The Power of Narrative

In the West, the narratives of the dominant white majority constitute a stumbling block to multicultural integration. Nowhere else is this more true than in our schools. 

text: Maike Köhler-Richter, International Teacher Education for Primary Schools (ITEPS)
illustration: Lotta Köhler 

Most of us can remember the joy of being read to as a child. But did you know that even children’s stories have ties to important concepts such as justice and equality? For those who belong to the majority population, this may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but it is painfully obvious for those in the minority who grow up surrounded by stories about people who don’t look, dress or talk like they do. In the West, the white majority has consistently rewritten, or ‘whitewashed’, minority stories, erasing narratives and stealing platforms from minority communities. But in today’s world, multiculturalism is not an abstract theory, it is a fact of life. Social harmony necessitates that the stories of different continents, countries and cultures be told by a variety of authentic sources. By placing more emphasis on multicultural literature, we can increase minority students’ sense of belonging and engagement and give majority students the opportunity to educate themselves about the reality and power of multicultural narratives. When will the dominant narrative of the white majority give way to a more plural perspective on human identity? 

Children’s identity and their understanding of the world is shaped through the literature that they read. Yet in the West, children’s literature remains decidedly white and Euro-American centric. As society becomes increasingly globalised, we need to reflect on the lack of literary diversity in education. The underrepresentation of minority narratives is evident at kindergarten level and all the way through higher education. Even some of the most prestigious institutions are guilty of portraying culture as homogenous and white. In 2017, BBC News featured an article about Cambridge University students gathering signatures to demand the inclusion of more BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) literature in education. One of the petitioners, 19-year-old Finley Kidd, argued that the whitewashing of literature is nothing new to education. She explained that she has noticed a lack of diverse literature throughout her school career, adding “Britain’s history of colonialism, empire, and institutional racism is one such context that has been so fundamental in shaping our literature that we can make no excuses for ignoring it.” This is not only an issue in Britain. All countries’ education systems have a duty to identify and take responsibility for the lack of literary representation in their curricula. 

But in today’s world, multiculturalism is not an abstract theory, it is a fact of life

Critics claim that increasing multicultural literature in school favours children from minority backgrounds at the expense of everyone else. This claim is without substance. In a 2011 article, Journalist Mary-Crosby Turner highlighted the importance for all students of implementing culturally-responsive classrooms which include multicultural narratives. She argued that such measures ‘bring the world into the classroom’, thus enabling all students to learn more about themselves and their peers. An example of literature that fosters intercultural competence is Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe, an early years and primary school children’s book. Sulwe tells the story of a little girl wrestling with the problem of colourism within her own community. She struggles to relate her black skin and feels that she is less pretty than her lighter siblings and classmates. The story explores the themes of self-acceptance in the face of human uniqueness, and the subjective perception of beauty. Implementing books like Sulwe in schools can have a positive impact on students’ self-confidence and cultural awareness. Dr. Behar-Horenstein, researcher in educational and instructional practices, compared the enrollment of students in US public schools from 1972 and 2003. In 1972 only 22% of the student population were from racial or ethnic minorities, whereas in 2003 this number increased to 42%. The increased diversity of cultural identities in US public schools requires a response from the education system. By including more multicultural literature in the curriculum, the diversity of student cultural identities can be recognised and honoured. 

American educator and ‘father of multicultural education’, James A. Banks describes an approach for multicultural education based on five pillars: content integration, the knowledge construction process, prejudice reduction, an equity pedagogy, paired with an empowering school culture and social structure. By implementing these pillars in schools all over the globe, authorities can foster a cosmopolitan mindset which supports a pluralistic understanding of ethnicity. Banks’ system makes it clear that the use of multicultural literature is a key element in content integration and the knowledge construction process that also serves to reduce prejudice amongst children. Multicultural literature helps school children internalise the reality of cultural differences, thus creating a school environment which is empowering for all students, not just those with a majority white background. But multi-cultural literature alone is not enough to challenge dominant narratives in education. Individual teachers’ cultural identity and self-awareness are also important factors. A teacher can only create a classroom free from discrimination if they are able to understand discrimination from multiple perspectives. Teachers with a multifaceted cultural perspective are able to celebrate each student’s personal identity and their unique ability to enrich the classroom with different opinions and stories. 

Multicultural literature helps school children internalise the reality of cultural differences

Having the power to shape narrative is a privilege. We can use that privilege to open dialogue about differences and similarities between multiple cultures, and by doing so foster children’s intercultural competence. Schools need to work harder to include literature from other cultural perspectives for the benefit of both minority and majority students. Successful Nigerian author, Adichie, explains more in her 2019 TED talk The Dangers of the Single Story: She emphasises how important it is to be able to see situations from different angles and listen to many voices in the quest for understanding. Literature that perpetuates the narrative of a single story is detrimental to a culturally holistic education. The multicultural reality of today’s society necessitates a more plural approach. Adichie argues that we need to rethink cultural representations and move multicultural education to the forefront, in order to cultivate a more cosmopolitan perspective. This can only be achieved when all participants are able to hear and express their own cultural narratives. ■ 

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