When Racism Hides in Multiculturalism

Posted on September 15, 2020


from Reflections of a Citizen Teacher by Todd DeStigter

AHS MAC, mid-1990s

At the Homecoming Parade

I heard a strange sound, not so much unfamiliar, as out of place there on the parade route. I  more felt than heard it at first, a beat something inside my chest. A series of vehicles carrying the school’s various clubs began to pass by, and when I finally located the source of the thumping, I laughed out loud, for what I heard was Latino rap music so loud that it shook the sides of the lowrider pickup truck that carried [the] Multicultural Awareness Club. Mexican and African flags flew from the antenna, and many of the students crammed into the bed of the truck wore green, red and white caps with “La Raza” stitched on the front [209].

Every student has the right to their home culture while at school. One’s home culture is expressed in their name, language, food, music, clothing, hairstyles, history, and traditions.

As a teacher, my first act upon meeting a student is to communicate the idea that I accept and celebrate them as an individual and as a member of any cultural groups of which they are a part. Only when students believe that they are safe to be themselves can truly teach and mentor them in the way that’s appropriate for them; for that, truly, is my ONLY AGENDA.

I, as a teacher, am here to help every student learn how to use English language arts to attain the goals they have for themselves. I don’t have an agenda.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that students must speak or write only “standard” (White) English, read particular books or authors, or standardize themselves in any way, other than not harming others in their pursuit of education.

It is because of these deeply-held convictions that I was appalled to learn that I had been set up to support a white supremacist policy early in my teaching career. Unfortunately, it was simply a case of timing; I arrived during the period when a researcher was at the school, gathering information for a book that would illuminate the situation, but before they had published what they had learned, I had already taken on the role of faculty advisor for the AHS Multicultural Awareness Club.

Fortunately, my approach to the position was to ask club members: What do you want to learn, do, be as a club? I followed their lead.

The history I had been ignorant of regarding the MAC was published in 2001, and my eyes were opened to the way that the White principal had denied Latinx students their right to a LaRaza student organization before I arrived. From Reflections of a Citizen Teacher:

In 1992 a group of students presented to the…principal a proposal to establish a Latino student organization to celebrate Latino cultures and to lobby for the school’s greater attention to the particular needs of Latino students and the communities they represent. Alejandro, co-founder and president of the MAC, said that [the] principal…had denied the original proposal and agreed instead to a “multicultural club” that sought to acknowledge all ethnic backgrounds represented at the school. [The principal] explained to me his rationale for this decision as follows:

My personal thinking is that when you talk about different cultures that you do not exclude any culture. And in this building we have obviously an African-American population that has African American culture. We have a significant Latino/Hispanic culture. But I also have a population of students from Pakistan; I have a smaller group of students from India, who maintain their culture very much in their homes. We have a significant population of Irish, which would seem strange, but in Adrian they’re here. We have a larger population of, for lack of a better term, German background. We also have, more than you would think, Native Americans. So in my mind, if you have a Hispanic club, by the very nature of the club it says, well you must be of Hispanic origin to join. If you have an African-American Club, by the very nature of it, you need to be a Black American. If you have an Irish Club, you have to be Irish. If you say “Multicultural,” students who are interested in their culture, whatever it may be, can participate, and so you have honor and appropriate reverence to that culture [216].

From 1994, when I arrived in the district, until I read Reflections of a Citizen Teacher, I had operated under the assumption that the students had decided to create the MAC for a shared experience of exploring cultures, their own and the unknown. I had no idea that the club’s existence was rooted in denying students their rights, or I would have refused the principal’s request to be a part of it. Later on, I learned that Black students got a similar response when they tried to form a Black Student Union.

By the time I realized what had happened, I’d been complicit in silencing and erasing Black & Latinx student voices for several years. If I had known the history, I would have stood with the students until their right to a LaRaza club and a Black Student Union were recognized–as well as any other cultural group who wanted to organize a club to learn about, celebrate, and share their culture…as I did for the Gay-Straight Alliance, the Secular Student Alliance, and the Pawaka (Shawnee) Club. I will always support a student’s right to their identity and culture at school.

After retiring from the district in 2019, I embarked on my own research, asking BIPOC AHS alumni from 1988-2019, “How would you say Whiteness, whatever that means to you, affected your K-12 education @ APS?”

And then the old was new again, because, as I was doing this research, I received a district newsletter in the mail, in Fall 2019, with a photo of yet another Multicultural Club, featuring elementary students seated in a circle, all wearing–I’m not kidding–SOMBREROS.

But this time I wasn’t fooled. I was frustrated and angry that APS continues to perpetuate the long-discredited “holidays and heroes” approach rather than including, teaching, and celebrating the diverse home cultures of our BIPOC students in Adrian.

Students at Adrian Public Schools have the right to organize a LaRaza club, a Black Student Union, and/or other clubs that focus on one or more cultures, and the administration must not stand in their way. The students who were in high school in 1994 are the parents now, and they know the history.

I don’t know if students are interested in forming such clubs during the pandemic, but if they are, I’m here for them. I’ve spoken with many antiracist community members who agree that students who are interested in starting a club focused on Black and/or Latino cultures will have their support.

In recent years, APS administration has used a policy that requires a number of student signatures on a petition to get permission to start a club. That’s fine, but if the signatures are not gathered, that should have zero bearing on the club’s right to exist. Students’ rights to their home cultures can not be erased by a popularity contest.

The lives, cultures, histories, languages, arts, and traditions of ALL APS students should be affirmed and celebrated, no matter what, because the #1 job of school personnel is to create safe space for ALL students. APS is a diverse community with many cultures within it, and it’s time that BIPOC students’ right to learn about and celebrate their home cultures was insured–without pressure from any district employee to focus on other cultures. As with any other club, the Black Student Union or Latinx club should be open to all who want to learn about and celebrate that culture.

The public school needs to serve the community. The long-held, APS practices of erasing students’ home cultures and denying their right to form a club based on cultural identity must end now because they cause harm.

BIPOC students and parents: If you are interested in starting a club to celebrate your home culture at APS, just let me know. I will stand with you to make sure your rights are protected, as will many others in this community. It’s long past time to end the practice of erasing Latinx and Black students and their cultures with mandatory multiculturalism. Your life matters; your culture matters; your voice matters.


lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com