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Cover December 28, 1998

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The development of American discourse about multiculturalism has been fascinating to follow from my home overseas far from the multiculturalism wars. Of course, issues surrounding multiculturalism are being debated throughout the world: France has problems with its new citizens who are not thoroughly French; Yugoslavia disintegrated under the impact of a variety of factors of which problems with multiculturalism was one; Indonesia is reeling under the weight of issues surrounding multiculturalism. Michelle Young's article reprinted here from 1997 deals with multiculturalism on a personal level. This article is, indeed, as timely today as it was almost two years ago when we first published it. New cover articles will start with the January 11 issue.

Our Personal Commitment to Multiculturalism

by Michelle Young, co-author, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow: Meeting the Challenge of Our Multicultural America & Beyond (Caddo Gap Press, 1996)

The effects of segregation and racism continue to seep into the schools and our everyday communities, subtly and insidiously, affecting thousands of people who fall prey to these influences. Although laws have been created in an effort to prevent these negative influences, many signs slide by, virtually unnoticed.

We may not always be sure we've read the subtleties accurately as they've silently crept into our classrooms and into our daily lives. A word, a look, a common classroom practice. Others may not notice, but what about you? Have you felt bad about something said or done by others, and yet you've said nothing because you felt you might be standing alone? Did you feel you might have misread a sign because no one else seemed to notice? You have the right to your feelings. Your perceptions do count!

A few years ago, a child of Native American heritage walked to the food line in the cafeteria of her predominantly white elementary school to get a carton of milk. As she walked, the drone of tom toms began to rise, table by table, as the other children beat endlessly in rhythm.

The student's mother removed the child from the school immediately after learning of the incident from her child. To this nine- or ten-year-old child, the experience was both terrifying and devastating, and the effects of that day will linger in her mind long after the names of the school or the other children have hopes of fading.

But what about the children beating on those tables? Were their actions racist, or were they mimicking something they may have seen on television or in the movies and thought it would be fun? Whether or not their actions were intended to hurt, the incident required attention--not necessarily in terms of punishing the offenders, but rather in terms of teaching about the customs and traditions of other cultures. Could this incident have occurred with other cultures in any area of the world? Of course, and that's precisely why I brought it up.

Although this particular situation may not have occurred in your classroom or school, it's important to maintain a reality check on your own environment. Are you assisting in sending negative messages without even realizing it? Consider the classrooms and cafeterias where color ticket punishments and rewards, and even traffic lights for behavior modification are being used. Children who are well-behaved and earn green tickets, or a green light flashes. For misbehavior, the tickets or lights are red or yellow warnings, and for blatantly bad behavior, red or black are used.

The educators using these methods may not recognize these as negative messages, but to the children who associate colors with anthropological race classifications, these messages ring out loud and clear. For children who possess those related skin shades, the psychological effects of these color signals aid in planting seeds that will mentally establish their understanding of society's expectations of them, often paving the path for their behaviors for the rest of their lives.

Some teachers, consciously or not, meet a new student and stereotype that student according to preconceived notions about the heritage. "This student doesn't belong in the class. It will be too hard because of the student's..." heritage/color/whatever. "That student is perfect for medicine, and I have to remember to steer him or her that way. After all, everyone knows this is the perfect field for a student of this culture!" And sure enough, the student of the so-called "wrong" culture, will not do well in the class and the student of the so-called "right" culture will be inclined to do better because subjectivity has entered into the grading process.

Beyond these subtleties, the hidden messages reach back into the community like a cancer. In school, student discipline problems and low academic achievement begin to affect the classrooms, and teacher burnout can become common as well. In the community, seeds of gang development may begin to take root.

Can we blame these things on society at large? Maybe not--at least not when these trends appear to correlate to the lack of a positive multicultural environment. But the subtleties I've described are as deadly to the foundations of multicultural education and to society as the more overt and recognizable acts are.

Multicultural education demands a change in deeply rooted and extremely personal attitudes. We must work on changing our own perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors as hard as we work to change these things in the world around us. Regardless of our own origins or even of our own socioeconomic situation, every one of us is affected by racism and its subtleties. We accomplish nothing when we fail to see this basic tenet of multiculturalism.

A commitment to our working together as a unified body of people who value and appreciate each other for our contributions to the human race will be the defining factor that makes the difference in our schools and in society. But it's also important for the single teacher who stands alone in a school where the subtleties regularly occur to remember that one single teacher who cares enough, can make the difference in students' lives as well as in his or her own!

The first step to eradicating racism and bigotry in our world is a commitment to decry every single act of discrimination and prejudice you see and hear--regardless of whether your own roots are involved, and to be self-aware of the potential for encouraging the subtleties to exist. The bottom line is that all of our roots are involved because all of us are members of humankind first.

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