This week I had the privilege of leading a session at the Alliance AG Faculty Conference in Springfield, MO. I shared a small qualitative study that explores white college students' experiences with racial diversity. Below is an abridged version of my session.
Beyond the Façade of Uncritical Multiculturalism:
Talking about Race with Pre-service Teachers
We all know that the U.S. is becoming increasingly racially diverse. Yet, as of 2011, 84% of teachers are white. This presentation describes a small qualitative study I conducted to assess white pre-service teachers’ experience in thinking and talking about race.
Over these years I’ve discovered that most of my white students have thought little about race. Here is what they tend to believe on the topic:
- Racism was a terrible thing that happened in the past. It was fixed by the Civil Rights Movement and is largely over.
- Racism is defined as individual prejudice. Since most people are no longer individually prejudiced, again, racism is largely over. Students have no knowledge of structural or institutional racism, and tend to resist Wellman’s definition of racism as “A system of advantage based on race.”
- The way to deal with race is to be colorblind. Talking about race just makes things worse.
- The United States is a meritocracy. Anyone from any background can achieve anything if he/she simply works hard enough.
- Students tend to resistance the notion of white privilege, and often adhere to “reverse racism” discourses: i.e., because of affirmative action policies, whites are now the disadvantaged race.
None of this is surprising, since most of these students were probably exposed to uncritical multiculturalism in school, if diversity was addressed at all.
Uncritical multiculturalism is also known as the “heroes and holidays” or “add-on” approach. It attempts to “celebrate diversity” by talking about cultural beliefs, customs, celebrations, food, etc., of non-mainstream groups. Presenting multiculturalism as cultural difference only does not go far enough in addressing past and present inequity. Further, uncritical multiculturalism is damaging if it leads to tokenism or reinforces stereotypes.
Critical multiculturalism looks at issues of past and present power and privilege based on race and other areas of oppression. Under the rubric of race relations, white privilege and inequity in the educational or criminal justice systems are examples of topics explored under the rubric of critical multiculturalism.
Recognizing that most of my white students were very inexperienced in thinking and talking about race, I began to look for resources to help them take a more critical look at multiculturalism. Being a lover of young adult fiction, I looked around for novels that explore racism from the perspective of a white protagonist in a contemporary setting. I began to realize that most of the fiction my students read during their K-12 education consisted of stories set before the Civil Rights Movement. This, I believe, reinforces the idea that racism is a past phenomenon only.
Adventures in The R Word
The R Word, my young adult novel, looks at the journey of racial identity of a young, white protagonist in a contemporary setting who, through forming friendships with teens of color, comes to think about and understand racism for the first time. The novel’s protagonist, Rachel, is a very sheltered Italian American teen who lives in the white suburbs, but, through a series of events, attends an afterschool multicultural program called The Tolerance Project in the nearby urban center and becomes friends with teens of color for the first time. Through these friendships, Rachel begins to understand what contemporary racism looks like. Some issues that Rachel begins to think about are racial profiling and educational inequity.
When I started to look for a publisher for The R Word, I was fortunate to receive several critiques from mainstream publishers and authors, and although they were positive about the novel in some respects, they questioned the very aspects of racism that I was trying to depict. I decided to compare these comments to my students’ BlackBoard discussion forum postings about The R Word.
Following are comments about The R Word from professional publishers, reviewers, and authors:
“…most of today’s teens, even those sheltered for whatever reason and in the suburbs, have encountered questions about race…
“I thought the developing relationship with Henry is nice and could take more focus of the story if the plot centers around issues interracial couples face rather than Rachel coming to terms for the first time with what white privilege is…This may focus the story on something readers care about...”
“The issues of race, class, etc. never go away but the way that race—referred to in the title as the “R word” makes the book feel dated…”
“…the manuscript seems, as if it's reflecting the 70s rather than today, during a time when busing was being introduced to address the inequities of our inner city school systems and districting compared to the suburbs.”
Once The R Word was published, I began to use it in my Multicultural Education class. I decided to conduct a small study to compare my students’ opinions about the way racism is dealt with in the novel with the reviewers’ comments I’d received. Would my white students, many of whom come from segregated suburban and rural areas, feel that the themes of racism in The R Word are outdated? Using a BlackBoard discussion forum, I asked them to comment on the following two statements:
1. The racism depicted in the novel is unrealistic, because our society had moved past the intolerant attitudes displayed by some of the white characters in the book. Also, the scene depicting school segregation is unrealistic.
