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Why White Students Need Multicultural and Social Justice Education


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Listen to the interview with Sheldon Eakins:

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These last few weeks have been especially difficult for me as the news continues to reflect that racism still exists in 2020. I’ve witnessed video footage of Ahmaud Arbery shot and killed while jogging, George Floyd murdered by the police, and Christian Cooper harassed while bird watching in Central Park. As we think about the next generation of adults we are influencing, particularly our White students, now more than ever, we need to teach more than kindness. 

As an equity advocate, I have lots of conversations about culturally responsive teaching and multicultural education. Not too long ago while I was consulting with an elementary school principal she said, “Multicultural Education is nice, but we are well over 90% White at my school.” 

A common myth regarding multicultural education is that it is about helping students of color see themselves within the content. But multicultural education is about more than just race: It refers to any form of learning or teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs, and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds (Glossary of Education Reform). And even if the majority of your students are White, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach from a multicultural perspective.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for a bunch of Kumbaya moments in the classroom. This is not a post about how we need to teach students to embrace diversity and love each other. It’s about the influence we can and should have on our students. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings taught us that we teach what we value. Therefore, we are part of the problem if we refuse to teach about antiracism and speak out against police brutality. Our students look up to us as adults, and many of our students mimic our behavior. If we are silent around social justice matters, we send a loud message to our students about where we stand as these issues impact many of the communities we serve.

In fact, we need to go beyond multicultural education. In this 2017 interview, Zaretta Hammond differentiates between multicultural education and social justice education, which provides “a lens for the student, really being able to look at the world and seeing where things aren’t fair or where injustice exists.” To ensure the changes our society is hurting for, we need to give  our White students both multicultural and social justice education. Additionally, Dr. James Banks, the father of multicultural education, advocates for educators to teach our students about social and civic action. Ensuring that students engage in multiple perspectives without coupling their learning with civic engagement does not complete the process of developing socially just citizens who are willing to take a stance against the mistreatment of others. We need to help our students find ways they can take action in response to what they have learned.

Going back to the principal I was speaking with about whether there was a need for multicultural education at her school, I was thinking, “This is why multicultural and social justice education is so important!” Even with her assumptions that because there wasn’t a lot of racial representation at her school, does that mean the small percentage of students of color don’t matter to her? If that’s the case, what would her teachers say? Would they support her sentiments? 

Why Multicultural Education is 100% Relevant in All-White Schools 

“Whiteness” is Complex 

When someone asks why multicultural education is needed at a predominately White school, an assumption is being made that White people are a homogenous group. But White people are as heterogeneous as other racial and ethnic groups: there’s socioeconomic status, gender and sexual orientation, identity, religion, language, age, and disability, to name a few. All of those represent different cultures. Sometimes, when you’re in a dominant culture and used to things being a certain way, you don’t necessarily think about your ancestry or heritage and how things have changed over time. And because conditions have changed over time, it may appear that Whiteness is Whiteness, but there are so many different cultures embedded within that broad category. 

I think it’s essential that we help teach our White students about their ancestors and the origins of when their families first arrived in the United States. The languages, the cultures, the traditions, all those things don’t necessarily have to be lost. They can be retrieved. 

Let’s go back to the 1790s, where the first census was started. With the first US Census, they classified race. The classifying of race allowed those in power to determine or allow a few rights: Who gets the right to get jobs? Who gets the right to marry? Who gets the right to own property? That’s how the social construct of race started. 

Above is a view of Europeans, or some of the first immigrants, who were coming from various countries. And if you look at the picture, they’re White people, right? But they’re coming from multiple countries. At this time, there were several languages represented. You had folks that came from Italy, Germany, Russia, England, and so on. There were all types of cultures coming into the United States.

There were also various forms of religions represented when the Europeans began to arrive in the US. In Russia, you had the Orthodox church. In England, you had the Anglican church. When they first came, they weren’t willing to give up their culture and become this one White race. They held onto their traditions, values, and beliefs. But we see that over time, things have changed to where White supremacy and racial hierarchies began to form. Today, there are a lot of families who have European origins that may not necessarily speak the language from their original land of ancestry because those things might have been lost over generations.

Multicultural Literacy Is a Separate and Necessary Literacy

The concept of “literacy” is broad. Still, it can be divided into many different sub-categories. One of these is multicultural literacy, the ability to uncover biases relating to culture, and the skills to view the world through different cultural perspectives.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo says, “Historically reinforced ideologies such as individualism and color-blindness have left many White people racially illiterate but racially conscious when perceiving other racialized groups.” So because they’re in the dominant culture, they don’t necessarily have to think about race, but they’ll maybe notice racial issues that are not related to Whiteness.

