Antiracist Education Essay

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Antiracist education, also referred to as antiracism education, has emerged within the broader field of multicultural education. Its explicit focus on power relations, institutional structures, and identity distinguish it from more traditional forms of multicultural education. Antiracist education emphasizes the need to address systemic barriers that cultivate and sustain racism, particularly within educational settings. Similarly, at the theoretical level antiracist education seeks to support social justice and equity by understanding and dealing with the complexity of identity and the intersection of diverse forms of difference and marginalization, including social class, gender, ethnicity, ability, linguistic origin, sexual orientation and religion, among others. This entry addresses the theoretical, conceptual, and applied aspects of antiracist education.

The Context

Antiracist education was born in the UK over two decades ago in response to an anti-immigration backlash from right-wing conservatives. Key figures that shaped the field were Barry Troyna and Bruce Carrington, and there was some important work in schools by David Gillborn. In the United States, antiracist education has direct links with the civil rights movement and has been advanced by a number of contemporary educational scholars who adopt a critical stance toward multicultural education; influential researcher activists leading the field include James Banks, Cherry McGee Banks, Christine Sleeter, Carl Grant, and Sonia Nieto. Their focus is on honoring difference and correcting differential learning experiences and outcomes, especially among minority and marginalized students. This has also been referred to as “antibias” or “antioppression” education, following Kevin Kumashiro, and there is an explicit connection to various forms of difference in social justice education in the United States.

The term antiracist education is more contested than multicultural education because it specifically mentions the word race, now understood to have no biological significance. While race no longer holds salience as a genetic concept, society has long been organized around categorizations of people based on perceived racial identity. The fact that Aboriginal peoples have lived on the land known as North America for some 20,000 years underscores the antiracist vantage point that power relations and identity need to be problematized within the context of colonization. Similarly, the infamous legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and myriad discriminatory laws, policies, and social practices have divided the United States along racialized lines. The reality that more African American males are in prison than in university, combined with the illustrative socioeconomic and educational context, are further evidence of the effects of discrimination based on racial identities in contemporary American society.

Antiracist education seeks to correct inequities within this social context. On the one hand is the concrete reality of underachievement, marginalization, and discrimination, and on the other is a pervasive ideology of individualism, merit-based achievement, and an education system that has historically ignored social justice issues. For the past two decades, the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) has been one of the leading organizations articulating a vision for antiracist education, and it includes social justice and the struggle to eradicate inequity and discrimination in its official definition of multicultural education.

The Foundation

In their conceptualization of antiracist education, Canadian scholars George Sefa Dei and Agnes Calliste have questioned the notion of a color-blind society and argue in favor of a more transparent and equitable sharing of power. The history of race relations is never neutral, and antiracist education requires surveying and critiquing textbooks, curricula, policies, outcomes, and general conditions related to education to better understand and take action on inequity and racism. As Paul Carr and Darren Lund’s recent work concludes, this must include recognition of Whiteness, the understanding that White people have acquired and exercised power and privilege based on their racial identity. The role and implication of White teachers in classrooms with diverse student bodies has been a growing area of interest for antiracist educators, including Gary Howard in the United States.

The premise of antiracist education is that excellence and equity are intertwined. To achieve equity, explicit and implicit efforts, strategies, and resources must be concentrated and activated in a coherent manner. Frances Henry and Carol Tator have written about the “colour of democracy,” documenting how supposed democratic structures and systems work to support racism. For antiracist education to be realized, it is imperative that systems, structures, and institutions are critically assessed and reformed.

Neo-Marxist antiracist theorists have linked racism and marginalization in society with capitalism and the economic exploitation of the working class and marginalized groups. Following the work of Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux and others have promoted the need for political literacy and critical pedagogy, widely considered important elements of the antiracist education movement. Antiracist education, therefore, seeks to cultivate critical thinking and an appreciation among students for the lived experiences of all people. Giving voice to those who have traditionally been marginalized is a key step in making schools more inclusive and representative.

Antiracist education seeks to develop an inclusive curriculum that encourages critical reflection and action, infused throughout subject areas and school culture. As Julie Kailin has argued, all teachers must be able to present concepts, examples, lessons, and activities that foster social justice and equity, and that support high academic achievement. Antiracist educators understand that all education is political, and their approach to inequity includes the need to address power imbalances for the benefit of all students.

Complementing the field of antiracist education are a number of group-specific disciplines, including Latino/a Studies, Asian American Studies, African American Studies, and Aboriginal/First Nations Studies, all of which deal with the legacy and implication of race playing a role in histories, cultures, and social Conditions.

Moving From Multicultural Education To Antiracist Education

While critical pedagogues and scholars in the United States usually refer to multicultural education, this differs from conceptualizations of the term in other English-speaking countries, namely Canada, Australia, and the UK. In Canada in the mid-1990s, Earl Mansfield and Jack Kehoe characterized the multicultural antiracist schism by noting that multicultural education is usually focused on intergroup harmony, celebration of diversity, and cultural heritage and pride, while antiracist education attends to educational disadvantage, systemic racism, power relations, politics, and critical analysis. Likewise, Stephen May has been critical of the unfulfilled promises of multicultural education, particularly the limited perspective on inequitable power relations. He has taken aim at the Eurocentric curriculum that pervades teaching and learning, and calls for broader understanding of the social context shaping the education experience.

