For many years, the equity movement has existed as a fragmented effort, as many different groups-those dealing with gender, race, class, and other concerns-have sought independence from each other. This situation has produced a view in equity work of the defining attributes of these different groups as mutually exclusive categories. Those involved in these groups have often found themselves competing against other groups, or even against different aspects of themselves, for limited resources. Thus, women of color are often pushed to choose between working for gender equity or race equity.
This view of equity has provoked a number of problems. First, it ignores the diversity that exists within each of these groups. Second, it diminishes the reality that individuals hold multiple statuses related to race, gender, social class, physical ability, sexual orientation, and so on. Third, this view leads to a stance of exclusion; that is, if all women are seen as having the same concerns or needs (all too often in the women's movement the concerns have been seen as those of middle-class, white women), then those women who have different concerns are excluded from the group.
Recently, this perspective of monolithic groups has been questioned. One source of this change comes from experiencing an increasingly pluralistic U.S. society, which has recently seen demographic and social changes in schools, and in the larger society.1 A second source of change has been the increasingly assertive demands from individuals within these groups for recognition of their specific identities, resources, interests, and needs.
The changes that this shift in perspective has brought about have important implications for the pursuit of gender equity. In the not-too-distant past, those who aimed at increasing gender equity in education subscribed to the view that the gender equity movement was exclusive of other equity movements and that all girls and women had the same issues to deal with. Programs and policies were developed and implemented as if girls and women were a monolithic group. There was occasionally, but not consistently, recognition of age differences. But when other defining attributes, such as race, ethnicity, social class, and others were mentioned, the response from the movement was, often, to conduct a debate on whether gender or race or some other dimension was of the greatest priority in the struggle for equity.
Elizabeth Spelman analyzed what this perspective has meant in connection with African American women. She concluded that this type of debate not only ignores the multiple statuses all women hold, but also leads to the "erasure" of African American women from consideration in gender equity discussions.2 Similar disappearances occur when other women of color, or those not part of the heterosexual, white middle-class, able-bodied group are asked to "choose" one part of themselves over other parts.
Although it has taken a considerable amount of time, some in the women's movement are beginning to recognize that women represent myriad cultures and perspectives. These perspectives stem from race, ethnicity, language, age, religion, social class, sexual orientation, geographic location, degree of ableness, and other defining attributes. Much of this recognition, however, is occurring on an abstract and theoretical level.3 Emphasis has been placed both on increasing individuals' and society's awareness of the importance of diversity within groups,4 and on development theory that incorporates the dimensions of race, class, and gender.5 In addition, some equity advocates have argued for the importance of recognizing the interrelationships among gender, race, and social class, in various spheres of our society.6
Given the plurality of perspectives and concerns among women, we must recognize that the phrase "women's issues" encompasses some similarities, but also many differences in needs, interests, motivations, attitudes, and priorities. Both differences and similarities need to be taken into account when considering equity issues.
There is more, however, than simply identifying differences among women. Two additional factors are key to moving to a pluralistic conception of equity. First, how are these differences interpreted? Second, what actions do we take to deal with these differences?
U.S. society has a long history of using differences to establish and maintain hierarchies of power and privilege, with white males dominating virtually all other groups in educational, political, economic, and cultural domains. One key to the maintenance of this "order" has been the way in which difference has been interpreted.
In order to examine this issue of how difference is viewed, I will use the work of Walter R. Allen. When writing about the status of African American women, Allen describes three perspectives. He calls these perspectives cultural equivalence, cultural deviance, and cultural variance.7 I suggest that these perspectives also describe the ways in which diversity among women has been and continues to be viewed.
Allen's cultural equivalence emphasizes the degree to which people in diverse groups are similar to European Americans. With respect to women, this has been the dominant perspective in discussions of equity. This perspective leads to the idea that the concerns of white, middle-class women are, or should be, the primary concerns of all women. This also suggests that gender, because it is often the primary concern for white, middle-class women, is more critical than any other characteristic of self.