2. Rachel is an unrealistic character because she's too sheltered. It's not possible that in this day and age a girl of her age has not thought more deeply about racism.
There were 15 students in the class, (14 white, 1 South Asian; 14 female, 1 male) and their responses were overwhelmingly similar: they felt that Rachel’s inexperience in thinking and talking about race was very much like their own, and that the situations that depicted racism in the novel were realistic.
Here are some of their comments:
“I for one have not thought very deeply about racism…I'm sure there are many girls that come from sheltered homes, such as Rachel. I had a friend growing up that moved here from Italy and her parents were VERY protective of her. The character often reminded me of this friend.”
“I disagree with this person tremendously. What kind of bubble are they living in??? First of all, there are many families who still have racist opinions similar to Rachel's family.”
“I do not think Rachel's life was unrealistic, in fact I think it's pretty common to find people her age to be sheltered in this sort of way.”
“In my own life, I was not nearly as sheltered as Rachel, but I still didn't think much about racism at all, and I think the people I went to high school with would say the same thing. We all never gave racism much thought because it was something we thought shouldn't be talked about--that it was better if everyone pretended the problem didn't exist.”
“I also disagree with the critics who stated that the scenes depicting school segregation is unrealistic--you don't have to go into many schools in areas not too far away from each other in order to discover the major differences, just like in the book.”
“I believe that the racism in the book wasn't unrealistic at all. I believe that we all want to think that our nation has come past the point of racism, but I've seen it in my closest friends and family. They don't believe they are racist or that they live in a racist society, but things they say portray racism. So no, I don't think the racism in the book was unrealistic at all.”
“Unfortunately, Rachel's sheltered character is all too realistic. Regardless of the day and age, youth can be just as naive as Rachel is. If one isn't exposed to situations in which they are faces with people different then them, it is all too easy to just be unaware of the issues involved.”
“…I don't think that Rachel is an unrealistic character because she is too sheltered. Throughout the novel she thought about race more than I ever did at her age… In fact, I don't remember having any debates or discussions about anything to do with race or racism today.”
“I remember that our textbooks actually talked in length about the Civil Rights Movement and slavery, and that our school urged us to be tolerant of others (in every facet.) However, most of us did not think about race to the extent that this class has because we simply did not see many examples of diversity within our own school environment.”
“I do not know what the critics could have possibly been thinking in these statements. There are plenty of people who the very sight of a person of color will lead to a displeased look or racist comment… Now can people be as sheltered as Rachel? My answer is yes. While we all learn about race in school, we do not learn about it to the extend that it really affects our lives or world today.”
“I, just like Rachel was very sheltered. When i was Rachels age the thought of racism never crossed my mind. I went to private schools my whole life and only associated with family and a few friends. It is possible for people in this day and age to not think deeply about racism.”
“I, like Rachel, was not faced much with the issue of Racism. I rarely went into the city, there were hardly any black people at my church, and I was never forced to think critically about racism… I think this scenario is very probable in today's world because many white, segregated, suburban children are in the exact same position as Rachel.”
“My grandfather is very much like Rachel's grandfather. I remember telling my grandfather and his brothers that I had a boyfriend when I was 16. Their first question was "Is he Black?" After I said no, they all let out a sigh of relief and told me that dating a person of another race would never be acceptable.”
“…the depiction of school segregation is completely realistic. In my high school there was one black person in my graduating class while 20 miles away in the city of Scranton you would find the majority of students in the city school to be people of color.”
“I have experienced people being followed around in the stores because of their color or even seeing people in restaurants not being served equally because of their color, which is so upsetting and at times frustrating.”
“A friend of mine was followed around WAWA because the owner’s thought that he was Mexican, he is an Italian young man and many people mistake him for being Mexican.”
- We cannot assume that our students have thought about race during their K-12 experience.
- Many majority white schools do not address issues like racism other than in history classes. Studying racism through the topics of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement only reifies the idea that racism is a past phenomenon.
- Tokenistic recognitions of Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month (if addressed at all – my children’s suburban school did not) do not help students to think critically about the way that race functions to distribute power and resources in our present day society.
- As my experience with reviewers taught me, our students are not alone in their belief that racism is defined as individual prejudice, and that it is a thing of the past. Many adults share the same beliefs.
 I found it interesting that this reviewer implied that readers do not care about white privilege. He or she is probably right, but the point of the novel is to help them to think and care about it.