Profs blast 'tokenistic' depictions of minorities in textbooks

A team of professors recently criticized K-12 textbooks for failing to explore “societal power dynamics” in their depictions of women and minorities.

To the surprise of City University of New York professor Sherry Deckman and her colleagues, after reviewing nearly 1,500 images in K-12 textbooks, they discovered that not only are women and racial minorities represented parallel to their representation in the population, but are even slightly over-represented.

Despite this progress, since racial minorities were barely depicted in textbooks just two decades ago, the team argues that this is actually worrisome, saying the representations of minorities and women have now become “superficial” and “tokenistic.”

This is because minorities are depicted in ways that fail to challenge “societal power dynamics,” which inadvertently leads to the reification of the assumption that society is “inherently Eurocentric, male-centric, Christian-centric, [and] heterosexual-centric,” she writes.

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Deckman, a faculty member in CUNY’s Social Studies Education Program, is especially worried about the way that minorities are sometimes depicted in a “celebratory” fashion, suggesting that this is the wrong way to focus on diversity.

For example, in one picture in a health textbook, there is a “Japanese-looking woman wearing a blue yukata (a cotton kimono) teaching children of different races how to do origami,” and in another, a picture of a “traditional Mexican mariachi band.”

This “heroes and holidays approach” to illustrating cultural diversity, the paper warns, is “often palatable” because it is easy for students to understand.

“Yet, with its uncritical tone of ‘we are all different, but the same,’ it does not explore societal power dynamics,” it contends, saying the approach “thus is limited in terms of addressing injustice” and does not promote “social justice.”

“Furthermore, such depictions essentialize culture and suggest ‘some aspects of culture [are] indispensable attributes that must be shared by all people within a particular group,’ dishonoring the complexity of lived experience,” explains Deckman.

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In an interview with Campus Reform, Deckman explained that she was inspired to research this because she was interested in the intersection between textbooks and diversity.

“We wanted to know what, if anything, had changed over 20 years,” she said. “We wanted to be able to accurately discuss who textbooks chose to feature and how.”

To fix this, Deckman suggests the “liberal multiculturalism” ethos of textbook publishers should be addressed. Under this liberal multiculturalism ethos, publishers are motivated to celebrate diversity, yet the result may be the adoption of an “apolitical, neutral tone” that ultimately causes textbooks to “reify dominant norms.”

Deckman added that textbooks shouldn’t be students’ only exposure to diversity.

“In an ideal world, especially in a country that is as diverse as ours, people would more actively interact with people from all different backgrounds and seek understanding so that stereotypical images in media and textbooks wouldn't be our only exposure to difference,” she pointed out. “To us, this research, though in a small way, is about making a better world.”

Entitled “Numbers are Just Not Enough,” Deckman’s article was published in the January issue of the journal Educational Studies, and was co-authored with a team of professors from Ithaca College and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen