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Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis

reviewed by Lois M. Meyer - February 17, 2011

coverTitle: Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis
Author(s): Stephen May and Christine E. Sleeter (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415802857, Pages: 232, Year: 2010
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This volume sets out to analyze and address a national “change of heart” - advocacy for multicultural education, rooted in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and widely espoused in education and beyond into the 1990s, seems to have crumbled along with the Twin Towers after 9/11, brought down by fears about national security and educational mediocrity. Popular support for multicultural education has withered, undermined by test-driven educational policies, homogenizing academic standards, and eroding commitments to affirmative action and bilingual education. “For many, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity are no longer something to be celebrated, but rather feared” (p 1). At the same time, “closing the achievement gap” between White students and their Latino, African American, Asian, English language learner, disabled, and other minoritized peers is the constant mantra, and the recurring failure, of educational reform efforts. The academic achievement gap between White and minoritized students mirrors the entrenched and seemingly intractable gap in economic opportunities and cultural capital between these students’ parents and communities and mainstream society. Forty years of multicultural education have not succeeded in equalizing these disparate outcomes.

In Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis, two recognized voices in the field of critical multiculturalism, Stephen May and Christine Sleeter, contend that the mainstream version of multiculturalism, labeled “liberal multiculturalism,” has derailed public resolve to address these educational and societal inequalities. The core tenets of liberal multiculturalism – a focus on “cultural differences” and “intercultural respect and engagement among both students and teachers” (p. 1) – ignore the pervasive, entrenched racism and power inequalities in schools and society, for two reasons. First, liberal multiculturalism lacks depth, insight, backbone and political savvy; it continues to use “affirmational and politically muted discourses of ‘culture’ and cultural recognition” (p. 3). That is, liberal multiculturalism anemically counters divisive, systemic inequalities such as racism, institutionalized poverty and discrimination, with a philosophy of “lets-all-respect-each-other-and-just-get-along.” The editors point out that, “unequal, and often untidy, power relations that underpin inequality and limit cultural interaction” (p. 4) are effectively ignored. Second, more critical educational conceptions – the focus here is on antiracist education, critical race theory, critical pedagogy, and critical multiculturalism – provide dense theoretical analyses but few actual examples of transformed and/or emancipatory pedagogy and practice.

According to the editors, this volume intends to right these wrongs by revealing what transformed and /or emancipatory pedagogy and practice look like in classrooms, and in so doing, “make clearer and more consistent links across the various critical paradigms, in ways that complement and extend them” (p. 3).

The book is structured in five parts. The Introduction presents the development of critical multiculturalism, distancing it from liberal multiculturalism, and also distinguishing it from, while still linking it to, such related approaches as antiracist education, critical race theory, and critical pedagogy. The first five chapters discuss the preparation and professional development of teachers in the areas of higher education, pre-service teachers, language-teacher education, early childhood education, and “discursive positioning and educational reform.” Three chapters address critical multiculturalism in language and language arts, including subject English, second/foreign language teaching, and cultural and media studies. Three more chapters address critical multiculturalism in mathematics, science, and technology in urban K-12 classrooms, digital stories, and indigenous science education. And finally, four chapters consider critical multiculturalism in the humanities and social sciences, with a focus on the middle-school classroom, physical education, the arts, and music.

The editors partially fulfill their promise to provide concrete instructional examples. Some chapters include moving and detailed accounts of efforts to transform teaching and learning in K-12 or university classrooms, and in a few cases, attempts are made to equalize interactions between classrooms and communities of color. Interestingly, some of the most powerful examples appear in unexpected corners of the curriculum. Gutstein describes “critical mathematics,” mathematics that is “politicized” to serve as a tool for analyzing power disparities lurking behind the economic and legal outcomes suffered by racialized populations in tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and the trial of the Jena Six in Louisiana. Fitzpatrick recounts the practices of a White PE teacher in a multiethnic suburban high school in Auckland, New Zealand, describing in ethnographic detail how this teacher counters the hegemonic value of “thin White bodies” and other racialized notions of the physical. Rhedding-Jones recounts her experience of becoming “critical of her own critiques” of normative multicultural early childhood education in Norway, and “deciding to engage in doings” (p. 80), by spending one day each week for four years in preschools where many Muslim children are enrolled. Focusing intensely on the “small moments of practice,” she displays how “[g]etting to know Muslims and having them get to know me has almost totally changed what it is that I do and want to do now as a critical multicultural practitioner” (p. 80). Stone Hanley uses art, specifically overlapping visual autobiographies, theater, hip hop, and film, to help students “position themselves,” so that they can “overcome fears and resistance and become transformed learners and transformative agents of change” (p. 193). Others could be mentioned, though detailed accounts such as these of transformed teaching practice are fewer than hoped for or promised. More common are scathing critiques of status quo instructional practices, some extremely powerful (Morton and Stewart are two examples), but with fewer specifics about the alternative practices the authors promote.

Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis is a thought-provoking editorial effort and an important step in the evolving definition and concretization (to some degree) of the concept named in its title.  

