Immigrant Bangladeshi Communities and Intergenerational Conflict: The Need for Multicultural Education

PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, Vol. 17, 2008, pp. 19-36.Refereed

Immigrant Bangladeshi Communitiesand Intergenerational Conflict: The Need for Multicultural Education

Nurun Begum Mahfuzul I. Khondaker


Based on an ethnographic study of an immigrant Bangladeshi community, this paper points out the potential of adult education programs using a multicultural education framework. These potentials include helping immigrant adults address their own lack of appreciation for diversity in the U.S. and the intergenerational gap that exists between immigrant adults and immigrant children. This intergenerational gap stems from the adults’ lack of knowledge about other cultures—especially U.S. culture—leading to perceived and sometimes real deviant/delinquent behaviors among their children.


The U.S. is a multicultural society where people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds live and interact. Extensive research has been done addressing the impact of multicultural education on the achievement of traditional school-age students and the teaching techniques employed by their instructors. Little, if any, research has been done to show the importance of multicultural education for adults. This paper will attempt to address this gap, discussing the importance of multicultural adult education and the possibilities of its effective use with adult immigrant learners. It also offers perspectives on when, where and how adult education with immigrant families might reduce intergenerationalconflicts between parents and their children, while also increasing theircollective knowledge and understanding of the culture they now live in

Nurun Begum is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood and Elemen- tary Education at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. Mahfu- zal Khondaker is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and its social, political, educational and economic systems. It is hoped that this research will lead to additional work with immigrant parents and their children.

Multicultural Education and its Importance

Multicultural education is an approach to social change (Gay, 2004) as well as a progressive approach for transforming education (Gorski, 2004). It now includes a variety of issues such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender, language, national origin, and immigration; and in some cases, sexual orientation, age, and disability (Gay, 2003). The importance of multicultural education to such areas as the role of citizens, deviant behavior, schooling and learning, and cultural mixture will be discussed in the sections that follow.

Multicultural Education and the Role of Citizens

The U.S. is a multicultural and immigrant society (Johnson, 2003). While earlier generations of immigrants came primarily from western and northern Europe, in the 21st century, people began arriving in the U.S. from all over the world: Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. These new immigrants brought with them their own cultural traditions and languages, producing anxieties, hostilities, prejudices and racist behaviors among already established groups (Gay, 2004). Earlier generations of immigrants considered these new arrivals to be a threat to their safety and security (Lal, 2004). Researchers suggest that, against this backdrop, multicultural education could have helped to establish social harmony and to have assisted immigrants—new and old—in better understanding each other (Gay, 2004; Gorski, 2004; Jones, 2004; Powers, 2002).

Such was the case in the 1970s, when multicultural education was introduced in U.S. schools. While the primary purpose for this effort was to create greater acceptance of minorities, another underlying mission was to help recent immigrants better understand democratic values and the role of good citizens in their new home (Gorski, 2004). In this situation, multicultural education was important in enhancingcultural democracy, humanity, fitness for participation in government,and capability for American citizenship (Barker & Giles, 2002).

Multicultural Education and Deviant Behavior

Multicultural education can help address and reduce the deviant behavior of youth. Researchers have noted that immigrant children

Begum and Khondaker 21

commit more crimes than children of mainstream society (Gay, 2004; Lal, 2004; Johnson, 2003). Dubois (as cited in Lal, 2004) explained the reasons underlying this behavior, stating that “American born children of foreigners are much more likely to commit crimes than native born persons of native parentage, not because they are children of immigrants, but because they are Americans and are no longer controlled by the traditions and customs which keep their parents in the paths of rectitude” (p. 20). Multicultural education can play an effective role in addressing this problem as it encourages children of immigrants to develop an appreciation for their parents’ culture. It can also serve as a vehicle to carry the customs, culture, tradition, norms, and values of diverse people (Gay, 2004; Lal, 2004; Gorski, 2004; Banks, 1994; Johnson, 2004).

Multicultural Education and Schooling and Learning

Multicultural education has a tremendous influence on schoolingand learning outcomes (Gay, 2004; Lal, 2004; Gorski, 2004; Jones 2003; Banks, 1994). Multicultural education makes schooling more relevant and effective (Gay, 2004). Researchers have found that studentsperform more successfully when they are able to find some similaritybetween their cultural backgrounds as practiced in home and those expressed in other social settings including school (Banks, 1994; Gay, 2004; Gorski, 2004; Jones, 2004; Lal, 2004; Johnson, 2003). Johnson (2003) noted that multicultural education prepares all students for democratic citizenship in a pluralistic society. He explained that multicultural education helps students understand how multicultural issues help to shape the social, political, economic, and cultural fabric of the U.S. Banks (1994) pointed out that multicultural education is a necessary ingredient of quality education. He noted that multicultural education, as a reform movement, was designed to bring equality in education for all students. Multicultural education can make schoolmore interesting, exciting, inviting, and significant for diverse student groups. Gay (2004) elaborated on this argument, finding that learningbecomes more interesting when it has a personal meaning to students,and that multicultural education subsequently helps diverse students findmeaning in their own education.

