Engaging Multicultural Education
Safety in Sameness or Drawing Out Difference?
I see the problem of racism as a problem of power. Therefore, the intentions of individual actors are largely irrelevant to the explanation of social outcomes. Second, based on my structural definition of racism, it should also be clear that I conceive racial analysis as “beyond good and evil.” The analysis of people’s racial accounts is not akin to an analysis of people’s character or morality. Lastly, ideologies, like grammar, are learned socially, and, therefore, the rules of how to speak properly come “naturally” to people socialized in particular societies.
—Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists
Over the past forty years, educators have advocated multicultural education as an educational approach with the explicit purpose of improving the school experiences of students, increasing learning and achievement in diverse school contexts, and ultimately bringing about greater equity. Unfortunately, these goals have not been achieved, despite the growing body of scholarship and the rising numbers of educators who claim to engage in this thing we call multicultural education. Instead, when multicultural education is examined in schools, what we find are nebulous explanations of what multicultural education actually is alongside business-as-usual practices (Sleeter and Grant 2003) that reproduce the very conditions multicultural education is supposed to change. Multicultural education has become a weasel word to denote something that has to do with diversity in educational contexts but that fails to address inequity. As such, multicultural education is a nice way to engage diversity.
This chapter examines how teachers in the Zion School District engaged this particular educational approach and suggests that the way teachers understand multicultural education shifts between ideologies of sameness and difference. The specific forms of sameness and difference change depending on the context and particular demographics of the students being taught, but multicultural education is almost always equated with either what I call powerblind sameness (i.e., denying difference) or colorblind difference (i.e., denying racial difference while recognizing other forms of difference).
Teachers’ allegiance to both sameness and difference was highlighted in an interaction I had with a White, male social studies teacher at Birch Secondary School. After a class discussion about the recently aired Super Bowl and the various commercials that objectified and demeaned women, Mr. James looked toward the table where I was sitting with some students and said that he was thinking about a conversation he and I had had earlier in the day and was wondering if multicultural education “includes the gender piece.” I asked if he was asking me or his students, and he said he was asking me and added, “Does multicultural education target girls?” One of the young women of color in the class called out “Yes!” and another said, “I’m multicultural.” I explained how some people would claim that multicultural education is only about race, but that many others believe it is about race, gender, sexuality, language, religion, and disability.
I then asked Mr. James how he would have answered that same question if I would have asked him it. He said, “I don’t know; it should because there is also a gender issue.” I asked whether he also thought multicultural education was about other categories besides just race and gender, and he said he was unsure. He asked, “If you include everyone, then is it really multicultural education?” because “then we’re just treating everyone the same” and “you aren’t differentiating.” He was quiet for a moment and then he added, “I guess then we’d be better off.” He trailed off this sentence with a thoughtful or possibly confused look on his face, and he started the day’s “official” lesson about the American Revolution.
The curiosities articulated by Mr. James (e.g., “Does multiculturalism cover the gender piece?” or “Are we worried about more than race?”) and conclusions he draws (e.g., “We’d be better off not differentiating”) were echoed by many other teachers at both Birch and Spruce. The tentative nature of his musings about difference, gender, and treating everyone the same are familiar and acceptable ways for teachers to engage diversity. Most teachers have a genuine curiosity about diversity, but they engage the issues in nice ways that never actually threaten inequity. Dancing between valuing sameness on the one hand and difference on the other hand is a common manifestation of whiteness. By exploring how teachers take up multicultural education, this chapter also highlights how whiteness is reified through appeals to powerblind sameness and colorblind difference.
Numerous frameworks define what multicultural education is in theory, and most of these frameworks articulate a range of approaches that all fall under the broad umbrella of “multicultural education” (Banks 2001; Castagno 2009; Gay 2000; Nieto 2004; Sleeter and Grant 2003). The following six approaches capture the range that is represented in most theoretical discussions of multicultural education:1
- 1. Educating for Assimilation. In this approach, diversity is perceived as a threat and something to be ignored or downplayed. Power and neutrality are located in the dominant mainstream culture. Students are educated to assume their role in the current social order.
- 2. Educating for Amalgamation. This approach is neutral toward diversity. Commonalities across people and groups are emphasized in order to reduce prejudice and promote unity.
- 3. Educating for Pluralism. This is a cultural relativist position. Cultural differences are celebrated and respected.
- 4. Educating for Cross-Cultural Competence. In this approach, competence and acculturation in different and multiple cultural settings are encouraged.
- 5. Educating for Critical Awareness. This approach facilitates increased awareness—and questioning—of the status quo, relations of power, and social structures.
- 6. Educating for Social Action. In addition to being aware of the status quo and inequity, in this approach students must work to change structural inequities and promote social change.
Each of these approaches relies on different assumptions about the purpose of education in a multicultural and democratic society. Each also inspires very different curricula, pedagogy, and educational policies.
The kind of education I advocate is aligned with the sixth approach—that is, education that focuses on equity, culture, and power by requiring high academic expectations for all students; centering multiple perspectives, cultures, people, and worldviews in the curriculum; and equipping students with an understanding of issues of power, privilege, and oppression as well as ideas about how they might educate against whiteness. I recognize that I set a very high bar here and that the kind of education I advocate stands in stark contrast to the nice approaches to education typically seen in schools. But the purpose of this chapter is not to promote what multicultural education is, is not, or should be. Instead, the purpose is to examine how multicultural education is engaged by real teachers at Birch and Spruce as one avenue for understanding how whiteness gets reified through well-intended, and typically nice, diversity-related efforts in schools.
Teachers in the Zion School District held two general understandings of multicultural education that were both iterations of a concept I call powerblind sameness. Sameness refers to the belief that all students are the same and do not possess any differences that matter for the teaching and learning process. Powerblindness takes the notion of colorblindness and broadens the scope to include identity categories beyond race. In other words, powerblindness includes colorblindness but also includes other elements. Whereas colorblindness refers to our reluctance and avoidance of race and the role race plays in our everyday lives (Bonilla-Silva 2009; Delgado and Stefancic 2001; Frankenberg 1993; Gotanda 1995; Haney-Lopez 2006; Lewis 2003; Pollock 2004), powerblindness refers to our reluctance and avoidance of race, social class, language, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity that are linked to power (or lack thereof) and the distribution of resources in the United States. Some aspects of identity are minimally linked to one’s access to public goods and power structures. The term powerblindness references those identity categories that are intimately linked to the access and distribution of power. Thus powerblind sameness refers to the denial of power-related difference.
At both Spruce and Birch, teachers’ understanding of multicultural education as powerblind sameness was articulated in their belief that multicultural education is for “all students.” After my second visit to a Spruce language arts classroom, the teacher came up to me and wondered what I had been writing notes about, because she thought what she had done that day “was a pretty universal lesson” that was applicable to and effective for all her students. She went on to tell me that she did not “distinguish between colors” and that “I just teach learners” because her “students are all learners no matter what their culture is.” The investment teachers have in “universal lessons” aimed at “all learners” can be seen in the way they link multicultural education to learning styles and to human relations. But in its presumed inclusivity and neutrality, the appeal of education for “all children” actually reifies whiteness. “All children are somehow benignly the same. ‘All’ is not a word that carries heterogeneity. It suggests instead likeness and similarity. It implies children who are different slowly becoming more like all of us (whoever we are)” (Ball and Osborne 1998, 395). Teachers’ investments in powerblind sameness operationalize these assimilationist assumptions about diversity and legitimate them within a presumably inclusive, and thus nice, framework.
One of the most common ways that teachers associated multicultural education with powerblind sameness was in their reference to “learning styles.” When I asked, “How would you characterize or describe multicultural education?” teachers from both Spruce and Birch answered with multiple references to learning styles. The teachers’ explanations of multicultural education were peppered with phrases such as “different levels and styles of learning” and “my students don’t all learn the same way.” These explanations of multicultural education often reflected a tendency toward powerblind sameness through claims that “we are all just learners” who simply “learn differently.” Ms. Howard summed up this sentiment well when she said, “Multicultural education to me means reaching a diverse audience as far as it comes to learning and teaching. There are so many different learning styles, so I just try to use a lot of visuals and check in with students and make sure they are getting it.”
Teachers also, then, associated multicultural education with the necessity of using a variety of teaching strategies in order to best meet the needs of students with various learning styles. Much like Ms. Howard, Ms. Pela explained, “There [are] a lot of hands-on and visual-learning techniques where you can teach the same thing just in different ways, different strategies.” Reflecting this same idea, other teachers talked about multicultural education in terms of “addressing kids on different levels” and using “different teaching strategies because of different skill levels.”
