Changing Selves: Multicultural Education and the Challenge of New Identity
by Nadine Dolby - 2000
The concept of identity provides a key framework for multicultural education. Dependent on the idea of the Enlightenment subject, the practices of multicultural education presume a unitary, naturalized self with a stable core. This article questions this formulation of identity and argues that the field must embrace a more dynamic and nuanced notion of self. Using data collected during a one-year ethnographic study of a multiracial high school in Durban, South Africa, I demonstrate how students actively produce self and other relationally. Identity and difference are constituted not through naturalized categories, but instead through practices that have the potential for constant reformation. In conclusion, I examine the implications of these students’ practices for multicultural education, arguing that “difference” must be engaged as a changing, not reified, formation.
The concept of identity provides a key framework for multicultural education. Dependent on the idea of the Enlightenment subject, the practices of multicultural education presume a unitary, naturalized self with a stable core. This article questions this formulation of identity and argues that the field must embrace a more dynamic and nuanced notion of self. Using data collected during a one-year ethnographic study of a multiracial high school in Durban, South Africa, I demonstrate how students actively produce self and other relationally. Identity and difference are constituted not through naturalized categories, but instead through practices that have the potential for constant reformation. In conclusion, I examine the implications of these students practices for multicultural education, arguing that difference must be engaged as a changing, not reified, formation.
In some respects, the 1990s were years of tremendous growth for multicultural education. The concept, though sometimes demeaned and attacked in the larger society, has finally caught hold in educational circles. Multiculturalism, it appears, is one of the primary concerns of virtually every teacher, school administrator, student, and education faculty member. Yet despite its popularity and acceptance, as a practice multicultural education is still highly contested. Besides being a field that incorporates varying philosophical positions (McCarthy, 1990; Rodriguez, 1996; Sleeter & Grant, 1987; Spring, 1995), there are numerous critiques that multicultural education is undertheorized (Rodriguez, 1996), has clawed back (McCarthy, 1994), has failed to challenge capitalism (McLaren, 1995), has neglected the complexity of notions of identity and difference (Edgerton, 1996; Grossberg, 1994; McLaren 1995), and ultimately has become incorporated into the mainstream discourses it once challenged. At the same time, there is a growing recognition that the context of our lives is changing (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997), and that current conceptualizations of multiculturalism are inadequate to address the new landscape of identities, relations, and power in a globalized, post-colonial, increasingly postmodern world dominated economically and culturally by transnational corporations (Appardurai, 1996; King, 1991; Morley & Robins, 1995).
One of the predominant theoretical floors of multicultural education is its defining, marking, and deployment of the concept of identity. Identity and categories of identification (such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, and sexual orientation) are central to the current multicultural project. Through drawing attention to the salience of these categories for understanding and interpreting the workings of everyday life, multicultural education derives its power to describe, analyze, and intervene in the practices of schooling. Thus the invoking and use of these commonsense categories of identification are the cornerstone from which flows much of what constitutes multicultural education. In this article, I question this formulation of identity, and suggest that the field must move from a conceptual understanding of identity as embodied through naturalized categories (for discussion see Rodriguez, 1996) to one in which identity is produced, as Stuart Hall (1996) argues, in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and practices, by specific enunciative strategies (p. 4). Because issues of identity and identification are at the nexus of multicultural education, it is only through a shift in this fundamental concept that multicultural education will be able to begin to break out of its present position as an increasingly mainstream, stale, and ineffective practice.
In the balance of this article, I first provide a brief introduction to identity, discuss how it has been used in multicultural education, and note general challenges to this paradigm that have emerged in recent years. I then examine how youth at a multiracial, working-class high school in Durban, South Africa, construct identity and difference in ways that challenge reified and unchanging notions of self and other. Finally, I conclude with reflections about the implications of these findings for the future trajectory of multicultural education.
MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION: CONSTRUCTING SELF
Identity politics tend to dominate in mainstream multicultural discourses. Theoretically dependent on the idea of the Enlightenment subject (Hall, 1992), this configuration of identity assumes that humans have essential, stable cores that are fully formed and unified. Within this paradigm groups are designated by characteristics that are understood as inherent (though not necessarily biological) and finding ones authentic self, or the core of ones identity, is a central preoccupation. Groups, whether they are divided by race, ethnicity, class, or other categories, are designated distinct and separate and are assumed to have an identity formed through some authentic common origin or structure of experience (Grossberg, 1994). Approaches to multicultural education that emphasize learning about different groups, focus on the banishing of stereotypes, or stress respect, tolerance, and/or learning from difference are implicitly invoking an Enlightenment conception of identity.