The cultural deviance perspective that Allen describes interprets differences among groups in a negative, deficit-oriented manner. One example of how this perspective is enacted is through simply ignoring the contributions of women of color and other groups to women's struggles and to society at large. This perspective is also evident in the language used to describe women who are not white and middle-class; for example, these women have been referred to as "minorities," "special groups," "specific groups," and so on. All of these terms not only treat these quit diverse groups of women as if they were similar, they also marginalize all these women, placing white, middle-class women at the center of attention.
Another, perhaps more subtle, way that this perspective is manifest is by focusing on positive orientations when discussing white, middle-class women and on negative orientations when discussing other groups. Thus, equity issues focusing on white, middle-class girls and women often emphasize increasing access to sources of power and privilege in society, for example, encouragement in science and technological education. When the focus turns to girls and women of color, however, discussions often focus on describing their oppression and analyzing the causes of their situation-on their reactions to oppression or on the ways in which racism operates-rather than on increasing their access to full educational, political, and economic opportunities in our society.
Finally, the cultural variance perspective that Allen describes sees differences as legitimate and valued both by the groups that exhibit them, and also by other groups. Some evidence of this orientation is shown in the analyses of equity issues undertaken by women of color for their own groups.
Filomena Chioma Steady, Sharon Harley, and Patricia Hill Collins, for example, have all pointed out that African American women hold different priorities in some equity arenas than other women.8 And Judith Gonzalez and Patricia Gandara have shown that Chicanas face dilemmas that are specific to their culture and also receive from their culture special supports related to their educational achievement.9 The interpretations of diversity that fall under the rubric of cultural variance are likely to lead to the celebration of pluralism, and a view that it is a potential strength in the movement toward equity.
While much of the impetus for the cultural variance perspective has come from women of color, it is clearly not limited to members of racial and ethnic groups. At a recent national women's conference focusing on pluralism as its central theme, one of the scheduled activities involved the formation of groups around themes of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexual orientation, and others.10 These groups were charged with identifying issues relevant to them.. This process, carried out as a formal part of the conference, provided a forum that not only recognized these differing perspectives, but made a statement that these differing views were legitimate in and of themselves.
The conference activity I've described also indicates another important factor that needs to be considered in developing a pluralistic perspective on equity: we need to devise actions that reaffirm the existence and value of diverse standpoints. Some of these actions can be implemented by professional organizations, such as the conference I've described. Others need to be implemented in educational research, policy, and practice.
With respect to research, we need more study of the lives of women and girls who represent various cultures, classes, physical abilities, sexual orientations, and so on. That study must reflect the voices of members of these groups. In addition, more research is needed regarding the ways in which women connect and move between the multiple statuses that they hold.
With respect to policy and practice, there is much to be done in the area of education. Schools need to give more attention to curriculum development and instructional strategies that build upon the strengths that women from different groups bring with them. This means that we must train school staff to be sensitive today not only to the difficulties these diverse groups have faced as a result of oppression by dominant groups, but also to the creative alternatives people from these groups bring with them, alternatives developed in resistance to the dominant culture. We also need to scrutinize school policies to make sure they do not reinforce racial, ethnic, religious, and social ideas that are ethnocentric, sexist, or that exclude or denigrate women who are not white and middle class. Unless we act in all of these areas, a "hidden curriculum" of racism and sexism will remain in our schools.
Sometimes this hidden curriculum develops because no actual curriculum is available to counteract the common myths and misconceptions that are used to maintain traditional power and privileged relationships in our society. The development of a pluralistic perspective on equity, therefore, will require curriculum development that emphasizes the diversity of women's standpoints and provides opportunities for women of diverse experiences to express issues of concern and interest to them. In addition, issues related to diversity must not be segregated into one section of the curriculum. This section often becomes the "throwaway" section, or the part of the curriculum that is only used during racial or ethnic holidays. Instead, these issues need to be integrated throughout various disciplines and subjects taught in school.
Finally, teachers need to be encouraged to vary their instructional strategies to take advantage of the differences in perception, motivation, and cultural styles of their students. These practices are likely to enhance the learning environment for all students in the classroom.
