Stereotypes are the main basis of prejudice and discrimination; yet multicultural education often reinforces stereotypes. How to resolve this problem?
My (Clive) social foundations ITE class this year is a dream come true: bursting with talent; an extremely diverse group but with a strong sense of camaraderie; full of fun but serious about learning to teach well. On Monday we had the second of three classes on inclusive education, with a focus that day on multicultural education. It was a wonderful session. Every student participated, and many spoke openly about their own racial and ethnic background. For example:
- Jim: Identifies as Black, born in Canada, of Caribbean ancestry, not tall enough to play basketball well, doesn’t like rap music.
- Janni: Born in Canada; her parents are of South Asian ancestry but grew up in South Africa and talk often about their life in that country.
- Sandi: Parents of Indian background, most of her schooling in Germany, often refers to herself as Tamil Canadian.
- Ali: Identified by others as Black, ½ Somali, ¼ Italian, lived much of his early life in Saudi Arabia before his family moved to Canada, family is Muslin but he isn’t really religious.
- Mike: Born in Canada but of ¾ Irish and ¼ Scots ancestry, classical musician, worried in school that when teachers saw his Irish name they would look down on him.
Given this ethnic complexity in today’s world, how can we take the common approach of talking about ethnic groups and resolving to respect the people who belong to them? In what sense do students have an ethnic identity? True, people differ a lot, but their differences rarely run along ethnic, racial, or religious lines. The differences within such categories are much greater than between them. A large proportion of a person’s identity comes from individual qualities, as advocates of differentiation and multiple intelligences have said for some time. Ethnicity is important and should be respected, but individuals have complex ethnicities and draw on each facet in distinctive ways.
As the discussion unfolded, we came to the conclusion that in school we should focus largely on: (a) historical and current cases of bias and discrimination and their enormous human cost; (b) the positives of being inclusive; (c) the limits to ethnic and racial labelling; (d) commonalities that cut across sub-groups; and (e) the importance of individual identity.
At a personal level, many students seemed relieved at the thought that they could develop their own identity and didn’t have to fit a standard ethnic identity. I think many school students would feel the same way, and adopting this approach in the classroom would strengthen community and individual self-esteem.