What is Multiculturalism?
*The following is an interview with Dr. James A. Banks, a professor of education and director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, and author of Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society.
Q: What is multicultural education?
A: There are many definitions for and misconceptions about multicultural education. One approach is to think about it in terms of "creating responsible citizens." Look at the U.S. today. Demographics prove that it's changing. Census Bureau statistics show that we're experiencing massive immigrations, the biggest since the turn of the century. Most of these people are coming from Asia and Latin America. The Bureau predicts that by 2050, nearly one half of the U.S. population will be people of color. In order to live in unity, we must rethink our idea of America.
What is an American?
Q: How would multiculturalism help us to get along?
A: It would give us a new and real understanding of what this country is and what it means. When our forefathers wrote the words "We the people," they were not talking about you and me. They meant white male landowners. Over the years we have extended that vision to include women, people of color, and people who do not own property. We have to continue to strive for a new definition of who we are as our citizenship changes.
What makes a person German in Germany, or Japanese in Japan, is blood. What makes a person American is a set of ideals. We must continue to be a people of ideals, a land welcoming all ethnic groups. This means seeing things from other perspectives in order to tell students the whole story of our nation's history. What, for instance, is a "pioneer" to a Lakota-Sioux? What does "Westward expansion" mean to Mexican Americans and Alaskans? We must teach our students to know, to care, and to act responsibly by introducing them to many perspectives.
Should Whites Care About Diversity?
Q: Some say that multiculturalism isn't an issue in their schools because they don't have any students of color or students who speak other languages in their communities. What would you tell them?
A: When people say they don't have cultural issues in their communities, they're usually defining "culture" in a narrow sense, thinking of ethnic or language differences. Some issues are just less visible. For instance, people have strong differences of opinion in politics and religion. There are prejudices against some white ethnic groups. One of my neighbors is Polish American. She told her children not to tell anyone at school that they were part Polish because she didn't want them to be teased. I can't exactly say to my kids, "Now, don't tell anyone at school you're black!" These hidden diversities can be a springboard for people to think about the need for multicultural acceptance.
Preparing for the Future
Q: What can parents do to prepare their children for the U.S. of the 21st century?
A: They can certainly be active in parent groups such as the PTA to keep these issues alive. But they need to begin in their own homes. When they buy dolls and books and toys, they should keep diversity in mind. They should take the time to know people of other races and ethnic groups as individuals to avoid stereotyping. They can take their children to films that accurately deal with racial issues such as Rosewood, to museums, and to concerts where they can learn about and appreciate the styles of other cultures. They should also re-evaluate their own attitudes and work through any stereotypes and prejudices they may harbor.
Most people take pride in their heritage, and this is important. But to function effectively in the new century, we must reach beyond our cultural borders and work to create moral and just communities that foster the common good.
Americans No More by Georgie Anne Geyer presents a different view that explores the "death of citizenship" (Atlantic Monthly Press).
Around the World: A Multicultural Handbook by Carole S. Angell presents over 300 international holidays and celebrations (Fulcrum Publishing).