Multicultural education is an approach to teaching and learning; democratic values and beliefs are its foundation (Jones, 2003). Every student in America comes to school with their own level of cultural awareness and with their own cultural background. School is the place where students can share their stories and hear the stories of others. It

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creates an environment where students learn to think more critically, and where they are taught to challenge the information presented to them. In a multicultural classroom, students learn how to respect differentviewpoints grounded in specific cultures and belief systems (Jones,2004). A teacher must be familiar with multicultural education if s/he is to endorse students’ experiences in the classroom and to foster healthy interaction among students. Jones (2004) stated that when a teacher has knowledge of different cultural qualities, it becomes easier for a teacher to provide creative and respectful instruction.

Multicultural education helps students understand the evolution of modern conceptions of citizenship and prepares them to be skilled participants in an ongoing process of integrating into U.S. life (McLeod & Krugly-Smolska, 2004). Multicultural education addresses anti- discrimination, antiracism, equity, cultural pluralism and human rights. McLeod and Krugly-Smolska (2004) pointed out that multicultural education teaches us that human beings belong to many different subcultures, and that each individual has their own identity based on race, ethnicity, class, and gender or sexual orientation. They also notedthe importance of encouraging students to explore and define their ownidentities.

Multicultural Education and Cultural Energetic Mixture

Domestic diversity in the U.S. has created an energetic mixture of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and experiential plurality (Gay, 2004). Different studies reveal that diverse ethnic, racial and cultural groups and individuals have made contributions to all aspects of American life and culture (Gay, 2004, Gorski, 2004; Jones, 2004; Lal, 2004; Johnson, 2003). Multicultural education is an idealistic, yet realistic approach to sharing the traditions, culture, games, and songs of diverse groups (Lal, 2004; Gay, 2004; Jones 2004; Gorski, 2004; Banks, 1994). According to Gay (2004) people from different backgrounds can build a richer community by sharing the best of their traditions and customs.

Purpose and Significance of the Study

As discussed previously, there is a significant amount of researchaddressing the importance of multicultural education for children. Most of this research focuses on how multicultural approaches in schools helps students to understand and appreciate different diverseperspectives and how students can benefit from this process. Someresearch also emphasizes multicultural education in an effort to reduce

Begum and Khondaker 23

the deviant behavior among children of immigrant parents. However, research has yet to be conducted that examines how multicultural education for immigrant parents can contribute to reduction of deviant behavior in their children; or if stated another way, how parental inability to understand and appreciate another culture contributes to a generation gap and ultimately to the deviant behavior of their children.

A systematic search for literature surrounding the issue of immigrantparent cultural knowledge and its influences on their children’s deviantbehavior did not produce any results. Some criminological research (Chin, 1990; Nguyen & Williams, 1989; Wong, 1997), however, reveals that parental lack of knowledge about the system and culture contributesto a generation gap that ultimately influences deviant behavior amongtheir children. These studies from criminology, however, fail to depicthow multicultural education for adults can be beneficial in minimizingthe generation gap.

In an effort to address this under-researched area, this study focuses on how multicultural perspectives in adult learning for parents in an immigrant community can help them to understand and appreciate the views of their children (many of whom are “Americanized”) and to minimize the generation gap, a factor contributing to deviant behavior.


This study is part of a larger research study on juvenile delinquency which is as an ethnographic case study using multiple methods of research (Patton, 2002; Yin, 2003). As suggested in the literature of qualitative research, different techniques were used for collecting information to identify and explain the nature of the immigrant community and the contributing factors of juvenile delinquent/deviant behaviors and the nature of these behaviors (Creswell, 1998; Yin, 2003). Essentially,this was an ethnographic field study using formal interviews as well asinformal conversations and observations. A New York City Bangladeshi newspaper and The New York Times were invaluable sources. Data were collected over a four-month period in a Bangladeshi community in New York City.

Formal and informal conversations took place in a neutral and natural setting where the participants felt comfortable. In the informal conversations, there was much discussion of the participants’ knowledge of the newly found culture as well as focused discussion of the behavior of children in the community. Conversations often took the form of group

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discussions. Local Bangladeshi restaurants were especially conducive to generating conversation among and with groups; especially in the evenings and on weekends. Some conversations were conducted with people in social settings and while attending cultural gatherings.

Formal interviews were also used to collect data for this study. Questions were developed and organized to use as a guide while inthe field. These questions were intended to explore how immigrantBangladeshi parents and adults perceive deviant behavior among immigrant Bangladeshi youths and the factors that contribute to this behavior. Once these questions were organized, they were e-mailed to some adult members of the immigrant Bangladeshi communities who live in different regions of the U.S., including New York City. Telephone conversations were conducted with several immigrant Bangladeshi parents regarding research issues. The responses of these individuals assisted in the reorganization of the interview guide, and also provided important guidelines as to how to approach parents and adults without confusing them about the intention of the study.

