Teaching children about diversity can be a tricky proposition. In the "No Child Left Behind" era, so much time is devoted to preparing students for test-taking that old school subjects like good citizenship, social behavior, and community values may get short shrift. (There is, after all, no standardized test for "plays well with others.") Multiculturalism -- so widely emphasized in the Marlo Thomas 70's -- often ends up limited to theme days and special projects. When my daughter was in Kindergarten, the subject of diversity did not arise in her class until Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
This is how we found out that they were talking about race: over dinner, she announced that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted people with white skin and brown skin to be friends but people got mad so they shot him. While that is not an inaccurate summary of the history involved, it does pretty much foreground the assassination and diminish the rest of his accomplishments. It's a little depressing to think that the legacy of Dr. King's life could be boiled down into "Equality will get you killed."
Obviously, race murder was not the subject we'd expected to be discussing when we asked "How was school, honey?" so we probed to find out what else she had learned. All she could remember was that people have different skin colors and that some people really don't like people with brown skin. As a mixed race girl in a school 95% white, this was not a small thing to ponder.
This theme continued all week at school, with her classmates making paints to match their own skin colors, which I assume was meant to be empowering, but which only cemented the notion of pigment being key. I was volunteering in class that week and was asked to make a rainbow using the skin colors labeled by student name; I counter-proposed and suggested a collage, with all the colors mixed. Both ideas are ways of saying "we're all in this together" but the second approach moved away from any kind of spectrum in which similar colors would be closest to each other.
The hearts of all involved were in the right place: the school for making diversity part of the curriculum and the teachers for trying to explore the theme in hands-on activities. But the truth is that this particular approach was a little clumsy, even if representative of how a lot of people handle the topic of diversity: sincerely, but in misguided fashion, seeking easy languages and metaphors for inclusion that nonetheless inadvertently emphasize division and otherness.
Read the rest here at the Huffington Post.
Causes David Valdes Greenwood Supports
The Theater Offensive. Oxfam America. Big Brothers Big Sisters. The Heifer Project.