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Equity Literacy for All

Paul C. Gorski and Katy Swalwell
Schools can commit to a more robust multiculturalism by putting equity, rather than culture, at the center of the diversity conversation.

I feel like a visitor in my own school—that hasn’t changed, "Samantha said, confusion and despair in her voice. We were at the tail end of a focus group discussion with African American students at Green Hills High, a predominantly white, economically diverse school. We had been invited to conduct an equity assessment, examining the extent to which Green Hills was an equitable learning environment for all. We had asked Samantha and a small group of her classmates how they would characterize their school’s two-year-old Multicultural Curriculum Initiative, touted by school administrators as a comprehensive effort to infuse a multicultural perspective into all aspects of school life.

“I’m invisible,” Sean added, “but also hyper visible. Maybe twice a year there’s a program about somebody’s food or music, but that’s about it. I don’t see the purpose.”

Then Cynthia, who had remained quiet through most of the hour long discussion, slammed her fist on the table, exclaiming, “That multicultural initiative means nothing. There’s racism at this school, and nobody’s doing anything about it!”

We found ourselves only a few moments later in our next scheduled focus group, surrounded by the school’s power brokers: the principal, assistant principals, deans, and department chairs. Still taken—maybe even a little shaken—by what we had heard from the young women and men who felt fairly powerless at Green Hills, we asked the administrators about the purpose of the Multicultural Curriculum Initiative.

After a brief silence, Jonathan, the principal, leaned back in his chair. We had observed him over the past few days interacting with students, and it was clear he cared deeply about them. The Multicultural Curriculum Initiative was his brain child, his baby. Jonathan decorated his office door with quotes about diversity and his office walls with artwork depicting diverse groups of youth. “We see diversity as our greatest asset. That’s what this initiative is all about. What we aim to do here,” he explained with measured intensity, “is to celebrate the joys of diversity.” When we shared with Jonathan the concerns raised by the African American students, he appeared confused and genuinely concerned. “they said that?” he asked, before interrupting a member of his leadership team who had begun to defend the initiative. “Maybe it’s time to rethink this.”

Beyond Artwork and Celebrations

If we’ve learned anything working with schools across the United States, it’s this: When it comes to education equity, the trouble is not a lack of multi-cultural programs or diversity initiatives in schools. Nor is it necessarily a lack of educators who, like Jonathan, appreciate and even champion diversity. In virtually every school we visit, we see attempts at multi culturalism: corridors lined with flags, student-designed posters representing the national or ethnic origins of families in the community, anti-bullying programs, or faculty positions like “Diversity Director.”

The trouble lies in how so many diversity initiatives avoid or whitewash serious equity issues. It lies in the space between what marginalized students like Cynthia say their schools need to do to help them feel less marginalized and what many of the adults in those schools are comfortable doing in the name of multiculturalism.

To better grasp this, put yourself in Cynthia’s shoes. Imagine a world in which, as a result of something over which you have no control—say, your racial identity, sexual orientation, or home language—you’re made to feel alienated or invisible at school. Imagine that when you occasionally see little shimmers of yourself reflected in the curriculum, your identity or culture is reduced to a stereotype—to a sari, taco, or polka. Imagine the glimmer of excitement you might feel about the possibility that, when the teacher mentions Martin Luther King Jr., a real conversation about racism or poverty might ensue, only to find that even he has been sanitized down to I have a dream. Imagine experiencing racism, sexism, or class inequality in the present while hearing about it in school only in the past tense. What would it feel like, given those circumstances, to be pressed into participating in celebrations of diversity while nobody tends to your alienation? That’s what many schools’ diversity efforts feel like for students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and other students whose voices historically have been omitted from school curriculums. Meanwhile, this brand of multiculturalism does little to help students whose voices historically have been honored at school become aware of and question their privilege. In both cases, we’re doing a disservice to our students.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting that something is inherently wrong with celebrating diversity. We’re not necessarily suggesting that schools abandon the diversity parade or the multicultural art festival. Our concern is that, all too often, these sorts of initiatives mask, rather than address, serious equity concerns. They become distinctly unmulticultural when we don’t offer them alongside more serious curricular (and institutional) attention to issues like racism and homophobia because they present the illusion of multicultural learning even as they guarantee a lack of sophisticated multicultural learning.  What we are suggesting is that at the heart of a curriculum that is meaningfully multicultural lie principles of equity and social justice— purposeful attention to issues like racism, homophobia, sexism, and economic inequality. Without this core, what we do in the name of multi-culturalism can border on exploitative:

