BEYOND PROMISE: Autobiography and Multicultural Education

Article excerpt


In studying the politics of identity, we find that who we are is invariably related to who others are, as well as to whom we have been and want to become. (William F. Pinar, 2004, p. 30)

Autobiography is not an unequivocally empowering medium but a contradictory form of cultural politics that has both progressive and reactionary forms. (Wendy S. Hesford, 1999, p. xxiv)

Reading and writing autobiography as a pedagogical mode of engaging multicultural education is no longer new. We also adopt this strategy in our own respective teachings at two universities where students are predominantly White and (lower) middle-class women.

We each use two autobiographical works: one is the highly celebrated I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the renowned African-American poet and novelist Maya Angelou (2000/1975), which narrates an uplifting journey of a Black girl who rose above racism, sexism, and poverty to achieve her dream; the other is Invisible Privilege: A Memoir about Race, Class, & Gender by a Jewish, (upper) middle-class woman, Paula Rothenberg (2000), a noted scholar in women's studies and multicultural studies, who writes about her difficult journey of understanding White privilege and choosing to fight against social injustices and inequities.

These two books depict the lived experiences of two individuals who took on the task of fighting for social justice, albeit with distinctly different paths. The promise of using both books was to engage our students with their own identity politics as educators. Our experiences in teaching them, however, question such a promise because many students refused to read them in a way that would interrogate their own identities.

As Goodson (1998) points out, storytelling itself is not necessarily empowering but can be implicated in reproducing dominant discourses and structures. Reflecting upon our teaching stories, we intend to address the contradictions of using autobiography in multicultural education and envision new discourses for a transformative pedagogy.

Our adoption of an autobiographical approach in teaching multiculturalism was motivated by our efforts to go beyond the dominant approach to multicultural education, what James Banks (1991) would call a "contributions approach" or "heroes and holidays approach," which emphasizes teaching ethnic differences and cultural tolerance. While celebrating inclusion and stressing sensitivity training, such an approach fails to adequately analyze power relationships and leaves structural injustice and inequities unchallenged. Moreover, it is an essentialist model as it tends to define identities in static and fixed terms, failing to grasp the dynamic, complex, and changing nature of ethnic/racial/cultural identity. In addition, it tends to focus on making students aware of "others," not touching upon who they are as gendered, raced, and classed persons.

Disrupting such a promise, we shift our focus to the intersection between structure and person to examine identity issues: How is personal identity constructed socially, economically, and politically? Autobiography, when written and taught in such a way that the self is situated in social and cultural contexts, seems to be an excellent medium for engaging such work.

Ironically, our efforts to challenge the promise of the additive multicultural education approach through the focus on identity also leave us in an unsettling pedagogical process. Using autobiography to engage students with lived experiences turns out to be yet another promise with both possibilities and limitations. It is on this site of beyond double "promises" that we reflect, complicate, and re-situate multicultural pedagogy.

In this article, we not only reflect on our own teaching approaches, we also attempt to understand how teaching autobiographical works has influenced our own identities as teachers. Both of us are Chinese working at American universities as international faculty members. …