Multiculturalism linked to this particular form of identity is increasingly common and has become, as Kobena Mercer (1994) argues, a way to manage diversity and difference, through the bureaucratic mantra of race, class, and gender. While this specific model of multiculturalism takes hold in both educational and corporate circles, challenges to this narrow manner of conceptualizing self proliferate in cultural studies, in post-colonial theory, and in some cases, within education itself. For example, Cameron McCarthy (1990, 1995) demonstrates how identities are not solid and unified, but are often nonsynchronous, and thus a particular politics cannot be assumed in advance from ones positioning within the matrices of identity.
Perhaps more fundamentally, Joan Scott (1995) reminds us that difference, and the very identity categories that have been established, are not a condition of human existence, but an enunciation . . . that constitutes hierarchies and asymmetries of power (p. 5). Chandra Mohanty (1994) similarly argues that the central issue, then, is not one of merely acknowledging difference; rather the more difficult question concerns the kind of difference that is acknowledged and engaged (p. 146, emphasis is the authors). In other words, both the fact that identity exists as a theoretical construct in our lives, and that identity has been created through particular categories at this moment, are not pre-given naturalized conditions. Instead, identity as a concept, and divisions such as race, gender, ethnicity, and class have emerged as salient ways to think about and describe difference because of specific historical and contemporary structures of power and corresponding practices.
This questioning of both the construct of identity and the ways in which it is organized in the late twentieth century have led to a boom in rethinking identity outside of Enlightenment paradigms. While theoretical debates on identity proliferate (Hall, 1996; Rajchman, 1995; Rutherford, 1990), I am particularly concerned here with examining identity as a phenomenon that is actively produced and reproduced, instead of as a stable entity that exists before the social world.
DISRUPTING THE ENLIGHTENMENT SELF
While the Enlightenment self emerges independent and autonomous, there is growing recognition during the early part of the twenty-first century that identity is actually formed in the process of interaction between self and society. This sociological subject, as theorized by G. H. Mead (Hall, 1992), still has an inner core, but it is constantly shaped and transformed by the society that surrounds the self. This initial break allows for the development of theorizing that takes into account the dynamic and changing nature of the world, and postulates that identities are the product of social forces.1
One of the most significant theorists to extend the sociological subject paradigm is Stuart Hall. Halls seminal work proposes that identities are formed not in isolation, but always in relation to an other and through the practices of representation. As Hall (1991) argues, Identity is a structured representation which only achieves its positive through the narrow eye of the negative. It has to go through the eye of the needle of the other before it can construct itself (p. 21). Thus, for example, the construction of whiteness as an identity is dependent on the construction of blackness, and is formed through representation. A similar position is advocated by Edward Said (1978) and Toni Morrison (1993), who argue that identity is not a force that has an inherent, internal, core waiting to be revealed and expressed, but instead is actively constructed only in relation to the other and in large part through the practices of representation. Difference then becomes significant not as an objective category of existence, but as a discursive construction and representation that fluctuates and mutates. From this perspective difference is still a material practice that serves to structure peoples lives to a significant extent; however, a particular identity is neither natural nor inevitable. Halls concept of identity as constituted through the eye of the needle of the other emphasizes that identities are constructed in dynamic conversation with others, and always mapped through relations of power.
If, as Stuart Hall and others suggest, difference and identities are not natural but are produced in relationship with an other then the important questions to ask about identities shift. Instead of probing what identities are and how they structure experience (or what identities a person has), the critical questions revolve around how difference is produced in a particular situation, how it is explained, circulated, and reproduced, and how difference as a construct interfaces with various structures of power. Difference is no longer an absolute and naturalized phenomenon; it is a construction that must be continually reinvented within new and changing circumstances.
In the following section, I examine the question of how difference is produced at Fernwood High and the ways in which this production interrogates and challenges Enlightenment conceptions of identity. I am particularly concerned with how students, in the aftermath of apartheid, give meaning to, perpetuate, and disrupt the concept of race.