In summary, there is some evidence that increasing numbers of those who are concerned with gender equity are becoming aware of the diversity that exists among women and girls. However, we need more than simple recognition of this issue. We need to move away from this society's traditional view of diversity as a problem to be wished away from view. We need to regard diversity as an asset to be celebrated, enhanced, and, even more importantly, we need to use diversity as a source of strength for equity work.
The rapid change in the demographics of the United States has made diversity one of the most significant social facts of this society as we approach the twenty-first century. No longer is the occasion for an intercultural encounter most likely when one leaves one's own country. The reality that any one of us will be confronted with a perspective, a way of making sense of the world, that is radically different from our own, has been heightened not only by the changes in the composition of the population of the United States but also by the pervasiveness by which the media bring these differences into our homes.
As a human relations trainer with a special interest in the processes of interpersonal intercultural encounters, a frequent response I see to the above situation is the request, "Tell me about Culture X, or Culture Y, or Culture Z." Information about the specifics of another cultural group-its history, customs, beliefs, descriptions of typical behavior-may be a beginning in the attempt to gain insights about another group, but it will not provide the hoped-for "easy answers" to the misunderstandings and frustrations that often arise in the intercultural encounter.
Cultures are complex, dynamic social systems created and enacted by individuals who are themselves complex entities in a state of constant growth and change. Thus, while all human beings are products of the cultural group into which they are born, no one individual member of a culture can be said to be a "typical" member. Knowledge of the characteristic traits of a given culture simply allows for a probabilistic prediction that this trait is more likely to occur in a given member of that culture than in a member of another culture, but it does not predict or explain all specific behavior.1
This reflections piece will present some ways of approaching the interpersonal intercultural encounter by focusing on ways of thinking about any culture that transcend specific information about any one culture. It will begin by proposing a definition of culture that presents a change-process orientation, rather than a static, time-based description, and it will discuss the implications of this definition for understanding our experience of another individual in a particular situation. It will then discuss some of the characteristics essential to the successful intercultural encounter.
There are many definitions of culture, the more common of which equate culture with the artifacts created by human beings--food, architecture, art, tools, dress, religion, and so on--or with the notion of "a person of culture," a phrase used to imply intellectual, social and aesthetic superiority.
The work of the early anthropologists in small, mostly homogenous, isolated societies, contributed to the notion of culture as something esoteric, that was most evident in so-called "primitive" societies. By describing the total life of a society at a given slice in time, anthropologists also contributed to the conception of cultures as something that evolved a long time ago and which had now reached a state of static equilibrium. What changes may have occurred, happened because of internal adaptations, or, when externally induced, underwent a long and slow process of accommodation to existing patterns.
In the United States, these conceptions of culture as esoteric, homogeneous, and static have often been articulated by the white mainstream as something that "those other people have," that is, those other people who are different from us. In other words, the U.S. white mainstream can be "cultured" by does not have a culture.
In contrast to the above conceptions of culture, I propose a working definition that reflects the dynamic, constantly changing nature of all cultures. This definition postulates that culture be viewed as a problem-solving process in which members of a social group (society) engage collectively in response to the demands of their environment (physical, social, and spiritual), resulting in shared patterns of ways of resolving those problems of existence in the context of time and space, and transmitted to new members also in a context of time and space.
All societies face essentially the same problems of survival-procreation, shelter, caring for the young, and so on. The solutions to each of these problems and how they are arranged, however, vary from group to group, the result of centuries of unplanned, painstaking trial-and-error attempts at adaptation rather than of any conscious, logical, rational thought. However, although cultures are essentially unplanned, they are not haphazard, random collections of unrelated elements. Rather, they are made up of internally cohesive elements, interconnected and interdependent.
This definition reflects two important qualities of all cultures. One is the dynamic quality by which cultures change over time to continue to meet the needs of their members in facing the constraints presented by their environments and the contingencies of new life problems. That living cultures change is a fact. It is the intensity of the demands for change, the rapidity with which it occurs, and the content of the change that vary across cultures. Second is the stabilizing quality by which cultures provide ready-made solutions to life problems, enabling their members to organize their reality by predicting and anticipating the behaviors of others.