Why then, I ask myself, does this volume leave me uneasy?

To approach an answer, I will first provide some background about myself, the “I” who asks this question. Though perhaps unusual in a book review, my purpose for including autobiographical data is to lay a foundation for my comments and critique to follow.

I am a White female applied linguist and bilingual educator who has taught in the fields of bilingual, second language, and multicultural education for 40 years. These include K-6 classroom teaching in urban Puerto Rican Chicago and in an elite Mexico City bilingual elementary school. My involvements in teacher education span decades and include contexts as diverse as San Francisco State University and the immigrant-saturated San Francisco Unified School District, school districts around California and New Mexico and in rural Alaska, educational efforts in both mestizo and indigenous Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, and also at the University of New Mexico, which serves our majority minority state, with its historic and immigrant Hispanic communities, as well as 21 Pueblo and Apache nations and a portion of the Navajo Nation. I am a native-English-speaking though fluently Spanish bilingual and biliterate U.S. educator who has lived 16 years outside of the United States since childhood, 14 of those in Latin America. For more than a decade, I have collaborated closely with the CMPIO1, an activist coalition of over 1,050 indigenous teachers serving in rural, marginalized communities in the state of Oaxaca in southeastern Mexico. I have worked alongside CMPIO teachers in professional development for community-based, bilingual (indigenous language and Spanish) education and autonomous language revitalization efforts.  

The whiteness of my skin, the native fluency of my English and near-native fluency of my Spanish, my advanced academic degrees, and the power of my U.S. citizenship, have meant that in each of these diverse linguistic and cultural contexts, my mere presence immediately opened some doors while others slammed shut. In every case, trust had to be built through a conscious process of showing up, staying around, shutting up and listening, watching and learning, offering of myself, and participating as needed and when requested. Even in those cases (and gratefully they are several) where trust, collaboration, and deep friendship have developed, these are still “positioned,” by which I mean that life circumstances, skin colors, and language competencies are not erased or “equalized,” but rather remain distinctly different. No matter how deep the friendship, collaboration or trust that develops, I never “become” Chicana, Salvadoran, Zuni or Mixtec, nor do my close colleagues “become” White, English-native “gringos.” Efforts to reduce or equalize power differences between us require constant vigilance on both sides in order to recognize and acknowledge that such power differences exist, as well as focused efforts and advocacy to dismantle them. When transformation or emancipation does occur through and within these relationships, in my experience such an achievement requires painstaking, sometimes joyous but often painful, and profoundly reciprocal though not identical, efforts of courage in order to construct incrementally the necessary foundation of mutual trust and shared action.

I have gone to this length to position myself within the multicultural and multilingual landscapes of my life in order to lay out with transparency the perspectives that color my comments about this volume. I also provide this specific autobiographical data to make an important point – most of the contributors to this volume have not done so. Sadly, their silence about their own autobiographies and positionality within the multicultural contexts and classrooms they describe saps power from their contributions.  

The reader is provided with brief biographical sketches about each contributor, generally identifying institutional affiliations, teaching experiences, research interests, and publishing record. In none of these sketches is the contributor’s race, ethnicity, monolingual or multilingual capacities, sexual orientation, or ableness transparently identified (gender is identifiable only through the personal pronouns used and our cultural assumptions about choice of personal names). Delving into the chapters themselves, a few of the authors reveal personal characteristics and histories that position themselves vis a vis the above-named aspects of power on which they as critical multiculturalists focus their analytic lens. Teaching experiences are likely to be mentioned but most are silent about their own race, ethnicity, or monolingualism or multilingualism. We make the assumption that Stone Hanley is African American, as she grew up in a Black urban community and experienced recitations of Black poets in her home (p. 191), though this description could apply to an urban youth of another color or cultural context. From Stewart’s biographical sketch and references in her chapter to Maori language terms and educational projects, we deduce that she is probably Maori and comfortably bilingual and bicultural. Still, these assumptions are risky in indigenous populations that have undergone decades of forced assimilation and widely documented language loss. In most chapters we are left with sparse, if any, autobiographical data with which to position the authors vis a vis the students, communities, educational projects, and critical theoretical frameworks they discuss.

Three exceptions are memorable. Rhedding-Jones acknowledges that in the past she wrote from the position of “an immigrant speaking my painfully learned Norwegian language, and from not knowing all the cultural referents of Norwegian.” After four years working and sharing many personal and cultural moments with Muslim preschoolers and their parents, she admits: “There is a power difference though; it’s about money, status, education, my age and their relative youth, my lack of Arabic, Somali, Urdu, and Bosnian, and their lack of English” (p. 80). Lea identifies herself as “a white person with partial Arab (Syrian) roots, from a middle-class background, the partner of an African American man, and the mother of multiethnic children.” She is also one of few who clearly position their students: they are “disproportionally white, upper-middle-class undergraduate students” in the education minor, leading to a teaching certificate at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania (p. 34). Flynn describes in detail her own positionality, as well as that of the teacher she documents and the eighth grade students she studied (p. 165).