PRODUCING DIFFERENCE AT FERNWOOD HIGH SCHOOL2
A white government school until 1991, Fernwood desegregated quickly in the mid-1990s, and by 1996 its student population of 600 was approximately 66 percent black (predominantly African, but including a small number of Indian and coloured students).3 Unlike several other desegregated schools in Durban, Fernwood as an institution does little to improve communication or to promote respect among students from different racial backgrounds. Even the limited possibilities inherent in discourses such as the rainbow nation are unexplored, as Fernwood is engulfed in racial tension and conflict.
Yet, though Fernwood students live in a society still profoundly divided by race, they do not merely reflect and replicate previous generations battles and antagonisms. Instead their identities and relationships are generative of the new terrain of racialized identities. As Paul Willis (1990) comments in the case of black youth in Great Britain:
But young people can never look wholly to the prior generation for clues about how to develop their own identities. The experiences of the two generations differ, and some cultural commonalities with white youth must arise from their shared conditions of life-common experiences in the same streets and schools mediated by many of the same cultural media. (p. 8)
Willis insight is instructive as it draws our attention to examining the structures and forms of apartheid that linger but situates them within a new context. In the case of Fernwood students apartheid categorizations of African, coloured, Indian, and white are still salient ways to mark difference but the meanings given to those racial constructions, and the context in which they are operationalized, have shifted. In charting these new formations, I do not mean to suggest that race has been diminished as a site of both voluntary and involuntary identification. But it is never exactly the same, and these changes make problematic an approach to race that reinscribes its fixity, as opposed to its dynamism.
In the following two sections, I use ethnographic data to illuminate how race functions as an unstable, constantly evolving site of identification at Fernwood High.
THE CHANGING FACE OF RACE I
Difference, as Stuart Hall suggests, does not exist outside of the particular conditions that produce it. Difference is not a static, immobile reality, but a discursively constructed set of practices that reverberate throughout a society; difference is always constructed within, expresses, and produces power (Foucault, 1980). Thus one of the critical aspects of investigating race and the production of racialized selves at Fernwood is to get underneath how difference is produced, within this site, at a specific historical moment.
Racialized difference, of course, has taken on many forms across global space and through time. For example, difference has been understood as lineage, as biology, and most recently as culture (Dubow, 1994; Goldberg 1992). How we think about difference has also changedfor example, in the United States, both Jews and Irish have relatively recently become white (Haney Lopez, 1996; Ignatiev, 1995). Whiteness itself is a fairly new category of identification, only coming to have meaning within the context of European imperialism/colonialism within the past five hundred odd years (Hill, 1997). Racialized difference is not simply a fact that patiently waits to be encountered; instead, it must be actively created and invigorated anew within changing circumstances.
Race at Fernwood reinvents itself (as it does constantly) as a site of identification that takes its meaning, in large part, from affect and affective investments.4 Students are invested in the emotions of desire that surround consumptive practices, particularly the practices of global popular culture. Here, difference is produced, reproduced, circulated, contested, and reformed as a significant construct that organizes students lives, and, specific to this paper, their racialized identities. As Lawrence Grossberg (1989) argues about the impact of popular culture on identity:
. . . 2. It is arguably the most powerful determinant of our libidinal and affective lives, where desires and pleasures, joys and pains, emotions and moods are rapidly constructed and deconstructed, promised and withdrawn, celebrated and realized. 3. It is precisely where our identities and experiences are produced. (p. 94)
In highlighting the role of affect, I do not mean to suggest that it is the only salient difference between students of different racialized backgrounds at Fernwood. Clearly, Fernwood students exist as racialized subjects in multiple ways, and these positionings have enormous consequences for the possibilities of their lives (Dolby, in press). Yet I focus on affect to illuminate Stuart Halls claim that identity is formed by passing through the eye of the needle of the other. The most prominent and public way that Fernwood students engage the other (and thus construct self ) within the site of the school5 is through affect. For example, Amanda, a coloured girl, tells me:
You know if you meet a coloured boy because he wears a certain type of pants, a certain type of shoes, he dresses in a certain way, he acts a certain way. . . . Hell either wear Levis or Collies or Dickeys, instead of wearing our school pants. Shoes youd see a lot of the coloured boys wear All-Stars, Converse, Nike, Reebok, Sebago, like that.6
The specific commodities enumerated by Amanda as signifying coloured do not express an intrinsic, naturalized coloured identity, but instead act to consolidate and produce a particular pattern of goods in their assemblage (Douglas & Isherwood, 1979, p. 5), which are then marked and deployed as coloured within the specific site of the school.7 Critically, race remakes itself in its encounter with its (created) other. In tapping into affective practices to mark and define coloured, Amanda is also, by default, defining the other (in this case, specifically whites, Africans, and Indians) as those whose affective choices are different from those of coloured students.
