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"Burying their heads in the sand": critical race media literacy & Surrey School District teachers.


Globalization has revived the need for researchers to extend earlier scholarship investigating culture and race in education (Nieto, 2002; Pollock, 2004; Sheets & Hollins, 1999; Tatum, 1997). Building on this body of research, this study presents critical race media literacy (Yosso, 2002) as a pedagogic response to globalized, racially-and culturally- diverse educational systems and communities.

Yosso (2002) conceptualized critical race media literacy as the application of critical race theory and Freirean critical pedagogy to the discipline of media literacy. In the Freirean tradition, critical race media literacy aims to raise the critical consciousness of students with regard to challenging prevailing racial deficit ideologies and discourse. The present study seeks to investigate the extent to which teachers in a major Canadian school district employ this model in their teaching.

Canada is a fitting choice for this study examining the intersection of race and education because of the country's high record of immigration. According to the latest available data, between 2009 and 2013, individuals and families from around the world immigrating to Canada averaged nearly 260,000 annually (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2013). In 2011, 20.6% of Canada's population were foreign-born nationals, the largest among the G8 countries, and the population included more than 200 ethnic groups (Statistics Canada, 2013).

The Canadian community and school district selected for this investigation is among the most obvious examples of these demographic shifts. According to latest census data, Surrey's population was a little over 460,000 in 2011, of which more than 187,000 were immigrants (Statistics Canada, 2011). In 2011, more than 200,000 residents of Surrey indicated that neither English nor French was their mother tongue and census information lists more than 90 languages, including Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Korean, Malay, Punjabi, Swahili, Tagalog, and Urdu (Statistics Canada, 2012). Out of 70,765 students registered in the Surrey School District in the 2014-2015 school year, more than half spoke a home language other than English (Student Statistics Surrey, 2015).

Historically, Canada is recognized among international leaders in media literacy education, but in spite of the country's diversity and its avowed multiculturalism (Canadian multiculturalism, 2012), educational research and scholarship has paid little attention to the intersection of media literacy and race pedagogy.

This study probing the adoption of critical race media literacy among Surrey teachers aims to fill the gap in this important area while extending research situated in the critical race media literacy paradigm. Findings will also have practical relevance and application for teacher professional development/training and for media literacy instruction in Surrey schools and beyond.

From Multicultural Education to Critical Race Pedagogy

Multicultural education, with deep roots in the United States, is one way of addressing the needs of today's globalized educational systems. Multicultural education can be viewed as an attempt to respond educationally to racial and cultural diversity in schools and classrooms (Banks, 2007; Luchtenberg, 2004). From its origins in the U.S. as a response by African American scholars to Eurocentric education and the exclusion and disadvantaging of non-Whites by the educational system, multicultural education has grown to encompass a wide range of emphases, tied together by considerations of difference and diversity in the classroom (Ramsey, Williams, & Void, 2003).

Canada was quick to embrace multicultural education as the pedagogic philosophy underpinning the country's official multiculturalism policy (Canadian multiculturalism, 2012; Leung, 2011). Multicultural education in Canada, as in most Western nations, is premised on the so-called culturalist perspective, which acknowledges the existence of different cultural knowledges in the globalized educational context, but sees the primary goal as simply the blending together of these knowledges by local educational actors (Spring, 2008).

This culturalist orientation--to the exclusion of race pedagogy--is evident in the research literature on multicultural education in Canada, which has examined issues largely from this viewpoint. Studies have probed how educators can factor the culture of immigrant students and their families into their pedagogy (Georgis, Gokiert, Ford, & Ali, 2014; Parhar & Sensoy, 2011; Purcell-Gates, Lenters, McTavish, & Anderson, 2014; Smythe & Toohey, 2009).

Other researchers have studied how students from different cultural backgrounds express themselves to teachers and peers and its implications for curriculum development (Schlein & Chan, 2012). Studies have also focused on how multicultural education can promote citizenship (Jones, 2000) and secondary school students' knowledge of the cultural, political, and intellectual heritage of other cultures (Taylor & Hoechsmann, 2011).

Several scholars have criticized the practice of multicultural education in Canada, as well as in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., arguing that it fails to effectively address issues of race, racism, and related socio-economic differences (Castagno, 2013; James, 2001; Jay, 2003; Kirova, 2008; May, 1999). Multicultural education in Canada has been critiqued for adopting a so-called tourist approach that focuses predominantly on the exotic aspects of the culture of immigrants (James, 2001).