Author: So what does multicultural education mean? I mean, how would you explain multicultural education to someone who is unfamiliar with that concept?
Mr. Perry: Well, I think it’s just because I’ve been teaching so long, that I just think it [multicultural education] is just part of good education. Because I know there are certain kids that, I mean, that’s why I use the videos and the visuals because they can see it written and they can hear it, but they don’t know how to spell it. Because when I’m just doing things and dictating they have a horrible time, but when they see it up there, they are much more keyed in. . . . So I think you just try to hit everybody.
Mr. Perry believed that multicultural education was about how students learn differently; so his responsibility as a teacher was to employ various techniques to “hit everybody.” Like Mr. Perry, Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant (2003, 39) explain, “Many teachers see themselves as responsible for helping students fit into the mainstream of American society. They believe that students who do not readily fit in because of cultural background, language, learning style, or learning ability require teaching strategies that remediate deficiencies or build bridges between the student and the school.” Mr. Perry also noted that he was talking about not just “kids who are multicultural” (by which he later explained that he meant students from other countries whose first language is not English) but rather any student—regardless of background, language, or race—who might struggle with particular styles of teaching.
Scholars of this learning-styles construct stress repeatedly that everyone has a learning style; although we each have different learning styles, we all at least have some learning style (Brandt 1990; Dunn, Beaudry, and Klavas 1989; Sims and Sims 1995). Much of the literature on learning styles also makes some connection between learning styles and diversity: One author notes that “the importance of having a thorough understanding of learning styles becomes more critical when applied to diverse populations” (Anderson 1995, 76), and another claims that “learning styles can help us in a practical way to value diversity” (Brandt 1990, 13). As the teachers in the Zion School District illustrate, however, relying on concepts such as learning styles and teaching strategies allows educators to erase—or at least ignore—other meanings of diversity and focus on the commonality that “everyone has a learning style.” Furthermore, if all students have a learning style, and if that is what is emphasized, the logical conclusion is that it is the primary role of teachers to diversify their teaching techniques in an effort to reach those who learn differently. The role is not, then, to focus on race, gender, or any other form of difference among students, which is consistent with most teachers’ preferences toward powerblind sameness (L. Johnson 2002; Marx 2006; McIntyre 1997; Sleeter 1996).
At both Spruce and Birch, the teachers’ regular appeals to ideas about learning styles provided a way for them to avoid talking about power-related differences among their students and instead maximize the similarities between them. In other words, an important function of the learning-styles discourse was that it allowed teachers to talk about students in nice ways—ways that avoided reference to power-related aspects of their identities. This avoidance protects whiteness because race and structural arrangements of power are obscured.
The strong appeal of the learning-styles and teaching-strategies discourse is fundamentally rooted in a desire to achieve and/or maintain a powerblind society. Believing that multicultural education is really about learning styles and teaching strategies allows educators to maintain the belief that schooling is apolitical and disconnected from the inequities outside the school walls. These beliefs, then, explain and justify the absence of educational practices that might begin to critique and change current social arrangements. The links to niceness are not hard to find.
The teachers’ explicit associations between multicultural education, learning styles, and diverse teaching strategies led most teachers to the conclusion that multicultural education is no different from “good education.” When I asked teachers, “How would you describe the relationship between good education and multicultural education?” I often heard something close to the following: “I think that they are exactly the same. I think that regardless of what culture or socioeconomic status or ethnicity they are, a teacher is always going to have to find ways to reach students that learn differently than others. I think regardless that is your goal . . . to find what works for certain students.” Teachers at both schools described the relationship between multicultural education and good education by noting, “I actually think that all education is multicultural,” “I think it’s the same because education in general, multicultural or not, is based on life experiences,” “Well, they should be the same thing actually,” and “I think they are kind of the same. You can’t have one without the other.” As these quotes illustrate, the tendency of teachers to equate multicultural education with good education was overwhelming.
Gloria Ladson-Billings explains how when she spoke with teachers about her research on excellent teaching for African American students, the usual response was for teachers to claim that she was merely describing “good teaching” rather than “some ‘magic bullet’ or intricate formula and steps for instruction” (Ladson-Billings 1995a, 159). Her concept of “culturally relevant pedagogy” (Ladson-Billings 1995a, 1995b) is, in fact, what many educators would consider “good teaching,” but it is not merely connected to “teaching strategies,” as many teachers seem to believe. Ladson-Billings explains how the good teaching that she describes in culturally relevant pedagogy is much more related to “the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of their practice, i.e., how they thought about themselves as teachers and how they thought about others (their students, the students’ parents, and other community members), how they structured social relations within and outside of the classroom, and how they conceived of knowledge” (Ladson-Billings 1995a, 162–63). This is not unlike Lilia Bartolome’s (1994) argument that the persistent “methods fetish” among teachers solely concerned with finding the “right” teaching strategies misses the importance of the ways power and dominance are reproduced in schools, the deficit view held by many educators about students of color, and the institutional oppression that affects students’ performance in school.
Some multicultural education scholars promote multicultural education as “good education” (see, for example, Banks 2001; Nieto 2004) in order to make it more legitimate and palatable to teachers in a range of school settings. While this makes sense in theory, teachers often take up the language of multicultural education to describe what they do even though they do not subscribe to the meaning of multicultural education that most leading scholars have articulated. In other words, teachers have co-opted2 the name multicultural education to describe what they have always done. This, then, illustrates an important concern in packaging transformative educational strategies as “just good education.” Whiteness encourages the co-opting of potentially disrupting philosophies and practices in order to maintain inequity. This reframing of potentially dangerous concepts is also consistent with niceness because of the way it obscures structural dominance behind individually focused issues.
The second way teachers in the Zion School District understood multicultural education as powerblind sameness was through a commitment to improving human relations skills. Most teachers believed that improved human relations were both the goal of multicultural education and the actual effect of engaging multicultural education. Teachers at both Spruce and Birch talked about how they believed multicultural education would expand their students’ worldviews and therefore lead them to be more respectful and accepting of diversity.
Spruce teachers talked about the goals of multicultural education as exposing people to the “interesting” and “diverse and rich” cultures that are in Utah, expanding students’ understandings of the world, and teaching students that everyone has a culture that is deserving of appreciation. These teachers also believed that multicultural education affects students by encouraging them to get along and treat each other better, creating more unity among people, and gaining a better perspective on life by recognizing that the world is bigger than they thought.
Author: What do you think the goals or purposes of multicultural education are?
Ms. Sean: I think students get along better. They treat each other better. I mean, they are happy; they just have a better perspective on life because they are not just thinking about themselves, and they have more unity. They just . . . um, yeah, [have] better well-being.
Birch teachers also referenced the goal of making students more well rounded by having them interact with those who are different from them and the effect of students becoming more understanding of differences. In discussing the goal of multicultural education, Ms. Ramirez, for example, explained, “So I think that is the main idea that students should get, that their way is not the only right way. That there are many ways, and they all could be right.” She went on to talk about some of the effects of multicultural education: “I think it makes them more understanding of differences. It teaches them to be respectful of differences, to let them know that their way is not the only way.” In a similar vein, Ms. Wendall noted that multicultural education is “very important, and it makes us all much more well-rounded to meet people from different ethnicities, from different cultures.” Teachers consistently highlighted the importance of students being exposed to difference (i.e., different cultures and ideas), but in none of these instances was difference problematized, linked to power, or associated with inequity. Exposure to difference, then, served a larger purpose of advancing sameness, unity, and niceness.
Educational practices related to human relations were evident throughout the Zion School District in their adoption of the Community of Caring program. Although the Community of Caring program is not explicitly packaged as multicultural education, more than half the teachers I spoke with talked about it as an example of how they engaged multicultural education. Community of Caring is a national program that the Zion School District had selected to serve as a framework for its “character education” efforts. The district’s website explained: “Community of Caring is a K–12, whole school, comprehensive, research-based, character-education program with a unique focus on students with disabilities. Community of Caring was founded in 1982 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The five core values of caring, respect, responsibility, trust, and family are integrated into every aspect of school life, including the existing curriculum. The program emphasizes the idea that the ability to reflect upon and act upon values is essential in shaping lives, illuminating goals, and guiding responsible decisions.” Lessons relating to one or more of the Community of Caring values (i.e., caring, respect, responsibility, trust, and family) were most common during the homeroom/“advisory” period at both Birch and Spruce.