Antiracist education raises issues that often elicit discomfort and tension, and its supporters understand this conflict as a necessary part of the learning process. They believe that education should not avoid dealing with systemic issues but, rather, should require that students become engaged in understanding and acting on controversial issues. Antiracist education presupposes a commitment to the praxis of education—the intersection of theory and practice— extending earlier practices of multicultural education that were limited to fostering tolerance and respect.

Antiracist education critically analyzes both the development and implementation of educational policy. While the process for developing policy is important, antiracist education considers closely the outcome of such policies. For example, the dropout— or as George Sefa Dei calls it, the “push-out”—rate of Black/African American students in education must be problematized at several levels. Rather than anthologizing the role of the Black/African American family, antiracist educators are critically focused on how teachers, principals, education officials, and decision makers are complicit in this situation.

Antiracist Education Policies

A number of jurisdictions, particularly in Canada, the UK, and Australia, have developed school-based antiracism policies. However, the overall commitment and emphasis on antiracism appears to take place in a patchwork manner, with some school boards and provinces or states embracing the approach more than others, as results from large nationwide studies by Patrick Solomon and Cynthia Levine-Rasky in Canada have shown. Antiracism policies are often fraught with the very issues that they are intended to dismantle, namely systemic discrimination, passive resistance, and marginalized status in competition with a curriculum focused on achieving high academic standards. In addition to the formal policy articulating guidelines for action, jurisdictions with such policies customarily provide resource documents, training, and dispute resolution mechanisms to monitor and support progress.

In the United States, there are numerous initiatives addressing academic underachievement. The No Child Left Behind legislation requires data collection based on race, but this has been critiqued because school boards have flexibility in reporting differential outcomes. There are a number of research centers, resources, initiatives, programs, grants, and projects targeting racism in the United States, many of which form part of the antiracist education movement. With the debate over the utility and legality of affirmative action, in light of Brown v. Board of Education, race remains a controversial issue in education circles. Despite the achievement gap in education between racialized groups, there is still much resistance to adopting antiracist education as a means to advancing educational outcomes for all students.

Criticism Of Antiracist Education

Some criticize antiracist education as being too overtly political and, moreover, as focusing too narrowly on race. Others refute the notion that White people universally oppress Black people, arguing that antiracist education often distorts the complex lived reality of people within diverse demographics. The emphasis on race is also criticized for subverting other forms of difference, especially gender, social class, and culture. Similarly, critics contend that the over identification of race may reinforce negative stereotypes related to racial identity.

Antiracist Education Programs

Some common features to groups, schools, institutions, and researchers developing antiracist education approaches and pedagogies include the following:

  • The notion that good teaching must take into account the varied perspectives and experiences of diverse student-bodies and society
  • The need for a full analysis of school climate, diagnosing and remedying systemic barriers
  • The importance of robust involvement and engagement from all sectors forming the school culture, including teachers, principals, guidance counselors, psychologists, lunchroom and custodial staff, parents, and others
  • The need to problematize how questions of race, culture, and identity in relation to differential educational outcomes and experiences

Antiracist education seeks to infuse learning with an explicit social justice agenda that reinforces academic achievement. It is concerned with accessibility, power imbalances, identity, and reversing the perception that students from marginalized groups constitute a “deficit culture.” Antiracist education more directly focuses on race and the intersections of identity than has traditional multicultural education. There are many commonalities and convergences between antiracist and multicultural education that depend on conceptual, jurisdictional, and ideological factors, in addition to the specific groups involved. Through the meshing of various tenets, strategies, resources, and leadership, antiracist education, in collaboration with more critical forms of multicultural education, aims to render schools and educators better equipped to deal with equity issues in rapidly changing demographic and social conditions.


  1. Banks, J. A., & McGee Banks, C. A. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of research on multicultural education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Carr, P., & Lund, D. E. (Eds.). (2007). The Great White North? Whiteness, privilege and identity in education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense.
  3. Dei, G. J. S. (1996). Anti-racism education: Theory and practice. Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood.
  4. Dei, G. J. S., & Calliste, A. (Eds.). (2000). Power, knowledge and anti-racism education: A critical reader. Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood.
  5. Gillborn, D. (1995). Racism and antiracism in real schools. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  6. Henry, F., & Tator, C. (2005). The colour of democracy: Racism in Canadian society. Toronto, ON, Canada: Thomson Nelson.
  7. Howard, G. R. (2006). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
  8. Kailin, J. (2002). Antiracist education: From theory to practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  9. Kumashiro, K. (2004). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
  10. Mansfield, E., & Kehoe, J. (1994). A critical examination of anti-racist education, Canadian Journal of Education, 19, 418–430.
  11. May, S. (Ed.). (1999). Critical multiculturalism: Rethinking multicultural and antiracist education. Philadephia: Falmer Press.
  12. Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. New York: Allyn & Bacon.
  13. Sleeter, C. E. (1996). Multicultural education as social activism. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  14. Sleeter, C. E., & Grant, C. A. (2005). Making choices for multicultural education: Five approaches to race, class, and gender. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  15. Troyna, B. (1993). Racism and education: Research perspectives. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

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