Looking at “Starry Night,” a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, I imagine being at the top of the mountain depicted, looking down onto the dark night of the village. I wonder who in that village would not have the means to also climb. Now, climbing a mountain should be something that everyone can do; it is just walking after all. However, if you think of the time it takes to get to the mountain, as well as the time it takes to climb up and back down, and then to return home, this is an activity for someone who can take time off from work. If you think of the amount of physical exertion it takes to sustain a pace fast enough to get back down before dark, this is an activity for someone who has time and resources for regular exercise. If you think of the food needed so as to not expel all your energy, this is an activity for someone who has access to healthy food. If you think of the specialty clothes and accessories, the hiking boots, the pants, the backpack with a hydration compartment, this is an activity that costs quite a bit of money and is outside normal day-to-day living. When you think about climbing a mountain this way, it becomes clear that this is not for everyone; it is an activity of privilege. Being genuine and competent multicultural educators, as well as the social, ethical, and academic skills multicultural education demands and the benefits it produces, is analogous to climbing a metaphorical mountain.
The benefits of climbing a mountain are immeasurable; the cardio and strength to stay fit and healthy; the mental stamina to not turn back; the reward of seeing the view of other peaks and people below you; the exhilaration of knowing the trek down is easier than up; the exhaustion that comes from working your mind and body outside of their comfort zone; and the accomplishment that comes from looking up at the mountain top from the village floor knowing you’ve been up there. These thoughts are analogous to some of the attributes and advantages associated with other kinds of privilege. Reflecting on these, lead me to believe that everyone should enjoy these benefits because they are consistent with a happy, healthy quality of life. When persons of privilege navigate through the world knowing their undeserved privilege has detrimental impacts on others, they do not live in a liberated space. Freire (2000) suggested that those with privilege only become liberated when “the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors” (p. 56). I want to be free, and I want education for freedom!
Unfortunately, the U.S. has a long history of oppression, exploitation, and discrimination practices diametrically opposed to its ideological commitments to freedom that prevent some students (and teachers, too) from even imagining the existence of the metaphorical mountain, least of all reaching its summit. Its education system has been a mechanism for perpetuating these anti-freedom practices, especially for underprivileged populations. In schools across the country these legacies are justified over and over again using images of savagery and lack of intelligence to perpetuate supremacist agendas, or, the status quo. To put an end to this type of education it is important to examine and discuss: social justice; Whiteness and privilege; and racial identity.
A major component of multicultural education is social justice, which requires high levels of critical thinking, questioning, and action. Consequently, it is an academic, ethical and political act (Howard, 2012; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012; Nieto, 2010; Schoorman & Bogotch, 2010; Cochran-Smith, 1998; Macedo, 1995; Freire, 1970/2000).
Cochran-Smith (1998) identified social justice education as teachers being committed activists curtailing the inequities in the United States. To do this, she proposed six principles to guide teaching for social justice, all of which also are aspects of multicultural education:
Enable significant work for all students within learning communities
Build on what students bring to school with them
Teach skills and bridge gaps
Work with individuals, families, and communities
Diversify types of assessments
Make activism, power, and inequity explicit parts of the curriculum.
Social justice is a tenet of multicultural education. However, this social justice is an ambiguous term that leaves many wondering what it actually means, conceptually and pragmatically. In developing this understanding it is beneficial to distinguish between two theories of justice, distributive and social. There is overlap between the two and each theory has several dimensions. These conceptions can cause confusion and contradiction in justice efforts (Boyles, Carusi & Attick, 2009; Chubbuck & Zembylas, 2008). On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence at New York Riverside Church. In that speech he said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” (para. 46). Through the eyes of compassion, Dr. King succinctly illuminates, in one sentence, the difference between distributive justice and social justice
Distributive theory defines justice as the fair allocation of goods, such as, jobs, wealth, resources, and opportunities (Boyles, Carusi & Attick, 2009). Cochran-Smith (1998) states that the distributive paradigm of justice focuses on civics and citizens pursuing their own dreams and redistribution of things to ensure fairness and equality. An injustice in a distributive paradigm would be inequality. Putting everyone on an even playing field and ensuring that they have the same opportunities fall under distributive justice. This is a common theme in education and other systems in the United States. However, it only redistributes what is available. In King’s quote, giving the beggar a coin distributes more resources, but the beggar must still beg.
Social justicey (social justice) is addressed in the second part of King’s statement that, “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” It is not enough to allocate resources toward the ills of society or even question why they exist. Social justice is eliminating systems that create beggars in the first place, and freeing those who feel that oppression limits their share of the resources available (Boyles, Carusi & Attick, 2009). Young (1990) argued that this requires the oppressed and the oppressors to acknowledge “those group differences in order to undermine oppression” (p. 3).
Describing injustice as the suffering people endure because of, “everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society” (Young, 1990, p. 41) distinguishes social justice dramatically from distributive justice. Young (1990) suggested that oppression is often created by people who are going about their lives like everyone else in society and do not see themselves limiting the rights and opportunities of others whom they share a liberal society. Therefore, “For every oppressed group there is a group that is privileged in relation to that group” (Young, 1990, p.42). By acknowledging one’s privilege, one must also acknowledge the role that privilege plays in oppression. Teaching for social justice includes analyzing how privilege and oppression function in daily lives, making them visible, and acting on what is seen. These analyses can start with observing and unpacking distributive justice. However, social justice restructures the complex systems that contribute to the unfair distribution of resources; it is transformative. Multicultural education can help teachers deconstruct these practices and guide students to construct new realities.