asking students and families who experience these inequalities to allow students and families who don’t experience them to grow their knowledge, while the inequalities themselves go unaddressed.  There’s racism at this school, and nobody’s doing anything about it!

Overcoming the “Culture” Fetish

In her article, “It’s Not the Culture of Poverty, It’s the Poverty of Culture,” Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) explains how culture fetishism undermines education equity. “Culture,” she explains, “is randomly and regularly used to explain everything” (p. 104). It’s used, in effect, as a stand-in for race, class, language, and other issues that aren’t as comfortably discussed as broad, vague “cultures.” Many of the most popular frameworks for creating more inclusive classrooms and curriculums continue this culture fetish. In addition to multi culturalism, we have intercultural and cross-cultural education, cultural competence and cultural proficiency, culturally relevant pedagogy, and culturally responsive teaching. And despite the fact that social scientists debunked the concept in the early 1970s, the “culture of poverty” remains the dominant framework in U.S. education circles for understanding the lives of low-income students.

Of course, some focus on culture is warranted. Culture is an important aspect of student experience to con-sider in efforts to create a meaningfully multicultural curriculum and a more equitable school. Moreover, some of these frameworks, including cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness, are rooted in principles of equity (Ladson-Billings, 1995). The challenge is to retain principles of equity as central aspects of a multi-cultural curriculum that is truly meaningful, even if—especially if—it feels easier or safer to home in on more simplistic notions of culture.

At the heart of a curriculum that is meaningfully multicultural lie principles of equity and social justice

Embracing Equity Literacy

In our own teaching, as well as in our work with schools and school districts, we embrace a framework for both multicultural curriculum development and bigger efforts to create equitable classrooms and schools. We call this framework equity literacy. Its central tenet is that any meaningful approach to diversity or multiculturalism relies more on teachers’ understandings of equity and inequity and of justice and injustice than on their understanding of this or that culture (Gorski, 2013). It relies, as well, on teachers’ abilities to cultivate in students a robust under-standing about how people are treated by one another and by institutions, in addition to a general appreciation of diversity (Swalwell, 2011). The idea is to place equity, rather than culture, at the center of the diversity conversation. Key to developing equity literacy for educators and students is cultivating four abilities (Gorski, 2013). These include the ability to

·        Recognize even subtle forms of bias, discrimination, and inequity.

·        Respond to bias, discrimination, and inequity in a thoughtful and equitable manner.

·        Redress bias, discrimination, and inequity, not only by responding to interpersonal bias, but also by studying the ways in which bigger social change happens.

·        Cultivate and sustain bias-free and discrimination-free communities, which requires an understanding that doing so is a basic responsibility for everyone in a civil society.

Part of the difficulty with implementing a curriculum that grows these abilities in young people is that we educators must first grow them in ourselves. We might start by ensuring that professional development related to multiculturalism focuses not only on cultural competence or diversity awareness, but also on recognizing sexism and ableism, for example, not on a mythical “culture of poverty,” but on responding to economic inequality; and not on how to help marginalized students fit into school cultures they experience as alienating, but on how to redress the alienation by making changes in our own practices and policies.

We recognize this is a daunting task, and we understand the pressure of feeling here’s one more thing I need to squeeze into an already packed workday. But then we remember Cynthia’s exhortation: “There’s racism at this school, and nobody’s doing any-thing about it!” We don’t have control over everything, but to the extent that we do influence the curriculum, we feel an urgency to avoid the kind of well-intended complacency we found at Green Hills High.

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