One teacher at Birch, for example, facilitated a thirty-minute discussion about lying with her advisory class. She initiated the discussion by asking the group, “What is a lie?” One student answered that it could be good or bad, and the teacher asked what kinds of lies might be good and then what might be good about a lie. She returned to her original question and asked again, “So what is a lie?” She also asked if it was “still lying when you know the truth but don’t say it,” and then, “If you lie and don’t get caught, does it really go away in your heart or soul?” And finally, “Is there a difference between a big lie and a little lie?”
After students offered various responses to these questions, the teacher read a story about a girl whose mom lied to her about gang activity so she would not go out after the school dance; the girl went out after the dance anyway. Her friend lied to the original girl’s mom about coming home right after the dance, and finally, the friend’s mom failed to tell the original girl’s mom what really happened. After reading this story, the teacher asked which was the “worst lie” in the story, and the students debated their different opinions for a few minutes. Then a student asked, “What if what you did was so bad that you can’t tell them; then how do you get your conscience back?” The teacher said, “That’s a good question, let’s ask the group.”
This was one of the more effective human-relations lessons I observed. This teacher was skilled at facilitating conversations and eliciting comments from most students through the use of provocative questions and examples to which students could relate. But this example also illustrates how human-relations lessons generally focus on individual ethics and personal decisions rather than on structural or institutional issues. Even at their best, human-relations educational practices generally do not facilitate equity because of the individually based morality they advance. In other words, they emphasize individual and interactional niceness, which in turn solidifies institutional and ideological whiteness.
Although some of these lessons were engaging for students, most lessons that were taken directly from the Community of Caring resource binder seemed overly packaged and disconnected from student interests. One activity required that each student write something “nice” about every other student in their class. Another asked students to write answers to a list of questions about “honest Abe” (i.e., Abraham Lincoln) and how he demonstrated the value of trust throughout his life. And still another directed students to draw a cartoon illustrating one of the five Community of Caring values. While these activities are not necessarily bad, they highlight the limited nature of human-relations approaches to multicultural education. They are illustrative of the nice ways educators engage diversity and how we typically school youth in niceness.
This notion of multicultural education as human relations is a common theme in the literature. Similar to the belief expressed by teachers in the Zion School District, “Advocates of human relations . . . believe the approach needs to be fostered in everyone, and in all schools, to make our democracy work and bring about world peace” (Sleeter and Grant 2003, 81). The goals of human-relations approaches to multicultural education are working toward greater harmony in social relations among all students, encouraging students to learn about cultural differences while respecting others’ right to deviate from the norm, creating unity and tolerance among people, and reducing prejudice (see, for example, Gibson 1984; Kincheloe and Steinberg 1997; McLaren 1994; Nieto 2004; Sleeter 1996; Sleeter and Grant 2003).
While these goals certainly have some value, a number of critiques have been leveled against human-relations approaches to multicultural education, including that they fail to address the structural nature of inequity, can be assimilationist, implicitly accept the status quo, and are only concerned about diversity when it threatens the perception of harmony and unity (Sleeter and Grant 2003). Thus, while many teachers equate multicultural education with human relations, most scholars in the field argue that a narrow focus on human relations does not go far enough in working for greater educational equity and, ultimately, in challenging whiteness. I would add that a focus on human relations as a manifestation of multicultural education merely reinforces whiteness through its valuing of niceness. Part of being nice means not talking about potentially conflict-laden topics such as discrimination, privilege, and oppression (Boler 2004; Castagno 2008; Howard 1999). In order to “just get along,” it becomes necessary to maintain this niceness in the face of often obvious and explicit marginalization and systemic inequity.
The curricular emphasis at Spruce and Birch on human relations was especially interesting because students at both schools seemed to get along fairly well, work cooperatively in groups when that was required, and treat their peers and adults with respect. This is not to say the students were “perfectly behaved,” but it is to say that most of them already had a strong sense of the values human-relations education tried to instill. What the students lacked, however, was knowledge “about their own position in the social structure and what to do about it” (Grant and Sleeter 1996, 83). Lessons aimed solely at human relations rarely, if ever, address issues of the larger social structure, our place within it, what that means, and strategies for social change.
In fact, part of the appeal of human-relations approaches to multicultural education is precisely that they do not require teachers to broach these complex and potentially threatening subjects. By focusing on personal values and how to get along, educators can believe that this alone will solve society’s social problems, and more important, they can locate the blame within individual people who are “immoral” rather than in everyone’s role in maintaining structural inequalities and relations of power. There exists a clear tension between the individualized, nice interaction called for in human relations and the collective agitation required for social change,3 and whiteness both supports and is supported by an emphasis on the former.
The investment teachers have in powerblind sameness shapes how they engage students and issues of diversity that arise in their classrooms. Even when they did broach topics related to diversity, teachers at both Spruce and Birch engaged the issues in nice ways—that is, in ways that avoided conflict, inequity, and power. One example occurred in an art class when the teacher asked students to sketch six scenes depicting themselves preparing a meal. Almost all the students decided on meals that were representative of their ethnic background, and after hearing that a Mexican American girl drew herself preparing a rice dish, a Vietnamese American girl asked, “You cook rice? Me too.” This small bit of dialogue illustrates how this particular lesson could have been used to initiate a discussion about food practices among diverse families, the types of foods that are readily available in particular communities, and even how that is related to larger political and economic structures on a global scale. In other words, rather than simply presenting a lesson that asked students to reflect on and illustrate their own food preparation, this art lesson could have been a jumping off point for a meaningful dialogue about equity, power, and whiteness.
Another instance occurred in a class that was developing posters to hang around the school hallways to encourage students to read. The teacher asked her students why reading was important, and someone replied that “it helps you get farther in life.” Another student then asked, “Can I do a picture of someone picking up trash and then a lawyer and write ‘who will get farther in life?’” The teacher replied, “Sure; that’s a great idea.” I observed many similar examples where students equated not succeeding in school with “working at McDonalds” and other presumably undesirable jobs, and in none of these instances did the teachers question the assumptions being made about meritocracy, equal opportunity, or capitalism. Instead, the teachers implicitly agreed with the students and perpetuated the myth of meritocracy that says if everyone succeeds in school, then they will all have pleasurable, high-paying, and rewarding employment upon graduation. “According to this framework, merit is the only difference between the haves and the have nots” (Lee 2005, 71).
By assuming that true meritocracy exists, educators fail to expose students to ideas about how structures limit the opportunities of particular groups of people and thus imply that if you work hard and still do not “get ahead,” then it is entirely your fault. In other words, although meritocracy might be a worthy ideal, it is not a reality in the United States, and by believing that it is a reality, we are unable to see inequities and therefore will not work to eradicate those inequities. Thus, because of the ways it masks structural inequities, meritocracy is yet another iteration of powerblindness.
But it was not just students’ assumptions and comments that encouraged nice responses from teachers; teachers’ lessons and their own exhibited knowledge were also consistent with powerblind sameness and therefore engaged diversity in safe ways. One example occurred in an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) class in U.S. history when students were learning about “westward expansion.” The teacher mentioned that the New Mexico Territory was once Mexican land but was “given up” to the United States. A Mexican American student said in a surprised and possibly disappointed tone of voice, “So Mexico just gave it up?” The teacher nodded her head and said, “Yes. . . . through treaties . . . and by force.” The teacher then moved on to another topic, even though the class of predominantly Mexican immigrant youth was clearly interested in this topic and unsatisfied with the history as it was presented. Although teachers often believe that they are offering neutral, fact-based information in their classrooms, knowledge is always from a particular perspective, and in U.S. schools, it is almost always from the dominant perspective; thus it results in the marginalization of other knowledge (Apple 1993; Connell, Ashenden, Kessler, and Dowsett 1982; Lee 2005; Nieto 2004).
Another example occurred in a class that was learning about basic economics: The teacher introduced some vocabulary terms and distinguished between “needs” as “something you must have to survive” and “wants” as “things that make life better.” He proceeded to talk about how “we have a choice in our economy because that’s how capitalism works” and that that was different than if we were living in a third-world country because we would then be “immediately concerned with our needs.” He concluded that in the United States, “We pretty much take our needs for granted and can just deal with our wants.” This teacher failed to recognize—or at least acknowledge publicly—that he was talking from a very specific perspective and that there are people in the local, and certainly national, community that do have to be concerned with their needs rather than wants. He clearly assumed a middle-class perspective, even though the distinction between needs and wants could have been a starting point from which to do some critical work around social class, capitalism, and economic relations of power. Here again we see how teachers’ presentations of issues of diversity and equity are consistent with niceness. By avoiding structural issues and framing issues in presumably neutral ways, teachers advance nice engagements with diversity that ultimately do very little to advance equity.
