Social Justice Teaching Resources from 2002
The question I wish to pose for you is this: To what extent has multicultural education at the college level become an apology for inequality and segregation? To frame this issue, I want to address in very broad terms some of the contributions and contradictions of multiculturalism over the last 30 years.
When Carey McWilliams (1973: 95) wrote about Southern California in 1946, he found “no visible reminder” of Chinese legacies. “There is not a single Chinese place-name in Southern California,” he observed. This erasure of whole peoples from historical memory was commonplace until quite recently. When I started teaching what is now known as “multiculturalism” in the late 1960s, to find materials on “race” for the curriculum was a difficult quest and every item found was a jewel.
One of the most striking shifts in university education during the last two decades has been the increased commitment to teaching diversity and multiculturalism.(1) In most undergraduate programs, students are expected to take at least one required course on the topic; in graduate programs in the “helping professions” -- especially education, psychology, counseling, and social work -- multiculturalism has become “infused” into the curriculum. There is much disagreement, however, about the contents of the multicultural canon, which range from “teaching tolerance” to postmodernist deconstruction of race, gender, and sexuality (McClaren, 1994).
Today, multiculturalism is fashionable and omnipresent: in Benneton and AT&T ads; in Disney’s theme park, “California Adventure,” which includes a video narrated by Whoopi Goldberg on immigrants’ contributions to the Golden State (Sterngold, 2001); in President Bush’s cabinet; in a Gold Rush chocolate bar from the Oakland museum.(2) It also appears in an avalanche of college texts for required undergraduate courses and diversity training for future social workers, educators, and other managers of an increasingly diverse society. The titles tell the story: Handbook of Multicultural Counseling, The Multiracial Experience, Increasing Multicultural Understanding, Social Work Practice and People of Color, Developing Intercultural Awareness, Educating for Diversity, Social Services and the Ethnic Community, to name a few.
Before suggesting a critique of contradictions and problems in the new multicultural literature, let me first recognize some important contributions that have been made.
(1) The “no name” people -- to use Maxine Hong Kingston’s term from her1975 book, The Woman Warrior -- have been endowed with fully human personalities. The archeological project of excavation has not only given voices to the voiceless, but also made them agents, activists, and contributors to society, an important corrective to the legacy of academic racism that shifted between images of inferiority and reified victimhood. “Can a people...live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting,” asked Ralph Ellison in his 1944 critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s portrait of African Americans.(3) Since 1957 (using as an historical marker the publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy), many intellectuals have answered “no” and given us complicated portraits of human agency and creativity. The legitimacy of this perspective is evident in the success of Ron Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993: 427), first published in 1993. It is an optimistic, ground-up view of America’s future: “We have nothing to fear,” he writes, “but our fear of our own diversity.”
(2) Critiques of monoculturalism and ethnocentrism now permeate texts on multiculturalism. Students are encouraged to question assumptions about the norms and standards that they take for granted. They are taught to tolerate and appreciate differences, to exchange their “melting pots” for “salad bowls.” From Peggy Macintosh’s (2001: 95-105) “invisible weightless knapsack” of white and male privileges (first strapped on in 1986) to Stuart Hall’s “floating signifiers” (launched widely in the 1990s), ideas from Cultural and Whiteness Studies have been imported somewhat into multiculturalism to draw attention to instabilities and contradictions inside the very notion of “race.”
(3) Slowly, influenced by Cultural Studies’ “constructionism” and Social Psychology’s “constructivism,” the multicultural literature has begun to reflect a shift in representations of “culture.” Though essentialist assumptions still frame many texts, there is now less of a tendency to represent culture as a fixed set of internalized traits that demarcate one group from another. More attention is now paid to what Hall (1994: 520-538) calls “the dialectic between social being and social consciousness,” to culture both as historically rooted meanings inside relations of power and as lived experiences.
(1) Most students today will get one course on multiculturalism. More often than not, this means one textbook and a fast journey through the minefields. Typically, they will be exposed to a mini-survey of the “most important racial groups,” or to the contributions made to society by previously ignored or despised groups, or to the importance of cultural tolerance. Complexity is often sacrificed for morality lessons. This means, practically, that gender and sexuality are usually subordinated to “culture” or analyzed as special topics in their separate spheres.
(2) It is now commonplace in Sociology to point out “how race, class, and gender operate together in people’s lives...as interlocking categories of experience that...simultaneously structure the experiences of all people in this society” (Andersen and Hill Collins, 2001: 3). Nevertheless, in multicultural education it is rare to find the holy trinity taught as interlocking categories. There are a number of reasons for this:
(3) The multicultural literature is, of course, filled with references to racism and discrimination, and especially to the impact of systemic oppression on people’s everyday lives and opportunities. Yet, I wish to suggest that in the last decade there has been a shift away from explanatory frameworks and from historicizing the dynamics of racism.
Beginning in the late 1960s to early 1970s, literature on institutionalized racism dominated the radical and liberal literature on race. Both Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and the Kerner Report, to take examples from different political tendencies, were widely circulated in 1968. In recent years, the focus in multicultural texts has shifted away from racism to more of an emphasis on the social and cultural contributions made by the victims of racism to the larger society. A celebratory emphasis on “strengths” has been substituted for the old pathological stereotypes of backwardness and inferiority. Contributionism tends to minimize the tragic past to communicate an image of positive agency. Takaki’s A Different Mirror is perhaps the best-known example of this approach. (By contrast, Mike Davis, whose work emphasizes the centrality of racism in the development of Southern California, received a much more hostile reaction from critics.)