Although Canadian multicultural education may be concerned with race, "racism was seen to be a consequence of ignorance; and racial minority students' lack of success was seen to be the result of low self-concept, racial tensions in schools, and lack of role models" (James, 2001, p. 184). According to James (2001), "race was acknowledged in terms of color differences and not as a political and social construct of Canadian society" (p. 184). Indeed, "to admit that race influences educational opportunities in Canada is contrary to the multiculturalism policy and the long-held myth of the colorblindness of Canadians and specifically of teachers" (p. 185).

Kirova (2008) offers a similar analysis of multicultural education in Canada and suggests the need to move from multiculturalism to postmulticulturalism, which places a stronger emphasis on critically interrogating issues of race and power. Kirova suggests that Canadian multiculturalism's emphasis on cultural as opposed to racial identities, achieved by renaming the difference, effectively sweeps race under the rug. This, he argues, creates a false perception of Canada as a raceless country and a nation in which race is not a factor in social, political, and economic institutions and structures.

Led by the Ontario School District in 1993, the Canadian education system began to complement multiculturalism with anti-racist pedagogy and policies (McConaghy, 1993; Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1993), but this move has also met with challenges. Solomon and Levine-Rasky (1996) highlighted key difficulties with antiracist education in Canada through their survey of more than 1,000 teachers in 57 elementary and secondary schools across the country, in addition to over 100 teacher candidates enrolled in a training program in Toronto.

Findings by Solomon and Levine-Rasky revealed an overall negative and resistant response to antiracist education, particularly among the largely White sample of teacher trainees. Results showed divergent and subjective conceptualizations of antiracist education, difficulties integrating it into the curriculum, and concerns that it might be divisive.

Echoing this resistance, Mansfield and Kehoe (1994) raise several objections to antiracist education in Canada, arguing that it engages in a counter-productive reification of race.

While approaches to race pedagogy need to be tempered by consideration of some of the concerns raised by critics like Mansfield and Kehoe (1994), race in Canada remains an issue that must be problematized. In spite of the narrative that racism is America's historic sin while Canada has been largely unblemished, groups such as Chinese experienced significant government-sanctioned discrimination and exclusion for many years, including imposition of a head tax to stem immigration and school segregation (Brief Chronology, n.d.; Cui, 2011).

More recently, Cui (2011) found that Chinese Canadian youth continue to face xenophobic remarks and racism. Another recent study (Poolokasingham, Spanierman, Kleiman, & Houshmand, 2014) found that Canadians of South Asian descent enrolled in a leading Canadian university were subjected to various forms of racial microaggression.

Drawing on the Freirean and Frankfurt School heritage and Black civil rights scholarship in the U.S., critical race theory provides educators with an incisive conceptual approach for examining issues of race and social justice. Critical race theory can be traced to the works of the African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois and its later expression in the legal writings of scholars like Derrick Bell (Rabaka, 2006).

Critical race theorists posit that racism, which may be defined broadly as a system of advantage based on race (Tatum, 1997), is "so enmeshed in the fabric of our social order, it appears both normal and natural" (Ladson-Billings, 1999, p. 12). Critical race theory challenges post-racial narratives and argues that today's racism is often expressed in covert and even unconscious ways, unlike the overt racisms of the past.

Within the critical race theory framework, Haney-Lopez (2000) has conceptualized race as "a vast group of people loosely bound together by historically contingent, socially significant elements of their morphology and/or ancestry" (p. 165). While postmodernist scholars tend to view race as a shifting signifier whose meaning is only constructed in the context of social discourse (Cashmore, 1996), Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) suggest that scholars embrace its use as both classifier and signifier, because "thinking of race strictly as an ideological construct denies the reality of a racialized society and its impact on "raced" people in their everyday lives" (p. 48). Since race continues to exert strong influences on human activity, Omi and Winant (2005) argue that race scholars should uphold both "the continuing significance and changing meaning of race" (p. 4) and reject "the widely reported death of the concept of race" (p. 4).

Grounded in the above-described conceptualization of race, critical race theory employs various analytical constructs in problematizing the modern-day enactment of racism. Key concepts and tenets include colorblindness, a refusal or inability to see or acknowledge the oppressive reality of race (Parker, Deyhle, & Villenas, 1999) and institutional racism, the notion that "institutions can operate along racist lines without acknowledging or even recognizing this and how such operations can persist in the face of official policies geared to removal of discrimination" (Cashmore, 2004, p. 206).

Critical race theory has been employed as a framework for wide ranging education research. Lynn and Parker (2006) found that studies in the U.S. have employed critical race theory to probe racial inequity in schools, to inform qualitative research methodologies, for inquiries into pedagogy and practice, to problematize the educational experiences of racialized students, and to evaluate educational policies and practices. Solorzano and Yosso (2001) explicated five tenets relevant to the application of critical race theory to the education system, namely the centrality and intersectionality of race and racism, opposition to dominant ideologies, a social justice commitment, centrality of the lived experiences of racialized groups, and an interdisciplinary perspective.

