Magazine Feature

Searching for Patterns

A conversation with Carlos Cortés.

As the son of a Mexican Catholic immigrant father and an Austro-Russian Jewish mother, Carlos Cortés grew up witnessing the interaction between different cultures right in his own home. He credits this early experience with setting the course for his 30-year professional study of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. A widely published author and popular lecturer on multicultural issues, Cortés has traveled throughout the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia, serving as a consultant to many government agencies, media organizations, private businesses, school systems and universities.

Since 1994, Cortés has been professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Riverside. His current main area of interest is the multicultural education that occurs outside the classroom. According to Cortés, the mass media, churches, neighborhoods and other components of the "societal curriculum" have emerged as the driving force in education about diversity, for better and for worse. He analyzes the media's role in this phenomenon in his forthcoming book, How the Media Teach About Diversity: Mass Media as Multicultural Education (Teachers College Press, 2000).

Cortés spoke with Teaching Tolerance director Jim Carnes by phone from his home in Riverside, Calif.


Multicultural education has been around long enough to have a history of its own. How has your perspective on the field changed over the past 20 years?

I started out as a historian, and, because my father was a Mexican immigrant, I became interested in the experience of Latinos in the United States, particularly Mexican Americans. But, as happened to a lot of us who began with an emphasis on one ethnic group, I soon realized that we had to take the next step, that focusing on my own group wasn't enough.

As I worked with diverse students and teachers, I became increasingly aware of the intersection of issues of race and ethnicity, language, religion, gender and sexual orientation, generation and age, and so forth, as they operate within each individual. These factors cross-cut and come out differently in every person. We have to look at the way the individual relates to the many groups to which she or he belongs, understanding that each person you come into contact with is influenced by a variety of groups.

The other dimension of my thinking that has changed is that I used to look at school as the engine that drove an understanding of multiculturalism. I don't any more. Schools don't have a monopoly on teaching about diversity. My basic research interest has become the area that I call the "societal curriculum," which is the non-school teaching about diversity.


What elements does the societal curriculum encompass?

I break it down into four components. The first one I call the immediate curriculum, which consists of family, community, peers and those other immediate human influences around you.

The second I call the institutional curriculum -- things like churches, synagogues, YMCAs, Boy and Girl Scouts, the many institutions one comes across as one grows up. As you get older you might add groups like unions and professional associations.

Third is the serendipitous curriculum -- the chance encounters that happen to everyone throughout their lives. For each person, there is a different set of chance events -- they're not structured, they don't come out of a special institution. It could be a trip you went on, someone you met. It may be a particularly bad experience with someone of a certain ethnic background that suddenly changes your attitude toward that group of people.

Fourth is the media curriculum, which is my major research emphasis. I recognize that the media, too, is an institution, but it's so important that I consider it by itself as part of the larger societal curriculum.


Can you give some examples of how a teacher might use media images -- negative or positive -- constructively in the classroom?

Let's say as a part of education, as opposed to just in the classroom. I think it's more important to have students weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the media treatment of diversity, the contributions of the media to intergroup understanding or misunderstanding, than to have the teacher didactically assert, "This image is positive, this is negative." I try and keep students and teachers from simply talking about positive and negative because I think that ignores the nuances and complexity of the issue. It leads to trying to put every media treatment into one of those two categories -- good and evil -- which is a very American tendency.

I tell teachers, "Whatever you do, don't assign kids to go out and look for stereotypes, because then you've already given them the answer: 'You will find stereotypes.' Then every time they see an image or a depiction, they'll be likely to assume it's a stereotype." But if you have students look for patterns, then they can discover for themselves: "Aha! This looks like a pattern. We're not yet sure if it's a stereotype, but let's look further."

Concrete assignments work best. You could have students select one particular radio talk-show host and listen to the program regularly over a two-week period to determine if there's a pattern of treatment that the host uses when discussing members of a particular group.

I might say, "Collect all articles about women in two daily newspapers over a two-week period to determine if there's a pattern of the kinds of stories that they run. Watch TV news over a period of time to discover whether there's a pattern of treatment of religion. Make a list of the religious stories on the news and see if there's a pattern. Collect movie reviews for one month to see if there's a pattern of movies about a specific group. Is there a series of themes that continually come through?"

This is fairly straightforward. By identifying patterns, students can come to their own conclusions about what the media are teaching and the kinds of possible stereotypes they should be aware of when they're reading or viewing media throughout their lives. This also reinforces the lesson that they're going to be lifelong learners about diversity through the media.


What role does the Internet play in the societal curriculum?

As many educators have claimed, the Internet allows people to converse with others of different backgrounds. Unfortunately, this interaction with others happens at a distance -- you don't see them, you don't bump into them and live next to them.

Another drawback, I think, is that the Internet seems to encourage many people to focus only on intragroup communication with those of their own backgrounds or ideologies. We know that people tend to go back to the same sites over and over. I'm terrified of a future when people get most of their news and information simply by going to two or three basic ideological Web sites that filter the world for them. That could polarize us even further.

Increasingly, it seems, demographic predictions are being used to "scare" people into dealing with diversity. How can educators challenge that fear-based approach?

