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Reimagining Race in Education - Part 1 Approaches to Multiculturalism


by Robert T. Carter - November 19, 2000

An examination of various assumptions about multiculturalism

Gary Natriello:

I am delighted to welcome to the Education and Policy class tonight, Professor Robert Carter, who is Professor of Psychology and Education, and Director of Training and Counseling Psychology here at Teachers College, and Professor Carter is known for his work on black and white racial identity, has published in the areas of psychotherapy process and outcome, career development, and equity in education through the lens of racial identity, and he's also the conference director for the Teachers College Winter Roundtable on cross-cultural psychology and education. If all of you are here in the winter, which I hope most of you will be, you should all be coming to that. Probably two of the most exciting days of college. So, I'd like to welcome...

Robert Carter:

Could you position - I'm not sure where I'm fitting in - they've done so far -

Gary Natriello:

You are right in the middle of a section that we're talking about urban and minority education issues, and you had to follow a lecture from Professor Linda Powell from last week.

Robert Carter:

And she talked about...

Gary Natriello:

And she talked about urban education and people's views of urban education and why policy in urban education seems to be stymied in so many ways. And it's often connected with the way that people view kids who are in urban settings, and their families and their resources.

Robert Carter:

Okay.

Gary Natriello:

Okay, does that help?

Robert Carter:

A little bit.

Gary Natriello:

Okay. Anyway, welcome.

Robert Carter:

Thank you. I'm - I struggled to sort of understand where I am in relationship to where you are, because hopefully that'll make what I'm going to say to you tonight make more sense. Gary, did you assign the special issue?

Gary Natriello:

We assigned the whole set of reading - not the whole special issue, but your paper.

Robert Carter:

My paper? Okay. So, have you all read it yet? Some of you have? Some of you haven't, I see a few nods. Well, those of you who have, have an advantage, because a lot of what I'm going to say is basically based on that paper, what you get the benefit of a live explanation rather than just written words. And I guess a lot of what I'm going to do, at one level, may seem very conceptual and theoretical, but for me, it's really not. What I'll try to do, when we get to certain points tonight, is try to connect what may appear to be something very theoretical and conceptual to what I think is most concrete and substantive. I'm going to present to you two sets of theoretical notions. One, I think, is more contextual, in terms of…

[Adjusting overhead projector] okay, so I'm not technologically sophisticated, you all can see, I can't even turn it on. No, over here. Thank you. Oh, it wasn't plugged in. [struggles with machine] Alright.

Basically, what I'm going to do is just try to move through the talk and then bring you up to date with regard to the overheads, because I'd like, at least, a chance to have some discussion about what I'm going to talk about.

This is based on the notion of re-imagining race in education. And it's particularly based on a view from psychology. I'm going to talk about underlying approaches to multicultural education, as I think about people approach this issue. And what I'm going to try to do is offer a conceptual model that I developed some time ago as a way to expand an understanding of multicultural education, and to give it a little more perspective, I guess you could say, and try to argue for one of those positions, after I give you the sort of overview. So, in my effort to give the overview, I'm going to present it in such a way as to suggest that no one particular perspective is any more valid than the other, okay, which is important, I think that they all have advantages and disadvantages. And while I hold the view that one is not particularly more important or more powerful than the others, I subscribe to one. And then, we'll advocate for that one, and present the way in which I think that that one can help us re-imagine race in education. So that's sort of the way I'm going to move through the talk.

My rationale for re-imagining race in education has to do with the demographics that you're probably well familiar with, that while people talk about our society as being diverse, what I see is racial group memberships. While it's true that there are a lot of cultural groups and ethnic groups, what tends to stand out more than anything else in my mind is the racial-ethnic group membership in the country, where 70% of the children in schools in the larger cities in the country are from racial-ethnic groups. And 96% of those people in those schools who teach, or administer them, are white. And yes, they may come from different ethnic groups, but nevertheless, what stands out the most is their racial group memberships. So, for me, this suggests that we need to find a way to rethink and understand the role of race in education.

One of my pet peeves about what people call multicultural education is that it tends to de-emphasize issues of race. Even though its foundation was based on race relations and understanding race relations from the 1950's and 1960's, and over time, we seem to have moved away from that, in the effort to be more inclusive, and I think the effort to be more inclusive has basically diluted the issue and distracted us from what seems to be at the core of our difficulties, when it gets to be - when we talk about urban education or when we talk about multicultural education in general. Now, remember that a lot of what you're going to see here is already written down in the article that I referred to, so if you don't get something down, please don't panic.