The application of critical race theory to media literacy--critical race media literacy--is exemplified in research by Yosso (2002). Based on the goal of media literacy to provide students with "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and effectively communicate in a variety of forms" (Considine, Horton, & Moorman, 2009, p. 472), Yosso (2002) investigated the response of Chicano/a students in a California community college to a media literacy social justice project focused on racially stereotyped entertainment media. The students analyzed various media images and clips that portrayed the students' race from a cultural deficit perspective, including excerpts from The Substitute, Dangerous Minds, Duel in the Sun, Treasure of the Sierra, and Colors.

This was accompanied by discussion of key critical media literacy concepts, social science theories, and contextual historical developments. Students were also encouraged to challenge and offer alternatives to the depictions. Findings revealed that the students responded to the media literacy intervention in the form of confrontation, motivation, or navigation, all of which revealed emerging Freirean critical consciousness.

In light of the preceding, this study examines the following exploratory research question:
   To what extent do Surrey School District
   teachers incorporate critical race
   media literacy into their classes?


The study's qualitative approach aligns with several previous studies that have examined race in education (Cui, 2011; Poolokasingham, Spanierman, Kleiman, & Houshmand, 2014; Ryan, 1999; Solomon & Levine-Rasky, 1996). After approval by the Institutional Review Board of the researcher's university, the author conducted telephone interviews with five Surrey School District teachers who were selected through convenience sampling.

To recruit participants, the researcher contacted several school principals and asked them to recommend teachers in their schools who were committed media literacy educators. Three teachers included in the sample were the result of these principal recommendations. The others were recruited through an e-mail to media technology coordinators in the Surrey School District. Two teachers responded and were included in the sample. Three of the teachers were female and two were male. Two were elementary school teachers and three were teachers in area high schools. All the teachers were White and will be identified in this study as Teacher A, B, C, D, and E.

Interviews with the teachers employed a semi-structured interview guide and lasted 45 minutes each on average. Earlier drafts of the interview guide were subjected to expert audits and the feedback received was incorporated into revised and final versions. During the phone interviews, the researcher employed detailed note-taking to capture the interviewees' responses to the questions and later typed out the handwritten notes for analysis.

In analyzing the data, the author carefully read through the interview notes for evidence of the application of critical race media literacy, conceptualized as media literacy that (a) focuses on race, (b) challenges deficit or negative stereotypical racial representations, and (c) promotes critical social consciousness among students (Yosso, 2002). The researcher also looked for indicators of the teachers' overall attitudes towards critical race media literacy.

Findings and Discussion

The findings of this investigation revealed that out of the five teachers interviewed, only one showed some evidence of integration of critical race media literacy into his classes. This high school teacher (Teacher A) consistently integrates critical analyses of news media for racial representations into his grade 10,11, and 12 social studies classes. Teacher A observed that "media is the perfect vehicle for students to study race by looking at coverage that paints an entire group with a few labels, which I think is irresponsible."

Using what he called a high-fidelity approach, Teacher A recently adapted news coverage in Canadian and international media (such as Fox News and Al Jazeera) of the November 13, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks as material for class discussion of racial stereotypes. According to Teacher A, this approach supports social studies learning objectives in the areas of participatory citizenship, social responsibility, and community engagement. Teacher A revealed, however, that he does not include the study of race in Hollywood movies or TV shows in his classes.

Interviews with the other four teachers revealed little or no evidence of the use of critical race media literacy in their classes. Instead, these teachers mostly turn a critical lens on gender, as well as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning (LGBTQ) representations in the media. Their classes also emphasize the pressures of commercialization in media.

For example, Teacher B, a grade 4 teacher who includes media literacy as part of her Health and Career Education class, revealed that she sometimes asks students to critique the way athletes and women are portrayed in sports magazines and television commercials. Teacher E, who delivers an Information and Communication Technology course to grade 11 and 12 students, includes critiques of male and female body image in her classes by reviewing and discussing photos of anorexic movie stars.

Teacher C, a high school digital literacy instructor, said he stresses gender, because "we don't have that many females in IT." He also addresses media representation of the LGBTQ community in his classes and noted that to his knowledge, media literacy education in the school district focuses largely on these two areas (the LGBTQ community and gender) in the study of media representations.

