Diversity Vs. White Privilege
Christine Sleeter explains why multiculturalism, at its core, is a
struggle against racism, and must go beyond an appreciation of diversity.
from the magazine RETHINKING SCHOOLS, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter 2000/2001); available online
An Interview with Christine Sleeter
The following is condensed from an interview with Christine Sleeter, a professor
at California State University - Monterey Bay and co-editor of Multicultural
Education, Critical Pedagogy, and the Politics of Difference. Sleeter was
interviewed by Barbara Miner and Bob Peterson of Rethinking Schools.
Q: You stress the importance of multicultural education as a struggle against
white racism, rather than multiculturalism as a way to appreciate diversity.
Both historically and in contemporary society, the relationships between
racial and ethnic groups in this country are framed within a context of unequal
power. People of European descent generally assume the power to claim the
land, claim the resources, claim the language. They even claim the right
to frame the culture and identity of who we are as Americans. That has been
the case ever since Columbus landed on the North American continent.
Generally, people of European de-scent still claim white privileges. This
is particularly true of wealthy people of European descent. I know a lot
of poor people who, while they reap the benefits of looking white, are certainly
disenfranchised in many ways.
I keep going back to the fact that multicultural education came out of the
civil rights movement. It wasn't just about, "Let me get to know something
about your food and I'll share some of my food." The primary issue was one
of access to a quality education. If we're not dealing with questions of
why access is continually important, and if we're not dealing with issues
like why we have so much poverty amid so much wealth, we're not dealing with
the core issues of multiculturalism.
I know it may sound trite, but the central issue remains one of justice.
Q. You talk a lot about white privilege. Why do you use that term and how do you explain it to white teachers?
If I do well at something, nobody is going to say, "You're a credit to your
race." Saying that presumes that the race that the person is a member of
ordinarily doesn't do very well.
Because I am white, nobody says that about me. Yet such statements frequently
surround kids of color. People make assumptions about their intellectual
ability, about their family support, simply on the basis of their skin color.
That's what I mean by reaping privileges of white racism, just on a personal
level. At a more institutional level, I sometimes use this example.
My grandfather was a painter and wallpaper hanger who did fairly well in
his life by buying property, renovating it, and then selling it. I grew up
with the family story that he only had a second-grade education and look
how well he did. Yet he was buying property at a time in which property ownership
was much easier for white people. As a part of New Deal legislation, Franklin
Delano Roosevelt made a deal with southern Senators that the money for low-cost
federal subsidized housing loans would be made available to white families
and not to families of color, because the southern senators wanted to keep
African Americans working as sharecroppers.
Part of that New Deal legislation was specifically crafted so that people
like my grandfather could buy property. I have inherited then, the benefits
of that piece of systemic, historic white racism. Even today, I can walk
into a real estate office and will more likely be shown places in "better"
neighborhoods. I am also more likely to be given a better mortgage deal.
Those are examples of how white racism keeps reaping me benefits. Sometimes I am aware of it and sometimes I am not.
Q. A lot of white people resist using terms such as white racism, white supremacy,
white privilege. How do you break through that defensiveness where they might
argue, "I am where I am because I worked hard, not because I am white."
One tactic is to look at family stories and situate those stories in a historical
context. Let's use my grandfather as an example again. My grandfather worked
very hard and I can't say that he didn't. But I can't just individualize
his success. I have to look at it in the historical context of who had access
to what. This allows me to say that yes, my grandfather worked hard, but
in a situation in which the doors were closed to people who may have worked
equally hard but who were not white.
Q. A lot of teachers might respond, "That was 80 years ago. Today, we're
in a color-blind society and it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of
race. How can you say white privilege still exists?"
Often, I have my students go out and do mini-investigations in the community.
Here's an exercise that helps. One of the investigations involves students
pairing up - one white student and one student of color. Sometimes they've
looked at places to rent and one will go in and then the other, and they
later compare notes. I have a colleague who's done a similar exercise with
the students applying for the same job. Sometimes my students will go shopping
together - that seems to be a popular one - and they will compare their treatment
by store clerks. With that one, inevitably they come back with biased differential
After these investigations, the students will try to interpret what happened.
Students of color aren't surprised by the differing treatment, but the white
students tend to be surprised. And some will say, "Well, that was just that
store clerk, who was having a bad day."
If the white students are allowed to think of the differing treatment only
in terms of one particular instance, they can still minimize and individualize
the phenomenon. But in classes where I have been teaching about institutional
racism, I'll have groups of students come in and report what they've found.
