Racism Revealed in “Multiculturalism”

Posted on September 17, 2020


In my post, “When Racism Hides in Multiculturalism,” I discussed “the way that the White principal had denied Latinx students their right to a LaRaza student organization” in 1992. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the rationale the principal uses for denying student rights. He said:

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. [Reflections of a Citizen Teacher by Todd DeStigter, 216].

Let’s examine some of the problems in this explanation.

First of all, he fails to acknowledge students’ rights to their culture and to freedom of assembly. He based his decision on “personal thinking” (preference). Student rights to form clubs are guaranteed in the law & Constitution, so his preferences are irrelevant. His duty was to protect student rights; instead, he violated them.

Second of all, he offered up a genetic fallacy when he said, “by the very nature of the club it says, well you must be of Hispanic origin to join.” The students wanted to create a club for ANY students who were interested in learning more about & celebrating Latino cultures. The principal made up a reason to deny student rights.

Third, when he says, “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,” he is misrepresenting the efforts toward diversity and inclusion that was at the heart of the multicultural movement.

I was educated in multiculturalism in my teacher education program at EMU, and it does not mean what he said it meant. Multicultural education “tries to provide students with educational experiences that enable them to maintain commitments to their community cultures as well as acquire the knowledge, skills, and cultural capital needed to function in the national civic culture and community.”

What we have here is a principal who weaponizes multiculturalism, a philosophy that means to strengthen students’ connections to their home cultures, to deny them their right to form an after school club. This
is an example of assimilationist racism.

In 2017-18, another principal tried using the exact same argument to deny an Indigenous Shawnee student the right to form a club to explore and celebrate Shawnee culture and traditions. That student’s rights were protected, because Indigenous community members and I were there to advocate for them when they were told that they could must join the Diversity Club.

It is disturbing to see the way that a person in power at a school can twist a concept meant to foster diversity and inclusion into a policy of cultural erasure.

It is disturbing to see such behavior in the early 1990s.

But what’s even more troubling is that APS perpetuates such racist practices nearly two decades into the 21st century!

In my research for “Seeing White,” I listened to APS alumni and parents from 1988-2019 explain a variety of racist policies, practices, pedagogy that affected their educational experiences at APS as BIPOC students and families. It’s sickening: unethical, immoral, and illegal.

It’s time for APS to take an honest look in the mirror and reflect on the ways the district perpetuates white supremacy and harms BIPOC students and families, not only through blatantly racist practices like denying students the right to form after-school clubs, but also throughout the system, both formally and informally. (Informal example: a teacher referring to a group of students of color as “thugs” in class.)

As citizens, it’s time for us to demand that the district takes evidence-based, concrete, measurable steps toward antiracism in policy, pedagogy, and practices.

If we community members don’t raise our voices, NOTHING will change; APS will continue to silence and erase non-White voices by forced assimilation, like they did in 1992 and tried to do in 2017-18.

Something to think about: when Christian students started a club, they were not told they couldn’t because then students could start a club for every religion, nor were they told to join the Diversity club. What’s different in these situations?

APS is a public school. As the public, let’s hold them accountable for making the district one that TRULY exemplifies the multiculturalism of our Adrian community.

Contact the Superintendent: bbehnke@adrian.k12.mi.us; Board of Ed members emails here.

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