What is Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism – if you are a teacher you have probably heard this word many times. You may have also come across many different meanings of this term. To some, this is just another item to “fit” into the curriculum, perhaps in language arts or social studies. And to others, it is a cultural day/week/month that will occur and not resurface again. Breaking the word down “multi-” = many, “culture” = ways of living of a group that has been handed down from generation to generation, and “-ism” = practice. Simply putting these definitions together, it may be assumed that multiculturalism is the practice of studying the ways of living of many different groups that has been handed down many generations. Yes, this does sound like something that could be incorporated into a social studies lesson, but is this what we really mean by multiculturalism?

Meanings Have Changed.

Over the years, our country has been called the “melting pot” and this meant that those who came to this country would “melt” into our culture. Everyone came from far away lands to fulfill their “American dream” of getting a job, raising a family, and living a happy life. Today, we are no longer referred to as the “melting pot,” because there is no longer this desire to be the same and do the same things. We are more of a “mosaic” or “tossed salad” where, rather than dissolving and reforming, we piece together each individual to create a total collection. We now have to understand and accept the differences that occur among us because without one piece or ingredient the mosaic or salad is incomplete.

With that in mind, we can redefine what is meant by multiculturalism. It is no longer just studying the different cultures, it is acknowledging that our country is made up of all the cultures of the world and this diversity must be understood and accepted. So, we can now say that multiculturalism is a philosophy or awareness that shows this understanding and acceptance of the diverse world we live in. This is not to say that we do not need to study the different cultures, because that is just one of the ways to begin to acquire an understanding.

The Controversy.

Multiculturalism has many different issues that go under its umbrella. Although one may think that they understand multiculturalism, it is possible that some of the issues were not considered. Culture is the first issue, being the base root of the term, which can be studied and learned. Other issues are race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and even those persons who are physically and emotionally challenged. Every classroom may not include all of these types of students, but sooner or later students will face all of these differences through their family, friends, coworkers, or even just in everyday living. It is our job as teachers to expose students to these differences and give them the tools to say that it is okay to be different.

What tools and how? This question runs through the mind of every teacher for every subject and lesson. But what are we talking about, a philosophy and awareness with regard to all of the issues that are covered under the term multiculturalism. To do this we need to model a positive attitude toward all of these issues, that the children will, in turn, model that behavior. If we become aware of any biases that we posses then we can learn to overcome them and teach the children to overcome theirs as well. Becoming familiar with these issues and understanding them will reduce any apprehensions we have and will in turn give us the tools we need to posses this positive attitude.

This sounds like it could be very simple, just be careful of what you say and how you say it, right? There are other things that need to be considered. Some feel that teaching cultural appreciation can be misleading by discussing the stereotypes of the cultures. Others feel that multiculturalism has been taken too far on the politically correct spectrum and that it takes away from the quality of learning. With these things in mind we, as teachers, need to be aware of the stereotypes, recognize them, but not place too much basis on them. We need to be conscious that there are differences among people within the different cultures and to stress that it is okay to be different.

What Do You Think?

This is the attitude we want to be instilling in the students we teach. This is what students will remember and help give them self-esteem. In addition to trying to teach the students subject content, isn’t this positive attitude of themselves and others what we are trying to give them?