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Why Multicultural Days are so problematic... we need to change our practice.

Recently I have been hearing many conversations around multi-cultural day events as we celebrate the end of the year. These events are seen as a way to celebrate and acknowledge the diverse representation of students and families in the school system. Unfortunately, however well-intentioned, having a cultural day or a cultural food day, is a misguided effort in the work in anti-racism. As you’ll see, these events often have the opposite of their intended effect of inclusion, it reenforces exclusion and racism. Now in theory, there is nothing inherently wrong with learning about and engaging with other foods, cultures, and history, as long as it is done respectfully and with intention. Let’s unpack some of the problematic issues these multicultural days bring up.

It reaffirms that white culture is the norm

A key component of the multicultural day event, or multicultural food event, is that after your “day,” you return to “regular” school life, regular school days where the dominant society is what is known as the norm, which is western white culture. If we only have one day a year that is set aside for learning about a multitude of cultures, what is reinforced is the idea of all other cultures become the “other” culture. So, when we host cultural days, cultural food days, cultural fairs, we are inadvertently sending the message that western white culture is the norm and that its practices are what’s expected in the school environment.

A tourist approach

What is tourist curriculum? When we approach multicultural education that is an overly generalized, brief, and limited glimpse at a culture, it often reduces that culture to food, dress, and holidays, this is surface level and does not dive into what the culture really is. This generalization does not allow for deep learning. An entire culture simply cannot be captured—and is often trivialized—by a single event or day.

It’s tokenistic

This leads us into why it is also tokenistic to only celebrate a culture one day a year. It is a superficial effort of what could look like inclusion. We see this happening in many places, like if we were to only talk about residential schools on Sept 30 and then not talk, educate, or learn about it any other day of the year. The cultural day events function in much the same way. It makes it seem like we are doing the work with the show of inclusion, but it's not real inclusion, it is just one day, with no deep learning.

What also makes them problematic is that the day or event is not tied to the learning taking place. It is held as a celebration day that has no grounding in the learning that is taking place in the classroom. It’s not enough to have just one day, the learning must be continuously done every day of the school year in the classroom. 

Reinforces stereotypes

When we only focus on the “traditional” aspects of culture this also unfortunately then perpetuates stereotypes. It also sets the culture in the past. When I talk about this, I talk about it through how the media has given us the image of what Indigenous people look like and it is usually always set in precontact ideals. For example, Moana, Pocahontas, Tonto, etc.   This places Indigenous people as part of the past and not part of today, in today’s society. This also then invites students to think that all Mexican people wear sombreros, all south Asian people wear saris and this is harmful because it does not invite deeper meaning behind the culture or the history of the culture, or even the present day culture.


It can also invite cultural appropriation

When we have cultural days and activity tables from that culture, there are times that it will cross the line from appreciation into appropriation. Which is not what the day is about but when a culture has to fit into a box of what is expected, this can easily happen.

When we do these days, it stops us talking about race

What I find most disconcerting about these days, is the check box approach. We can say look we had a multicultural day, so this means we are talking about race and racism, done! Unfortunately, what this invites is the lack of talking and educating about race and racism. When we say look at all the wonderful cultures we have in the school and we will show case all of them just this one day a year, does not mean we are addressing the oppression and inequities that cultures other than the western white culture, experience on a daily basis.

How can we address this differently?

I know you are now wondering, okay Carolyn if we shouldn’t be doing this, how can we honour and celebrate the cultures in the schools? There are much better ways to celebrate diversity and promote equity in schools, such as:

  • Culturally responsive education: this is when we are working with the students in our care and allowing them and their culture to shine through in their work we ask them to do and how they share their learning. A great book about this is Unearthing Joy- Gholdy Muhammad.

  • Anti-racist education should be a part of everyday education within the classroom. Multiple voices, multiple perspectives, and leaning into the uncomfortable conversations of race and racism. A great book about this work in the classroom is Being the Change- Sarah K Ahmed.

When we want to encourage students to share who they are in classrooms, we as educators need to be mindful that it is a consistent conversation and that we have representation of all students in the classroom within the curriculum, books, and resources we use. This will encourage the space to be welcoming and engaging for all students.

You can read some of my other blog posts about culturally responsive pedagogy to learn more. Thanks for reading my post.

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