If eight of 10 students report incidents of racism, it becomes much harder
to say that racism doesn't happen today. And when they report that data in
conjunction with information I bring to class - statistical data about racism
and home mortgages, and racism in educational tracking, and racism in racial
profiling by police - it makes a powerful statement.
Q. Multicultural education is more than a self-help movement for racist whites.
What does this have to do with schools and multicultural education?
Teachers will often frame multicultural education in terms of merely teaching
about cultural differences. This is a sort of a stereotypical way that often
happens. I remember talking with a kindergarten teacher who had this lesson
around Thanksgiving about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down together
at the first Thanksgiving. She wanted to use that as a tool for teaching
about the cultures of indigenous people.
"But that isn't the story," I said. "From the perspective of indigenous people,
the real story has been one of genocide and of taking land away. It's important
for kids to understand that story. From the perspective of indigenous people
today, what's important is reclaiming land, reclaiming sovereignty, rebuilding
economies, reclaiming and rebuilding cultures that have been devastated.
If kids today really want to understand relationships between whites and
indigenous peoples, we need to understand that within an accurate historical
She responded, "Kids are too young for that." I disagree. I've seen teachers
of young children teach a much more accurate version of history. I don't
think kids are too young if you frame matters properly and in a way they
For example, recently I watched a combination fourth-fifth grade teacher
teach a lesson about discrimination as part of a unit on immigration. She
told the students that schools used to let only boys play sports, and asked
the students if they thought that was fair. Of course the students said it
wasn't and some of them giggled at what a silly idea that was.
Then she applied the same idea to the kind of discrimination that immigrants
experienced historically. One of the ideas she taught was discrimination
Asian immigrants experienced coming through Angel Island. Once students got
the idea of what discrimination is, she then tried to help them understand
that not everyone experienced the same discrimination all the time. She told
me that helping students understand nuances was difficult, as they tended
to want to apply an idea uniformly to everyone, once they grasped it.
Q. You have written about the difference between psychological explanations
of racism that focus on individual prejudice, and institutional racism that
is manifested in social, economic, and political structures. Why is it important
to move toward an understanding of institutional racism?
Let's look at a particular school issue such as tracking. As a teacher, if
I am individualizing racism then I am going to be figuring out how to make
myself a less prejudiced, more accepting person. I think it's very good for
people to do that kind of work. But if that's the only thing, it can lead
to a point where the person is saying, "Now I'm a good white. I've expunged
myself of racism and I am accepting of all people."
But you can be a "good white" and still be in a school in which kids are
being rank-ordered based on estimates of their learning ability and where
lower tracks are predominantly kids of color and/or low income kids. So the
tracking system becomes an example of institutional racism, a way of sorting
kids on the basis of both race and social class. It's essential that multiculturalism
address these institutional inequities.
Q. What if a teacher says, "I'm not sorting kids on the basis of race. I
hate to say it, but some kids work harder and have more support at home.
If you go into classrooms that are taught at the different track levels,
very often you will see qualitatively different kinds of instruction, and
that tends to perpetuate tracking. I have seen schools which have eliminated
the bottom track and the teachers have said, "My gosh, when you start expecting
more out of the kids, the kids tend to rise to the level of expectation."
Let me give you a classic example.
In the city of Salinas, there were some eighth grade kids a couple of years
ago who were not promoted to high school because they weren't achieving.
The presumption was that they weren't ready to survive academically in high
These kids were aware that the system doesn't do a very good job of keeping
track of where kids go, so they enrolled in the high school anyway. They
cut back on some of the behavior that caused them to be noticed in the first
place and kind of blended in. Halfway through the school year, some of their
previous eighth grade teachers asked, "Hey what happened to these kids, they're
not still in the eighth grade." And they discovered them in the high school,
doing fine academically. The kids had the capability to learn well and they
knew that if they went on to a more challenging environment, that they would
Oftentimes, we hold kids back by not expecting much out of them. I say that
partly from having been a learning disabilities teacher in Seattle. I was
trained to focus on what the kids couldn't do, rather than on what the kids
could do. As I realized that the kids had a whole lot of capabilities that
I wasn't aware of, my expectations went up markedly. My approach changed
from trying to remediate what they didn't have to teaching to what they could
do, which was actually quite considerable.
From that I started questioning the expectations we have for kids and how
we teach to those expectations. The tracking system is built on presumptions
about kids from low-income backgrounds and kids of color, that their parents
don't care, that they have language deficits, that nobody is around to push
them with their homework, that they lack a lot of those things. Then we build
teaching around that presumption.
Q. Some white teachers say they are sensitive to students of color because
they adopt a color-blind approach. They'll say, "I don't deal with this kid
as a Black kid, I see a kid. I treat everyone equally." How would you respond?
