Foundations of Education

Overview

Problematizes multicultural education from the perspective of critical race theory.

Key Concepts

  • multicultural education
  • critical race theory

Anti-racist Education and White Privilege

When we think of educational equity, we often think about equity of access to educational services and supports. Also important are the ways in which the curriculum of schools addresses the experiences of diverse cultural groups, including the life experiences of racialized persons (e.g., Black Canadians).

For several decades, multicultural education has been promoted in Ontario schools as means of celebrating the cultural diversity of all peoples. The U.S.-based Glossary of Educational Reform website defines multicultural education as follows:

"Multicultural education refers to any form of education or teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs, and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds. At the classroom level, for example, teachers may modify or incorporate lessons to reflect the cultural diversity of the students in a particular class…Generally speaking, multicultural education is predicated on the principle of educational equity for all students, regardless of culture, and it strives to remove barriers to educational opportunities and success for students from different cultural backgrounds…Multicultural education also assumes that the ways in which students learn and think are deeply influenced by their cultural identity and heritage, and that to teach culturally diverse students effectively requires educational approaches that value and recognize their cultural backgrounds. In this way, multicultural education aims to improve the learning and success of all students, particularly students from cultural groups that have been historically underrepresented."

While multicultural education has been widely accepted as a forward-thinking curriculum perspective in schools for several decades, it has in recent years become increasingly problematized by scholars who adopt an anti-racist theoretical perspective through which to study educational equity.

In this regard, page 142- 143 of the textbook includes the following text:

"Many scholars, including Schick and St. Denis (2005), have argued that the current approaches to multicultural education have originated from a problematic starting point that views Canadian culture as “raceless, benevolent, and innocent” (p. 296). The authors argue that the common ways of talking about multiculturalism fail to acknowledge that privilege - particularly White privilege - vastly improves the likelihood of individuals overcoming disadvantage. In Canadian popular discourse, racism is thought of as something that occurred in the past - or that happens in the United States - and discussions of racism are considered taboo or ill-mannered. Schick and St. Denis argue that [it] is imperative for teachers to recognize that White-skin privilege serves to advantage White students and teachers by allowing them to move with ease in a Eurocentric Western environment. For example, the racism that Aboriginal peoples faced limited their access to and success in education, but these same mechanisms served to assist White students. While such students may regard their success as solely the result of hard work, critical race theorists argue that it is necessary to recognize that the system is not as meritocratic as we might believe.

This myth of meritocracy - or the present-day belief that White success is due to hard work alone - is a subtle way that White domination is secured in today’s society. Critics…argue that White student success has been - and continues to be - at the cost of racism against Aboriginal and ethnocultural minorities. The myth of meritocracy secures that belief by perpetuating the notion that people earn their place in society solely based upon how hard they work, regardless of their ascribed characteristics. There is, however, much evidence to the contrary suggesting that systematic racism exists in our society and that it makes it considerably more difficult for non-Whites to achieve to the same level as Whites.

Critical race theorists recognize that teachers may find it offensive to suggest that they may act in (unintentionally) racist ways that are driven by White privilege. They argue that the curriculum and teaching practices are inherently biased insofar as they hold “Whiteness” as the invisible norm against which ethnic and cultural minorities are compared. For example, the achievements of Aboriginals and minority students are compared to the achievements of White students - who have had access to and enjoyed the privileges associated with being members of the dominant culture - which Schick and St. Denis argue is an unfair benchmark from which to begin evaluations.

According to Schick and St. Denis, anti-racist pedagogy is a teaching approach that better promotes an effective multicultural curriculum because it requires that [White skin] teachers and students recognize how White privilege has increased their life chances. Students and teachers are made aware of how one’s life chances are not solely determined by meritocracy and that there is evidence that subtle forms of racism have secured the benefits of White privilege (e.g., living in a 'good neighbourhood' and attending a well-resourced school), although such conversations will naturally make them feel uncomfortable (and often defensive)."

References

Robson, Karen L. (2019). Sociology of Education in Canada. Toronto: Open Library Press Books.

Schick, Carol and St. Denis, Verna. (2005). Troubling national discourses in anti-racist curricular planning. Canadian Journal of Education. v. 28.3, pp. 295–317.
📌 Critical race theory is an important scholarly theoretical perspective within academia. But it is also controversial, especially within more right-leaning conservative circles. In recent years, the prevalence of critical race theory as a dominant theoretical orientation within universities has been challenged by conservative critics (especially in the United States) who directly call into question its underlying suppositions about the intersection of race, identity, and society. ()