What is multicultural education? At its best, multiculturalismis an ongoing process of questioning, revising, and strugglingto create greater equity in every nook and cranny of school life- whether in curriculum materials, school staffing policies, disciplineprocedures, teaching strategies, or course offerings. And it ispart of a broader movement to create a more equitable society.It is a fight against racism and other forms of oppression, includingthose based on class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physicalability, or national origin and language. It is a fight for economicand social justice.
But this is not to say that multiculturalism is polemical or politicallypartisan in a narrow sense. In curriculum, for example, academicrigor is impossible without a multicultural standpoint. Supposeone is teaching about the American Revolution. Traditional - non-multicultural- curricular ap-proaches to the revolution focus on the actionsof Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and other "great men." Butin 1776, the majority of people in the 13 colonies were women,African Americans, or Native Americans. They pursued their dreamsin ways that profoundly impacted the revolution. For instance,when enslaved African Americans in the South discovered that therhetoric of freedom excluded them, they fled in droves, dramaticallyinfluencing the course of the war, leading to what some scholarshave called "the largest slave insurrection in American history."There is no way to make sense of events following the Declarationof Independence - or any other historical era - without a multiculturalperspective.
Such a perspective is not simply about explaining society, itis about changing it. Multiculturalism interrogates the worldfrom a critical and activist standpoint: Who benefits and whosuffers from any particular arrangement? How can we make it morejust? At a superficial level, multicultural education celebratesdiversity. More deeply, it equips educators, students, and parentsto recognize and critique how some differences lead to deficitand others to privilege. And it compels us to seek alternatives.
In the classroom, multiculturalism means examining teaching materialsfor bias and omission, but also requires that we ask hard questionsof ourselves and our classrooms. Are all our students fairly served?Does our choice of lessons favor some students over others? Whosecultures are represented on the classroom's walls? Do our expectationsof students differ based on race, ethnicity, nationality, class,or gender?
For white educators, pursuing a rigorous multiculturalism is especiallyimportant - and difficult. In society, those on top have the greatestdifficulty recognizing their own dominance. Things seem fine tothe comfortable. So those who are white need to assume the responsibilityof questioning how white privilege plays out in every aspect oftheir educational lives. As anti-racist educator Enid Lee pointsout in Rethinking Our Classrooms, "Oftentimes, whatever is white is treated as normal. So whenteachers choose literature that they say will deal with a universaltheme or story, like childhood, all the people in the storiesare of European origin; it's basically white culture and civilization.That culture is different from others, but it doesn't get namedas different. It gets named as normal."