Reflections of Multicultural Education

It’s the day after the last day of what has been a very busy semester. Being busy is good, and being awash in new information every day is something I relish. But there comes a time when we must pause and reflect, and too often this semester I have not given myself that time. Admittedly, just keeping up with the flood of new information proved to be too much, and the student-to-student whispers of “You can’t read everything, you know” proved too regularly to be true. But finally, now, I can take a few hours and think about the last core course of my doctoral program: Multicultural Education (MCED), taught by Linda Mizell.

Assessing the value of this class has been difficult, as there were plenty of moments during the semester when I felt I wasn’t making much scholarly progress. One reason for that feeling – and a reason I appreciate – is that prior coursework had left me better prepared for MCED than I expected. (Or so I thought.) Rarely were the issues we explored in MCED not ones I’d considered in prior courses like Culture and Ethnography, Ethics in Education, Policy Issues, Education Research and Policy, and Perspectives on Classrooms, Teaching, and Learning. It is a credit to my institution that attention to multiculturalism and equity permeates into most corners of the school, although I admit there are times where I still sense it as artificially layered on to a lesson or, even worse, uncomfortably absent. A second reason for that lack-of-progress feeling stemmed from not being able to keep up with all the reading and assignments for the semester. As I finished the last of my papers last night, I thought back to what remained unfinished and one reading in particular stood out: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

So after submitting my last final paper, I pulled Bonilla-Silva back off the shelf and picked up where I’d left off. I had read all but the last two chapters, but it was in those last two chapters where things appeared to get most interesting. In this, the third edition of Racism Without Racists, Bonilla-Silva added a new chapter at the end addressing the “Obama Phenomenon.” I started reading and almost immediately I was taken back to what I thought made this book so interesting, engaging, and challenging to begin with: Bonilla-Silva’s outspoken criticism of a system that perpetuates racism and inequality. In general, I do not disagree with Bonilla-Silva’s message. But the style with which the message was delivered came as a bit of an uncomfortable shock.

In his detailed analysis of interviews with both white and minority students, Bonilla-Silva exposed the racism found in peoples’ language. For example, in an interview with a white girl named Jill who claimed, “One of my best friends is black” (p. 58), Bonilla-Silva asks her to go into more detail. Jill then describes her friend as “bright” but with “terrible GMAT scores,” and then says, “What he lacks in intellect he makes up for in…he works so hard and he’s always trying to improve himself.” In his analysis, Bonilla-Silva addresses the contradiction about intelligence and points out that Jill never mentions this friend by name. This example by itself might seem lacking in evidence, but it is far from an isolated incident in the text. The dissection of racism in peoples’ speech happens on page after page. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes less so, and I remember feeling during my first reading that I’m glad Bonilla-Silva wasn’t interviewing me, because he seemed to make everybody sound racist!

Now, reflecting exactly on that thought, I see how that thinking exposes how I largely missed Bonilla-Silva’s greater point (even though it’s the title of the book): the kind of racism we’re dealing with now is less about the individual and more about a system. Bonilla-Silva wasn’t after Jill to make her sound like a racist – at least not the kind of racist most people imagine when they hear that label. Bonilla-Silva was instead exposing how Jill, along with most of the other interviewees in the book, demonstrates the systems and structures of racism and how they exist in what we all say, do, and believe. In other words, it’s not about Jill. For the same reason, I shouldn’t have worried about Bonilla-Silva interviewing me, as the interview would have only helped me understand how my actions, behaviors, and attitudes are being affected by the subtle yet significant culture of racism that still exists in our society. And until we are forced to recognize it, there is very little we can or will do about it.

It’s also this same system that allowed much of the country to endorse President Obama, and how that endorsement gives us a false sense of accomplishment that we’ve somehow reached a “post-racial” society. (We haven’t.) As an educator I wonder how we can have policies like NCLB which are so bold to declare a school a failure when achievement gaps persist, yet our greater society and government doesn’t always extend that same failure judgment to the enormous gaps in achievement, income, wealth, health, etc. that we see in our society. Sure, the #Occupy protesters have their message, but it’s unfortunate that so few were shouting until the perils of inequity reached beyond minorities.

The system that Bonilla-Silva describes should not have been an “uncomfortable shock” to me. From where I now stand, I can see how other readings described much of the same system, yet somehow by using more academic or less forceful language I was led to think I understood when I didn’t. Perhaps the best example of this is Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” I remember thinking as I read it, “I really like Beverly Daniel Tatum because she’s making me feel comfortable about a difficult topic.” Where I feared an interview with Bonilla-Silva, I would have welcomed the opportunity to speak with Beverly Daniel Tatum.

But somehow, disguised by my initial affection for the authors, I didn’t immediately see how in many ways Bonilla-Silva and Tatum were largely describing the same system of racism. I’m glad I read Tatum first and then Bonilla-Silva, because now as I reflect I can see how Tatum’s message didn’t really sink in for me; if it had, I wouldn’t have been so challenged by Bonilla-Silva. The lesson for me is not that I need to keep reading more critical work (although that would certainly help), but that it’s going to take more effort to make myself feel uncomfortable about issues of culture, race, class, power, etc., before somebody else gets the chance to do it for me.

For me, the simple title to this post has a double meaning. First is the more obvious, that I’m finally taking some time to think about a class I experienced over the past semester. Second, and more importantly, is the idea that multicultural education has a reflective property like a mirror bouncing light around a corner. As an educator who had a relatively monocultural upbringing in the rural Midwest, and who apparently can still be surprised by the injustices in the world around me, I need to use what I’ve learned about multicultural education to shine some light not only around corners, but back on myself. There’s so much more for me to see, most of which is hidden by its largeness, not its smallness. As an educator this is what we do: we help students explore and understand the world around them, and our reward for doing so comes both in our students’ growth and our own.