Teachers’ investments in ideologies of powerblindness, meritocracy, and the value of sameness over difference lead them to take a business-as-usual or assimilationist approach to education. By maintaining their commitment to notions of sameness, educators are compelled to avoid teaching about ideas that may either disrupt the perceived unity of all people or question ideologies of sameness. These are nice ways for teachers to take up multicultural education. Significantly, educators’ tendencies to link multicultural education with sameness generally served to perpetuate their belief in the possibility and value of powerblindness. Whether they were psychologizing students by focusing on learning styles and teaching methods, humanizing students by focusing on human-relations education, or engaging diversity in safe ways, teachers maintained a strong loyalty to a powerblind ideology—an ideology that protects and reifies whiteness.
Ultimately, teachers understood multicultural education in terms of both learning styles and human relations, and they believed multicultural education was simply “good education” for all students. Although in theory multicultural education is important for all students (Baker 1994; Nieto 2004; R. Powell 2001; Sleeter and Grant 2003), I am not convinced that in practice this discursive appeal to sameness and all students has the same meaning. Multicultural education is intended to highlight, and thus reduce, inequities, but the sameness discourse instead serves to hide such inequities. Powerblind sameness also protects whiteness by assuming a White norm, since the sameness implies that everyone is the same as “us.” By associating multicultural education with sameness, educators are adopting a nice, powerblind perspective that erases any political or potentially threatening form of difference. In other words, good teachers respond to learners and help students get along, but they do not see or respond to things like race, social class, or gender. This stance privileges the individual and offers little impetus to pursue equity. In this way, it is a decidedly nice approach to diversity.
Powerblind sameness is also intimately connected to ideologies of meritocracy and equality. Believing that everyone has the same access to—and opportunities for—success and ignoring the ways in which structural arrangements maintain power hierarchies results in the reproduction and reinforcement of whiteness. By associating multicultural education with powerblind sameness, teachers fail to work toward the promise of multicultural education even though they have adopted its language.
Whereas teachers’ sameness discourse was powerblind and thus allowed them to avoid multiple important identity categories, their difference discourse highlighted particular identity categories that they were willing to see and name. Educators’ associations of multicultural education with difference were related to either the socioeconomic status, the language background, or the refugee identity of students. Although none of these appeals to difference were explicitly about race, they were all coded for racial meaning. These difference discourses, then, ultimately rest on a colorblind ideology that ignores race and posits that race and racism do not matter in the lives of students or within schools. The way colorblindness allows teachers to avoid race is particularly important given the persistent racial achievement gaps in the Zion School District. Race clearly matters in this context, but even though educators at Spruce and Birch are making efforts to address the achievement gaps, they fail to consider how race matters in the very problem they are attempting to solve. Because race and racism form the core of whiteness, failing to acknowledge them also fails to challenge whiteness.
What distinguishes educators’ difference discourse of multicultural education from their sameness discourse is that certain categories of difference are permitted in the difference discourse. Although colorblind difference is a subset of powerblind sameness, I discuss colorblind difference here separately in order to highlight the specific ways in which it was manifested at Birch and Spruce. Illustrating how educators sometimes equated multicultural education with colorblind difference highlights how they sometimes recognize that students may possess certain differences that impact the teaching and learning process. But engaging multicultural education as colorblind difference advances particular forms of niceness and thus protects whiteness just as engaging multicultural education as powerblind sameness does.
Birch teachers employed notions of difference in their claims that multicultural education was simply what they do every day because of the presence of “culturally different” students in their classrooms. This is different from the notion of sameness where teachers talked about multicultural education being for “all students” because in this case, although they were referring to almost all the students present at Birch, they were clear that they teach in a unique setting where almost all the students were from low-income backgrounds and were “different.”
This theme was evident from my very first visits to the school when I introduced myself and explained that I was interested in studying diversity and multicultural education. Upon hearing this, one administrator said proudly that “we are the most diverse school in the state” and another told me that “this is a good school to do it [the research] in.” A number of the teachers equated multicultural education with having a high percentage of culturally or ethnically different students in the classroom. During an interview, one teacher responded to my question about what multicultural education meant in the following way: “It’s just coming from different backgrounds and probably the kid might have been born in the States but his heritage might not be from the States. . . . I have a lot of students [who] are Mexican. They are not from Mexico; their families are from Mexico. Many of them speak Spanish; some of them don’t. But . . . um, it’s just coming from a different culture. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been born in the States, it’s what your heritage is.” In responding to my same question about what multicultural education meant, another teacher commented:
Ms. Wendall: Um, multicultural education is teaching kids [who] have very different . . . um, backgrounds, very different cultures . . .
Author: Um hmm, so when you say kids from different cultures, what do you mean by that?
Ms. Wendall: I mean like, so for example, we have Hispanics here, Samoans—
Author: So like race or ethnicity?
In these cases, the investment by Birch teachers in difference is evident in the way they characterized their entire student body as “different” from the students found in other schools. But the teachers I spoke with never named race; the difference to which they referred was always about social class, culture, or occasionally ethnic background.
Social class, and specifically ideas about poverty, played a significant role in the way teachers at Birch understood multicultural education. This phenomenon is at least partly explainable by the fact that 95 percent of Birch students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Although 80 percent of the students are students of color, when referencing notions of difference, Birch teachers generally stayed away from the topic of race and instead focused on the socioeconomic status of the local community. Most teachers I spoke with relied on their understandings of difference related to poverty to shed some light on student behaviors and attitudes that the teachers otherwise could not understand. Teachers believed they could be more effective with students when armed with what they perceived to be accurate and helpful information about “the culture of poverty.” Most of the ideas teachers at Birch had about “poverty” came from reading groups and workshops the faculty participated in related to Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty (1996). I provide more detail about Payne’s work in chapter 4, but it is important to point out here that poverty was a popular way for Birch teachers to talk about difference.
I spoke with only one teacher—Ms. Ramirez—who questioned the general tendency among Birch teachers to blame the low-income backgrounds of their students for the educational struggles they faced. This teacher, who was also one of the few teachers of color at the school, explained a conversation she had with a White teacher:
[The other teacher] said, “This is not a minority race problem; the one that we face here, it is a poverty problem. It doesn’t matter what race, what nationality they are, but their real problem is being poor.” And I just . . . I tried to understand her thinking, and I just tried to think of, you know, maybe minority students [who] were middle-class. And in a way, she is probably right, and in a way she is not. Because she is looking from her own, her own personal window that is a White, middle-class person, and she sees everything from just, you know, having money or not.
The White teacher’s continual reference to the “problem” of poverty illustrates her deficit thinking about Birch students and reflects how Ruby Payne’s ideas have been embraced by many teachers. In analyzing why Ms. Ramirez might have disagreed with this dominant perspective, two factors seem important. First, as a new teacher, she had not yet been inculcated into the Ruby Payne way of thinking that was so pervasive among more veteran teachers at Birch. Although she certainly was exposed to informal conversations with teachers (like the one she described) and even various comments in faculty meetings, she had not yet attended an official professional development on this issue or read the book that so many of the other teachers had. Second, Ms. Ramirez was clearly relying on her own frame of reference as a person of color in the United States to justify her belief in the importance of race in addition to, and perhaps even over, socioeconomic status.
Equally significant at Birch were teachers’ ideas about refugee status and particularly about the recently arrived Somali Bantu students. Some of my first encounters with teachers at Birch included them informing me about the “the new students from Africa.” Later in the year, teachers again spoke frequently about the “Somalians” when a number of them were transferred midsemester from a local elementary school to Birch. Although Birch served a number of students classified as “newcomers” who spoke no English, the students from Mexico, Latin American countries, and East Asian countries were rarely identified in my conversations with teachers. Instead, many teachers were overly concerned with the Somali Bantu students, whom they perceived as troublemakers, uninterested in education, and academically low performing. One teacher who taught an ESL course with a number of Somali students voiced her frustration that they were being transferred out of the newcomer classroom and into hers before they were able to “read and write and explain things in English.” She commented that “this is the mess we’re dealing with” because the number of newcomer students was simply too high for the one full-time newcomer teacher to handle on his own. In describing the lack of success she had working with the Somali students in her class, she said, “It’s at the point where I just want to give them paperwork; I don’t even want to talk to them.” Most teachers referred to these students as “those ESLers” and “the African kids” and presumed that I was interested in observing and helping with this particular group of students.