What is important to recognize is that these two qualities of change and stability are in a state of constant tension. In the world we live in today, the demands for change seem to be overpowering the need for stability. The result, on both individual and societal levels, appears to be confusion and disorientation. Both as individuals and as a society we need to continue to create ways to keep a dialectic going between the forces of cultural change and stability.
Also contained in the proposed definition of culture is the learned aspect of culture. In other words, the elements of a particular culture are transmitted from generation to generation through the process of social learning. This is a simple enough statement and one with which everyone will agree. Culture is learned. Our knowledge of the workings of our culture are not innate or instinctual. And yet, these are deceptive statements. For, on the one hand, our cultural behavior is the most natural, taken-for-granted fact of life. But, on the other hand, it is also the least conscious aspect of our day-to-day existence.
Every person is born into a culture and socialized into it. And yet, our culture is not consciously taught to us, especially not those aspects that guide behavior and define the parameters of our day-to-day reality. We learn culture "out-of-awareness" so that what is learned appears to us to be as natural as breathing.2 So much of what is culturally based behavior is imparted to us as the only obviously acceptable and appropriate form of being and not as one of many alternative ways of behaving. All we know is that this is the ways things are or are not done. Think of the many subtle ways of learning what it means "to be a girl" or "to be a boy" in our own culture. Think of the number of times we have heard statements such as "That's not the way we do things here," statements that imply that what is being done or said is unthinkable but with no real explanation of why. These ways of behaving or perceiving reality become so thoroughly automatic that they then take on the aspect of the only natural and normal way of being. It is precisely this out-of-awareness aspect of culture that so often leads to much misunderstanding and miscommunication in the intercultural encounter. Thus, for example, we are unaware that what appears to be a culturally insignificant, commonly accepted, "safe" sign of interest in another person, using a different cultural reference, into a state of nervousness about their health.
And yet, while the influences of culture are pervasive in how we behave, in what we think, in how we make sense of our experiences, in how we structure our lives as individuals and as members of a society, the influence of culture on the individual is not unidirectional. Rather, the individual interacts in dialectic fashion with her or his culture, being formed by and at the same time creating her or his culture. One must remember, after all, that culture is simply an abstraction used to refer to the total ways of life a society that distinguish them as a group from any other group. This means, however, that no one member of a cultural group exemplifies all the characteristics of that group in typical fashion.
Thus, it is critical that in any intercultural encounter, we maintain a perspective that allows for a range of individual behaviors. Just as there is no single right way to be human, there is no single right way of being a member of a particular cultural group. Within any given culture, there can be as much variation as there is between cultures. For example, there are significant regional, historical, political, and socioeconomic factors, to name a few, that shape different patterned responses resulting in coexisting patterns of living within the same society. There are also individual variables such as gender, age, developmental, and maturational factors, the hierarchy of individual needs, and personality styles that react to, modify, or reject the normative outlines of the general culture. The varying degrees of contact with other cultures, and the degree of acculturation and assimilation into other cultural patterns experienced by individual members of the same family can lead to conflicts of values within one family as great as that between two different cultural identifications.
In the intercultural encounter, therefore, we must work at understanding the uniqueness of each individual against the context of that individual's particular life experiences and her or his personal integration of cultural influences.
Success in the intercultural encounter requires that we begin with an examination and understanding of self-our own culturally based behaviors, beliefs, knowledge, norms, and symbols-and how these experiences that make us who we are inform our perceptions of others. This is not an easy task. As Edward T. Hall puts it, "Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants."3
We need to learn to be self-conscious about even the most seemingly insignificant actions, especially when they appear not to be working. The clue to a cultural mismatch is often a feeling of uneasiness or tension when one's automatic reactions suddenly come into consciousness-a sense that something does not fit. This feeling is often verbalized, however, as a deficiency of the other person, "That's a dumb thing (of the other person) to do." It is at this point that we need to examine the hidden assumptions we are making about "the right way to do things."
