Race and education: who really benefits from multicultural curriculums?

By Hannah Spruce

Before I became a writer, I was a student of contemporary global literature, focusing on postcolonial literature. My classroom was full of silences on both sides. Two kinds of responses to the materials were made: abstractions by white students and personal responses by black and minority ethnic (BME) students. One of these was held in more esteem than the other. I think you can guess which one. The curriculum may have changed, but the way that teachers and our education system value a certain type of response has not.

Western and colonial education systems have historically focused on the views and beliefs of Western societies. Following the revolutionary Brown v. Board of Education case and the civil rights movement in the US, multicultural curriculums evolved as a reform to combat inequalities and learning outcomes between white and non-white students. Today, modern multicultural curriculums incorporate the histories, literature, values, beliefs, experiences and perspectives of those who have been marginalised or ignored in Western education.

When multicultural curriculums were conceived, the theory behind them was that they would reduce prejudice and racism, improve levels of empathy and most importantly, rectify the achievement gap between white and non-white students. These reforms took a great step, but they are not there just yet.  Multicultural classrooms have been successful in some of these outcomes, but they are still failing to rectify the achievement gap and to mobilise white students to interrogate their white racial identity.

If you are not sure what a multicultural course might look like, mine incorporated novels, poetry, essays, philosophy, theory, and plays from popular BME writers such as Sam Selvon, Hanif Kureishi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Nalo Hopkinson. The course opened my eyes to the impacts of race and ethnicity on everyday life. It helped me to think critically and to consider the perspectives of others. But as a white student, it didn’t trigger any interrogation of my own whiteness or acknowledgement that my discomfort and guilt was a good thing, nor did it consider how I am implicated within a system of privilege. It should have. I, like other white students, think about difficult topics like race and transatlantic slavery in abstract and purely academic terms. I distance myself from the legacy and history in which my skin colour and privilege implicate me. In other words, I don’t want to be the bad guy.

It was uncomfortable studying these texts. I became hyper alert to the BME students in my class. My class should have been uncomfortable because the history of white supremacy is horrific, but the system was far too accommodating to me as a white student, and because of this, it suppressed the voices and opinions of non-white students. Important conversations should not have been shut down.

For students who are often deeply engaged in these issues, have experienced them first hand and as such are experts, their responses are often represented in terms of their own experience. In my classroom, students who did voice their own experiences were met with disdain as though they were soapboxing instead of responding to the source material in a legitimate way. Because of how educational systems value academic input, these experiential responses are not likely to be viewed as a valid academic project or evidence of learning. This response is a way of subtly ensuring that white privilege is sustained within the classroom by delegitimising the personal responses of students whose voices and opinions are surely the most important, as they have experienced the issues under discussion.

A paper published by Dr Daniela Martin examines how far multicultural classrooms have progressed. She found that as a white student in a multicultural curriculum, I benefited as much as or more than my non-white counterparts and that multicultural curriculums have done very little to close the achievement gap and present more opportunities for BME students. Martin also found that teachers, “tended to silence the sharing of students’ personal perspectives during class discussions” even though, for such deeply personal subject matter, it seemed that the preferred method of processing the material was through class discussions for minority students. Martin hypothesises that one of the reasons for the sustained achievement gap is because the changes in the education system were created primarily as an antidote to the lack of knowledge white students possessed and because “minority students have little to learn from a curriculum focusing on race and ethnicity because they are already well-versed in issues of intergroup life.”

Furthermore, minorities who remain at a disadvantage in education systems may be encouraged to censor themselves. Another recent study shows that some students remained silent during seminars and only felt safe voicing their experiences and concerns outside of the classroom. Students may feel that they have to police their own views and remain silent, to ensure that they don’t make white students feel uncomfortable when really, there is a conversation to be had.

Whiteness as a racial category must be examined and deconstructed in all its ugly shades if positive progress is to be made in the classroom.  Changing what we consider to be useful data and encouraging white students to embrace discomfort and the ugliness of whiteness as a racial category could provide a real benefit to minorities who remain at a disadvantage, in education systems where they may be encouraged to censor themselves.

Thumbnail image © Flickr

*This post was originally published in 2016

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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