A similar dynamic is at play for African students. For example, African girls are more likely than coloureds to bypass American jeans and identification, instead preferring European names such as Giorgio Armani and Daniel Hechter. Zola, an African girl, comments on this phenomenon, explaining that whites dont dress in style:
. . . they buy jeans that are R508 or something. But when you are black [African], you are wearing R50 jeans, people are going to say, mmm, thats ugly. We are looking for labels and names. We just look for the label and the label counts and it costs as well.
African girls taste also gravitates toward elegant silk shirts and expensive gold jewelry, taste preferences that mark them racially and also differentiate them sharply from whites. As Jill, a white girl reflects:
Often well find that whites will go out and they wont even buy something, theyll just pull out something from their cupboard and they just slap it on. . . . They [Africans] wear very fancy clothes. Silk pants and silk tops, thats what weve often found. The girls mainly. Boys wear jeans, baggy jeans, and t-shirts generally, or baggy button-up shirts.
Both Zola and Jill understand, act on, and to some extent theorize their difference in part through their affective preferencespractices that are constitutive, not reflective, of difference.
In addition to clothing, music is also a key site for Fernwood students production of difference. As Dumisani, an African student, observes:
Our music is not the same as most of the white people. Most of the white people listen to like rock and heavy metal and their music; but we dont listen to them, and theres nothing you can do about that. Thats just the way it is.
Here, we see how identity must pass through the other, how it is constructed and nurtured in relationship to an other, how it must see itself in conversation or conflict with that other in order to become itself.
Finally, the difference that is constructed by students is located within, and can be productive of, the relations of power that structure South African society. For example, as Janice, a white girl, comments on African girls choice of clothing on a civvies day, it becomes apparent that changes in the position of the other are rocking and destabilizing her sense of a racialized self:
. . . Whites wear what is comfortable, they [Africans] always dress up smart, smart, smart. If you look on break-up day, if we still had civvies on break-up day, you would be hysterical. One girl came in a bridesmaids dress last year. [(Nadine): Why is that?] Ive got no clue. I think they are trying to act better than whites. I dont think they are purposely trying to do it, but in their subconscious they are.
Janices sense of a racialized self is not closed and static. If we accept that whiteness is produced through an engagement with blackness, then as the practice and meaning of blackness shifts because of changing political realities, so will white (and vice-versa). In this example, as the economic position of (some, and still a limited number) of Africans improves, Janices commonsense reading of black (in her terms) is made problematic, and forces her to reconsider whiteness, as it is defined and lived relationally.
The concept of difference is not stagnant, neither in what difference is constructed and prioritized (i.e., race, gender, class), nor how it is constructed (biology, nation, culture, affect). To make selves and others, Fernwood students use the present, the world that surrounds them, and the call of the global popular to rewrite race. Race most certainly had force within South African society in 1996, yet at the same time it searches for new coordinates (as it continually does all around the world). Race must find new ways to prop itself up, to continue to be a viable project in a world in which its biological and national roots are largely discarded, and its equivalence to culture deeply problematic and contested. To become a living, ongoing part of the new identities created by Fernwood youth, race is reenergized through an engagement with affect. Affect does not simply reflect differences that preexist it; instead it is part of creating and recreating race anew.