In other words, maybe they might notice police brutality in a Black community. Perhaps they might see issues of race with Islamophobia and discrimination. But we want our students to do more than notice; responding to issues of racism, prejudice, and discrimination is essential.

Having literacy in this area is also key for equipping White students to participate more actively in conversations about racial justice. If they are not regularly exposed to these conversations, they are less likely to speak up on this topic. White friends and colleagues tell me all the time that they want to say something when racism and equity come up, but they often hold back because they don’t know what to say or are afraid to say the wrong thing. With a higher level of multicultural literacy, our students will build more confidence.

What We’ve Been Doing Isn’t Enough

Although multicultural education certainly isn’t new, it’s clear that what we’ve been doing up to this point hasn’t been enough.

As recently as a few weeks ago, there have been instances of White people utilizing the police as a means to address their encounters with people of color. The underlying issue of racism is apparent in many of these instances. Discussing current events and helping White students understand why they should also be upset at discrimination and racism may prevent a continuous cycle of White people remaining silent and complicit when issues happen that do not directly impact them. 

These conversations are essential to have. It’s also critical to teach students about becoming allies and co-conspirators, especially at the middle and high school levels. It might be a little bit difficult with your first and second graders, and maybe your kindergartners, but I think there are some messages you could still portray to your students even at that age.

What Can Multicultural Education Teach Our White Students? 

We’ve already established multicultural education goes beyond race. There’s so much within the concept of “culture,” and we must help our White students understand how race can impact them and how they can actively use whatever privilege they have to reduce issues of racism, discrimination, and bigotry. 

1. Understanding Their Own Cultural and Ethnic Background

It’s not uncommon for White people to say, Oh, I’m just White. I don’t have a culture. We need to teach our White students about what their cultural background is and their ethnic backgrounds so they can understand and think about their language and religions going back to their ancestry. Lessons on their culture may help them start to understand how privilege and White supremacy began. So begin with going back and taking some time to help your students understand that. You can also work with students by exploring community history and cultural influence.

One of the things you can teach your students, your White students, is in history. Many White immigrants have been accused of marginalizing other White immigrants. For example, the Irish and Italians were mistreated, discriminated, and marginalized against by other White immigrants. If we can teach our White students how their ancestors might have perpetuated that oppression or perhaps were part of that oppression against each other, maybe that will help them understand a little bit how in 2020, oppression continues to exist to those who are not included in the dominant culture. They can kind of see how the “haves” and the “have nots” happened back then. One of the things we want to do is help students relate items from their background knowledge and be able to bring those to light.

2. Studying Implicit Bias in Everyday Language

Another thing we can do is discuss everyday language. How are words associated with white and black used? Words such as blackmail, blackballed, or blacklisted have different connotations than words like white labeled or whitelisted. We can have students examine how these words may spark negative perceptions based on their meanings and associations. 

Consider how words such as “alien” or “immigrant” may trigger the thoughts of someone of Mexican descent. These types of stereotypes in our language may trigger our Latinx community. The same rule applies to phrases like “You should speak up more, you’re so quiet” to an Asian student.

The language we use every day may not seem significant because of the implicit biases we have developed in our lives. The words we use daily are influenced by how we were raised, our social circle, and the media. We may not notice how some of the words we use may have adverse effects on particular groups of people (stereotypes, derogatory language, etc.). We can teach students about implicit bias and how to overcome bias in our language usage. 

3. Examining Representation in Curriculum and Beyond

Let’s take a look at our school curriculum. Have your students investigate how various cultural groups are represented in the school’s curriculum. Lead these discussions with your students and have them understand it because a lot of times, that’s not a thing we think about. When we are discussing representation in the school’s curriculum, allow opportunities for a dialogue beyond heterosexual, cisgender, Christian-based educational norms. Instead, talk about subjects that aren’t reflected, such as disabilities, and how they are depicted in the curriculum. How are people from the LGBTQ community portrayed or even acknowledged in the content? Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of a single story. We need to make sure that we can bring in various perspectives in our curriculum and instruction.

If students find minimal to no representation of certain groups in the curriculum, discuss ways to bring in a variety of multicultural perspectives. The website We Need Diverse Books is an excellent resource for building a more inclusive classroom library, and Milner published an article that discusses developing a multicultural curriculum for an all-White classroom.

