Relevant in an all-White school?
“I teach in an all-White school, so I don’t need to worry about multicultural education, it isn’t relevant there.”
“I teach in an all-White school, and I think it’s important to use multicultural education, but colleagues/administrators do not. How can I help them see its importance?”
“I teach in an all-White school, and I think it’s important to use multicultural education, but colleagues/administrators do not. How can I help them see its importance?”
Have you heard someone say this? Have you said it yourself? Before reading further, jot down three reasons why you or others think multicultural education is or is not relevant for an all-White school. Then continue to read.White people are socialized to feel defensive in race-related conversations, to avoid seeing outside the box of Whiteness, and to ignore the racial stratification in society that fundamentally discriminates against people of other races. It is not uncommon for White people to grow up without talking about racism, consequently, they often do not see multicultural education as relevant to themselves. Three underlying assumptions are embedded in the question about whether or not multicultural education is relevant in an all-White school: (1) White people are a homogenous group; (2) the target audience of multicultural education is people/students from racial/ethnic groups other than White people; and (3) multicultural education deals only with ethnic/racial diversity.
To counteract these assumptions, let’s look at how: (1) White people are as heterogeneous as other racial/ethnic groups; (2) multicultural education is applicable to all groups of people including Whites; and (3) multicultural education, going beyond racial/ethnic diversity, deals with multiple dimensions of individual and group diversity in the interactive matrix of socioeconomic status, gender and sexual orientation/identity, religion, language, age, (dis)ability, etc.
White people are heterogeneous cultural beings
White people are heterogeneous at an individual level. Historically, White people have also been very culturally and linguistically heterogeneous. We know these things to be true, but one of the functions of White supremacy has been to promote the notion that there is one ethnically and culturally homogenous White race. However, it is important for students to recognize that this damaging social construction reinforces social and economic inequalities (Howard, 2006; Wise, 2010). Race itself is a social construction; according to geneticists, race doesn’t exist biologically. In the U.S., race was created and built into the legal system as far back as 1790 with the first census. How people were classified racially determined their rights to things like jobs, marriage, and property ownership.
European immigrants who arrived during and after the late 1700s came into a system that defined them racially as White (although some European groups like Italians struggled to be counted as White). Culturally and linguistically, however, immigrants were very diverse, and did not simply give up their cultures and languages because they were in the United States. For example, immigrants from German states came into the U.S. throughout the 1800s, defining themselves not so much as German, but rather as being from Sachsen, Hesse-Kassel, Hanover, Bayern, and other German areas. Until World War I, the German language and culture flourished throughout the Midwest. But due to harsh xenophobia during the two World Wars, Germans were forced to give up or hide everything German (Kirschbaum, 2015; Sleeter, 2014). At the same time, many other European immigrant groups were marginalized in the past because they had “darker and dirtier” skin than those with English or German heritage (Roediger, 2005) and threatened U.S. culture by introducing incongruous beliefs, added competition for economic resources, and threatened Americans’ safety and well-being (Leonardo, 2007). As illustrated in the novel White Bread by Sleeter (2015), most of today’s descendants of European immigrants have lost their own cultural history (although some of it is retrievable), and just think of themselves as “White” without any “culture.”
Historically, many White immigrants have been accused of marginalizing other White immigrants, so informing students about this historical dimension will help them to examine the hidden politics of White privilege that benefit socio-economically dominant White groups. By demystifying the cultural complexity of people classified as White, and the hierarchy of groups created by racism, multicultural education will help White students understand their own history, as well as the fact that the current social discourses against diverse racial/ethnic groups are very similar to the discriminatory discourses and practices that their ancestors experienced in the past. This knowledge should help students become conscious of the social and economic hardships non-White members of students’ communities face today, and discriminative social structures that suppress full participation of racially/ethnically different others in society (Derman-Sparks, Ramsey & Edwards, 2011).
Multicultural education applies to everyone
Multicultural education focuses on supporting equity and inclusion in a diverse and inequitable society. When it comes to equity and inclusion based on race, everyone participates, but not in the same ways. Historically reinforced ideologies such as individualism and color-blindness have left many White people racially illiterate (DiAngelo, 2012) but racially conscious when perceiving other racialized groups. Many studies have examined the construction and shaping of the White “race” throughout history and the ways in which White people have benefited from a racial hierarchy they often do not see. Contrary to many claims made by its critics, multicultural education does not assign blame to White people for the existing racial hierarchy and discriminatory social structure; instead, it focuses on helping students understand the ways racialized privilege operates in a society (Howard, 2006; Wise, 2010). Scholar Beverly Daniel Tatum describes racism as a moving walkway in an airport, a metaphor that often resonates well with White students. They were born onto this walkway of privilege by virtue of being White, and even if they merely stand on the walkway and do not walk forward, they are still being pushed along by the forces of White supremacy. Multicultural education can help students see the trouble with this type of implicit racism; they are not doing anything “actively” racist, but they are still benefiting from a legacy of racism. Additionally, lessons in multicultural education can teach students how to walk in the other direction, to push against the forces of the moving walkway that are propelling them and to be actively anti-racist.
