Lady Bountiful: The White Woman Teacher in Multicultural Education

by Helen Harper & Sheila Cavanagh

This paper concerns the construction of white female teacher identity in the current discourse on multicultural education. Specifically, the paper delineates an image of the white woman teacher referred to more generally in the work of Honor Ford Smith as "Lady Bountiful" (1993). We begin with a brief discussion distinguishing multicultural and anti-racist education.

Anti-racist education demands an engagement with the politics of power.

Multicultural education, in its liberal guise, began in the United States, Britain and Canada in response to racial tensions and unrest. It was developed to create what Cameron McCarthy (1988) calls a "curricular truce." While acknowledging that multicultural education is not a unified practice, part of what is assumed under this rubric is that cultural diversity is both a condition to be celebrated and a source of conflict. Within this frame, conflict is said to develop because of the ignorance and negative attitudes of individuals towards cultural difference, so it becomes paramount to change attitudes through information and cultural sensitization (Thomas, 1987; Mukherjee, 1988). School strategies and approaches have focused primarily on supplementing curricular content with information about and from minority cultures and on changing (white) teacher and student prejudices.

Quite unlike multicultural education, anti-racist education, locates the "problem" not within culture or cultural diversity per se but with the differences or values attached to particular cultures and cultural practices. In other words, the issue is not culture, but racism and ethnocentrism. Anti-racist education demands an "engagement with the politics of power" (Britzman, 1993). In part, this means paying attention to how practices, histories, and identities are produced and translated into the everyday, into "common sense," into what seems natural or normal. For example, consider what is marked and unmarked in the term "writer," "woman writer," "black woman writer," or "doctor," and "lady doctor." Whiteness and maleness are assumed within the term "writer" and "doctor" and do not need to be marked. Whiteness is the invisible norm and it "colonizes the definitions of other norms class, gender, heterosexuality, nationality and so on -- it also masks whiteness as itself a category" (Dryer, 1988: 45).

In many versions of multicultural education the specificity of whiteness is not named. Rather, information about non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon people becomes the focus. This focus, or "supplement" to existing curriculum, does not question schooling practices which render Eurocentric teachings as central (and normative) and other teachings as marginal (and problematic). Such an approach often means that "other" cultures are represented only on special occasions -- Hanukkah or Passover, Chinese New Years, Black History month.

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