A total of 34 people were interviewed from the Bangladeshi community in New York City. Among these 34 interviewees, 12 were youths, 16 were parents/community members, 4 were school- teachers, and 2 were guidance counselors in local schools where many immigrant Bangladeshi students attend. Interviewees were not randomly selected. They were purposefully selected with the goal to select those who would be able to provide insightful information appropriate to research phenomenon (Creswell, 1998; Locke, Spirduso, & Silverman, 2000). Although an attempt was made to record the interviews, most of the respondents were unwilling to speak while being taped. These conversations were recorded in writing including as much detail as possible. At the end of each interview, the transcript was read to the respondent to ascertain accuracy. Transcriptions of recorded interviews were also read to the respective respondents.

“Networking” was another aspect of the research study that proved to be extremely helpful. Individuals were requested to provide names and phone numbers of their friends and relatives living in the Bangladeshi immigrant communities in New York City. Individuals were requested to recommend only people they thought would cooperate in providing information and making introductions to other community members. A number of respondents and/or contacts were made using this approach.While in the field, these initial contacts introduced the researcher to other

Begum and Khondaker 25

potential respondents and data were generated through this snowball process.

Newspaper reports were relied heavily upon as well, particularly the local newspaper Thikana. This is a Bengali newspaper published in New York City by Bangladeshi journalists. The newspaper is widely read among the members of the Bangladeshi community. Prior issues ofThikana from the past two years were reviewed for relevant news articles. Several articles were collected and then presented to the participants during the interview process. The participants were requested to make comments on the news articles. The participants were asked to voice their views regarding a particular article or a similar and/or related issue. Additionally, The New York Times was reviewed to find news articlesthat referred to the immigrant Bangladeshi people in New York City. The newspaper had published a few articles that were also used in group and individual discussions with the participants.

Data Analysis

Interview and conversation notes were analyzed by the researchers at length, noting any similarities or common themes and issues. Major themes included lack of knowledge about U.S. systems, cultural andgenerational disconnect and conflict, and deviant behaviors of children.

During interviews and informal conversations, different issues and/or concerns were raised, with a second reader crosschecking the validity of these issues and/or concerns. This process assisted in acquiring and clarifying details on particular issues. A second person with some training in qualitative studies was always present during informal conversations. Sometimes this second person asked probing questions of the respondents while taking detailed notes. Notes were frequently checked and crosschecked to establish accurate recording and interpretation of data.


As mentioned earlier, we conducted research to determine whether the lack of knowledge and/or appreciation of other cultures among immigrant adults and parents contributed to a generation gap and ultimately to the deviant behavior of their children. Based on our data, the research does show that when immigrant parents living in a multicultural society do not understand different systems within that society and fail to appreciate cultural differences, they lose control of

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their children. This lack of control contributes to the deviant behavior of their children. The research also shows that if parents in a multicultural/ multiethnic setting fail to appreciate other cultures, they can be described as culturally illiterate and narrow-minded. Thus, they are reluctant to allow their children to socialize with children from other cultural or racial groups. In fact, our data show that there is a tendency to criminalize the behavior of children simply because of their association with childrenof other ethnic groups. Table 1 highlights the major themes identified inour research.

These themes and issues are keys to understanding how lack of appropriate education among adults in a multicultural society may contribute to the deviant behavior of children. The following discussion and selected examples illustrate these issues further. Each of these stories is drawn from different settings and hence, shows how limited understanding of a different system/culture effects many aspects of immigrants’ lives.

In the Bangladeshi community in New York City, many community members expressed fears about their youth becoming “Americanized.”They also saw a conflict between Bangladeshi and American cultures.Many Bangladeshi people were offended by various U.S. customs, such as dating. On the other hand, what is an accepted practice in Bangladeshi culture is sometimes treated as a crime in the U.S., such as parental discipline. In Bangladeshi culture, slapping or hitting ones’ own children is perfectly acceptable. Traditionally, Bangladeshi people believe it is appropriate to control their children through corporal punishment. In Bangladesh, this practice is not considered abusive, and physical punishment is extended beyond the home. Other adult family members and school teachers are expected to punish children to “keep them in line.” Slapping or otherwise hitting children is an accepted way of punishing children.

On the other hand, in the U.S., children are taught in school to report to the police or other agencies if their parents or anyone hits them. This brings about distrust and fear among some immigrant parents and adults. In fact, many Bangladeshi parents believed that this law encourages deviant behavior among Bangladeshi children, encouraging disobedience and disrespect.

There are other strict parental practices in the immigrant community. Bangladeshi parents want their children to follow the rules as they (the parents) establish them. They do not allow their children to watch television often because they are very reluctant to accept any aspect of …


1 reply

  1. I chose this article, because, yes, we see such ‘inter-generational conflicts’. Mainly it is being kept ‘hidden’, because every one is embarrassed to even talk about it. But it exists and we should tackle it.

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