Uses of media in multicultural education, The

medium is the experience: Uses of media in multicultural education, The

Hayes, Michael T


Researchers, critics, and commentators in multicultural education often turn a critical eye towards the representations of race and ethnicity in the electronic media. This is with just cause. Hollywood films have a long documented history of constructing portrayals of minorities that are problematic if not racist. Likewise, -Peter McLaren (1995) has commented on the state of global media and how they work as a not so subtle hegemonic tool legitimating racial inequality. Others have examined the images propagated in electronic media and how they construct representations of race and ethnic minorities. Typically the findings indicate large problems associated with these images. bell hooks (1998), for example, shows that, in the film Wings of Desire , there is an overwhelming whiteness that underscores an ongoing “racism, colonization and cultural imperialism.” Nonwhite people only served as a “colorful backdrop” to the narrative of whiteness that framed the film.

In this article we explore our use of electronic media in the courses we teach and what this means for the issues and concerns of multicultural education. Our purpose is to explore these media not simply as representations that are distanced from the viewer, but as a form of life experience that mediates personal subjectivity with ethnic and racial identification and representation (Maeroff, 1998; Mirzoeff, 1998). We take as our model and method for thinking about the interaction between representations of race and ethnicity in the electronic media, recent thinking in media studies and visual culture.

We view media as much more than an agglomeration of images that are passively consumed. Recent theorizing and empirical research on media indicates that the viewer engages with media in many different ways and on many different levels (Wicks, 2001). The engagement is intellectual and conscious, as well as subconscious, intuitive, emotional and bodily. Much of the credit for rethinking our relationship to electronic media can be given to the possibilities afforded by newer forms of interactive media and to the increased availability of media production tools (Stevens, 1998). It is impossible to make definitive judgments as to the overall impact that the electronic media has on modern cultural relations, but the overwhelming evidence is that the impact is there, and it runs deep.

The context of our analysis is courses we teach in an elementary preservice teacher education program. Paula teaches a diversity in schools course and Mike teaches the social foundation of education course. We use media to differing degrees in our courses, but in our discussions we were intrigued by the emotional connection our students made to issues of diversity through their engagement with the media. This emotional response to diversity is often overlooked in favor of cognitive and rational understanding (Ellsworth, 1989). In the following discussion, we explore how our different uses of media allowed our students to emotionally connect with diversity issues and the problems and possibilities this engagement holds for us as multicultural educators. MIKE:


In my elementary pre-service Social Foundations of Education course, I devote approximately one third of the course time explicitly discussing issues related to race, ethnicity, inequality and social power in education. These ideas constantly bubble to the surface when discussing broad educational themes of cultural assimilation, social reproduction and meritocracy. This was certainly the case when I use media to explore these issues. I bring media into my course in two ways. First, I show films, such as Dangerous minds and The Backboard jungle to foster discussion and ground the theoretical understanding of these issues. Second, I use video production technologies as a learning and knowledge representation tool. It is this use of video production technology that forms the basis of my discussion.

For a class assignment I have students produce a short film on a topic relevant to the social foundations of education. Students have chosen a range of topics to explore, such as the digital divide and teaching as a profession. In my analysis I focus on one film produced by a group of White students on the subject of patriotism in education. Patriotism was a popular theme for the film projects because of the September 11 attacks on the world trade center buildings. But rather than making a film that simply supported patriotism or that could be called “patriotic,” the students looked for a balanced approach that explored the controversy over teaching patriotism in the schools. In doing their research on the topic, students turned to emotionally laden photographs to make their point and to engage the audience.

Two images consistently popped up in our group interview: One a sepia-toned photograph of two Japanese girls saying the pledge of allegiance weeks before they were to be sent to an internment camp during world war two, and the other a black and white photograph from the early part of the twentieth century of Native American students sitting under an American flag on the front steps of a boarding school. Students chose the images for their emotional quality; to engage the viewer and bring them into the content of the video in an emotional way. One student states that this was her explicit intent in choosing a particular photograph.

Those photographs of the Japanese and Native American children are really powerful emotionally, and we chose them to put in the movie because we knew it would help, I don’t know make it more interesting for the audience and that they would feel the same emotion that we did.

The students carefully chose these images for the emotional quality and the purpose was to elicit an emotional response from the viewer rather than simply present information on the topic.

