Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Not So Black and White: Finding Diversity Where We Least Expect It

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Not So Black and White: Finding Diversity Where We Least Expect It

Article excerpt


No one debates the fact that college-going populations have changed over the past thirty years (c.f., Levine & Cureton, 1998); indeed, our students have become more diverse, and our institutions attempt to accommodate and incorporate the differences within our structures, our curricula, and our pedagogy. Multiculturalism, the rallying cry for those changes--or the death knell to "traditional" values, depending upon one's ideological stance--has become a term used so widely, yet so laden with emotional and contextual vagaries, that while we all might know it, we might not exactly be sure what it means. Or, more precisely, we might not understand how to utilize the concept, along with the changes within higher education, in our own educational practices. In community colleges in particular, themselves each responding to wide ranges of constituents and missions, we can see both the political hazards of misunderstanding multiculturalism and the potential to realize the concept of multicultural understanding and education.

In this essay, I attempt to answer (all too briefly) a series of complex questions. What is multiculturalism? Is it not inclusion? What are the goals of a multicultural education for college students? What can be done in rural or predominantly (or historically) monocultural campuses to foster an understanding of multiculturalism? Can multiculturalism be achieved in an environment that is not (apparently) diverse? To address these issues, I first review salient definitions of the theories and applications of multiculturalism. Next, I confront the very real dilemma of how to transform those theories into policies, practices and procedures; how can we use this to benefit our students' understandings of, and participation in, theft communities? How is multicultural theory connected to other theories of student development in higher education? Finally, I offer a concluding section on incorporating multiculturalism into "traditional" courses and disciplines, completing the transition of this essay from theory to practice.

Definitions of multiculturalism and multicultural theory

Multiculturalism is a most pervasive, yet widely under defined, term. It must be the academic equivalent of pornography: while we might not be able to define it, we know it when we see it. This attributional sense of definition permeates many of the definitions of multicultural theorists and strategists. As Bullivant points out, "[t]he most common description [of] multicultural ... implies the existence of many (multi-) cultures within one society" (1993, 41). What constitutes a culture within one society, however, is up for grabs.

Although Fleischacker (1996) defines culture based on mores and ethical ideals from one generation to another, I find his definition fairly traditional and linear. As Tierney (1990) delineates, there are four assumptions of critical perspective of understanding culture:

   First, culture is not necessarily understandable either to organizational
   participants or researchers. Since culture is an act of interpretation,
   what each person observes and interprets varies. A second, related
   assumption is that organizational actions are mediated by equifinal
   processes. That is, the construction of meaning does not imply that all
   individuals interpret reality similarly. Third, it is impossible to codify
   abstract reality. Fourth, culture is interpretive, a dialectical process of
   negotiation between the researcher and the researched (Tierney, 1990, 43).

I am also partial to Manning and Coleman-Boatwright's definition: "Cultures are formed from a confluence of history, past experience, human action, and tradition" (1991, 368), although I admit it is less concrete than Fleischacker's, and less comprehensive than Tierney's. If culture is an intersection between the concrete and the abstract, can multiculturalism--the combination of nexus of multiple intersections--be any easier to define? …

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