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Avoiding Tokenism in Multicultural Education: 7 Strategies

by Naashia Mohamed |

One of the common ways in which schools address cultural diversity is by hosting a Cultural Day or Cultural Week. This may involve students being invited to dress in cultural attire, share dishes from their ethnic cuisines, and perform a traditional dance. Critics have called this the “Fs” of culture: food, folk-dancing, festivals, fashion, and flags.

While this approach to celebrating multiculturalism may be well intentioned and can help celebrate the unique identities of children and young people, if it remains a one-time celebration, it reduces culture to the visible and superficial. It may signal a tokenistic attitude that lacks genuine cultural responsiveness to families’ needs, aspirations, and desires. It may also imply an assimilationist ideology. By celebrating linguistic and cultural practices that are different to the dominant group in society, we are highlighting the existing inequity that keeps some families marginalized and disempowered. Such one-off celebrations signal that the dominant way of life must be the “normal” or “right” way, as it is the daily experience of the school. It also represents other cultures as static, exotic, or homogenous.

To move beyond a surface level acknowledgment of cultures, we need to embed culture at the heart of learning and make it a regular part of our teaching. You might like to try some of these suggestions.

1. Involve Families in Decision-Making

Discuss plans for school- and class-level cultural celebrations with families and invite them into the decision-making process. By allowing families to have a say in which celebrations they would like to see in the school and how these celebrations could take place, you are providing an opportunity to balance the power.

2. Integrate Cultural Practices Into the Everyday

Ensure that classroom props and materials used for classroom use include things from the cultures represented among your students. By including traditional clothes and accessories, for example, they become part of regular use rather than being marked as nontypical. If the school provides meals, featuring ethnic cuisines as a regular part of the menu can help to reduce the showcasing of cultures and make it part of the school routine.

3. Embrace the Power of Language

Language is more than words. Language is inextricably linked to identity. Learn the greetings of your students’ cultures and use them regularly. Make the effort to learn some commonly used words in their own languages and build these into your conversations with the learners. By making the choice to learn and use words from their cultures, you are telling them (and everyone else) that you value their culture and language, and the person themselves.

4. Extend Celebrations to the Curriculum

While cultural festivals like Eid and Diwali must be acknowledged and celebrated just like any other festival associated with the dominant culture, ensure that the celebrations become a learning opportunity. You could have someone who celebrates it explain it to the class. This ensures that accurate information about the beliefs that form the basis of every celebration are shared with learners, helping them connect to cultures in a personal and emotional way.

5. Go Deep

A critical aspect of cultural responsiveness is educating students to become aware of inequalities that exist and empowering them to resist and challenge unfair practices. You may like to incorporate into your lessons activities that expose students to the history of different racial and ethnic groups, the oppression that they may have faced, and the ways in which they have contributed (and continue to contribute) to society. This exposure can help to reduce prejudice and negative attitudes children may hold and help them see beyond the tangible aspects of culture.

6. Assess Misconceptions and Stereotypes

Find out what your students think about a particular culture by listening in on their conversations and making note of comments they make. Plan conversations to draw out their ideas using pictures and books to spark their insights. If any inaccuracies exist in the way they conceptualise cultures or cultural practices, plan critical-thinking activities to help learners build empathy and take action to make things fair.

7. Promote Inclusive Language

Language is a powerful tool for building inclusion. Through the use of inclusive language, we can help everyone feel valued, respected, and empowered. Often, we are not aware of how we use language. It may be helpful to record yourself for a day and listen to it objectively. As you listen, consider whether your current use of language is respectful, accurate, useful, aligns with values and beliefs, and supports high expectations. What could be changed to promote inclusivity?

What works for you? Have you used these, or other strategies to ensure that you go beyond a tokenistic approach to culture? Share your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.

Further Reading

Chan, A. (2009). Critical multiculturalism: The challenge of multiculturalism within a New Zealand bicultural context – A Chinese perspective. International Journal of Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood, 7(1), 29–40.

Harbon, L., & Moloney, R. (2015) ‘Intercultural’ and ‘multicultural’, awkward companions: The case in schools in New South Wales, Australia. In H. Layne, V Trémion, & F. Dervinches (Eds.), Making the most of intercultural education (pp. 15–33). Cambridge Scholars.

Vass, G. (2017) Preparing for culturally responsive schooling: Initial teacher educators into the fray. Journal of Teacher Education, 68(5), 451–462.

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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