THE CHANGING FACE OF RACE II
If self is constituted in relation to an other, then identity must be understood as a site that is in constant flux, responding to and recreating itself in the new contexts in which it is located. To illustrate this point with an ethnographic example, I discuss how the racialized category of coloured begins to shift at Fernwood during the course of my research.9
In the upper grades (Grades 11 and 12) at Fernwood, coloured students have forged strong bonds with African students.10 These bonds have developed in several ways. First, most of the coloured and African students in these grades entered Fernwood in the early 1990s, when it was overwhelming white, and they found themselves banding together against a (often hostile) white student body; second, they share (to a large extent) a common class background, often the sons and daughters of teachers, nurses, social workers, and other public servants; and, finally, as students will frequently comment on, they share an affective preference, particularly in terms of music. The racial politics of music cement relations between African and coloured students in these upper grades. As Nikki explains:
I asked Octavia [an African student] how she would feel if a coloured person moved into a black [African] area, and she said it was okay, because we all listen to the same music. But you [Nadine] would listen to different music, if you were a white here. . . . Youd listen to different music, youd buy different clothes. Thats why you wouldnt be comfortable.
Within these African/coloured circles in Grades 11 and 12, music is classified according to racialized positions. African and coloured music connects and coheres in many ways, but white music, as Nikki states, exists in a separate sphere. Rave music, for example, is understood specifically as white music. A coloured student who listens to rave would be ostracized by her or his classmates, and seen as a threat to coloured identity. Despite the existence of these specific racial politics that structure students engagement with rave music in Grades 11 and 12, the situation is somewhat different among the younger (predominantly Grade 8) students. Here, a new and emerging set of politics (including the politics of affect) creates a divergent configuration of racial alliances. At this level of the school, coloured students enter a reality that is predominantly African, not white. In these grades, coloured students find common ground not with African students, but with white students. They share, with white students, the experience of being in an overwhelmingly African environment, and in many cases, of a similar class background. One of the components of these changing alliances is a repositioning of rave music vis-à-vis coloured identity. Rave music is accepted and, in fact, promoted as an aspect of coloured identity among younger students. As Sina, a Grade 8 coloured student, explains:
The white and the coloured nation are kind of mixed now, a lot of coloureds are going out with the whites, and even the dancing, in the clubs. Coloureds are even raving now, but at the beginning of the year it was only whites raving. Now a lot of coloureds rave.11
The affective ties between coloured and white students in the younger grades are both strengthened and produced within the practices of rave. The shared affinity for rave does not simply reflect a new alliance (though in part, of course, it does), but it is also productive of (and secures and strengthens) these alliances. What is also produced here, and is of particular concern for this article, is a new meaning of coloured. Coloured in grade 8 has a fresh and changed resonance, and is articulated to a different set of coordinates, than in grades 11 and 12. Coloured is not a stable entityit takes on new properties and (by extension) new potentialities as it shifts its position and meaning within Fernwood. Coloured today is not coloured yesterday, nor coloured tomorrow, even within the extremely narrow confines of one school. Coloured (like other locations of identity) is a spectrum of identities, sometimes coalescing, sometimes conflicting, always changing. There is no essential racial subject, but a positioning. For as soon as we attempt to fix a racialized position, it alights once again. While coloured in Grade 12 at Fernwood is articulated to blackness, in Grade 8 it articulates more closely with whiteness. I put the terms blackness and whiteness in quotes here to signify that they too are not static. They are not diametrically opposed and immovable poles within which coloured swings, but are in and of themselves moving constellations.12 We see not a pristine, transcendent, authentic self (Goodson, 1998) but as Ivor Goodson suggests, an ongoing project of self- (and I would add collective) narration that constantly reshapes and reforms.
THE COMPLEXITY OF NEW IDENTITIES
Within much of mainstream multicultural education, difference is inscribed as a space of authenticitya place where real selves reside and are waiting to be discovered. If such a discourse were imposed on the students of Fernwood High School, they would be taught to tolerate, respect, and learn from their differences, including, presumably, their racial differences. Much like the current approach to multicultural education in the United States and elsewhere, the unique history of each racial and/or ethnic group (however defined at that particular moment) would be taught, and combined with a pedagogical approach that forefronts the sharing of cultures and the reduction of interpersonal prejudice. A more radical or critical approach might also include a focus on social justice, a critique of capitalism, and a discussion of historical and contemporary inequalities. What is common to these approaches is a shared notion of identity, and a focus on what identity is as opposed to how it is produced. A multicultural education built on such a foundation is destined to be an ineffective tool for teaching students about race and racisms. Even if they cannot always express it, students can see in their daily lives that identities are complex, mutating formations. Race does not behave so that we can easily teach about it. Instead it constantly rearticulates itself, making teaching about an it a difficult and usually unproductive avenue. To think about race in this way is not to deny or diminish its power, it is, in fact, to underline it.