While a focus on race was evidently missing from the media literacy approach of Teachers B, C, D, and E, the interviews revealed that they all had a strong emphasis on digital competency, digital citizenship, and media production skills. Teacher B, for example, mentioned online safety and security, and the ability to evaluate online content, as key learning objectives. Teacher D, who teaches all grade 7 subjects, said a major component of media literacy education in her class is students' use of iPads as a research tool. Teacher C and Teacher E also focus much of their high school classes on helping students develop skills in areas such a photography, videography and video editing, desktop publishing, and website publishing,

Not surprising, the interviews revealed a positive attitude towards critical race media literacy on the part of Teacher A, while the other teachers showed attitudes that ranged from relative openness, to the view that a focus on race was unnecessary. Teacher B acknowledged that placing greater critical focus on race in media literacy classes would be a good idea, given the racial and ethnic diversity of the student body, but added that this was more likely to happen if parents advocate for it.

Teacher C, on the other hand, said there was little need to focus on race, "because the classes have a diverse representation of students and race has not become a major issue." As an instructor in his high school's digital literacy program, Teacher C commented that "we sometimes discuss race, but in some cases, I would argue that it falls more under language arts classes, while we deal more with issues such as the acceptable and unacceptable uses of technology."

Both Teacher D and Teacher E were of the opinion that there was no pedagogic need to integrate critical examinations of race into media literacy education. According to Teacher D, she does not feel the need to address race in her media literacy classes because of the diversity of her class, which has students from about 10 different countries. In her view, "why do you bring up race if the students are not seeing it?" Teacher E echoed similar sentiments, saying, "I don't really touch on the racial. I don't see race. People who are colorblind have the best of everything."

In contrast, Teacher A said educators have a responsibility to include race in media studies, stating that "teachers who don't are burying their heads in the sand ... it's a disservice if teachers don't want to." He believes students want to talk about race, but teachers may avoid the topic because educators are unprepared. "Teachers may be afraid that it will get awkward and there is the fear that students will say the wrong things, but we need to overcome this fear and see these as teachable moments."

A key observation that emerges from this study is the overall dominance of digital media skills over critical approaches to media literacy in the pedagogy of the teachers interviewed. It is perhaps noteworthy that the teachers with a strong focus on teaching digital media/production skills had little or no emphasis on critical race media literacy, while the one teacher who did not teach digital media/production skills (because his core subjects were in the humanities) incorporated critical race media literacy into his classes.

In the cases of teachers B, C, D, and E, there are indications of what may be termed digital dominance and digital usurpation, in the sense that a heavy focus on digital media/production competencies had served to replace more critical investigations of media. In this usurpation of critical media literacy by digital technologies, consideration of race seems to have been a key casualty. As suggested in the comment by one high school digital media teacher that race "falls more under language arts classes," popular courses with a focus on digital technologies may be missing an important opportunity to critically address issues of race as part of the curricula.

The findings of this study also reiterate what James (2001) described as "the long-held myth of the colorblindness of Canadians and specifically of teachers" (p. 185). Some of the teachers interviewed indicated a refusal to see race in their classes and viewed this colorblindness in positive terms. This position, however, conflicts philosophically with the willingness of the teachers to see gender and sexuality as integral to their pedagogy.

There is inconsistency in the fact that while the teachers suggested that it was better to be blind to color (race) in the classroom, they didn't think it was equally appropriate to be blind to gender and sexual orientation. Although critical considerations of how the media represent gender and sexual orientation are valuable, the relegation of race significantly undermines the principle of intersectionality, which holds that the links between oppression and identity must be examined in all of its multifaceted manifestations (Solorzano & Yosso, 2001). Because "racism intersects with other forms of subordination including sexism and classism" (p. 2), considerations of gender and sexuality by the teachers are missing a critical dimension if a colorblind ideology is maintained.

One surprising discovery from this study was the argument by some teachers that a focus on race in media literacy education was not needed because their classes were already multiracial in composition. It would appear that in the opinion of these teachers, the more racially diverse their classes become, the less need for critical race pedagogy. This appears to be a counter-intuitive approach to race in a school district that is one of the most racially diverse in Canada.

It also fails to link race pedagogy to wider social justice concerns outside of the classroom and to Canadian society as a whole, which continues to show evidence of white privilege in spite of its diversity (George & Chaze, 2014; Shibao, 2013). In addition, the view that multiracial classrooms demand a decreased emphasis on race pedagogy conflicts with the fact that an important concern of critical race media literacy is to empower and raise critical consciousness among raced groups (Yosso, 2002), beyond a focus on those occupying positions of racial privilege.