Birch teachers’ discourses about their “culturally different” student body, low-income students, and the Somali Bantu students reflect both colorblind and deficit ideologies. In the numerous conversations I observed about the Bantu students, their identity as Black Americans was never mentioned, nor did teachers consider the possibility that race and racism mattered in the lives of students. Teachers clearly held deficit beliefs about these students’ behaviors and academic abilities, and by limiting their analyses to the students’ ethnic and cultural identities and difference, teachers were able to easily avoid (or code) race. Similarly, by equating multicultural education with the education of their predominantly “culturally” and “ethnically” different student body, Birch teachers could maintain their meritocratic, deficit, and colorblind ideologies and therefore remain uncritical of the racialized status quo.
Many of the deficit-oriented appeals to difference were not necessarily nice within conventional understandings of what niceness means. Indeed, there is something curious about the ways niceness breaks down in these instances. But even when niceness is not maintained by individuals or through interactions between individuals, niceness continues to function in service to whiteness. In other words, among a predominantly White, middle-class teaching staff, it is nice to protect oneself, one’s colleagues, and the institution through which you all succeeded (i.e., school) from blame for the persistent failure of particular groups of “other people’s children” (Delpit 1995). Whiteness is never not at work.
At Spruce—a predominantly White, middle-class school with a small number of Latino, native Spanish-speaking students sheltered in ESL classes and a small but growing number of students (White and of color) from low-income families—language and, to a lesser degree, poverty were the primary forms of difference associated with multicultural education.
Almost all the teachers at Spruce made explicit connections between multicultural education and ESL—so much so that they seemed to equate multicultural education with the education being provided in ESL classrooms. This first struck me when I visited classrooms at the beginning of the semester to introduce myself, meet the teachers who had volunteered to participate in my research, and find out when they preferred me to visit their classrooms. Although they had all signed off on the letter I sent that described my research “on multicultural education” and were present at a faculty meeting less than one week earlier where I explained that my research was about diversity and multicultural education, almost every teacher at Spruce with whom I spoke initially assumed I was only interested in observing the periods during which they taught English-language learner (ELL) students. At least seven teachers told me about their ESL classes and then hurried through the rest of their schedules with comments such as “the rest is just regular.” They believed that since I was interested in multicultural education, I would want to come to their ESL classes as opposed to mainstream classes during other periods. When I explained to these teachers that I was interested in a range of classes, they often seemed surprised.
Many teachers at Spruce did not teach ESL classes, but they did teach classes with a large number of ELL students who were tracked and sorted into the same classes. Even these teachers, however, believed that I was only interested in observing the ELL students in their mainstream classes. One teacher, for example, specifically pointed out who these students were and commented that “it might be interesting to see how they process differently” from the other students, and another teacher introduced a student to me by saying, “She’s only been in the country a couple years, so she might be an interesting student for you to talk to.”
Teachers also talked about the goal of multicultural education as being to “help” English-language learners gain better language skills and “get up to speed” with the mainstream population—thus still basing their understandings of multicultural education on ideas about the differences between students and what is needed to be effective with these “different” students.
Ms. Howard: Even with my multiculturals, I still do a lot of writing (like vocabulary) because, yeah, maybe they don’t get the vocabulary word, but they are practicing writing, they are practicing spelling—even if they are not consciously realizing it.
Ms. Carol: So you have to kind of get a different mind-set and kind of go, get to their level and be more, you know, explicit about the definition of things and actually show them. . . . So it’s more hands-on things or bring in things to show them what it is and that type of thing.
Mr. Robeson: Ah, a lot of it is fairly basic. I mean, paying attention to the kids; and if they have language problems and understanding and things like that, then you try to accommodate that. I mean, if I stand up and give a lecture and the kids speak Spanish and don’t understand any English, that’s totally zero for them. So you need to start seeing where the kids are and what they are doing and stuff like that. Things like group work or sharing or something like that. Pairing a student [who] is better with the language with a student [who] is not as good with the language. Those kinds of things pay great dividends. And he [the student who speaks English] can explain to him [the student who is not so good with English] what you just said, and he [the latter] will have a much better understanding.
In addition to the continual reliance on “teaching strategies,” teachers consistently talked about difference as it related to language. There are at least two important points about this emphasis on language. First, the discourse around language was always isolated from any other diversity-related issues. In other words, teachers never referenced the ways language, race, social class, or gender intersected or the larger politics and contexts around language use in the United States. And second, discourses around language typically included an underlying thread of deficit thinking, so that language difference slipped into language-related deficiencies.
In addition to an emphasis on language, a number of teachers at Spruce also referenced “poverty” as an important difference that informed their ideas about multicultural education. Throughout the year, I heard countless remarks from teachers and administrators about “the neighborhood kids” and the kids who were “bused in.” Although socioeconomic status was never explicitly named in these references, this was clearly what was meant and communally understood, since students who lived “in the neighborhood” were from middle-income and upper-income families in one of the most sought-after areas of the city, and students who took the bus to Spruce came from lower-income and less-desirable areas of the city. Another example occurred one day in the teacher lunchroom when I mentioned an article in the morning paper that talked about how the state legislature recently passed a bill that could make technology, life skills, and careers (TLC) courses optional in Utah schools. One of the teachers responded that she thought making TLC optional was “a terrible decision” because of the impact it would have on low-income students. She explained, “I feel bad for the kids who don’t have any role models at home.” She wondered who would teach them to “eat right and stay healthy” and concluded with “these kids need those skills.”
Other references to socioeconomic status as it relates to multicultural education were more explicit. In a conversation with one teacher about how her incorporation of multicultural education has changed over the past ten years at Spruce, she explained, “When we weren’t a magnet school anymore . . . we had a different population coming in . . . a lot more poor kids and um, there were kids coming in that hated teachers. Their parents hated teachers.” The change in boundaries that accompanied the termination of Spruce being the district’s ESL magnet school resulted in Spruce serving more students from low-income homes, and this particular teacher was candid about that transition and the difficulties she experienced. She called on this experience within the context of a conversation about why multicultural education is important for particular groups of kids and how that has changed over recent years. Much like this teacher’s tendency to connect low-income status with “hating teachers,” a Spruce administrator talked about “poverty” as the “biggest factor” in the school’s recent decline in test scores and noted that “it’s been documented that drug use and neglect correlate to poverty”—alluding to the problems she believes teachers now face among the student body.
Much like the discourse about a “culture of poverty” at Birch, the associations made by Spruce educators between low-income status and “hating teachers” and “drug problems” are understood as neutral facts. The presumed truth and neutrality is highlighted by the administrator, who prefaced her comment with “the research shows” and stressed that such associations had been “documented.” This framing of neutrality and truth are acceptable ways to articulate otherwise not nice beliefs. Difference and deficit thus become a matter of fact and niceness continues to operate by erasing the role educators, schools, and other institutions play in creating and sustaining inequity.
At both Spruce and Birch, a number of educational practices reflected educators’ beliefs about multicultural education as colorblind difference and, specifically, the connection between difference and deficit. A deficit model posits a strong and inevitable or natural connection between low academic achievement and students’ supposedly deprived family, economic, and social relations outside of school. For teachers who are well intentioned and truly believe they are doing all they can to “help” struggling students, the deficit model offers a kind of rationalization for the students’ continued lack of success and the teachers’ perpetual frustration. At both Birch and Spruce, tracking, lower expectations, and language practices grew out of notions of difference and deficit and prevented educators from pursuing equity.
At Birch, all students and teachers were divided into one of four “teams”: English as a Second Language (ESL), Extended Learning Program (ELP), Resource, or Regular. Each teacher was assigned to a particular grade level and either the ESL/Regular team or the ELP/Resource team. Then each student was also placed on a team, with ELP being the higher academic level or equivalent to an “honors” program, Resource being the lower academic level and for students with minor behavior and/or disability issues, ESL being for students who were designated as not proficient English speakers, and Regular being for students who did not fall into any of the other categories and were simply “normal” or “regular.” I never heard this placement system referred to as tracking among Birch teachers, administrators, or students—despite the facts that, first, their placement in one of these teams strictly determined the courses they took and, second, I was unaware of students moving between teams. Instead, they appeared to consistently take courses with the same general group of students.