Today, old-style modernist critiques of racism are out of fashion in academia as too one-dimensional, too moralistic, insufficiently nuanced, and lacking complexity and attention to resistance.(4) And when a public institution such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art takes a bold step in showing how the “California Story” is constructed on racial myths, it is regarded as too unsettling by the public and critics alike.(5)
In many multicultural textbooks, the “strengths” approach tends to trump critiques of racism. Moreover, when racism is addressed, it is often presented ahistorically, or in universal terms, or as a declining legacy of the past. Students need to know that there are debates about the origins and development of racism; that there are multiple racisms, which operate in very different ways over time; that there are interconnections within the processes of racialization, and between past and present; and that “race” still counts as a compelling system of classification and representation.
(4) The binary, Marxist model of base-superstructure, with its separation of ideal and material forces, has been replaced by a more complex understanding of how “culture” operates inside and through structures of power. This move away from a mechanical economic determinism is all for the better. Yet this does not mean that economic relations should be distanced from cultural analysis, as is too often the case in a great deal of multicultural education.(6) The tendency to minimize class creates the impression that racial inequality can be overcome without any structural transformation of capitalism.
Similarly, while we live in an increasingly globalized economy and hybrid world, most multicultural education operates within the borders and assumptions of American nationalism.(7) Takaki’s A Different Mirror, for example, observes how “we originally came from many different shores,” but then focuses on how we can re-make the United States into a democratic nation of diversity.(8) The nation-centric focus of most multicultural education means that we do not encourage our students to consider regional and global solutions to inequality; nor do we typically draw upon the ideas of world-system intellectuals (such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, and Samir Amin), who have written extensively on racialization as a global process.
(5) Part of the reasons for the limitations of multiculturalism during the last decade is its separation from any kind of radical politics. The practice of contemporary multiculturalism typically is framed in terms of interpersonal communications, of appreciating differences in background and “culture.” By contrast, the early development of Ethnic and Women’s Studies was closely tied to political praxis both on and off campus.
Out of the 1960s, for example, came a strong antiracist literature, which not only exposed the hypocrisies of American democracy, but also resonated in political agendas and strategy. For liberals, the 1968 Kerner Report -- like its 1944 predecessor, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma -- served as a voice of moral clarity, calling upon the United States to live up to its ideals. For leftists, there was the model of national struggles against Western colonialism in the Third World and, at home, the struggle for “self-determination” by the “internal colonies” in the “belly of the beast.” Books such as Bob Blauner’s Racial Oppression in America (1972), Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), Rudy Acuña’s Occupied America (1972), and Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) provided the road map to equality.
Now, disconnected from political visions and strategies, we try to find our bearings without a modernist map and with little remaining of the social democratic, anticolonial, and leftist models of the 20th century to guide us. The radical potential of multicultural education also was weakened by the culture wars -- the campaign against “political correctness” launched by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 and closed by Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve in 1994 -- followed by political attacks on affirmative action and bilingual education in the later 1990s. This neoconservative campaign successfully shifted the multicultural discourse to the right.
The question posed by Hazel Carby in 1992 -- “Have we, as a society, successfully eliminated the desire for achieving integration through political agitation for civil rights and opted instead for knowing each other through cultural texts?” -- still demands our serious attention. As multicultural content has become infused into the curriculum of required courses and standardized in college and high school texts, its political and economic tendencies have been gutted. “Celebrating differences” is a far cry from dismantling inequalities.
TONY PLATT (email@example.com) is on the Editorial Board of Social Justice and is professor of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento, CA 95819-6090. This piece was first presented at the annual conference of the Sociology of Education Association, Pacific Grove, California (February 24, 2001).
1. “Perhaps the most striking shift between 1989 and 1995 has been the increased commitment to diversity and multiculturalism among faculty and their institutions” (Magner, 1996: 12-13).
2. One of the items sold at the Oakland museum to promote its exhibit on the California Gold Rush is a bar of mint chocolate, which is wrapped in reproductions of daguerreotypes of “faces that made up the diverse population of California.”
3. Ellison (1964: 315) wrote the critique in 1944.
4. See, for example, Nell Painter’s critique in the Nation of Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).
5. See Barron et al. (2000). For a critique of the exhibit, see Knight (2001).
6. For an excellent critique of this tendency, see Gonzalez and Fernandez (1994: 469-497).
7. Andersen and Hill Collins’ Race, Class, and Gender anthology (2001), for example, does not include a reference to “globalization” in its index.
8. See Takaki (1993: 428). For a contrasting view, which suggests that Asians “did not come to America; Americans went to Asia,” see Okihiro (1994: 28-29).
Andersen, Margaret L. and Patricia Hill Collins
Barron, Stephanie, Sheri Bernstein, and Ilene Susan Fort
Gonzalez, Gilbert G. and Raul Fernandez
Magner, Denise K.
From Social Justice 29:4 (2002): 41-46. Social Justice is published quarterly. Copyright © 2002 by Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140. SocialJust@aol.com.