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."