From there, you can expand your communications by discussing popular culture and how various groups are represented in multiple media outlets such as the news, music, movies, and social media. Have them study or research certain groups and how the articles that come up and the titles of those articles. What do the reports say versus other articles about various groups?  

4. Understanding and Recognizing Privilege

A combination of multicultural and social justice education can help students see the trouble with implicit racism and how even though they are not doing anything actively racist, they are still benefiting from a legacy of racism. Calling the cops to say that “an African American man is threatening me and my dog” is a result of White privilege. Knowing that Black people have historically been mistreated by law enforcement and using that knowledge to one’s advantage is inhumane. 

Teaching White students about power and privilege may be a touchy subject for some as White guilt and fragility may seep into the mindset of White teachers and students. However, we must learn to “disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.” Starting at a young age, we can help our students learn to understand that not everyone has access and the same opportunities as others. Students as young as six years old can learn about race and class. And this work doesn’t have to be limited to social studies class. We can embed these principles in all subjects, including mathematics.   

5. Dismantling Racism

It is not enough to teach White children to embrace racial and cultural diversity. We’ve got to go beyond cultural competency. “Children must also develop individual and group identities that will recognize and resist the false notions of superiority and racial entitlement” (Derman-Sparks, Ramsey, and Edwards, 2011). Because today we have to teach our students how to be antiracist and how to work to dismantle racism actively. 

Invest in meaningful dialogue that brings awareness to issues impacting both local and global communities. Additionally, a social justice-minded educator teaches their students to develop their own socio-cultural consciousness and advocacy skills so they can advocate for themselves and others.

For elementary students, that action may include students committing to do more than not bully or laugh at each other. They may also commit to bystander intervention by stepping in and helping their peers who they see are being mistreated. We can help our students take a stance instead of just teaching them to be kind to each other and not engage in activities that include mistreating others.

For secondary students, action may include writing their school board about their concerns and calls for change. A strong student group organized with a mission and objectives goes a long way toward challenging institutional practices that are unjust toward certain groups. On local and national scales, have students engage in lessons that address mass incarceration, police brutality, civil rights, immigration, racism, healthcare disparities, unequal pay issues, trauma, suicide, drug abuse, and women’s rights, and privilege.  

Sometimes we teach our students how to be kind to others, embrace diversity, and respect differences. We can go beyond that by teaching our White students how to be antiracist actively and do their part to support advocacy towards social justice and reform. The foundation for teaching our students how to engage in these practices actively is by helping students understand their White racial identity and positionality in society. From there, students may have a better understanding of the need for a multicultural approach in education and what they can do to find their voice and role in creating a socially just society.

Additional Resources

Framing Brave Conversations About Race and Ethnicity

8 Ways Teachers Can Address White Supremacy in the Classroom

Teaching About Racism, Antisemitism and White Supremacy

How Does Race Affect a Student’s Math Education?

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Diversity Equity and Inclusion Activity for Project Based Learning

Racism No Way: Anti-racism Activities, Years 3-12

How Should I Talk About Race in My Mostly White Classroom?

Learn more from Sheldon Eakins on his website, the Leading Equity Center, where he offers resources, courses, and his podcast, the Leading Equity Podcast.

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  1. Shelby Denhof says:

    Thank you for this!

  2. Tracey Holden says:

    Great podcast! Thank you for bringing us relevant, inspiring, and phenomenal resources.

  3. Adaure Nduka says:

    Thank you for writing this!

  4. Cynthia Mitlo says:

    Amen! White students in predominantly white schools are precisely the students that need to learn about and understand the issues of people outside of their immediate community. Structural racism will never be eliminated if white students — even kind-hearted ones — grow up and go on to work in schools, banks, government, corporations, hospitals, etc. without understanding the injustices that those institutions impose on people color. As Mr. Eakins said, white children (and adults) need to be aware of how issues like mass incarceration and healthcare disparaties are directly related to racism, and how devastating the effects of those issues are on the Black community, so that we can dismantle them.

  5. Cesar Duenas says:

    Well summarized Jennifer. I think it worth noting that teaching social justice should teach students not just mechanisms for challenging racial inequity but any inequity. Someday and someway most students, even white students, will be treated as part of some minority group. At the risk of burnishing white privilege, social justice or simply justice/equity requires perspective. With a knowledgeable perspective of the majority/”winning” and minority/”losing” cultures in any historical time period students have a basis for learning the next action step – social justice. Providing every student in diverse or non-diverse schools with as many historical + CULTURAL examples as possible, in every subject including math and science, gives each student the basis for exploring with their teachers the social justice mechanisms and actions they can take to prevent the mistakes of the past. Isn’t it the goal of every educator and parent … to provide their students and children with the knowledge and tools to avoid the most significant mistakes of the past.