In these ways, multicultural education is especially important for an all-White school where the student body needs to be made aware of their inherent privileges and ways that they can use their privilege to be allies in the fight for racial justice. Overall, a significant role for multicultural education in White schools is to help White students recognize how racism works, how it has been constructed to benefit White people, how “good” White people can still engage in and benefit from racism, and how White people can learn to become allies working to challenge and dismantle racism.
Multicultural education encompasses multiple dimensions of identity and difference
Multicultural education deals with all types of human diversity, including gender, sexual orientation/identity, class, age, religion, ableness, etc. and the ways in which difference has been exploited to create and sustain power, dominance, and hegemonic practices in society (Banks & Banks, 2012; Johnson, 2005). Recognizing the multi-faceted elements of multicultural education will enable teachers (and their students) to see the diversity within a group that appears, on the surface, to be remarkably similar based on skin color. Teachers in predominantly White schools should understand how these factors construct their students’ individual and/or group identities and experiences in the classroom, school, and outside community. For example, they need to find out whether there are any students who struggle with poverty and classism (Gorski, 2008; Kozol, 2012), or if there are any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual, queer/questioning students (Gordon, 2007). Instead of valuing human diversity, however, teachers may encounter many students holding discriminatory views against different people in the school, making statements or using language that devalue disabled people, disrespecting other religions, marginalizing students with diverse sexual identities and/or discriminating against people of other races/ethnicities.
In this context, multicultural education includes these multifaceted dimensions in human diversity and examines the ways societies set up boundaries between the cultural, social, political, and ideological lines the interrelated matrix of class and classism, race and racism, gender and sexism, disability and ableism, etc. Multicultural education critically examines how the dominant society separates the poor from the rich by drawing artificial lines between “the unethical, lazy, and dirty poor” and “the educated, diligent, and wise affluent” that frequently track with religious and racial lines as well. In so doing, multicultural education helps students cross the line and see the cultural and structural underpinnings of the boundary setting and (in)visibility of powerless groups in society.
Teachers in Swalwell’s (2012) research study provide an excellent example of opening spaces for multicultural education in predominantly White communities in an economically affluent suburban area. The first task of the teachers was helping their students recognize that the suburban lives exist within a sheltered “bubble.” Students in predominantly White communities tended to distance themselves from the rest of the “real” world, preferring to stay in environs they deemed “clean” and “safe.” They saw themselves as part of a unified White race instead of recognizing their individual ethnicity/heritage.
Instead of allowing their students hide in the bubble of privilege, the teachers helped their students move outside their comfort zones and share their experiences and personal stories with Black students who lived in a predominantly Black community. They facilitated relationships between two schools by opening a student exchange program that helped White students (1) decipher the hidden meanings of racial/ethnic segregation along with socio-economic disparities and (2) better understand the benefits they received from their racial privilege and position in the social structure. Teachers in the study explained that multicultural education should be directed to members of the dominant group, because, regardless of their consciousness and/or exercising of their racial privilege, White students belong to the oppressor class. The teachers argued that a teacher’s role in using multicultural education is to “disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed.” White students in this program were disturbed crossing racial and socioeconomic boundaries, and teachers helped them critically examine the segregated social structure and comforted the disturbed White students so they were more conscious about their own racial privilege.
The role of identity and the capacity to be self-reflective regarding one’s identity is a cornerstone of several perspectives of diversity and multicultural education. Having a strong understanding of one's ethnic and cultural heritage, along with the effects of a racialized identity, are important for being a multicultural educator (Stenhouse, 2012).
- For some people, tracing the origins of their name can be a window into their ancestral lineage. For example, students can be asked what they know about their name, what the name means, where it came from, and so forth. Resources from Rethinking Schools’ author Linda Christensen on writing “My Name” poems might be particularly helpful in helping students make sense of the history, meaning, and implications of their names. Other types of poems and name narratives can be found here, including an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street:
- Note the various ways that you self-identify. Do others identify you as you identify yourself? Does this matter to you? Why or why not? If you identify as White, can you recall when you first knew (or realized) that you were White?
Derman-Sparks, Ramsey and Edwards (2011) suggest that teachers in predominantly White schools can engage in several strategies that allow them to learn more about the students that they work with each day. For example, teachers should:
- Make time for close and frequent observations of how children are identifying themselves.
- Note children’s feelings about their race and ethnicity and other aspects of identity as they play and interact with peers and adults.
- Use photographs and books to generate conversations about economic class, gender roles, and other aspects of human diversity.
- Listen closely for any sense of superiority and entitlement.
- Decipher social patterns.
- Observe the overall social tone of your classroom (pp. 63-64).
- For one week, actively listen to how often comments or conversations about race, racial identity, and racism occur in your classroom or social settings. What topics are being discussed? What do you notice about the emotions being expressed? What was your reaction? What did you learn most about perceptions of race, racial identity, and racism just from listening?