Now, I'm a psychologist, and sometimes it seems odd, for me, at least, a psychologist, talking to you about issues of education. But it seems to me that both fields do recognize the need to address cultural differences, and yet, we approach understanding culture or cultural difference from very different points of views and perspectives, and I think you'll see what I mean by that when I get to talking more about race. In general, it seems to me that education approaches dealing with cultural differences in relationship to teaching and learning, and psychology tends to look at cultural differences in relationship to human development and psychological interventions. So, we want to tinker with people's development when we deal with cultural - understand that, and educators are more appropriately focused on learning and teaching. Now, it seems to me that, when we deal with multiculturalism, whatever that means, it's unclear what people mean by - people tend to take the term and define it in many different ways. I think that the definitions that people put forward, have associated with them what I call unstated, and often unexamined assumptions. And I've tried to organize these assumptions into types, and I think the types of assumptions that people make represent what I call distinct fundamental conceptualizations of cultural difference.

Said another way - I think that there are fundamental, existential notions about human development and human beings, that drive people's approaches or assumptions about cultural difference. And I think these are important and powerful. But they never, ever get stated up front. My effort is to try to bring them to the surface, at least to suggest that they're there, bring them to the surface, and make them explicit. I think that they - and I've argued that there are essentially five types of assumptions. I call them universal, ubiquitous, traditional, race-based, and pan-national.

The universal assumption - and I'll get into this in a little more detail, but not a whole lot - essentially believes that all people are human and share culture as humans. The ubiquitous approach, or assumption, contends that all forms of group and social identity are cultural. Traditional contends that one's country of origin is the difference that matters the most, and one's socialization, with respect to that country of origin. The race-based approach suggests that race is the locus of culture, and the criteria for group membership is based on skin color, physical features, etc. And pan-national takes the experiences of being oppressed and being the oppressor, as the distinct locus of culture. And then, what I'm going to do now is talk about each one of these in a little more detail.

Are you keeping up okay? Okay, I'm known for giving hand cramps, so, because I tend to talk fast. So if I'm going a little too fast, you need to, you know, maybe do your hand, let me see that you're getting hand cramps. I'm also moving quickly, because I want you to have a chance to talk to me. I don't think it's fun for me to just talk and you just listen. Yes?

Student:

Hi. Are you saying that these five assumptions are - that they're all contemporaneous, or that -

Robert Carter:

That's too big a word for me.

Student:

Okay, that a person is - that _________ - that people are - that these are - that these five assumptions are distinct, or that they're - I mean, someone is holding that - the assumptions, at the same time? Is that…

Robert Carter:

I think that they're - I don't think you can hold multiple fundamental assumptions.

Student:

Okay. Okay.

Robert Carter:

Okay? Either you believe the world is round, or you believe it's flat. You don't usually think it's flat and round. Okay? You either believe that extra-terrestrials exist, or you don't. You know, it's either you believe in Scully or Mulder, you know, you really can't - [laughter] - you don't go back and forth, you know? Although Scully's shifting a little bit on it, now that Mulder's out of the picture. [laughter]

Student:

This is related to the question, though, is there one that's more prevalent?

Robert Carter:

I'm arguing that you'll see these - if you look at what people say and you listen carefully to what they imply and what they present to you, you'll be able to discern what the fundamental assumption is. These are not explicit. So, for instance, if you read learning theories - what is the assumption about difference?

Student:

Very little.

Robert Carter:

No, there is a difference.

Student:

Or the environment.

Robert Carter:

So, according to the models, do we need to go through them before you all can do this exercise? Okay? Let's go through them, and then I think you'll be able to see the difference, because I'll actually tell you some of them.

In the individual, or universal perspective, it equates culture with individual difference. So that what's important is the human bond, and that people are basically the same, and that intra-personal differences are greater than inter-group differences. So that while culture matters, it matters only as it pertains to you as an individual. Not to you as a member of any groups. Okay? So, it's an aspect of your individual identity, and only should be understood in that context. And this notion is common in theories of human development and theories of learning.

What you learn about is human development with the universal assumption, the principles and ideas apply to all people regardless of the groups that they belong to. Right? Okay. At least that's what I've read, maybe it's changed since I read the stuff. So the advantage of this perspective is that it reminds us that all humans have many characteristics in common, in that we all are unique individuals, that's true.

The disadvantage that this perspective offers is that it does not help us think about social-political history and inter-group power dynamics, because it doesn't teach us to look at group membership as having any more meaning than any other group membership. Are you with me?

The ubiquitous assumption equates culture or difference with any group membership. So, any group difference is considered to be cultural. Doesn't matter, really, what it is, it could be geography, income, gender, sexual preference, doesn't matter, it's a culture. And that a person, then, can belong to multiple groups which are thought of as cultural groups. You've heard this perspective before. So, group memberships that are cultural are believed to supersede one's dominant cultural framework. Okay? Because therefore, being American is less salient than to being a male. If American culture is the dominant superordinate culture that we live under - do you follow that? According to the ubiquitous perspective, what's more important is male group membership as a cultural group membership. Yes?

Student:

But then, doesn't the - you're saying that the - that the highest - if we're American, then you're looking at it through one of your perspectives already, right? You're not bringing it down to - you're not bringing it down further -

Robert Carter:

I'm not breaking it down, I'm talking about what this view creates. There is such a thing called American culture. Okay?

Student:

But you're looking at it through one of the - the breakdown as ______ right?