What I wish to highlight here is that, through the photographic images, the students saw an opportunity to emotionally engage the viewers of their video with the notion of race and patriotism. Rather than simply representing their knowledge and showing the viewer in an objective disengaged manner what they knew of the subject, they saw video production as a way to bring an emotional quality to their knowledge. This is very different than how they saw the purpose of writing a paper on the subject. One student referred to her writing as “when I write a paper I usually write to give information.”Another student spent little time getting to the same point, saying “writing is boring.” There was a sense among the students that creating a video offered more possibilities than simply presenting information or displaying what they knew about a topic, it was an opportunity for them to make a substantive connection to the audience through the media.

But what was the overall effect? Clearly, the students engaged with ideas of race and patriotism at a level that exceeded the presentation of information, but what was the ultimate impact? I cannot conjecture here about whether they were successful in achieving their goals with the audience, but they did indicate the effect it had on them personally. One student discusses how she was altered in the experience of making the film. the dark all my life but I didn’t realize that the Indians were sent to specific schools and taken away from their families before this semester, It’s almost embarrassing to say that but I never was taught that; it was never a subject brought up in school and even the whole issue over forcing the pledge and all that just teaching about all that kind of stuff it’s a whole new thing to me. That’s interesting and I think it would be interesting to my students to learn the different side of things like that.

What drew these students to consider the connection between race and patriotism was the emotional power of the photographic images they found, and the role they could play in the quality of the film and for the purpose of engaging the audience.

Video production offers the possibility for video producers to engage with these images and to experience the complex issues that surround race and ethnicity from an emotional perspective. There are certainly limitations, the students did not create new imagery but used “found images,” those already in circulation. A troubling outcome is that the images used were racially and ethnically segregated. The White students overwhelmingly used images of whites in their films and the two Latino students in the class used a much more ethnically mixed set of images. Video production is not a panacea and student use must be regulated and critiqued; yet there are interesting possibilities that deserve the attention of multicultural educators.



In my diversity course for pre-service teachers, the first third of the course is specifically devoted to discussions on the issues of equity and (in)equality. We engage in multiple discussions as to how equity and equality are idealized and (not) realized in American society, and the multiple theoretical frameworks that are used to understand inequality. During this time, students are assigned Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Similar to the Social Foundations of Education course, students are pushed to think critically about meritocracy, but also about policies and practices in and around schools that have particular implications for diversity. The course introduces students to the idea of Multi-cultural Education, and encourages them to think about educational practices that meet the needs of a diverse, pluralistic society.

In the beginning of the course, I was disappointed with the level of conversation and discussion, and the relative lack of engagement students exhibited with the readings. Why were they so apathetic and seem to not care about these key issues? I started to asked if it was because I was one of the only instructors of color that these students had ever experienced? Reflecting on the work of Juanita McGowan (2000), I wondered if, as a young, mixed race African-American/ Japanese faculty member, perhaps their reluctance and refusal to engage in class discussion was a form of resistance, a way of challenging my authority and indicating a lack of respect for me.

While my race certainly could have played a prominent role in their initial lack of enthusiasm for the class, I soon realized that there were other factors at play. What I perceived as a lack of interest in diversity issues was in fact a lack of understanding diversity on a conceptual and practical level. The first written assignment for the course was a socio-cultural autobiography, requiring students to reflect upon their schooling experiences and the role diversity has played in their lives. Nearly all of the students grew up and were schooled in small and fairly homogenous environments. They lived in neighborhoods, went to school, and participated in social events with people who were economically and culturally similar to them-white and middle class. They did not have experiences interacting with people from diverse backgrounds, and diversity issues were rarely discussed in their homes and schools. Most of the students indicated that they did not understand what the “big deal” was about diversity. Most internalized a “colorblind” approach to thinking about race and ethnicity, and strongly believed that “people are people,” and therefore race and ethnicity shouldn’t be an issue. My course was problematizing issues that they perceived to not be a problem.

As they read Kozol, they could not imagine that such “savage inequalities” existed in modern day schools, and many discounted Kozol’s descriptions as mere exaggerations. On a theoretical level, most did not understand poverty in systemic and institutional terms, and therefore theories of reproduction, structuralism, and functionalism did not make sense to them. They were idealists who believed in and lived within the American system of meritocracy, where individuals were rewarded for hard work. Those who were in poverty, they speculated, must not have worked hard enough in school, as education was the ticket out of generational poverty.

