and omission, but also requires that we ask hard questions of ourselves and our classrooms. Are all our students fairly served? Does our choice of lessons favor some students over others? Whose cultures are represented on the classroom’s walls? Do our expectations of students differ based on race, ethnicity, nationality, class, or gender?
For white educators, pursuing a rigorous multiculturalism is especially important – and difficult. In society, those on top have the greatest difficulty recognizing their own dominance. Things seem fine to the comfortable. So those who are white need to assume the responsibility of questioning how white privilege plays out in every aspect of their educational lives. As anti-racist educator Enid Lee points out in Rethinking Our Classrooms, “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.”
For white educators, a multicultural perspective means examining how racism has affected all aspects of one’s identity and experiences. It also means dialoging with educators and parents of color and other oppressed groups in order to understand how school is not experienced the same by everyone.
Lest we be discouraged by the requirements of multiculturalism, we should remind ourselves that multiculturalism is not merely an individual self-improvement project. Building a multicultural, anti-racist, pro-justice school culture is fundamentally a collective enterprise. It means working together. It means building partnerships between schools, curriculum departments, unions, parent groups, and social justice organizations. It means establishing ongoing inservice education for new and veteran teachers. It means that we demand the time and money necessary to rethink and reorient school life. Multiculturalism requires more than good intentions; it needs support.
It also requires room to grow. So it’s essential to organize against those aspects of school “reform,” like high-stakes standardized testing, that threaten to suffocate multicultural initiatives.
Schools may have retreated from an earlier enthusiasm for multiculturalism, but there are signs of hope. In a relatively short period, multicultural scholarship has become a powerful intellectual force on college campuses. Teacher education programs are increasing numbers of individuals exposed to issues of how race and culture play out in school contexts. And there have never been more high-quality multicultural teaching resources available to educators. Even demographic projections offer hope. As multicultural scholar James Banks notes later in this special report, by 2020 it’s estimated that the nation’s schools will have 48% students of color. Although positive change will not automatically result from such population shifts, Banks suggests that schools may be more open to multicultural approaches if America’s student body is more diverse.
We want our schools to be multicultural, anti-racist and pro-justice because we want the larger society to manifest those same values. Rethinking Schools has always advocated that, to the greatest extent possible, schools and classrooms should work toward and exemplify the kind of society we hope to live in. We urge readers to renew your commitment to multicultural, anti-racist education as part of a broader struggle for a better world.