Starting the Multicultural Conversation
When I was pregnant with my first daughter I worked for an after school program sponsored by the local YMCA. Though the ostensible purpose of the program as a whole was built around the latchkey child concept, I had the dubious honor of running a somewhat dysfunctional satellite program at one of the district’s more urban elementary schools. Of the 25 or so children in my group, fully half of them got their funding from the Department of Social Services (DSS) and far more than that were from single parent homes. The majority of the children I supervised in this program were what PC terminology would call “minorities,” though looking around it was clear that the real minorities in the group were me and my staff of two college students. In a place as culturally diverse as an east coast urban elementary school, the assumption that different races and mixtures of race exist is generally taken for granted. I certainly didn’t see much use in discussing my own background or my students’ until an issue arose. As an after-school site director, my responsibility was recreation, not, I thought, education. Boy was I wrong. “My Color” The lingering lesson from that experience is etched in the face of my baby girl and echoes in my ears each night as I kiss her before bed. It all started one day when a little girl named Faith, who was in 2nd grade, proudly announced to me that my baby would be “my color,” not, she assured me, hers. This was a real blow to me because, in fact, my baby would be neither. Since my husband is bi-racial (with one black parent and one white) and I am your typical Caucasian mutt, the “color” of our baby was likely to be more like a dusky tan than peaches and cream. The problem here wasn’t so much that reality, but how to explain it. I remember that I tumbled through an awkward response about my baby’s dad and how he was closer to her “color” than mine, but I’m not quite sure it sunk in too deep. Faith was a sweet kid and we got along, but the singularity of her experience among such a diverse group concerned me and, unfortunately, I didn’t have the right words to address it. Identifying the Gap As educators we should all take care to remember this scenario as the dawn of a new school year is upon us. It is a lesson in tolerance, in our differences, and the lengths we need to go to make sure that the conversation about these realities takes place. Faith was a little girl surrounded by diversity. Yet, in her mind, there was still a barrier between “my color” and hers. We could exist in the same space, but occupied different plains and there certainly could be no cross between them. What’s even more disconcerting to me, even now, is that I know that there was more than one biracial child in my after-school group, yet the connections weren’t being made. Facing the Facts The statistics are there, the number of children with mixed racial backgrounds have been increasing steadily over the past few decades. In a generation from now, the neat little boxes marked “race” will not apply to many of the children and adults forced to check them. Also, though the official numbers are low now, that does not mean that the conversation is irrelevant. Though I am and always will be “white, non-Hispanic” on these forms, shouldn’t my experience as the wife and mother of another box account for something? Where is the conversation about my family in this scenario? How can we expect children (and then adults) to understand concepts which are not represented to them? Starting the Conversation What this all boils down to is opening the floor for discussion in the first place. As teachers and as parents, regardless of our backgrounds and those of the children we are responsible for, we need to treat racial differences as an essential part of everyday curriculum. We can do this through resources such as Teaching Tolerance and The National Association for Multicultural Education but we also do it through our willingness to open the door in the first place and start the conversation. We are worried about bullying in schools, we are worried about the violence and atmosphere that this leads to, and it all starts with recognizing our differences and possessing a sincere willingness to embrace them. The younger the children are, the more important this conversation becomes since it is through establishing the normalcy of the topic of race and “color” at an early age that we are even able to broach it in the higher grades. A Lesson for the Teacher Faith was proud of her observation and I was too misinformed or too vague to show her why it was both an inaccurate and dangerous one to make. This school year, let’s make a pledge not to follow in those footsteps and to incorporate the conversation of race, diversity and the beauty of our different “colors” into everyday language and the classroom environment. Sometimes the best way to fix the worst problems among us is to stop them before they even start.