White Supremacy

We Can't Just Teach About Heroes and Holidays and Call It Culturally Responsive

In a recent training on culturally responsive teaching, I was introduced to a theory called the "Stages of Multicultural Transformation."

It goes something like this.

Default curriculums, otherwise known as the “Curriculum of the Mainstream,” are Eurocentric and male-centric. Think teaching Columbus as a hero without mentioning Native American genocide; never learning about Egypt except when discussing pyramids and mummies; reading Huck Finn but not Beloved; or analyzing the Declaration of Independence without also reading Declaration of the Rights of Women.

This is Stage 1.

 Most schools have at least attempted, hopefully, to move past this stage. 

The second stage is called the “Heroes and Holidays Stage.” 

This is where I believe most schools find themselves.

This is when “teachers ‘celebrate’ differences by integrating information or resources about famous people and cultural artifacts of various groups into the mainstream curriculum. Bulletin boards might contain pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks; Teachers might plan a special celebration for Black History Month or Women’s History Month; Student learning about ‘other cultures’ focuses on costumes, foods, music and other tangible cultural items.”

Now, at first glance, this may sound positive. It sounds like students are learning to honor other cultures, value tolerance, appreciate diversity and be kind to all.

But there’s a problem here.

In fact, there are several problems.

By celebrating Black History Month or Women’s History Month, these non-dominant groups are othered—they exist outside the context of the real curriculum. Therefore, when that month concludes, it is akin to the teacher saying, “Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled programming.”

In addition, by focusing solely on larger than life figures like MLK or Rosa Parks, for example, the underlying message is that these heroes represent the entirety of the non-dominant experience. This is incredibly important because this practice perpetuates the theory of Black Exceptionalism.

Paraphrasing Michelle Alexander, Black Exceptionalism is the belief that since there are some people who have succeeded, then the system must, in fact, be equitable and accessible for all. As Alexander notes in her must-read,” The New Jim Crow,”

“Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how Black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories ‘prove’ that race is no longer relevant.”

We cannot teach our children this way.

We cannot have our students on March 1 thinking that because of MLK, racism is over and that America is finally free of its original sin.

Upon reading this, I would expect some sighs of exasperation.

I can imagine a parent, teacher or principal saying something to the effect of, “But wait, I thought this is what I was supposed to do! Embrace diversity, celebrate differences, devote class time to civil rights and justice. Now you’re telling me I’m doing harm, that this is in some way, racist!?”

To such voices, know that I hear you. I applaud and value your contributions. I appreciate and understand how difficult and frustrating this work can be. And I also know that there is always more work to do, more to learn and more to understand.

Getting beyond heroes and holidays requires going beyond the anecdotal mentioning of non-dominant groups. Schools must actually integrate these voices into the everyday curriculum itself. 

This can look like a teacher adding “to his or her collection of books those by authors of color and by women. She or he might add a unit which covers, for example, the role of women in World War I. A school might add a course on African American History.”

If a school has the courage, will and sense of duty to take this next step, then they can become empowered to go beyond tokenizing otherness to begin to discuss real issues with a diversity of voices and perspectives.

This isn’t by any means the furthest we can go on the road to true culturally responsive teaching.

Far from it.

There is always, always, more work to do.

But it’s the next step.

Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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