Race: Personal Educational Experiences and Reflection
Race was seldom discussed explicitly during my early, grammar school education. When the topic of race was broached, it was usually in the context of a lesson on the Civil War or Civil Rights movement. Although such discussions were valuable, they gave the impression that race was something located in America's past, rather than worthy of discussion in the present. However, this did not mean that I was not cognizant of race as a child. I was, but the topic was often unspoken of in school, except on the rare occasions when teachers brought it to the forefront of the attention of the class -- usually in a manner that suggested that the struggle for freedom had been won.
I was fortunate to have parents who always stressed that all people were equal, regardless of how they looked. While they did not give me a multicultural education in a formal sense, they did stress that regardless of color, religion, or disability, I should judge people based upon the content of their character. When I played with children of races other than my own, I never recall being censored.
By the time I was in middle school I began to notice the phenomenon of seeing all of the black -- and Hispanic, East Asian, etcetera -- kids sitting together in the cafeteria as described by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Reading Tatum allowed me to view this in a more understanding and positive fashion. It is very easy to feel excluded when a group of other people self-segregates. I recall one of my best friends in junior high, who was Hispanic. Although the two of us frequently 'hung out' together after school and were close friends during the summer, she would usually sit with other members of her own racial and ethnic group during lunchtime. It was hard not to feel offended by such behavior, with my sensitive teenage ego. With the eye of an educator, I have come to understand the need for identity formation for groups different than my own as well as my need to feel included with my friends, regardless of race.
Although race was more noticeable in my social world as I grew older, it was not necessarily discussed in school more than it was when I was a child, other than as a subject of history. One or two of my teachers did include units that discussed race in a more present-day and positive fashion. I remember in one class, we were all given labels to wear on our heads that we could not see, and then, at the end of class, after doing a series of exercises in which we were treated as the person on the label, were told to take off the labels and read them. This was an illustration of how we often forget about how powerful stereotypes can be, although an individual is far more complex than any self-enclosed category.
Another teacher asked us to write down a series of categories and to write down the stereotypes we held about those groups. This forced us to engage in intense self-scrutiny regarding out belief systems and to honestly admit the prejudices that we had. Rather than looking back and commenting upon the racism of others, we were forced to confront our own blindness. It was difficult to talk about some of the categories to which people belonged and also eye-opening as to how many people from different parts of the world we did not know -- for example, none of us had ever met a Native American.
I have come to believe that a good teacher must enable students to see how race impacts their perspective, and not see their racial identity as separate from themselves and their society. This can be difficult and discomforting in a diverse classroom, because some students may feel uncomfortable talking about race with their multi-ethnic friends. Anger during such debates is perhaps inevitable. But it is better to have anger and divisiveness in the safe space of the classroom than elsewhere -- such as in the hallways, where it can spill over into violence, or a kind of cold silence between members of different groups.
Classroom debate is necessary given that the stagnation can set in when there is a constant, invisible barrier between whites and blacks, non-whites and whites in the cafeteria and elsewhere. Teachers can help break down barriers when students are unwilling. Teenager's egos are often fragile, and even when adolescents want to befriend members of different groups, including different racial groups, they can be afraid to do so. Creating dialogue in the classroom can be a first, formative step in encouraging students to discuss race in an honest way in their daily lives. I believe that it is essential that such dialogue start as soon as possible, and should begin early in the course of young people's education.
Teachers who actively discuss subjects pertaining to race must be prepared to meet with opposition, not just students, but also from parents. According to Tatum and the analysis noted in Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities, by Amanda E. Lewis, some whites often claim that race is not a factor in America today and do not wish to talk about it specifically. They often articulate this as a desire to talk about people as people in a race-blind fashion. But this is often an unintended or an intended way of ignoring race. Refusing to talk about how people are socialized into their racial categories is not 'color blindness' but a denial of history. As parents demand more and more input into how children are educated, teachers must be prepared to meet with opposition when they broach the subject in a constructive fashion. Hopefully, if parents can be made to understood that basic skills and other topics critical to the education of children can be disseminated through multicultural materials, such as literature by diverse ethnic groups and world history, they will be able to see that the education of their children can be of a rigorous quality and is more enriched socially because of the open attitude of the classroom. For older children, the self-criticism and critical thinking skills demanded by discussing social issues is of great value in testing situations and the real world.
Preparing students to discuss issues of race enables them to view their lives as part of a large historical context, not simply as a series of issues that are no larger than themselves. For example, when I was in high school I often heard adolescents and young adults who were white complain to black students that the black students are 'always' talking about race, simply if they mention the subject. The white students had 'shut down' about the issue because it did not seem meaningful to them, and no one had guided their learning to show them the connections between their own existences, their race and their hidden privileges -- such as the privilege of walking unmolested in the dark without being seen as a suspect by the police.
The most persistent problem I have noted with the curriculum I was taught, even with the most courageous teachers, is that African-American and non-white literature was often 'bracketed' as different from the general, hegemonic history and literature of the mainstream classroom. For example, when studying American literature, black voices were bracketed for study on 'special days' and black history was emphasized during the Civil War and Black History month. I also noted that, unlike white authors, black authors were almost always talked about in terms of their race, not in terms of their other accomplishments and preoccupations. Talking about issues where race is at the forefront is important, but so is acknowledging the 'whole person' even if he or she is a member of a marginalized group. Furthermore, the idea that race can also affect subtle social interactions, or that the 'white' perspective is itself a worldview (consider how different Native American literature and history would seem, if classrooms were narrated from that point-of-view) is lost when diversity is relegated to merely a shaded 'box' in a history book, or a footnote in a text, rather than seen a part of American culture that is always present -- as a subtext as well as an explicit issue.
Thus multicultural curriculum can be useful, but it must not be a multicultural curriculum of tokenism -- all cultures must be presented as having an equally vibrant and multidimensional history, even if certain cultures (such as American culture) receive more attention in the study of the world community. Regardless of the composition of the school, as America grows more diverse, it is essential that the curriculum looks like America and reflect the complexity of America. Race is important on a conscious and subconscious level, yet every American is simultaneously larger than any specific racial category. Tokenism or the attempt to subsume a person's…