Another key characteristic is the ability to resist the temptation to judge quickly, to arrive at closure and conclusions immediately. When we jump to conclusions we have generally relied too quickly on our own cultural and personal frame of reference. Anything that does not fit our own frame of reference, everything that is different, is judged as ignorant, lacking in intelligence, or deviant. Such culturally bound judgments usually indicate that the other person did not behave according to our own expectations and view of the situation. When seen through the other person's perspective, what may initially appear as incomprehensible may actually be recast as reasonable and logical from that frame of reference. Being clear about one's own assumptions, expectations, and limitations, or, at least, being willing to reexamine them in the light of other information, can help bridge the cultural communication gap.
A corollary to the above is the recognition that there is no single "right" way of being human. Different human groups have evolved many patterns of response to environmental demands. The ethnocentric belief that one's way is the only right way and the best way of doing things leads to the perpetuation of stereotyped prejudices that defend the status quo and support insidious judgments about the innate inferiority of other groups. We need to learn how to understand ourselves and others, not with the expectation that understanding will provide all the answers but with the hope that it will help us ask the right questions and jointly arrive at new meanings.
Our world has changed. As individuals and as members of social groups, we can no longer hide behind our ethnocentric beliefs. We are living in a global world, in a pluralistic society. The challenge is not in restoring the social order to "how things were" or to battling out whose perspective is better, but to co-enacting a new social order in which the building stones are authentic interpersonal intercultural encounters. This new social order needs to be one that redefines the bonds between individuals and between the individual and her or his social group, such that on a social and individual level we go beyond tolerance and coexistence to a transformation that engages the richness of our diversity in co-enacting new solutions to the problems of life.
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Over its 15-year history, the WEEA Publishing Center has published many books that help individuals and organizations look at and work with the changing issues of pluralism. The following WEEA publications explore the interconnections of race, gender, social class, physical ability, and culture.
ESL: The Whole Person Approach is one of the first English as a Second Language (ESL) guides to address sex equity as it relates to bilingual and multicultural education. An innovative approach to ESL teacher training, this guide introduces a holistic, humanistic method of bilingual education to the practitioner. Addressing sex equity and multicultural education, this book provides teachers with a pedagogy that respect students and their cultures.
Designed to help Native American women successfully navigate a professional career within the white mainstream, Circles of Women: Professional Skills Training with American Indian Women contains a critical overview that examines the dual nature of the contemporary Native American woman's role. On one hand she acts as a caretaker and leader in traditional Native American society, and on the other as a cultural minority and woman in a predominantly white society.
The Hidden Discriminator: Sex and Race Bias in Educational Research provides an in-depth examination of stereotypes and biases in educational research and explores the hidden effects of bias on decision making and program design in education. Designed to educate teachers, administrators, counselors, students, and school board members about the effects of bias in research, the Hidden Discriminator teaches how to evaluate research for bias to ensure that educational decisions and policies reflect fact, not racist or sexist conclusions. This is an important resource for everyone concerned with equity in research and education.
A ground-breaking videotape, Don't Go to Your Room...And Other Affirmations of Empowerment for Women with Disabilities addresses the double barrier of being a woman with a disability. Over a dozen women talk openly about the issues they face in employment, relationships, sexuality, abuse, health, parenting, and in empowering themselves. In one-on-one interviews, the women discuss myths about people with disabilities; their personal experiences with bias, stereotyping, and the manifestations of these myths; and ways to confront and dispel these problems.
A first of its kind, A Road Well Traveled: Three Generations of Cuban American Women is an anthology of the lives of twelve women who have arrived in the United States at different points in our recent history. Their stories provide us with an understanding of the problems Cuban American women have faced in their struggles to be female and Cuban in U.S. society. We see success, but also the struggles that make these women's perseverance even the more admirable.
A powerful series, Women in American History tells the fascinating stories of dozens of Native American, Black, white, and immigrant women whose lives and work influenced the development of the United States. Against the background of social changes and historical events between 1607 and 1920, readers explore the significant role of women during colonial settlement, abolition, industrial expansion, the development of the West, and the labor and suffrage movements. Each module is a narrative of women's lives and accomplishments within a significant epoch-Women in the Colonial Era and Early American Republic, 1607-1820; Women in the Ages of Expansion and Reform, 1820-1860; Women During and After the Civil War, 1860-1890; and Women in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.
As educational policies at all levels of government become focused on bilingual and multicultural education programming, educators and the community at large have become more sensitive to the needs of children from cultures other than the majority culture. Checklists for Counteracting Race and Sex Bias in Educational Materials provides selected guidelines and checklists to be used in selecting and evaluating curriculum materials for use in bilingual/multicultural education programs, as well as recommended readings.
There are many exciting publications developed through WEEA grants that are being distributed by others, including All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. This ground-breaking collection of readings includes political theory, literary essays on major writers, guidelines for consciousness-raising about racism, and surveys of black women's contributions to the blues. This publication examines the issues of concern to women-racism in higher education and the women's movement, the politics of black women's studies, and black feminism.
Disabled, Female, and Proud: Stories of Ten Women with Disabilities, by Harilyn Russo, out lines the stories of ten disabled women, how they have overcome the double prejudice against females and disability, and how they are currently leading full, successful lives. The women featured offer insight and positive images on life-styles, relationships, and careers that relate to all women, not just those with disabilities.
Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and About Asian American Women is a collection of autobiographical writings, short stories, poetry, essays, and photographs by and about this growing body of women. Organized thematically around issues of importance to Asian American women-immigration, war, work, generations, identity, discrimination, activism-Making Waves shows that Asian American women are not afraid to speak their minds.
Circles of Women: Professional Skills Training with American Indian Women (#2697 $25.00)
ESL: The Whole Person Approach (#2699 $15.00)
The Hidden Discriminator: Sex and Race Bias in Educational Research, (#2691 $20.00)
Don't Go to Your Room...And Other Affirmations of Empowerment for Women with Disabilities, (captioned #2728 $79.00 #2729 non-captioned #2730 $79.00)
A Road Well Traveled: Three Generations of Cuban American Women, (#2683 $17.00)
Women in American History, (#2217 $25.00)
Checklists for Counteracting Race and Sex Bias in Educational Materials, (#2042 $5.00)
All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies
The Feminist Press at The City University of New York
311 East 94th Street, New York, NY 10128
Disabled, Female, and Proud! Stories of Ten Women with Disabilities
Exceptional Parent Press
1170 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02134
Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and About Asian American Women
edited by Asian Women United of California
25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108
The following additional resources represent the thinking of key educators in the field.
A recent publication, Empowerment through Multicultural Education, reframes questions about student diversity by probing the extent to which society serves the interests of all, and by examining the empowerment of members of oppressed groups of direct social change. A series of ethnographic studies illustrates how such young people view their world, their power to affect it in their own interests, and their response to what is usually a growing sense of powerlessness as they mature.
Through in-depth interviews with third and fourth generation white ethnics and through quantitative data, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America explores the evolution and make-up of ethnic identity for later-generation whites in the United States. The book examines the most important characteristics of ethnicity in the United States, influences on people when asked to identify their ethnic background, and how intermarriage, socioeconomics, discrimination, and residential segregation have contributed to the changes in ethnicity in generations over the past decades.
The fourth edition of Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Inquiry, Valuing, and Decision Making maintains its central thesis that the goal of social studies is to help students develop the ability to make reflective decisions. An integral part of the process is the idea that decision making is a set of interrelated skills that can be taught to students, with the ultimate goal of endowing them with the resources to become reflective citizens.
Empowerment through Multicultural Education
edited by Christine Sleeter
State University of New York Press
State University Plaza, Albany, NY 12246
Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America
by Mary C. Waters
University of California Press
2223 Fulton St., Berkeley, CA 94720
Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Inquiry, Valuing, and Decision Making (Fourth Edition),
by James A. Banks with Ambrose A. Clegg, Jr.
95 Church Street, White Plains, NY 10601
©1998 Education Development Center, Inc.