After initial discussions of inequality and the text Savage Inequalities, I showed the class the PBS video “Children in America’s Schools with Bill Moyers,” a documentary inspired by Kozol’s book. As the students watched the video, it was clear that they were disturbed by the images they were watching, and the connections between race, class and privilege were explicitly clear for them. They were not mere passive consumers of images; their facial expressions, comments to each other, and non-verbal responses during the showing of the video indicated that they were actively engaged with the images they were witnessing. With visual images now a part of their experience, they were able to participate in emotional and analytical discussions on inequality. The type of discussion that I initially wanted to have with them was now possible because they had visual images to help them understand the course materials. Common responses from students indicated that they were shocked, angered, saddened and frustrated with the vast inequality in our American educational system. I realized that this was the first time that the students began discussing inequality as a systemic rather than an individual problem. One student wrote in a response freewrite:

The video brought what we were reading to life. It was different to see the awful conditions that those students were supposed to learn in. I remember one school still using coal to heat the school and it gave some students breathing problems. It was shocking and upsetting to see.

Another student wrote:

I found the video “Children in America’s Schools” to be both interesting and eye opening. Although it was based on the book we were reading, I felt that watching the video brought the frank truth about particular education issues to the eye. When I could actually view a documentary about the issue, it made it more real to me and also had a way of lighting a fire underneath me that angered me and made me want to learn how to change these types of inequalities and understand why they exist in the first place.

The video provided a foundation from which we could build our discussions, class activities, and projects. Students were now convinced that inequality in fact existed, they could see that patterns of inequality in and between schools often fell along racial and class lines, and they were now willing and interested in discussing possible solutions. I hoped that the emotions that many students experienced through the use of the video in subsequent class discussions would push them to think about social actions.

While the use of the video was indeed helpful to introduce key equity issues and provide clear and concrete visual examples to discuss race and class, one of the contradictions of the use of the video was that students felt that video and media would/ should be used as the primary vehicle for change. When asked to develop action plans and strategies to “equalize” schooling, most groups of students presented plans that focused on the use of and broadcasting of more documentaries through the mainstream media. It was their supposition that the vast inequality that existed in schools was a result of ignorance, and the lack of knowledge in the mainstream that such inequality existed.

In the context of the September 11th attacks, students identified the philanthropic willingness of the American public to help the victim’s families with the immense media coverage of the devastation and the need for America to pull together and help each other. It was their assessment that similarly, if Oprah Winfrey and the mainstream media highlighted these dilapidated schools, the public would donate money to help “fix” the schools and understand that more money should be spent on education. Ancillary to their action plans were political actions such as lobbying for changes in school funding, writing letters to federal and state government leaders, and community organizing. While it was my hope that they would develop plans and strategies that would put them and local communities at the center of action, they placed primary responsibility on mainstream media outlets.

It is ironic that while media and film can provide a helpful introduction to discussing equity, race and class with predominantly white middle-class students who have not experienced diversity, or even thought about such issues due to their privilege, media can also provide students with a “way out” of taking responsibility for being active agents of change. It is important that the use of videos and films in classes be contextually framed as something that can afford the beginning of a class discussion, but not necessarily the one and only solution for social problems. Instructors must use caution, and be aware that for students who are just beginning to have conversations and critical thoughts about diversity and multiculturalism, individual and social agency are difficult concepts to comprehend.


Students need to critically examine diversity issues and their role in perpetuating and impeding social change. Because we live in an age in which electronic imagery is quickly becoming the dominant social and cultural framework, using media in the classroom can be a method for encouraging our students into these kinds of roles. Using multimedia and interactive video in classes, instead of being overly dependent on didactic teaching, can be an effective multicultural teaching practice (Gay, 2001).

We agree that a fundamental principle of multicultural education still holds true, that the engagement must be critical and it must be self-reflective (Sleeter, 2000). However, it must also attend to the emotional connection that media viewing and media production engenders. Our experiences suggest that the emotional level can be used as an explicit part of instruction. Students can be asked to monitor their emotional response to viewing media imagery of diversity. They can also be asked to make videos that have explicit emotional qualities. These strategies can help students to uncover and critique how the media uses emotion to engage an audience in issues of race, culture and diversity.

As teacher educators who strive to engage our students with critically-minded notions of multicultural education, we have found intriguing possibilities and problems with our use of media in the classroom. The key point to be taken from these discussions is that media imagery exists for our students on a level much deeper than conscious cognitive understanding. It is enfolded into the life experience and is inextricable from it. As multicultural educators, we must find ways to address media imagery at these levels and help our students use media as a productive tool for critically reflecting on issues of diversity.


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Michael T, Hayes and Paula Groves are professors in the College of Education at Washington State University, Pullman, Washington.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Winter 2002

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