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Multicultural Tokenism

HannahB's picture

Growing up in a primarily white, upper middle class community—I feel that my childhood could be understood as the “poster child” of white privilege, white obliviousness and white neutrality. For example, throughout my K-12 education, I had to participate in different “cultural events.” On one such occasion, I brought in shortbread (my grandmother’s recipe) to represent my Scottish heritage. But while my family made/ate this shortbread often and I do have Scottish blood in me, my Scottish (and English and German and Irish) ancestry in no way informs my day-to-day lived experience. At the time, I did not think twice about this “cultural” event; it was simply an opportunity to eat yummy food. Looking back, however, I wish my teachers had challenged me to capture and consider my actual culture.

This example is representative of the multicultural tokenism that exists when educators use parties, festivals or events to highlight individual parts of students’ cultures (e.g. celebrating Kwanza or in my case, one cultural food). I stronly believe multiculturalism must go deeper than this. Multiculturalilsm must make sense of how students’ cultures (which I believe are composed by a multitude of things, including but not limited to race, class, religion, and family norms) inform their identity, their actions in the classroom, etc. For students whose cultural background differs from the “dominant” culture, this multicultural tokenism means that the depth of their being is not fully understood and appreciated. For me, this cultural tokenism meant that I was not asked to acknowledge and reflect on my white, middle class culture as a real, equally influential culture that was not value-neutral, just valued in American society.

Because where my ancestors immigrated from has not noticeably influenced my life, the shortbread instance was sort of a cultural and educational cop-out. I could claim this “culture” without having to consider what actually influenced my worldview and experiences. In this instance, I was implicitly told that my whiteness, my class background, my American-ness, were neutral—which is not true.

Part of what I find most sad about this story is that I don’t think my teachers did this intentionally; rather, I think as white, middle class people themselves, they too did not recognize how their race, class and upbringing influenced their lived experience in a far from neutral way.