  6. Kevin Beck says:

    233 Spreckels Drive

  7. Tiwana says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I wanted to thank you and applaud you for being unapologetic and standing firm on using your space, platform and educational community to continue doing the work you do and sharing information such as this. I was smiling and clapping you in my head as I listened to the opening statement of this podcast. For too long too many people have not had the bravery you have stated in a few powerful sentences. Education needs more people like you and Sheldon. I have been spreading and sharing my love of your episodes since discovering you only a couple months ago (via GOA). Please continue to inspire, educate and share! Tiwana Merritt- AISJ Service Learning Coordinator & Coach

  8. This podcast is a solid introduction to this complex situation. I am white and have confronted some of the resistance to developing an understanding of a variety of people and their experiences. We need to be well-educated, well-read, and well-spoken to address the issues associated with social justice and equity. I am glad that these needs are being addressed here and in many other forums. I appreciate your work and the introduction to the work of Dr. Sheldon Eakins. The content here supports the educational opportunities for our communities that will bring equity and justice in our society. Thank you for building around a variety of perspectives and providing me several more sources of information.

  9. Danny says:


  10. Andrew K says:

    The word “Latinx” triggers me. Those of us who are Hispanic overwhelmingly dislike and reject the term, and yet it’s still be used for us.

    • Hi Andrew. We’re genuinely curious and want learn more about this, mostly because Jenn’s understanding is that Latinx is considered to be the most appropriate accepted term for anybody who is of a Spanish-speaking ethnicity. However, we all realize that language is constantly evolving, so if you could tell us a little bit more about your perspective or what you and others don’t like about it, that will help us grow in our understanding. Thank you so much.

  11. Brian Walker says:

    Great episode. I totally agree with the strong stance you take at the beginning. Thank you for saying this.

  12. Leah Mann says:

    So grateful for this. Thank you, thank you.

    One contraction I had with this is the use of “Kumbaya”. You were talking about use of language and culturally responsible literacy. The origin of the word “Kumbaya” was a song sung by freed slaves in the Gullah community suffering under Jim Crow crying out for divine intervention.

    This work is deep and humbling work.

  13. Carli says:

    Thank you for this post! I am a student teacher at the moment, and thinking about ways that I can make my classroom more equitable and just is at the forefront of my mind. This is a really complex topic to take on, especially in the current climate of US education today. This being said, the ideas of teaching implicit bias, dismantling racism, etc. are more relevant than ever and should be talked about in the classroom! If we as educators are not speaking out against inequity and injustice when it comes to social justice and multicultural education, we are part of the problem.

  14. Thank you for explaining this so clearly. Multicultural education provides all students with an opportunity to develop skills and understandings necessary to work towards equity and justice.

  15. Brava! Tremendous podcast. I will be entering my 35 year teaching social studies at Prescott High School. Civics, Geography, AP United States History, and First Nations History. I am also the High School Student Council Adviser and Head Baseball Coach. Over the past several years the student council has become very, very active. In particular when it comes to issues related to social justice issues specifically connected to native people. For well over a decade Prescott students have been at the forefront of the struggle to eliminate “Indian” logos and imagery in Wisconsin schools. They have organized demonstrations, testified at legislative hearings, presented at universities and professional conferences on their work connected to this social justice issue. Mind you, these actions are not directly connected to school curriculum, but discussions within the classroom have led students to become actively involved in this social justice issue. Just wanted to say this is one Wisconsin teacher who is applauding all you do! Keep up the tremendous work. With great respect, Jeff Ryan

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Jeff. Jenn will be so glad to know that the post resonated with you!

  16. Jazmine Smith says:

    This episode was great. One thing that stood out to me was the comment on racially illiterate. Many people do not realize that they are and for you to put a title on it is great!

    • Andrea Castellano says:

      Yes. It’s important to identify and discuss the issues facing us if we want to improve the state of our educational system. Thanks for listening.

  17. Marissa Owens says:

    The part about white students and teachers experience white guilt was super interesting. I love the way it was said to “disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. I love that quote, and I think it’s super important to imply this to an everyday goal when it comes to instruction.

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