The Wrong Kind of Different: Challenging the Meaning of Diversity in American Classrooms
reviewed by Sue Ellen Henry - June 07, 2013
Title: The Wrong Kind of Different: Challenging the Meaning of Diversity in American Classrooms
Author(s): Antonia Randolph
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775384X, Pages: 144, Year: 2012
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How do teachers understand diversity among school children? Whose diversity ranks as legitimate and whose is less valuable? These are the questions that Antonia Randolph pursued utilizing qualitative data from a significant study of 11 elementary schools in a large Midwestern city. Her findings are disturbing to those who hope that educators believe that at least one purpose of education is to ameliorate societal problems that deeply influence children, such as the lasting effects of growing up in concentrated poverty. The short story is this: teachers, especially white teachers working at multi-racial schools, believe that diversity refers to immigrant children and not to native-borne Black children. Fueled by color-blind multiculturalism, teachers in this study overwhelmingly indicated that they were attracted to diversity when it offered them opportunities to teach about tolerance and difference, to learn about the other, and prove that pluralism works (p. 53). This primary finding is exceptionally troubling given that the vast majority of teachers in the United States are white and that the racial composition of the school-age population in this country continues to move toward more black and brown children.
This book is a powerful, nuanced addition to current diversity education in that it explores how teachers make sense of diversity once they are teaching and in the throes of determining which jobs to apply to, which schools to preference, and which classrooms to join. Depressing in this story though fully evidenced by the qualitative data that Randolph provides is the notion that while teacher education has obviously done a productive job at making teachers believe that diversity is a common good, this same education has allowed teachers to once again make diversity about reifying the status quo. In the final chapter of this slim volume, Randolph advocates for bringing power back in to the conversation about multiculturalism, so that a race-conscious approach can subvert current thinking (p. 109). Doing so, Randolph maintains, re-orients the teacher toward the social justice aims of public education, and as such, has the possibility of helping teachers see Black children in particular (and all children, native or immigrant, more generally) in their classrooms as powerful participants in their school environments. Indeed, teachers at predominantly Black schools in Randolphs project taught from this student-centered, race-focused orientation, all while deeply influenced by color-blind multiculturalism that created enduring ideas about black schools as dangerous places where children were lost and frequently seen as the worst of the worst.
To see the damage that multiculturalism has done to teachers beliefs about children and their schools is shocking, in a way; yet, as Randolph describes in her first chapter, not historically unexpected. Drawing from a legacy of assimilationist educational policy and practice, contemporary multiculturalism, without a solid dose of critical race theory, maintains historical American values of individualism, hard work, and meritocracy to the detriment of children whose own personal legacies include the civil rights movement and all too brief accomplishments for equalizing school funding. Randolph is clear that our contemporary educational moment is not the same as schooling during Jim Crow, to be sure; but she offers a set of essential questions for all teacher educators: Are all minority groups included in this vision of school as the United Nations[?], [J]ust who makes up this beneficial diversity? (p. 7).
There is no doubt that these are essential questions for teacher educators to raise with those entering the teaching ranks. We ought to be going beyond the diversity is good mantra, helping future teachers explore the predispositions and stereotypes that they are bringing to the profession, as well as situating contemporary multiculturalism in a solid understanding of national educational history, particularly relative to people of color. Without doing this important part of the work, we set new teachers up to reinstate their individualism, to see diversity as a personal good and ultimately, to turn a tolerance for diversity into a form of symbolic capital that teachers then use to elevate their own professional and personal status. Such a scenario, as Randolph argues, creates teachers who are not only undependable allies, [who are] less than ethusiastic about immigrant minority students when they [have] to adjust their teaching to accommodate them (p. 53) but also, teachers who are indifferent to the diversity at their schools, a feature of her data demonstrated by Black teachers at black schools (p. 58).
There is more in Randolphs book about teachers commitment to certain beliefs about black schools, black children, Latino schools and Latino children in fact, much of the data that Randolph draws on inspires this reader to ask a host of additional questions about the sources of teachers thoughts on these subjects. For instance, when suggesting that there was a symbolic burden that teachers at Black schools managed when confronting the negative beliefs society holds about the neighborhoods and children who attend these schools, Randolph provides this quote from a Black 2nd grade teacher:
These people are always telling you what youre not doing and youre terrible at this, and youre terrible at that. Thats how we feel as a teacher. But yet people dont understand what it is that were dealing with, what the challenges are in this environment (p. 66).
Randolphs data and analysis answers the question of why teachers at these schools saw their diversity in such different ways from the teachers at multi-racial schools: Black children were not universally seen as holding a valued form of diversity in the diversity is good mindset. However, because Randolph does not indicate the age of her teacher interviewees, nor any background information on the training or multicultural education preparation of these participants, the reader is left hanging about how these beliefs might have come into place.
This book would be a terrific complement to other texts in a multiculturalism course where some of the other tenets of critical race theory and critiques of colorblindness as an educational principle are present. There were several chapters that read more like a dissertation turned into a book-length manuscript, where some of the backstory was missing. Without this prior knowledge, some early readers might have difficulty with the text, as Randolph jumps into a critique of multiculturalism (a thoroughly valid one, I believe) without setting up the contemporary multiculturalism movement with great clarity. Using this text with undergraduates would also benefit from being coupled with a text such as An Introduction to Multicultural Education (Banks, 2013). Such a pairing might allow students to see how the contemporary multicultural education movement might lead to the sorts of outcomes that Randolph documents, affording them the opportunity to ascertain what is powerful about multiculturalism without becoming an unknowing victim of the limitations that Randolphs data and analysis so deftly point out.
Banks, J. (2013). Introduction to Multicultural Education, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.