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A Review of Culturally Contested Literacies: America's "Rainbow Underclass" and Urban Schools

In this book, Guofang Li discusses the trials and tribulations of several families living in Buffalo, New York. Even though they hail from different ethnic groups (i.e. Sudanese, Vietnamese, and Caucasian), all of the parents profiled are committed to the education of their children. Nevertheless, Li writes that poverty, racism, and exposure to sub-cultures that do not tend to value education pose extra challenges. Li also addresses some of the issues faced by members of these cultures.

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For example, Asian immigrants have to contend with adapting to a society that is not as patriarchal-a fact that Li said was very difficult as many of the job opportunities available favored immigrant women over immigrant men. In the introduction, Li noted that while the sons of the Vietnamese families were free to make friends and run the streets, the daughters were forced to stay indoors and study all the time. The Sudanese immigrants felt as they were in a pickle because while they did not want to identify with the stigmatized black American culture, they were still recipients of the same racial prejudices and stereotypes as their American counterparts even though they had more in common with other immigrants seeking a better life in America than they had with black Americans who they perceived as doing nothing to improve their circumstances whilst airing grievances against the majority culture. The Caucasian families do not have necessarily have the burden of adjusting to life in a new country, but unlike their wealthier counterparts they find themselves the object of racial and cultural discrimination. "As their stories will demonstrate in this book, despite their best efforts many of these children are struggling in school, and only a few of them have achieved success." (Li, p. 3). Through the struggles of the families, Li shows they share a common thread in the belief that a solid education will help their children achieve a better lifestyle than they would otherwise be able to without one. Li also shows that poverty, institutional racism, and diminished expectations take a heavy toll on academic achievement.

Usually any tome that writes about the pitfalls and challenges of multicultural urban education often highlight the failures of African-Americans and Hispanics while extolling the successes of Asian or Caucasian students. In the profile of the Clayton and Sassano family, one of the sons loved reading while the other son could not care less. In addition, in spite of the multicultural environment at Rainbow Elementary, it is clear that people from different ethnic groups tend to stick to themselves. As Li commented on one of the white mothers: "Even though she appreciated the multicultural nature of Rainbow Elementary, she had little knowledge about the beliefs, attitudes, and experiences of other cultures, especially the African refugees" (Li, p. 158). According to Li, part of this is defensive because the pre-dominantly African American student body makes fun of her child for being bookish, overweight and white. Another aspect is that by virtue of being working class, the family loses the privilege of whiteness, but not in its entirety as the privilege lost is related to class and not race.

In summation, through profiling these families, Li has given us a more personal (as opposed to sociological) insight on the nature of multicultural education. Even though its mission is to help students thrive in a global environment where they will be living among and working with people that are not of the same cultural background-this book also shows us that the embrace of standardization in American classrooms helps to destroy the foundations of multicultural education as it seeks to silence the diverse voices in order to conform to a singular educational paradigm.

In order to truly thrive in a multicultural environment, students need to learn early in the academic process how to appreciate perspectives other than one's own. However, class is becoming as big an obstacle to understanding as culture. "To become activists for social justice, teachers and children need to recognize and challenge the inequitable distribution of resources within the United States and between the United States and the rest of the world" (Ramsey, Williams & Vold). The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and possesses a large budget for education, so it would seem that everyone should have access to a high quality education no matter where one is on the socio-economic ladder. Although a few of the students profiled have made the decision to take advantage of their educational opportunities, they do not feel as though they fit in with their peers simply because there is a strong anti-intellectual current at school. Somehow, it would seem that defeating the culture of anti-intellectualism would do more for education than any new measure.


Berlak, H.. Race and the Achievement Gap. In W. Au (ed.) Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd., pp. 63-72.

Bigelow, B.. Standards and Tests Attack Multiculturalism. In W. Au (ed.) Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd., pp. 53-62.

Li, G.. Culturally Contested Literacies: America's "Rainbow Underclass" and Urban Schools, New York: Taylor & Francis.

Perry, P.. Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ramsey, P.G., Williams, L.R. & Vold, E.B.. Multicultural Education: A Sourcebook. New York: Psychology Press.

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