Robert Carter:

Yeah, so if we're looking at it from this perspective, then American culture is much less salient, okay? And what I'm arguing is that what the ubiquitous perspective does is, it puts all group memberships on the same level, and treats them sort of equally. Now, the advantage to this is that we don't see social group differences as pathological. But we also miss the world of influence of the superordinate cultural context, that we ignore that, and we also ignore understanding difference from a cultural, a historical perspective. That gets lost. We become ahistorical, and only sort of think of things in the moment.

Student:

[unintelligible]

Robert Carter:

I'm sorry?

Student:

Can you exemplify both the advantage and the disadvantage of the ubiquitous category?

Robert Category:

There was a time when some social group memberships that we try to accept today were seen and thought of as pathological. They were actually - well, in the book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, were actually classified as psychological and psychiatric disorders. Okay? So, there was a time when they were seen as pathological, and for some segments of our society, are seen as deviant, okay? We actually think, for instance, that left-handed people are oddities because we don't structure our classrooms to accommodate them. But other social categories, like sexual orientation, certainly, was seen as a psychological disorder subject to treatment, and today, we don't do that. Another group membership we now - were seen as deviant, we don't tend to see them as deviant today. At least most of us don't. Okay?

The disadvantage is that if we put everything on an equal plane, then we leave out history. So that fact, for instance, gets lost. Because we're not looking at things at a historical perspective, okay, so we're not looking at the way in which events in our social history have influenced the importance of various group memberships, and how that came about. Okay? So, an example would be, what was the basis for the tremendous progress in the women's movement in this country? We know it happened, but some people don't know how come it happened, or why it took on the energy that it took on in the 1970's and 80's. Okay?

To a traditional approach assumes that one's country, socialization experience, and background comprises the core elements of country. So culture equals country. Individuals are members of cultural groups by birth, upbringing, language, etc. And when people belong to reference groups, or what I call domains of difference, or what we might call social groups, such as gender and age, ethnicity, and social class, these are expressed through culture that's determined by one's country of origin. So the advantages of the traditional approach is that it reminds us that society's institutions influence and reinforce the meaning of behavior, thought, and feelings that we learn through family and institutions that we participate in, and that's an important thing to be reminded of.

The disadvantage is that it de-emphasizes these processes that occur within a particular country, or that have evolved due to some sort of ethnocentrism or racism or class difference or religious differences. And we also lose sight of within-group variability, when we look at country as the primary locus of culture.

When we think of race as equaling culture, we assume that race is defined by perceptions of one's skin color, physical features, and language, and is the primary locus of culture, primarily in North America, but, I think this also applies throughout the world. Race is a social-political designation which carries with it assumptions of one's worth and access to social resources, and at the same time, individuals within racial groups vary with respect to their psychological identification with their socially ascribed racial group. So this is a concept that those of us who are American are pretty familiar with, we've operated with this notion of culture for much of our history.

This view, like others, has advantages and disadvantages. And the advantage, I think, is it considers the importance of social, political, and historical dynamics as they relate to current events. The race-based approach introduces psychological variability of racial groups, it includes consideration of all racial groups on equal terms. It's not focused on victims of racism and discrimination.

Its disadvantage is that it requires a very deeply personal, and potentially painful journey and soul-searching for any person, regardless of his or her race, to understand this particular aspect of culture, and that's difficult to do when there is social denial of the existence of race and/or racism in our society.

Lastly, is the pan-national perspective, where culture equals oppression. And here, the assumption is that the experience of oppressing or being oppressed defines one's culture. That groups struggle to regain or impose their distinct cultural beliefs and notions of existence and preferred lifestyles, in that, in the pan-national perspective, there's this sort of struggle going on to impose and to regain. Some contend that the common role of oppressor or oppressors, as they bond for groups with similar experiences, that cuts across geography. So, for instance, in this way, we talk about the Third World versus the, I guess, the first world. I've always wondered which world that was, but I'll leave that up to you.

And the advantages and disadvantages here are that - the advantage is that it allows for a broad and global understanding of race and culture as it relates to oppression throughout the world, and the disadvantage is that it has a potential to overlook the role of other important reference groups, such as religion and social class.

You all look very thoughtful. I'm wondering what the thoughts are, that exist. What are you thinking?

Student:

Actually, I think ____________, I confess I haven't read it -

Robert Carter:

[tsk-tsks]

Student:

I know, I know, but it's so much. It's very rich - [unintelligible]

[laughter]

Robert Carter:

No, you should say that rich part, that was good.

Student:

No, _________ so much to it.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 19, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10646, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:57:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Carter
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    Robert T. Carter is Professor of Psychology and Education, Chair of the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, and Director of Training of the Counseling Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is known internationally for his work on Black and White racial identity. He has published in the areas of psychotherapy process and outcome, career development, and equity in education through the lens of racial identity. He has been retained to consult on organizational, legal, and educational issues associated with race and diversity. He is also the conference director for the Teachers College Winter Roundtable on Cross-Cultural Psychology and Education.
 
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