The silence regarding other authors’ personal biographies has consequences that critical multiculturalists should recognize. Lacking authentic facts about experiential histories and local situatedness, we “invent” each author’s relevant biography based on our uninformed, “commonsense,” essentialized imaginings. A Japanese or Latino surname leads us to believe that the author is fluently bilingual and culturally immersed; a mention of Black poets in one’s home of origin leads us to ascribe a specific racial identity, for example. In each case, the authors’ identities may match our imaginings, but we often are adrift to know that, or to correct our assumptions, from their texts. This silence ignores Hall’s reminder “that all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position” (cited on p. 11). As readers, we wonder how these voices speaking to us are situated and how their dynamic identities and perspectives have been formed, but very few are critical or forthcoming about themselves.  

In many cases, the authors are equally vague about the histories and identities of the students they teach or those they studied. Very few identify in detail the race, ethnicity, class, language competence, or ableness of their students; even fewer differentiate these identities within the group of students studied. This leads to an uncomfortable question: is there the belief that instructional approaches and classroom practices within critical multiculturalism are “one size fits all?”    

In a seldom-cited interview (Kennedy, 1987a), Freire comments on the idea of “pedagogies for the non-poor” and distinguished these from his renowned “pedagogy of the oppressed.” According to Kennedy (1987a), the non-poor are “those with low infant mortality rates and high life expectancy, those above the poverty line, or, more simply, those who are well fed” (p. 232); in summary, they are “the privileged and protected like ourselves” (1987b, p. xi). Both the oppressed and the non-poor are ideologically enslaved, Freire contends, “but the enslavement of the rich is so enjoyable, so comforting, that it doesn’t even seem like enslavement” (1987a, p. 225). The “so-called” middle class (those who do not control the means of production) goes back and forth between the dominant class and the oppressed, “like tourists” (1987a, pp. 226-227). All need a problematizing pedagogy of transformation, but their disparate interests, privileges, material conditions, and access to power, cannot be glossed over and must be considered and addressed in the pedagogies we construct with them.  

Repeated references throughout the chapters of this volume speak to the need for locally constructed and differentiated instructional practices and pedagogical approaches (e.g., border pedagogy, alterity pedagogy, pedagogy of empowerment), indicating that a one-size-fits-all message is not the intent. However, it would have been helpful to see within the fifteen pedagogical chapters more concrete expressions of critical and transformative instructional practices that acknowledged distinct identities and material circumstances among the group of students studied.  

The commitment here to providing an international perspective is important. The book includes authors located in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, and the United States. This is a significant encounter of critical approaches from diverse national contexts, we are told. Still, with the exception of Norway, these countries comprise Phillipson’s global “dominant Centre” (1992), or Kachru’s “inner circle” (2009), countries that represent the epitome of western, English-dominant, capitalist interests. The histories of both entitlement and oppression in these countries, while not identical, certainly have more in common than those in the countries Phillipson locates at the global “periphery” (1992). Perhaps if experiences from classrooms in “periphery” nations were given equal consideration, critical multiculturalists might find it necessary to expand or realign their theoretical framework to accommodate experiences influenced powerfully by the institutional repression, and the local resistance, of communal and collectivist indigenous societies (Meyer & Maldonado, 2010), as well as linguistically, socioeconomically, and religiously minoritized groups.   

In many cases, concerns I raise here are glimpsed in one or another chapter but they do not become topical in the volume. I would have wished to see a concluding chapter where the editors drew on their extensive experience and keen insights to cull from across the fifteen experiences documented here in order to test, evaluate, refine, and revise their theoretical premises about critical multiculturalism. Through such a process, praxis could have both reflected and critically informed theory, fulfilling the promise of the title of the book in reciprocal and illuminating ways.


1. The Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promoters of Oaxaca (CMPIO, for its initials in Spanish) has three legal identities: it is the only statewide jefatura or public school district, under the Department of Indigenous Education of the State Institute of Public Education of Oaxaca (IEEPO); it is a local of Section 22, the activist Oaxacan branch of the National Union of Educational Workers; and it is a non-governmental civic coalition, the CMPIO.


Evans, A.F., Evans, R.A., & Kennedy, W. B. (1987). Pedagogies for the non-poor.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Kachru, B., Kachru, Y., & Nelson, C. (2009). The handbook of World Englishes. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Kennedy, W. B. (1987a). Conversations with Paolo Freire on pedagogies for the non-poor. In A. F. Evans, R. A. Evans & W. B. Kennedy (Eds.), Pedagogies for the non-poor, 219-231. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Kennedy, W.B. (1987b). The ideological captivity of the non-poor. In A. F. Evans, R. A. Evans & W. B. Kennedy (Eds.), Pedagogies for the non-poor, 232-256. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Meyer, L., & Maldonado, B. (2010). New world of indigenous resistance. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 17, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16343, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 12:10:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Lois Meyer
    University of New Mexico
    E-mail Author
    LOIS M. MEYER, an applied linguist and bilingual educator, is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Language, Literacy & Sociocultural Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
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