Much like the use of the term teaming rather than tracking at Birch, some of the teachers at Spruce also seemed to deny the existence of tracking at their school. Upon learning that they were offering a “remedial reading” class the following year for students who needed extra help with their literacy skills, I spoke with one language arts teacher about how they would determine who should be in this class. After she explained that they were using a number of measures and trying to avoid it becoming a “dumping ground” for students “with behaviors,” I asked her if that meant all the language arts classes would be tracked. She replied “No” but then added, “Well, there’s ELP and honors and then all the rest.” Then she said that next year they were adding the remedial class, so “they end up being tracked.” Her response suggests that the school was not tracking students intentionally, but it just “ended up” that way because they offered four different levels of language arts courses—and actually five, if ESL is included. During another conversation with a different teacher, I was told, “You know how they’re kinda tracked? Well, this is the more intellectual group.” Although this teacher was more direct, she still displayed some reluctance in admitting that students were tracked and used the passive voice of “are tracked” rather than simply saying, “We track them.”
These types of discursive strategies are nice ways to talk about the sorting and selecting mechanisms in schools. The niceness serves to deflect attention and responsibility away from the fact that schools and teachers are engaged in such processes. Only one teacher I spoke with at Spruce was explicit and unapologetic about the pervasive tracking of students, though he still used the passive voice: During my first observation of his advanced-level class, he explained, “These kids are tracked together all day long.”
The presence of tracking at both schools was often accompanied by very different expectations for the “lower” and “ESL” tracked students. I regularly observed two Birch teachers, for example, say things to their ELP classes such as, “You guys can actually read so it makes it easier on me” and “I assume, unlike most of my periods, that most of you know how to spell your name and where you live.” And in yet another class, the teacher regularly modified his teaching for his resource classes to such an extent that they were rarely required to think on their own or even listen and take notes based on what they heard. One instance of this occurred when he initially told the class that he was not going to “baby” them anymore, but he then proceeded to slowly dictate and write on the board exact sentences that the students were then supposed to copy onto a worksheet. The material included information that they had already read collectively and had listened to the teacher illustrate through a story, so the students should have been expected to do more than simply copy statements from the board. Unfortunately, these sorts of lowered expectations fail to prepare students for high school (let alone college) and only serve to perpetuate their low academic achievement.
The students certainly picked up on their placement in tracked classes, as was evident one day in a Resource math class when the teacher told her students that they were working on a problem that was more difficult than problems she had given to the ELP class, and a student replied, “We’re in Resource; we’re not supposed to do hard stuff.” Student awareness of tracking placement was also apparent in a U.S. history class when the teacher told his Resource students that they were farther along in the text than his ELP classes, and one student complained, “I thought the whole point of Resource was that we got to go slower.” Thus there was often a clear sense of difference between the classes and students in the classes.
A handful of teachers at both schools also appeared to hold different expectations for ELL students than for English-speaking, mainstream students (see also Lee 2005; Olsen 1997; Romo and Falbo 1996; Valdes 2001; Valenzuela 1999). I observed a number of examples in both Spruce and Birch classrooms of teachers not following through or being inconsistent in their directives and expectations regarding appropriate classroom behavior and engagement. I also sat in on too many periods when ESL classes seemed to “take the day off” and play soccer outside or do art projects rather than engage in subject-related lessons as the mainstream classes had done.
When I observed a Spruce teacher with her mainstream class early in the day, she distributed a handout and had one student read the directions at the top. The directions asked the class to imagine that they were Utah state legislators who had a number of concerns about practices in the workplace, such as child labor, gender pay discrimination, the absence of benefits for minors, and workers’ compensation. She reminded the class that the day before they had learned how it took a long time for Utah to become a state because of their continued practice of polygamy, and she asked what document finally prohibited polygamy. After this quick review, she explained that the students needed to find one newspaper article related to a workplace issue in Utah. They were supposed to read the article, write a summary, then type the summary, and turn in a printed copy. She specified that students use 12-point Times New Roman font, double space their summaries, and use good sentence and paragraph structure.
The next period was the ESL version of this same core course, and although the teacher also instructed these students to find information related to Utah on the Internet, the assignment and criteria were quite different. She directed this class to the state of Utah’s home page, and she asked them to copy three “quick facts” verbatim from the website on their paper. She then instructed them to find three other “facts” about the state, such as the official state flower, bird, or flag. Once they had copied six facts on their papers, the students were supposed to go into Microsoft Word and type these facts in a list using any font style in either a 12- or a 14-point size. This ESL class had between fifteen and twenty students, who were all at very different levels of English proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking. Two students were classified as “newcomers,” had only been in the United States a couple months, and were probably a very good match for the modified assignment this teacher developed. However, at least five students in the class had very high levels of English proficiency, had already been mainstreamed in other core subject areas, and could have gained significantly more by being assigned the original project. This example is especially interesting because this teacher consistently held all her classes to very high behavioral expectations and was well liked among students and well respected among other teachers. I was often impressed with the creativity and more critical orientation of many of her lessons, so I was surprised when she, too, seemed to slip into the deficit assumptions about ELL students.
The pervasiveness of tracking combined with lower expectations resulted in the systematic delivery of poor-quality teaching and inequitable schooling for students at both Spruce and Birch. Tracking was evident at both schools and was often paired with lowered expectations for particular groups of students. There is a vast body of educational research on tracking practices in schools, and many scholars have critiqued tracking because it results in differential and unequal educational outcomes, limits access to the core curriculum needed for college, systematizes lower expectations for particular students, and is often characterized by an overrepresentation of students of color and students from low-income households in lower tracks (see, for example, Levin 1988; Lipman 1998; Oakes 1985; Wheelock 1992). In the Zion School District, and indeed across the nation, the students who were most affected by tracking and low expectations were those who have been historically and consistently ill-served by U.S. schools: low-income students, ELL students, and students of color. Each of these practices serves to differentiate and sort students along social-class, linguistic, and racial lines. The result is the reproduction of inequity.
Most educators I talked with believed that the various foci on language, poverty, and refugees were a sort of natural outgrowth of the changing demographics throughout the district. The percentage of ELL students in the district had grown exponentially in recent years, and the number of students who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches or who were refugees from various African and Eastern European countries had also increased significantly. Most educators claimed, then, that because these were the issues that were “front and center” in the district, it was “only natural” that they would be the focus of programming, professional development, and conversations about diversity. What this explanation misses, however, is that each of these identity categories also relates to race even though race is rarely ever named. I say more about silences around race in chapter 3, but my point here is that teachers have a strong allegiance to colorblind difference and frame multicultural education around this typically nice ideological construct.
The difference discourse among both Birch and Spruce teachers was wrapped up in colorblindness. Although teachers did recognize and strategize around language, social class, and refugee status, they did not do so when it came to the racialized identities of their students. While Spruce and Birch teachers could be credited for recognizing the salience of things such as the language, social class, and refugee status of students, they consistently failed to recognize the salience of students’ racialized identities. A society in which race is irrelevant seems to be what many teachers strive to create in their classrooms—and many actually believe that this society already exists—given their hyperreluctance to see race. Although rooted in good intentions, colorblindness preserves racial inequity and whiteness (Frankenberg 1993). Although many of the teachers in this study were well intentioned in their allegiance to a colorblind perspective, colorblind ideologies are neither possible nor desirable (Omi and Winant 1994). Colorblindness protects whiteness by maintaining the belief that race does not matter. If race does not matter, then there cannot be inequity, privilege, or oppression based on race, and therefore whiteness neither exists nor is a problem worth examining and changing.
Furthermore, the difference discourse among Birch and Spruce teachers tended to illuminate a strong attachment to deficit ideologies. Cultural difference theory has been prevalent for at least the last twenty years and is positioned in the literature as one explanation of why certain children tend to do poorly in schools in the United States (see, for example, Au and Mason 1981; Erickson and Mohatt 1982; Philips 1983). The theory says that if a child’s home culture matches the dominant culture in school, then that child is more likely to succeed in school. Conversely, if a child’s home culture does not match that of the school, that child is more likely to fail and be disconnected from school. Shirley Brice Heath (1983) illustrates cultural-difference theory in her work with the Roadville and Trackton communities in the Piedmont Carolinas. Each of these communities has unique patterns of behavior around child raising and language use, and each also differs greatly from the Townspeople community’s ways of being. As the children from each of these three communities enter the same school system, students from Trackton fall behind early on, Roadville students fall behind after the first few years, and the Townspeople’s children generally succeed through school. Heath argues that each community’s locally specific culture leads to the relative success of its children in school. Cultural difference theory, then, focuses on a group’s language patterns, cultural beliefs, and expectations as causes for school success among the group’s children.
