Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice
reviewed by Mike Metz - August 22, 2014
Title: Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice
Author(s): Wayne Au
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 0942961536, Pages: 418, Year: 2014
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The second edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice provides a balance of theoretical, political, and practical articles encouraging readers to think, act, and teach about the racial and ethnic aspects of multiculturalism in productive ways. In his introduction Wayne Au, the editor, explains his choice to focus on the racial aspects of multiculturalism and emphasizes the need for educators to look deeply at painful and powerful systemic racism, the legacies of colonization, and the realities of cultural oppression. The collection of 49 articles, 17 of them new to the second edition, is organized in five cohesive sections: Anti-Racist Orientations, The Fight for Multicultural Education, Language, Culture, and Power, Transnational Identities, Multicultural Classrooms, and Confronting Race in the Classroom. Together, these sections explore race, culture, and ethnicity in schools from myriad angles and, as a whole, provide a deep and broad exploration of the issues of multiculturalism in education.
Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen provide consistent voices throughout the text, together authoring nine chapters. They steadily and emphatically advocate for teaching with a critical lens that acknowledges and examines the tensions between a societys ideals and its realities. As they describe it, this requires looking closely at historical issues of discrimination and their relation to present day inequalities. Bigelows chapters focus on policy, examining state standards and curriculum, while Christensens chapters focus on the classroom, describing specific units and lessons.
Other authors include prominent names in the respective fields they address. The introductory section on Anti-Racist Orientations includes interviews with leading scholars including Enid Lee and Michelle Alexander. Geneva Smitherman and Lisa Delpit, leading scholars in the field of African-American English in U.S. classrooms, author two of the chapters in the section titled Language, Culture, and Power.
The one entirely new section of the book, titled The Fight for Multicultural Education, explores policy attacks on multicultural education around the country. If there is a weakness in this edition, it is the redundancy of Chapters Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen, all of which describe reactions to the Arizona ban on ethnic studies, and specifically the attack on the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson. While the topic is pertinent and the authors come from different perspectives, the chapters provide similar messages and references to the same resources (e.g. the film Precious Knowledge, and the poem In Lak Ech). This is a case where it may have been more beneficial for the editor to synthesize the three chapters instead of retaining the original articles from Rethinking Schools. Still, the section as a whole critically examines important examples of attempts to narrow curricula and to exclude voices reflecting the diversity of students served by public schools.
A pervasive theme across the text centers on the question of what counts as knowledge in schools and whose knowledge is valued. Valued knowledge is questioned in terms of what books are read; what people, events, and ideologies are held up in social studies curricula; and what languages are considered appropriate for school. The chapter by Sheman Alexie titled Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood, embodies this overall message of the text.
In his chapter, Alexie responds to efforts to ban potentially offensive Young Adult fiction. Alexie argues that the adolescents most in need of contemporary young adult literature have already been exposed to, and often have lived through, the depravity described in these books. He wonders, do those in favor of banning books honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? He suggests that the real world is more graphic than most of the books being banned in high schools. Alexie argues that the motivation for banning books is not about protecting kids, its about protecting privileged kids, or more simply, protecting privilege. This argument supports the overall thesis of Rethinking Multicultural Education, that as a society we need to rethink what counts as knowledge in schools and how we go about creating learning environments where we acknowledge and value the life experiences of students from historically stigmatized cultural backgrounds.
As a model of expanding what knowledge and whose knowledge is valued in schools, the articles in Rethinking Multicultural Education represent a wealth of diverse cultures. Where issues of race tend to focus on a black-white dichotomy, and issues of language tend to focus on a Spanish-English dichotomy, Au, as the editor, has expanded these boundaries. The section on Language, Culture, and Power includes chapters on African-American English, Spanish bilingualism, Asian-American linguistic norms, and the cultural significance of Native American (Cochitit) language. By choosing to narrow the definition of multiculturalism to focus on race and ethnicity Au makes room for important work in expanding the conversation about race and ethnicity to include a wider number of voices.
Other chapters complicate more traditional views of multiculturalism. Yonamines, The Other Internment: Teaching the Hidden Story of Japanese Latin Americans During WWII, describes a unit based on the extradition of Japanese Latin Americans to the United States, their confinement here as prisoners of war, and their subsequent deportation to Japan, a country many of them had never set foot on. Yonamines account of her unit does the double work of raising awareness about a little known aspect of American history and sharing a pedagogical approach that engages students with complex issues of social justice. The concept of Japanese immigrants in Latina America being brought to the United States adds nuance to ideas of immigration, race, and ethnicity that many students, and teachers, may not have considered previously.
Likewise, the concluding essay by Christensen, Burned out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silenced Voices of the Tulsa Race Riot, on the Tulsa race riot of 1921 strikes a particularly powerful note reminding us that the deeply ingrained legacy of historical and institutional racism has yet to be fully revealed and acknowledged in our schools. This reviewer, well-read in American and African-American history, had never heard the story of white mobs attacking and burning down four square miles of black-owned homes and businesses in Tulsa, or about the systematic efforts to keep this event from the historical record. This type of new information and new perspectives are typical of the other chapters, none of which rehash hackneyed aspects of multiculturalism.
The editor and the authors take an unambiguous position, making strong arguments about why their version of multicultural education is vital for the health of our nation. For academics and teacher educators used to reading between the lines to uncover underlying biases or drawing out arguments embedded in subtext, the direct language, overt stance, and clear call to action will be refreshing. Teachers looking for classroom ideas and ways to engage in a broader struggle on behalf of marginalized students will find the collection of articles energizing and enlightening.
The authors for Rethinking Multicultural Education, and Au as an editor, have made an important contribution to the study of multiculturalism in schools. Familiar themes are expanded with new directions and new content. The multiple levels of exploration, from federal, to state, to school, to classroom across the well-organized sections make this collection of articles both focused and comprehensive.