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Fall 2002 Vol. 10. No. 1 Focus on Multicultural Education

Guest opinions

White privilege: a challenge for multicultural education

By by Vinay Harpalani on Sep 25, 2002 11:33 AM

Educators usually think of multicultural education as teaching students about Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other people of color.

Lessons in multiculturalism generally include information about the history, culture, and politics of these groups, and the more critical and activist pedagogies may even encourage and foster social activism among students of color.

However, multicultural education is incomplete if it does not truly challenge the root of structural racism and racial oppression: the matter of white privilege.

In her well-known article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh defined white privilege as a “package of unearned assets which [whites] can count on cashing in every day...an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions.” White privilege essentially consists of all the advantages that whites obtain solely on the basis of their skin color.

Most of the time, whites are not even aware of these advantages. Many of them are actually things that do NOT happen to whites, such as not being stopped by the police or followed in a store; not being asked to speak for one’s race or treated as a representative of one’s race; or not being questioned about one’s national loyalty. These “non-experiences” prevent many whites from understanding the everyday burdens that people of color face. As a result, whites usually take their advantages for granted and mistakenly attribute them to hard work and “merit.”

Historically, white privilege derives from the fact that whites have had the power to make all decisions of importance in America. Even political gains made by people of color – such as civil rights and affirmative action – had to be sanctioned by elite white men, which insured that advantages for whites were maintained. Whites have always had greater access to money, property, social networks, and education than other groups. Also, the norms of schools and workplaces are geared towards whites. Cultural expressions by people of color, ranging from hair and clothing styles to language, are often discouraged in these settings. All of these factors contribute to white privilege.

Although it aims to address some of these issues, multicultural education itself can also reflect white privilege. Through its very focus on Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, a multicultural perspective can lead to defining whites as “mainstream Americans” by default.

Even if the content of teaching emphasizes people of color, whites attain a privileged status, becoming the standard by which all other groups are judged.

For example, literary texts by European authors are often said to have universal appeal, applying to people across the world. Both whites and students of color are expected to relate to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet and apply them to their own lives. And indeed, the lessons about ambition and greed that these tragedies teach us do transcend societies and cultures.

In contrast, writings by authors of color are often portrayed as more limited; their main worth is what they teach us about “other” cultures and experiences. Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is seen primarily as a story of colonialism and cultural clashes. And although these themes are prominent in Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s work also explores the same essential human qualities as Shakespeare’s plays. The poignant, personal conflicts of the main character, Okonkwo – struggles for power and respect that lead to his demise – parallel those found in Macbeth.

However, while Macbeth is praised mainly for its general value, Things Fall Apart is labeled first and foremost as “uniquely and richly African.” While intended as a compliment, this label diminishes the universal appeal of Achebe’s work. Indeed, we do not usually see Macbeth labeled as “uniquely European” or even “uniquely British.” It is assumed that culture does not matter in most works by white authors, thus giving them the privilege to be universal.

To eliminate white privilege in education, we must do more than include diverse groups in the curriculum. Whites must also be included as one of these diverse groups, and their cultural practices must be examined in the same way. In fact, the overall goal should be the transformation of all education to treat these diverse groups equally.

This means talking explicitly about white history, culture, and politics alongside the discussion of Asians, Latinos, etc. It means labeling curriculum focusing on whites as “Eurocentric” in the same way that corresponding lessons on Blacks are called “Afrocentric.” This way, the vast, everyday instances of white privilege become more recognizable.

Finally, discussions on experiences of racism should identify and highlight the issue of white privilege. This will allow white students to become aware of their own privileges so that they can work to combat these inequities. Like students of color, they, too, must become activists in their own communities to effect social change.

About the Author

Vinay Harpalani is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and served on the editorial board for this issue.

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