The theory goes on to suggest that culturally specific adaptations in the classroom will directly impact students’ likelihood of success. Lynn Vogt, Cathie Jordan, and Roland Tharp (1993) demonstrate the success of culturally specific classroom adaptations in their discussion of the KEEP project in Hawaii and the Rough Rock project on the Navajo reservation. For example, native Hawaiian children are accustomed to working together in peer groups, and they practice overlapping speech and have tough but warm adults in their home environments. Thus when teachers in KEEP classrooms made changes, such as implementing learning centers, giving indirect praise, and telling stories relating to everyday life, these students showed marked improvement in school. However, when teachers took these same adaptations to Navajo classrooms, it became clear that adaptations designed for one cultural group did not always work for other culturally distinct groups. According to this line of argument, in order for adaptations to be successful, they need to be culturally specific.
Like any other theory, cultural difference theory has strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths lie in the fact that there is plenty of ethnographic evidence that supports its accuracy. The theory seems to hold true especially when one considers the improved achievement that ensues when teachers make culturally responsive changes in their pedagogy. Another strength of the theory is that it provides motivation for educators to learn about various cultures; this increased knowledge is a benefit in and of itself. The theory has a number of weaknesses, however. While it seems fairly straightforward on paper, it can prove quite difficult to implement in practice, especially in culturally diverse communities. As we saw with the Hawaiian and Navajo case studies, what works for one group often does not work for another. This idea, taken to the extreme, could lead to a desire for culturally homogeneous communities and classrooms, since a uniform group would likely benefit from similar pedagogic adaptations. And finally, critics have charged that cultural difference theory fails to acknowledge the politics of difference—or in other words, how and why differences matter (Erickson 1993).
Although cultural difference theory was developed in response to—and as a critique of—cultural deficit theory, many teachers at Spruce and Birch had co-opted the language of cultural difference in order to talk about deficit in ways that are more acceptable and nice. While it is theoretically possible for a focus on difference to serve a positive function of decentering the norm and allowing for greater inclusivity, in practice educators’ focus on difference too often slipped into a deficit framework. A deficit model posits a strong and inevitable or natural connection between low academic achievement and students’ supposed deprivation outside of school. For teachers who are well intentioned and truly believe they are doing all they can to “help” struggling students, the deficit model offers a kind of rational explanation for the students’ continued lack of success and the teacher’s subsequent frustration (Lipman 1998). Tracking and lower expectations prevent schools from providing a high-quality education to all students and fail to work toward the promise of multicultural education. The deficit model that serves as a foundation for these educational discourses and practices protects whiteness by maintaining that inequity, privilege, and oppression are the fault of particular individuals rather than the result of purposeful structural arrangements.
It is in these instances where educators indicate their investment in cultural deficit models that we also can begin to see the coordinated functioning of whiteness. As a strategic mechanism of whiteness, niceness operates to prevent engaging multicultural education in ways that center power, inequity, or institutional agency. Niceness simultaneously operates to encourage safe, power-neutral recognition of difference and the placement of educational failure squarely on individuals and families. But although the boundaries of niceness allow some push-back around social class, language, and refugee status, the boundaries are firm when it comes to race.
Although I have discussed teachers’ understandings of multicultural education here as fairly distinct and falling under the broad category of either powerblind sameness or colorblind difference, it is important to remember that these appeals to sameness and difference were interwoven, simultaneous, and in constant tension. What is more interesting and significant than teachers’ associations of multicultural education with powerblind sameness and colorblind difference was their persistent ambiguity and slippage between these two ideological investments. In other words, teachers very rarely understood multicultural education as either powerblind sameness or colorblind difference; instead, they shifted between these two frameworks. The very same teachers who talked about “all students” also singled out their low-income students. The teachers who talked about learning styles also spent much time talking about “the ESL kids,” and those who referenced the importance of human relations also explained how teachers should include certain information in their curriculum depending on the “culture” of the students sitting in their classroom. One teacher emphasized different levels and styles of learning in her discussion of multicultural education, but she also repeatedly slipped into dialogue about students from other countries. Another teacher told me, “I mean, like some of the things we are doing now . . . are just a lot of little things that you can do that just help all the kids. In some ways it’s more focused on multicultural, but in reality, it’s going to help all the kids if they pay attention.” Recall, too, Mr. James from the beginning of this chapter and the ways he shifted between sameness and difference in attempting to understanding multicultural education.
At Spruce and Birch, the ambiguity and tension between notions of sameness and difference was also regularly exhibited in the messages teachers sent about language to students. At times, the use of a language other than English was encouraged, such as when Ms. Ramirez spoke conversationally with her students in Spanish and even used Spanish to explain a concept that they did not seem to understand in English. Another example occurred when Ms. White was talking with a student and told him, “I beg you to teach your children Cambodian” and “Don’t lose your family’s language.” She then addressed the whole class and noted how “great” it was to be able to speak more than one language and how important it was to hold on to, and pass down, your family’s linguistic and cultural heritage. While this was the most explicit instance of a teacher advocating bilingualism I observed, it is important to note both that this was in the context of a predominantly White class and that the particular student she was addressing was a fluent English speaker who did not possess an accent and whose native language was not one that he used in school or that would be prominent in the community and thus perceived as some sort of threat to English. I never, for example, heard this sort of valuing of another language among classes with native Spanish speakers. However, a couple monolingual English-speaking teachers at Birch did make an effort to learn bits of Spanish from their students. Mr. James and Mr. Mecha, for example, both used an occasional Spanish word in casual conversation with their students. And yet at the same time, there were a number of teachers who clearly sent very discouraging messages about the use of languages other than English. One teacher, for example, told her students at various points during the year, “English only!” “If I wanted Spanish spoken I would have put you in a language class,” “Your language is English in this classroom; remember that,” and “We’re not in Somalia; it’s important that you understand that.”
Thus, at both Spruce and Birch, the overall message seemed to be that it was appropriate to use a language other than English as long as you were fluent in English and predominantly an English speaker, but that only English should be used in all other circumstances. These multiple messages about language make sense given teachers’ discourses about sameness and difference. English-only practices derive from an ideology of sameness and conservatism, whereas the encouragement of multiple languages in schools derives from an ideology of difference. Both sets of ideologies and practices, however, are couched within a framework of whiteness, where the status quo and the interests of the dominant group are protected.
The ambiguity between powerblind sameness and colorblind difference was also pervasive in professional development offered through the Zion School District. While attending a district workshop for teachers about using the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model, I had a number of moments of confusion regarding who they were talking about, when the model should be used, and where they hoped it would be most effective. The workshop opened with the facilitator explaining that the model was developed for ELL students but that she would refer more generally to “diverse students.” She seemed to link this shift in language with the fact that a number of special education teachers were interested in this model. So because the SIOP model was not just about ELL students, she would usually talk about “diverse learners.” Nobody ever defined what “diverse learners” actually meant or who was referenced by this term. The facilitator consistently and sometimes explicitly implied that she was talking about ELL students, but there were also suggestions that this model was good for all students and should be used in all classrooms. And then still, at other times, she seemed to reference that the model should be used specifically in classrooms with “lower-end” or “less-proficient” students. Much of this language seemed to me to be coded for race and social class, but these categories were never named. And yet at the same time, I felt like the facilitator wanted to be able to sell the SIOP model to teachers in east-side schools with very little racial, language, or socioeconomic diversity.
Toward the end of the workshop, the facilitator talked about how it can be challenging for “these kids” in classrooms that do not utilize the SIOP model. In the next sentence, she finally indicated who “these kids” were: “English learners and special ed kids and diverse kids with needs.” The field note I composed while sitting through this part of the workshop is indicative of the confusion I experienced:
So I think this comes closest to defining who this is all aimed at. The book is specifically designed for just the English learners, but it sounds like [the facilitator] and I assume the district [is] . . . expanding it a bit to include special ed kids and “diverse kids with needs” . . . although, again, here I’m not sure what that means. . . . I mean, I think I do. I assume she means “others,” i.e., kids of color and low-income kids who many teachers find “challenging”. . . . Really, this might be it . . . basically, any kid who isn’t White, middle-class, able-bodied, an English speaker, and a good student. So then, really, we’re talking about the vast majority of the kids in Zion schools. So then maybe they really do see this as “good teaching practices” aimed at “all students.”
