Defining "Multicultural Literature"
One doesn't have to study multicultural literature very long before realizing that there are many ways to define “multicultural literature.”
The essential question is how wide a net one wants to cast. Ginny Moore-Kruse of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center defines multicultural literature as “books by and about people of color” (30). This is perhaps the most commonly understood meaning of the term, both by laypeople and teachers, but it is problematic, for as Lara Hillard notes, although “many classroom teachers [are] content to use this definition as the sole basis for their curriculum,” such a narrow definition “does not take into account the wide spectrum of cultural differences that are independent of skin color” (728). Being based on mere appearance, it is also superficial and can have the unfortunate consequence of encouraging children to make decisions about other people based primarily, if not entirely, on the color of their skin. Surely this is the opposite of our intention when we teach multicultural literature in the first place.
Others cast a wider net. Junko Yokota notes that some “refer to American ethnic experiences apart from the Anglo experience,” including “experiences from countries outside the U.S.” or even “any nonmainstream experience, such as the Jewish [or] the Appalachian.” Yokota's own definition of multicultural literature as “literature that represents any distinct cultural group through accurate portrayal and rich detail” (157) is broad enough, but is partially based on the quality of the work, which, frankly, I find problematic. While there are objective criteria that can be used to assess the quality of a literary work, such an undertaking is still a subjective experience. A poorly written multicultural book is still a multicultural book. It’s just not a good book.
My own definition of multicultural literature is both broad and specific, with eight criteria which are based largely on the question of power. Because traditionally those in power have been those who write books, those who publish books, and most importantly, those who purchase books, traditionally there has been little written about those outside the dominant power structure.
This situation is changing in the United States, but there are still challenges. For example, there is a lag between the reality on the ground and publishers' backlists. While it is easier to get a quality multicultural book published, it can still be a challenge to get it into the hands of young people, because issues of censorship and funding still exist. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a work of multicultural literature is to gain acceptance by the reading public based on its literary merits, rather than its ability to be tagged as “multicultural,” making it into literary equivalent of broccoli. Eventually we may come to the day when “multicultural literature” ceases to exist, because it is simply “literature.”
Until that day, I present my own eight criteria for defining “multicultural literature.”
- Racial and ethnic groups that have existed within the United States for some time, but which, due to reasons of skin color, religious beliefs, or language, are outside the dominant power structure. (E.g., Mexican-American, American Indian.)
- Racial and ethnic groups that have recently come to the United States (since World War II) and their children, and which, for reasons of skin color, religious beliefs, language, or accent, are outside the dominant power structure. (E.g., Vietnamese-American, Indian-American, Arab-American.)
- Groups which, because of their sexuality or gender identity, exist outside the dominant power structure. (I.e., GLBTQ.)
- Groups which, because of their religious beliefs, are outside the dominant power structure. (E.g., Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon.)
- Groups which, because of genetic or developmental differences, are often misunderstood by the dominant power structure. (E.g., dyslexic, ADD/ADHD, autistic.)
- Groups which, owing to their geographic location within the United States (and often, their geographic isolation) are outside the dominant power structure. (E.g., Cajun, Appalachian.)
- Other groups which, for various reasons, have been excluded from the dominant power structure and are thus under-represented in the literature. (E.g., Roma.)
- Groups which, due to their geographic location outside the United States (often within the Third World) have been excluded from the dominant global power structure.
I realize that many will bristle at the all-inclusive nature of my criteria. Some may insist that multicultural literature should only include those works which take place in the United States, or which are published in the United States. That's okay. My criteria are deliberately large because here I have the room (although not necessarily the time) to consider a wide range of works. There is only so much time in a college semester or middle school or high school year, so the list of what will be studied there will, naturally, have to be more strictly delimited. As Harriet Rohmer says, “multicultural literature is a literature of inclusion: stories from and stories about all our children” (qtd. in Madigan 169). What is important is to make our students aware that we are studying a limited subset of multicultural literature, and that the rest of the world of multicultural literature is out there, waiting for them.