Because multicultural education needs to be addressed in all classrooms across the U.S., including predominantly White schools, it is expressed differently in practice depending on the setting, and who is teaching and learning. Therefore, teachers prepared to work in diverse, low-income schools may not be able to successfully teach predominantly White, middle-class students about issues of cultural diversity, ethnicity, racism and justice, and vice versa. Sleeter and Grant (1986) suggested that because the U.S. is a stratified society founded on White supremacist ideals, student outcomes will vary greatly:
Even when their levels of educational attainment are identical, some youngsters move into positions of power and wealth on leaving school, while others live lives marked by poverty and powerlessness. This is the case because society distributes its resources, at least in part, on the basis of race, socioeconomic background, and gender. (p. 297)
Consequently, social justice conversations about racism in the United States are incomplete when privilege and Whiteness are not included.
Whiteness and Privilege
Multicultural education emphasizes transformative education, social justice, and equity, but these cannot come to fruition without also understanding Whiteness. Yet, Whiteness “refutes the legacy of racism, dismisses the race inequities that exist in our schools, and resists the restructuring of educational institutions, making resources equitable for all students” (McIntyre, 2997, p. 120). Getting White teachers to understand Whiteness and privilege has proven difficult in many contexts and for many reasons. Among these reasons are a lack of understanding of privilege and power, and fear, anxiety, and discomfort in talking about race and racism.
According to McIntyre (1997) many White teachers deny or ignore the “critique of the multiple levels of miseducation for children of color, and of white children as well, and the unequal distribution of wealth and power that exists in our nation and is partially lived out within the confines of our educational institutions” (p. 13). Due to their upbringing and socialization, many Whites in the U.S. find it difficult to see and accept the impact their privilege has on people of color. These disconnections produce a “disturbing view of what constitutes transformative classroom practice” (McIntyre, 1997, p. 121). This socialization teaches Whites to see themselves as the norm and raceless, while viewing people of color as “Other.”
One cannot be a multicultural teacher without also being a multicultural person. Even when the curriculum is, “outwardly multicultural, if teachers do not demonstrate through their actions and behaviors that they truly value diversity, students often can tell” (Nieto, 2010, p. 177). While Nieto was talking about White teachers working with children of color, the same can be said for White students in predominantly White schools. If White teachers do not teach and value the pluralistic nature of the U.S., then neither will their White students.
In the U.S., many White children are socialized into unquestioning acceptance of White supremacy and dominance. Sensoy and DiAngelo (2012) suggest that this is done through messages that White students receive on a daily basis that they are superior to other groups of people. Haymes (1995) claimed that “white supremacist assumptions and ideas penetrate every facet of daily life” (p. 106). Subordinate and dominant groups are influenced by these assumptions with “the number and variety of images of the dominant group available through television, magazines, books, and newspapers [that] provide subordinates with plenty of information about the dominants. The dominant world view has saturated the culture for all to learn” (Tatum, 1997, p. 24). Much of this socialization happens in enclaves where White teachers grow up and then return to teach the next generation of White students.
Whites are the most segregated population in the United States (DiAngelo, 2012b; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012; Grant & Sleeter, 1985). Grant and Sleeter (1985) observed that many of their White pre-service teachers did not have contact with people of color until high school or college. Sensoy and DiAngelo (2012) attributed this isolation to the economic means Whites have to choose segregated living, and that White neighborhoods are examples of racism. DiAngelo (2012b) found that pre-service teachers from predominantly White neighborhoods believe that, because of their colorblind ideals, racism was in the past. This leads to white teachers ill-equipped to teach from a social justice perspective because of fear, anxiety, and discomfort about difference.
White Identity Development
White teachers come to the profession having already been socialized into a society that values Whiteness and privileges those who are White. This White identity affects their instructional behaviors in classrooms. It includes “a complex intersection of the personal, historical, and cultural; they are formed within a social context. An identity depends upon others; we know who we are by knowing who we are not” (DiAngelo, 2012a, p. 26). Tatum (1997) also pointed out that identity is partially constructed in interactions with others. As she stated, “The parts of our identity that do capture our attention are those that other people notice, and that reflect back to us” (p. 21). Some White teachers who do not see themselves as racial beings assume others do not either. McIntyre (1997), Tatum (1997) and Gollnick and Chinn (1998) all suggested that White teachers see themselves in society as the cultureless norm and raceless. They then pass this presumption of racial invisibility on to White students by not acknowledging their raciality.
Tatum (1997) encouraged teachers to develop healthy and positive racial identities, as did Hollins (1990). By taking pride in their own cultural heritage, learning from personal family histories, and understanding the systemic nature of Whiteness (both structurally and influentially) teachers are better positioned to help students become social justice activists and transformative citizens. Thus, racial identity development is important for White teachers as well as White students. As Michael and Bartoli (2014) advised, teachers and schools should “take a more proactive approach to teaching white students about race and racial identity” (p. 59). This need was reaffirmed by Helms (1992) in her observation that “in this society, one learns to act White, but not to be White” (p. 9). She suggested a four-step process for Whites to use in being White without exploitation, oppression, racism, and hegemony. They are:
Observe the ways racism is maintained on various levels in society and schools.
Learn the difference between expressing racism and expressing White culture, and monitor your own and others’ behaviors accordingly.
Discover the positive aspects of being White, and distinguish them from pejorative Whiteness.
Part of positive White racial identity is teachers refusing to perpetuate the status quo and the oppression that it promotes, either as persons or in their teaching practices with students.