Overall, the findings of this study align with research by Robertson and Hughes (2011), which revealed that less than a quarter of the Canadian pre-service teachers in their investigation employed a critical media literacy approach. It also confirms the revelation from Solomon and Levine-Rasky's (1996) seminal study that Canadian teachers have difficulties integrating race pedagogy into the curriculum and lack a critical race perspective. As Kellner and Share (2007) note, teachers are more likely to gravitate towards protectionist, media arts education, and depoliticized media literacy approaches, than the more politically conscious forms of critical media literacy.

Conclusion and Implications

This study sought to investigate the extent to which Surrey School District teachers incorporate critical race media literacy into their classes. It found that out of the five teachers sampled, only one showed some evidence of inclusion of critical race media literacy approaches in his social studies classes. The study also found a sharp split between digital literacy as a specialized focus and media literacy in general, with digital media/production dominating the curriculum (especially in high school), while politically charged, critical media analysis received marginal attention. In particular, high school teachers with a specialization in digital media included little or no critical examinations of race in their media literacy classes, while the one instructor teaching a humanities-oriented class had a strong emphasis on race in media.

This research also found a clear preference for critical examinations of gender and sexual identities in the media among most of the teachers interviewed, while the study of racial identities was viewed as unnecessary. Some of the teachers expressed the opinion that the racial diversity of their classes made discussion of race redundant, while others argued for a colorblind ideology in the teaching of media literacy.

Although not a panacea for all racial ills, there is evidence that pedagogy at the intersection of media and race can be transformative (Scharrer & Ramasubramanian, 2015). Critical race media literacy, as demonstrated by Yosso (2002), can provide a helpful pedagogic framework for educators in bringing a social justice orientation to issues of race and racism in today's globalized classrooms. Gainer (2010) has also shown how this approach can be employed among Latino U.S. middle school students. Considering the findings of this study and the relevance of critical race media literacy to student demographics, educators can take key steps to support the use of this model by Surrey School District teachers.

First, teacher training and continuing education initiatives for media literacy educators should focus on critical pedagogy (Freire, 2000) and critical race theory (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Media literacy teachers should also be introduced to the principles and practices of critical race media literacy (Gainer, 2010; Yosso, 2002). To build on the apparent interest in the interrogation of gender and sexuality, training programs and initiatives should place strong emphasis on the principle of intersectionality (Solorzano & Yosso, 2001), which mandates the inclusion of race as an indispensable variable in the examination of identity and privilege.

Training programs will be more effective if they include teachers who are already practicing some form of critical race media literacy as presenters (such as Teacher A in this study). These more experienced critical race media literacy educators can share their experiences and best practices, as well as address the concerns of their peers. Teacher education and professional development can also draw on discursive film analysis to impart critical race concepts as research has found that this approach results in depersonalization of the issues and eliminates the usual resistance and evasiveness of white teachers in race pedagogy courses (Pimentel, 2010).

Second, educators should make critical race media literacy an integral element of the high school digital media/production stream, rather than relegate race pedagogy largely to subjects like social studies and English. Given the popularity of digital and new media among students, these courses should be fully leveraged for race pedagogy. For example, critical analysis of YouTube and other social media content can be used by teachers to promote racial literacy (Nakagawa & Arzubiaga, 2014). While the increased emphasis on the acquisition of digital literacy skills among students is to be expected in light of technology and learning trends, curricular space needs to be maintained for critical studies of race and other identities.

Third, teachers should be provided with relevant resources/materials and curricular direction to support the adoption of critical race media literacy. Instructors currently draw on several independent, teacher-determined sources for their media literacy materials and it will help to provide some resource streamlining and centralizing specifically to facilitate race pedagogy objectives.

In Canada, Media Smarts ( serves as a key resource for media literacy education and offers some teaching materials on race in its Visible Minorities section. This site should be publicized so Surrey teachers are familiar with the resources available for critical race media literacy. Another useful site is the Critical Media Project (n.d.), an initiative of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The site provides relevant resources for teachers under its Race and Ethnicity section.

In spite of the light this study has shed on the interaction of race and media literacy in Surrey classrooms, the nonrandom sampling methodology employed and the small sample size means caution must be applied in generalizing these findings (Reinard, 2008, p. 444). Further research should build on this study by confirming these findings through a survey of a larger cross-section of Surrey teachers. The fact that the study sample was comprised only of White teachers is another limitation that should be addressed in further research. A study of media literacy educators from diverse backgrounds should explore possible links between the race of teachers and the evidence of critical race media literacy in their classes.

Divine Agodzo is a consultant with Wordsmiths Communications in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.


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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Agodzo, Divine
Publication:Multicultural Education
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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