The reality is that race, and racial identities, are slick and elusive things. Race does not proceed unchanged through time and space, but constructs and reconstructs itself, resistant to attempts both to be pinned down and to be eliminated. Racial identities cannot be bounded and framed, for they exceed, engulf, and mock the borders in which we attempt to encase them. Race, and racism, endure, yet one of the reasons they are so difficult to destroy is their state of multiplicity. Racism does not exist in the singular, as a monolithic, all-encompassing system of domination. Instead, racisms (Hall, 1986) proliferate.
Accepting that race and racism are multiple, not singular, constructions, raises troubling, probing questions about the design and focus of the educational research that investigates these phenomena and other aspects of identity. If we are to understand, and intervene in, the ways in which race functions within a school setting, it seems imperative that we ask questions about what race is, and how it circulates, reproduces, and changes in that environment. Investigating these questions may lead us to new ways of looking at and thinking about race, in particular, and identity, more broadly. By analyzing the how of race we tease out its complexity.
Furthermore, if we surrender the fantasy of racial essences and of a blind identity politics, then what becomes important pedagogical work? The questions I raise echo those of Daniel Yon (1995), who asks, What curriculum strategies might be developed so as to engage, rather than suppress, the multiple and slippery ways by which race and racism are lived and practised? (p. 326). Yons research, and that of other scholars such as Susan Edgerton (1996), Kathleen Hall (1995), Pamela Perry (1998), and Alicia Rodriguez (1996), suggest that race, racisms, and difference are more complex phenomena than our pedagogical practices admit, and that we need to move along the road of beginning to engage, not suppress, these complications. In response, I propose that we begin by untangling June Jordans idea that Ive said it a number of different places now in writingand I mean itthat Im really about what you do, rather than who you are (After Identity, 1994, p. 149). Jordans comment leads us away from a focus on the identities people have in a naturalized paradigm, to investigating and thinking about what people do (their practices, in Pierre Bourdieus terms) in their lives to rearticulate their identities.
Of necessity such an emphasis leads us to focus not on how people are different, but on how such differences are created and sustained through the culture that surrounds us. It presses beyond the elimination of stereotyping (though it certainly incorporates it) as such a paradigm still assumes and prioritizes the existence of a real. This approach to multicultural education draws attention not to naturalized differences, but to the ways in which economic, political, and cultural structures manufacture and then use difference in ways that are often contradictory. For example, a class might examine the practices of corporations that use difference to sell clothes, while at the same time exploit existing economic structures to exploit a still colonized (this time by transnational capital) other. Facing and engaging with these uses of difference, and the way global capital, the state, and other forces are intricately tied up with the creation of race, is a more politically powerful project than one that teaches students to accept, celebrate, and respect difference. The pedagogical aim of these practices is to engage students in a project that looks at the ways in which difference is constructed, how its significance shifts, how it is operationalized in a society, and most critically, why difference matters. As Nicholas Burbules (1997) argues, examination of systems of difference are a integral component of the educational project. He writes, Tolerance of difference, or for that matter celebrations of difference, are not the ultimate educational outcomes we should be after; it is the critical re-examination of difference, the questioning of our own systems of difference, and what they mean for ourselves and other people (p. 111).
Race, for Fernwood students, is a crucial part of the selves they both inherit and recreate. It is a category of difference that holds enormous power within the historical structures of South African society, and will certainly continue to be a critical point of voluntary and involuntary identification. As a category of difference, it is never static. The challenge for educational research, and pedagogical practice, is to think about how to both analyze and engage with students to remake difference, so that difference is positioned not as an absolute state of being, but as a contingent variable that in its continual mutations holds the possibility of enriching, not diminishing, our lives.
Thanks to the staff and students of Fernwood High School. The research reported here was supported by a Fulbright grant.
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NADINE DOLBY is a lecturer in education, Monash University. She is the author of Constructing Racialized Selves: Youth, Identity, and Popular Culture in South Africa (in press, SUNY Press).