In a color-bind approach, there is a whole lot about a student that you are
not seeing. For example, if you take a kid who is of Mexican descent and
you say, "I don't see a Mexican kid I just see a kid." you are preventing
yourself from knowing something about that student's culture and community
- and an important part of the student. Do you know much about where the
kid's family came from? Do you know much about Mexican holidays and Mexican
festivals that the kid may be participating in? Do you know much about church
traditions or family celebrations that the kid is a part of? Do you know
much about Mexican-American literature and stories that the kid is learning
If a teacher is insisting on being color blind, then the teacher is putting
herself in a position of saying, "I don't know about the kid's background,
I don't believe that's really important, and I'm not going to learn about
Q. You have argued that one can educate white teachers to death but that
in the long run it's more important to increase the number of teachers of
color so that schools do not remain institutions dominated by white people.
I argue this on the basis of several different things. First, if you look
at research on who are the best teachers of kids of color, generally they
have come from the kids' communities. The study that shows this extremely
well is Gloria Ladson-Billings work, The Dream-keepers: On Successful Teachers
of African-American Kids. That's one of my arguments.
The second piece of my argument involves my work as a teacher/educator over
the last 15 years, of trying to prepare predominantly white groups of students
to teach in culturally diverse schools. Even though I think there is a lot
that can be done to educate white teachers, when I see where they start and
where they finish by the end of their teacher training, most end up with
a superficial understanding of the issues - unless they go into settings
where people are continuing to extensively work with them. I do not want
to populate urban schools with people who are coming in with superficial
understandings of multicultural education and of progressive education.
The third thing I draw on is my experience working in multiracial groups
of adults. At California State University - Monterey Bay, where I teach,
half the faculty are faculty of color. The discussions we have, the issues
that are brought to the table, the connections to the community, the breadth
of wisdom that comes into the discussions - these are all qualitatively different
than when I have worked with predominantly white groups of educators.
Q. You deal mostly with teacher education, where would-be teachers tend to
have at least some support for multiculturalism. Do you have any advice for
a classroom teacher concerned about anti-racist education but who knows they
can't do all this by themselves - and may feel isolated in their school or
I tell people to join a network or organization in which there are people
who will give them support. Groups like the National Coalition of Education
Activists quickly come to mind. I also tell people to subscribe to Rethinking
Schools so they won't feel like they're out there by themselves, and I give
them the "Teaching for Change" catalog from the Network of Educators on the
Americas. I encourage them to join groups such as the National Association
for Bilingual Education or the National Association for Multicultural Education.
You need to also look around for local grassroots organizations, or local
chapters of national groups. Feeling like you have to take on these issues
all by yourself can be self defeating.
Q. Some people argue that multicultural education is being undermined by
standardized testing, which rewards superficial knowledge about conventional
aspects of the curriculum. On the other hand, some community groups, particularly
in communities of color, argue that we need much more accountability because
obviously the schools have underserved their children. How might people committed
to multicultural curriculum and academic equity balance those two perspectives?
That's a very important question. I don't advocate just simply throwing out
testing. Testing that's used to guide instruction is extremely important.
We need to monitor how kids are doing because kids of color and low-income
white kids have been underschooled historically. So I believe in testing
to improve instruction.
But I don't believe in testing to rank-order kids and schools, and to give
some schools a lot of money while other schools get less. With the extreme
emphasis now on high-stakes testing, so much is getting lost in the process.
Teachers are telling me that due to the amount of testing, science is going
by the wayside, social studies is going by the wayside - so there's a certain
amount of devastation that's being done even to the traditional curriculum.
We're also defining what kids learn in ways that leave out important forms
of knowledge. Just take the question of reading. In California, it's the
English reading score that counts, even for kids whose first language is
Spanish or any other language except English. They're not even thinking in
terms of a child's reading ability, but only in terms of their ability to
read in English. It's those kinds of issues that get lost in some of the
discussion about raising test scores.
Q. In many urban areas, there is a lack of concern with segregation. How
might that affect multicultural education, and what might be some strategies
for moving forward?
School segregation is clearly linked to housing segregation. As long as housing
segregation isn't actively on the agenda and we're only talking about school
segregation, I don't know where you go with that. Back in the 1960s, we were
addressing housing segregation. I don't hear much about that now.
There is nothing inherent in a predominately Black or predominately Latino
school that makes it a bad school. The issue is access to resources. And
that's clearly what is happening when you look at the resources gap between
urban and suburban schools.
Winter 2000 / 2001