If you simply see demographic change as some huge flood of difference washing over the nation, then it can lead to fear, anger, antagonism. But if you see it as a series of changes with which we can work to build something better by drawing on its strengths, then it takes you in a different direction.

One issue that really galvanizes people in my workshops is the issue of intermarriage. I have to go off on a tangent here, or maybe it's a tantrum! Many multiculturalists today seem unwilling to deal with the growing factor of intermarriage. Too much of multicultural education is frozen into a kind of group purity paradigm, when, in fact, intermarriage is one of the enormous changes that are taking place in America. For example, one-third of all Latinos born in the U.S. now marry someone who is not Latino. That says an awful lot about what the next generation's sense of ethnic identity is going to be -- it's going to be much more unpredictable. What will these cultural blends be like?

Once I bring up the topic of intermarriage, it's as if I've given people permission to come out of the closet! One after another they seem eager to talk about their background, their spouse, one of their kids who has married someone with a different racial or ethnic identity. Even in our multicultural society, many people -- including some multiculturalists -- are still frozen in that old single-group thinking that we were using 25 years ago.

I've been reading a lot of autobiographies of individuals who are finding new spaces that break down the starkness of traditional Black/White, Latino/Anglo and other ethnic dichotomies. Gregory Howard Williams' Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black is a great example. We have an increasing number of people who are multicultural within their own identity. I find that very heartening. This is part of what I call an "ecological change" in the nature of diversity.


What other factors can you identify in that ecological change?

The traditional way of thinking has been about White communities becoming Black. The next phase was that of White Anglo communities becoming Black or Latino or Asian. What we're now seeing is the rapid evolution of two other kinds of communities. One is the bicultural community in which neither group is Anglo, and the other is the non-majoritarian community -- where no group has a majority anymore. That's a big shift from the old majority/minority paradigm.

I recently read that 243 counties in the United States now have an Anglo numerical minority, and 42 of those counties have made that shift in the last five years. That's just counties. If you look at school districts and communities, you also see these ecological shifts. But what happens in places like the San Gabriel Valley of California, which used to be almost all Latino and then large numbers of Asians moved in? There's been almost no multicultural research on what it means when you get that inter-ethnic combination. What happens when 60 percent of Koreatown in Los Angeles becomes Latino, heavily Central American? We have limited research on these settings. They're truly multicultural, not traditional majority/minority.

We've got one community in California -- Carson -- that last year hit the magic moment when it was 25 percent Anglo, 25 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 25 percent Black and 25 percent Latino. It was a monumental vision of the future! Of course, that's already changed this year, because at least one of those groups has grown and one has gone down. The old paradigms don't deal with these changes. A teacher in a Chinese/Latino school is going to encounter quite a different situation from a teacher in a White/Black school. Not to mention the mixed-race kids that might be in these schools.

That's why multicultural education has to keep growing to address these new kinds of issues. By looking at the intersection of immigration patterns, communication, cultural transfer and cultural maintenance, linkages to foreign nations and so forth, we can learn and help students learn how diversity in the United States is connected to diversity around the world.


How can teachers respond more effectively to the "diversity within diversity"?

To say "All students are different" is really an anarchic statement. It's not useful to look at 30 students in your class as entirely different from each other. The important questions are "Are there patterns of difference on which I can draw? Are there certain effective ways of dealing with different kinds of students? Can I develop a repertoire of five or six approaches that help me reach more kids than I would in using just one or two techniques?"

Because of the fear of stereotyping, sometimes there's almost a terror of categorization. When a teacher says, "I treat every student as a unique individual," my response is, "Then how do you get them to the proper bathroom?" We inevitably classify by groups. The challenge is to use that group knowledge constructively, not destructively; subtly, not stereotypically.

In one workshop exercise, I divide the chalkboard in half, with "Generalization" on one side and "Stereotype" on the other. Then we compare the characteristics. For example, the generalizer will take a piece of group knowledge and use it as a clue to how an individual is likely to act. A stereotyper will take that same group knowledge and insist that people of that group will act a certain way. Instead of being a clue, that group knowledge becomes an assumption: "Latinos speak Spanish" is a stereotype. We know that 25 percent of Latinos speak little if any Spanish. "Latinos are more likely to speak Spanish than are other Americans" is a generalization -- we're talking about a likelihood. Therefore, when I approach a child who's Latino, I should realize that there is a good likelihood that the parents speak Spanish or the child knows Spanish. Yet I need to avoid the stereotype, which would mean assuming that the child's family speaks Spanish or, worse yet, doesn't speak English, so I need to send home a note in Spanish.

A lot of material that's designed to help teachers deal with stereotypes actually ends up making them afraid to generalize. When I work with teachers, I try to remove the fear of generalizations. The irony is that we can't live without generalizations, which are the basis for a knowledge of the world. Yet we also have to fight continually to keep those generalizations from hardening into stereotypes.

The same goes for students. We know that prejudices exist. We know that beneath prejudices lurk lots of misunderstandings, fears and lack of knowledge about others. What I'm hoping -- and I must admit that there's been little long-term research on this topic -- is that as students become attuned to thinking about the patterns of treatment they see in the media and encounter in other parts of the societal curriculum, they'll step back and begin to resist those patterns that corrode their relations with other human beings. This is my hope.

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