- For two weeks, actively listen to how often comments or conversations about identity occur in your classroom or social settings. What aspects of identity are being discussed? What do you notice about the emotions being expressed? What was your reaction? What did you learn most about perceptions of identity just from listening?
- For one month, pay attention to how you or your students socialize in the classroom or school. What patterns do you notice? What are your perceptions and what are those of your students’ regarding these patterns? In an all-White school, what are the other dimensions of identity or social markers that students use to classify themselves or others?
- As a consistent practice, pay close attention to how students identify themselves and others. How might you use that information to build deeper understandings of who they are individually and as classmates?
White students can learn to examine the cultural and ethnic heritages of White people, and explore the reasons for and outcomes of perpetuating White supremacy. Teachers can leverage at least five areas to develop students’ consciousness: White ethnic heritages, language, school curriculum, social media, and personal commitments.
- White ethnic heritages. White people tend to see themselves as outside, rather that part of, multicultural education partly because many lack an understanding of their own cultural and ethnic background, how non-English languages and cultures were lost, and how racism benefited their ancestral families. Sleeter details a process for this kind of research and reviews many resources for children and youth are available.
- Language. Roger Moore presents a detailed account of the ways racism has manifested itself in the English language. One way this has happened is through the association of “White” with people and things that are “good” and “Black” with people and things that are “bad.” The following activity can help teachers and students consider the ways that the social curriculum reinforces the perception of White superiority. Brainstorm a list of words and phrases associated with the word “white,” then a list associated with the words “brown” and “black.” Compare the lists. How many words or phrases are have positive associations? How many have negative associations? Historically, how has being “White” been positive and “Black” negative? How is this association expressed in everyday language? Is the association of White with positive and Black with negative still applicable today?
- School curriculum. Examine the representation of various groups in the curriculum. Although the grand narrative of U.S. history emphasizes the importance of White people, it often leaves out White people who also resisted the various aspects of racial oppression and discrimination (except the “White saviors” in Hollywood movies. Compare the narrative in your history curriculum with that in the Zinn Education Project. Both the Zinn Project and Facing History and Ourselves provide excellent resources that develop alternative history narratives.
- Social media. Using the subject area that you teach, ask students to spend a period of time canvassing various media outlets looking for representations of being White. They should create a profile of how being White is constructed, positioned, and enacted in the U.S. In what ways do the students compare and contrast with the depictions of Whiteness in U.S. society?
- White anti-racist activists. White people can learn to challenge racism and become allies to people of color. Pritchy Smith, a NAME founder who is White, describes himself at 20 when he was standing in line to get tickets to a theater that admitted whites only. At first, he did not join a Black friend who was in another line protesting the theater's racism. The friend said, "Pritchy, if you are not in this line, you are in the wrong line." A couple of weeks later, he joined the boycott and in the process learned that he (and all of us) had a choice about what stand to take, which line to join. The key to becoming a White anti-racist is learning. Gary Howard, a long-time White anti-racist activist, refers to this learning as developing a "transformationalist White identity." In the article White Ant-Racism: Living the Legacy, four people discuss what it means for White people to learn to work as anti-racist allies. Chesca Leigh offers five tips for being an ally:
In short, multicultural education is relevant in any setting, including all-White schools! We hope that the suggestions we have offered, and the resources we link to, will help you get started!
Banks, J.A. & Banks, C.A. (2012). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (8th Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Derman-Sparks, L., Ramsey, P.G., & Edwards, J. O. (2011). What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families. New York: Teachers College Press.
DiAngelo, R. (2012). What does it mean to be White? Developing White racial literacy. New York: Peter Lang.
Gordon, L. (2007). What do we say when we hear "faggot"? W. Au, B. Bigelow, S. Karp (eds), Rethinking our classrooms: Teaching for equity and justice, pp. 95-96. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
Gorski, P. (2008). The myths of the “culture of poverty”. Educational Leadership, 75(7), 32-36
Howard, G. R. (2006). We can’t teach what we don’t know. New York: Teachers College Press.
Johnson, A. (2005). Privilege, power and difference (2nd Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kirschbaum, E. (2015). Whatever happened to German America? The Unz Review.
Kozol, J. (2012). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Broadway Books.
Leonardo, Z. (2007). The war on schools: NCLB, nation creation and the educational construction of whiteness. Race Ethnicity and Education, 10(3), 261-278.
Roediger, D.R. (2006). Working toward Whiteness: How America’s immigrants became White. New York: Basic Books.
Sleeter, C. (2014). Lost histories of bilingualism.
Sleeter, C. (2015). White Bread: Weaving the cultural past to the present. Boston, MA: Sense Publishers.
Smith, G. P. (1998). Who shall have the moral courage to heal racism in America? Multicultural Education 5 (3): 3-10.
Stenhouse, V L (2012). Teacher educators’ understanding of diversity: Painting a picture through narrative portraits. Multicultural Education Magazine, 14—23.
Swalwell, K. (2012). Confronting White privilege. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org
Wise, T. (2010). Colorblind: The rise of post-racial politics and the retreat from racial equity. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers.