Separation versus integration

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Kwanzaa and Me, A Teacher's Story. By Vivian Guissin Paley, Harvard University Press #163;14.95 - 0 674 50585 9.

This book sets out to explore multicultural education in American schools and recent moves towards self-segregation. It does so through storytelling and conversations with pupils, parents and teachers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The fictional aspects of the book involve three black characters, Kwanzaa an African slave, Prince Kareem and Princess Annabella. The author,a white teacher, uses the stories to convey African-American history to her multiracial class and uses the characters to help her "talk about crucial issues: black and white, slavery and freedom, friendship and community".

However, it is the conversations the author has with different people which lead us to the heart of this book. They begin with Sonya, a black former student from the author's integrated school who has decided to attend a black college. The girl's experience in the integrated school was not a happy one. She explains, "I would have done better in a black school.I would have been more confident. I was an outsider."

After this conversation the author embarks on what can only be described as a journey of truth on the "Black White issue". She seeks out non-white parents and teachers for their views on multicultural education. Her most important informant is Lorraine, a black teacher who speaks honestly about the problem.

The question is whether, although well intentioned, integrated schools, which have 80 per cent white teachers, can teach black children pride in their history and themselves?

The book provides many points of view on this question. For Lorraine and some African-American parents, the integrated classroom on its own cannot provide the black child with the education, confidence and self-worth which it needs to be successful in a racist society. As Lorraine states, children can only succeed "if they are protected by a large family unit within the extended family, neighbourhood and church."

In other words, the integrated classroom is dangerous for the unprotected black child.

America's multicultural schools are still not able to integrate the African-American or other minority cultures because of "subtle institutional racism". For instance, they still have lower academic expectations for black boys because African-American culture is seen negatively by many white teachers.

To give balance the book provides the other point of view. There are black parents and teachers who believe that the integrated schools can work and white teachers can be role models to black children.

This can be done "as long as they respect and encourage children to express their differences, their particular culture and knowledge". Some black parents think too that it is important to expose their children as soon as possible "to a multicultural environment". However, the book establishes that race is not the only barrier to equality; economics is another because most African-American children cannot afford to go to good schools because of their poverty.

The debate on multicultural education will continue for a long time both here and in America. Some question the concept; others argue that because of racism, multicultural education cannot work. Yet the need for a curriculum where no culture is obscured is needed more than ever, for surely the future would be better integrated rather than segregated.

Beulah Ainley lectures in race and journalism at Lambeth College, London.

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