Critical Multiculturalism & Racism in Children's Literature

By Duren, Emma Buffington | Multicultural Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Critical Multiculturalism & Racism in Children's Literature


Duren, Emma Buffington, Multicultural Education


Several years ago, I began to collect and use multicultural literature in my classroom. I believed that my mostly suburban white elementary aged students needed exposure to the life experiences of other people and their cultures. Most of my students do not have the opportunity to learn any racial attitudes except ones that stereotype individuals of a different race. Their experiences with members from other racial and ethnic groups are limited. Kenneth Clark (1955) contends that as children learn about themselves and the society in which they live they become aware of the racial status assigned to their racial group. Racial symbols, especially through media representations, are so pervasive in American society that children easily perceive them and make tIi them a part of their conceptual framework of how the society functions.

Using multicultural literature provides my students with an opportunity to not only learn about different racial and ethnic groups but also examine their own stereotypes and prejudices. Children do not learn about their racial group without being involved in emotions and desires, which are part of their growing understanding of what society thinks about their race(Clark, 1955). Through reading and discussing the literature, my white students are able to look into a world that is unfamiliar to them. Students of color are able to see a world that is reflective of their own lived experiences.

The literature that I select is designed to increase students' awareness and appreciation of other people; to help them recognize similarities and differences between groups of people; to show how we are connected to one another through our emotions, or needs and or desires; and to develop an understanding of the effects of social issues and focuses on the lives of ordinary individuals. I also choose books that reflect such universal themes as love, joy, hope, and fear.

My multicultural goal is prejudice reduction. However, focusing only on the recognition and appreciation of differences absolves me of helping my students develop any real understanding of how race and racial attitudes are historically constructed. Failure to address racism reinforces the ideological concept that whiteness is the cultural norm by which all other cultures are compared. A critical use of children's literature provides a discourse for students to understand the social construction of race and how they are privileged by their whiteness. As McLaren ( 1998) states:

Whiteness is a sociohistorical form of consciousness, given birth at the nexus of capitalism, colonial rule and the emergent relationships among dominant and subordinate groups. Whiteness is also a refusal to acknowledge how white people are implicated in certain social relations of privilege and relations of domination and subordination. (p. 282)

My traditional multicultural efforts focused on non-whites. Haymes (1995) states that "This view of multicultural education supports the notion of white supremacist ideology by making nonwhite cultures markers for racial difference" (p. 107). White western culture becomes the center, the cultural norm, by which all other (non-white) cultures were measured. Critical discussions to help students understand the political implications of their whiteness, particularly as it relates to black oppression, is absent. Classroom discussions usually end with students declaring that "those people were mean. They would never treat anybody like that." Students of color, particularly Black, are usually silent.

Conversations about race in the context of classroom discourse are often constrained and portray people of color and whites as victims or actors in a system predetermined by someone else. Seldom does the conversation focus on that "someone else."Nor does the conversation explore the benefits of maintaining a racist system or how the system is maintained. Much of the work that is done in exploring the concept of "whiteness" involves adults.

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