Despite my own confusions, I did not observe frustration or confusion among the teachers at the workshop. Teachers did not ask the facilitator to clarify; they sat comfortably in their chairs, following along in their books, and nodding their heads in agreement.
When I asked teachers to talk about district professional-development and in-service practices, they echoed this ambiguity between sameness and difference.
Ms. Sean: Well, we did a lot of training in the district where the whole district would get together and do all of these breakout sessions. And it had to do with just good teaching practices. But [although] it was focusing on just good teaching . . . we knew it was to bring out the lower kids. And, really, to help all the kids. And I don’t know, I thought that was good because it addressed a different style of teaching. Not just the lecture, you know the teacher always talking to the students sitting there listening. Which I think is multicultural friendly.
Author: OK. So were the trainings framed as being for multicultural groups of students or for everyone? Or was it just framed as sort of good teaching in general no matter who you are teaching or who you are?
Ms. Sean: Well, it seems like that is what they would say a lot of times because I think some teachers didn’t think they needed to be there. Because they would say things like, “I teach AP classes and all my kids are, you know, fine the way I teach.” And so they [the district] would say, “Yeah, this is to fulfill our requirement to the State.” You know, they are saying that all the teachers needed to be trained so they can teach ESL kids, but it’s just good teaching [practice] anyway. And we would get bags and lanyards and have clothes that would say, “We Teach the World” and stuff like that.
In describing diversity-related professional-development sessions offered by the Zion School District, this teacher highlights the ambiguity between sameness and difference, between multicultural education and good teaching, and between “all students” and particular “other students.” She also suggests that this ambiguity might have something to do with fulfilling policy mandates to train all teachers on certain issues and the subsequent desire to make the training and issues relevant to all teachers. This relates to the discussion in chapter 1 about the central office efforts around diversity and the way these efforts are largely a reaction to policy mandates. It also, however, highlights the danger in diversity efforts that attempt to be everything to everyone—in doing so, they often become meaningless and void of any real ability to address inequity. Whiteness, then, goes untouched.
Teachers and administrators did not indicate that they recognized the ambiguity between discourses of powerblind sameness and colorblind difference in their understandings of multicultural education. Because both of these ideologies serve as a kind of fortress that protects whiteness, it makes sense that teachers would subscribe to multiple articulations of powerblind and colorblind ideologies given the racially organized system in which we currently live.
Teachers do not recognize the inconsistency or tension between discourses of sameness and difference because it is generally believed that powerblindness and colorblindness are good things. Put another way, ideologies of powerblind sameness and colorblind difference are not viewed as contradictory, ambiguous, or problematic, because the ideology and institution of whiteness allows us to engage both simultaneously.
How do we make sense of the investments teachers have in both sameness and difference? And why is it significant that multicultural education is understood and engaged as both powerblind sameness and colorblind difference?
First, there appears to be a false tension in whiteness between difference and sameness, and this tension has implications for how educators understand multicultural education and issues of diversity in general. So while there is a strong tendency to erase any form of racial difference, there is also a powerful motivation to hold on to racialized dominance and White power. Another way to think about this is that teachers do not want to be perceived as racist, so they lean toward notions of sameness, and yet they are operating within a system of White supremacy that continues to subordinate people of color while benefiting White people. In her research examining White women’s attitudes toward race, Ruth Frankenberg (1993) notes that we consistently articulate analyses of difference and sameness with respect to race. While Frankenberg found that White women often understand race in terms of sameness because of their tendency toward colorblindness, she advocates instead that we understand race in terms of political and social difference.
I am sympathetic to her call for difference over sameness, but it is important to recognize that the majority of teachers at Birch and Spruce did not relate multicultural education to political or social difference but rather to the essentialized notion of difference that Frankenberg rejects and to deficit ideologies. In the end, educators are caught in a bind between a tendency toward both sameness and difference because of the prevalence of whiteness within our schools and the larger society. What may seem like a tension (i.e., because sameness and difference are presumably opposites) is actually a dual system of support for whiteness. And what I’ve described as an ambiguity among teachers between sameness and difference is actually a powerfully entrenched dual discourse that maintains inequity and race dominance.
Second, the presence of two simultaneous discourses and sets of practices that primarily fall along liberal and conservative lines also helps make sense of teachers’ investments in both sameness and difference. The words liberal and conservative take on a different meaning depending on the context and the issue being discussed, and they are not two discrete or neatly separated categories of ideology. But liberalism and conservatism tend to be essentialized in public discourse, and it is this essentializing and either/or dichotomy in which I am interested and that shapes how educators think about multicultural education.
Conservatives tend to stay away from the language of race, opting instead to talk about ethnicity when necessary, and they are more likely to gloss over differences entirely. They tend to adhere to colorblind philosophies and beliefs and thus maintain racial dominance and inequity by discursively erasing racial differences (Winant 2001). Liberals, on the other hand, sometimes talk about race to claim that racial differences ought to be celebrated, and sometimes they argue that the very idea of race is flawed and thus ought to be discarded (Winant 2001). At the same time, liberals advocate for the integration of people of color, while conservatives maintain that any focus on racial group membership simply serves to detract from our common identity as Americans (West 2004). Thus, while on the one hand we hear liberal praises of diversity, on the other hand we hear conservative fears about the “disuniting of America” and how any emphasis on diversity serves to balkanize our country (see, for example, Bennett 1988; Bloom 1987; Ravitch 1990; Schlesinger 1998). These competing discourses take on new and important meaning for educators because “schools are the primary institutional means of reproducing community and national identity for succeeding generations of Americans. This is where we first learn and where we are continually reminded with others of our generation . . . what it means to be an American” (Hunter 1991, 198). Teachers are certainly aware of, and engaged with, these competing discourses. Viewed in this light, the investments teachers have in both powerblind sameness and colorblind difference begin to make sense.
The result of this ambiguity between sameness and difference is that multicultural education protects whiteness by normalizing majoritarian perspectives and knowledge; obscuring or ignoring race, structural arrangements, and inequity; and failing to pursue social change. Figure 2.1 illustrates these mechanisms of whiteness vis-à-vis powerblind sameness and colorblind difference.
Because majoritarian perspectives and knowledge are normalized, particular kinds of niceness are valued (so dialogue and action related to power and race are avoided), social harmony and unity are valued (so anything that might disrupt those goals is avoided), and meritocracy and equality are valued (so oppression is ignored and reproduction ensues). In addition, race, structural arrangements, and inequity are obscured or ignored. This is achieved by centering the individual and by othering groups, perspectives, knowledge, and experiences that fall outside the norm. And finally, social change is not pursued because schooling is neither critically examined and critiqued nor seen as a politicized space. Here equity is not framed as a goal educators should pursue. Instead, assimilation to the dominant norm is pursued and potentially transformative philosophies and approaches are co-opted into nice ones.
Overall, the way multicultural education was understood and engaged in the Zion School District is void of any connection to structural dominance and oppression. This absence is paired with assumptions of meritocracy and therefore results in a schooling system that sees students as individuals acting freely within a society that provides equal opportunities to all. These beliefs about the basic equality of our society are intimately linked to the ways in which deficit assumptions about students are present throughout teachers’ understandings of multicultural education. Ultimately, then, teachers’ understandings of multicultural education reflect an ambiguity between powerblind sameness and colorblind difference that works to reify the status quo. Thus, when multicultural education is engaged by real teachers in real schools, it becomes both everything and nothing. It is everything because multicultural education is used to describe the “good education” that most everyone seems to be offering. But it is nothing because it is void of any meaning related to greater equity and systemic social change. Rather than working to dismantle whiteness, multicultural education ends up protecting—and thus perpetuating—whiteness.
Most educators are well intentioned and want what is best for their students, but whiteness is protected despite (and sometimes through) even the best intentions. Part of the problem is that most educators are not aware of whiteness. In addition to this lack of awareness, most educators are also invested in the status quo of whiteness (Lipsitz 1998). Educators’ good intentions result in powerblind-sameness and colorblind-difference iterations of multicultural education—both of which privilege the individual; obscure or ignore race, structural arrangements, and inequity; and fail to work for social change.