Cultural Diversity in Our Classrooms

This has been an issue that I have been thinking a lot about lately: Cultural Diversity. The question in my mind that has been bothering me is this:

By teaching cultural diversity in our classrooms, are we actually encouraging prejudice and (or) segregation?

Let me explain. I work in an agency that is very diverse in ethnicity, cultural background, and income level. So this is an issue that could come up on a daily basis. However, I see the issue of cultural acceptance come up very rarely (if at all).

I began really thinking about this issue after reading a blog where the author discussed how his wife (who is black) had gone to their daughter’s preschool to discuss “Black History Month” with the children. He talked about how she discussed with the children Garrett Morgan who created the stop light (and was a black man); she talked about George Washington Carver who invented peanut butter (he was a black man as well); and Ella Fitzgerald who is a musician (also a black woman). She then read a book called Shades of Black by Sandra L Pinkney that discusses the different shades of skin color. The blog went on discuss how the teacher then pointed out that his child was black. “When the teacher pointed out our daughter is black, it was an eye-opener for the kids because she has such fair skin. It caught my daughter off guard too because we use the term "brown" at home.”

What caught my attention was that “it was an eye-opener for the kids”. It got me thinking. He’s right! It would be an eye-opener for children because they don’t see the world like we do. They don’t notice these differences in people. It was something that they hadn’t realized; she was just a child in the classroom to the others (and probably a pretty well liked member of the class). If the teacher had never said anything, the issue would probably never be brought up.

Children, especially preschoolers, don’t readily notice differences in others’ appearances unless it is drastic: missing a leg, deformed face, etc… When they do take notice, it is merely on observation, not a negative statement. How the adults in the environment react to this observation is what they take from it.

For example, I had a child in the classroom who was Latino. One day he turned to a child at the lunch table and said “You’re a n***er.” It was real matter of fact; not said in a derogatory way at all. I turned to the child and I said “Yes, his skin is darker than yours and even mine. But we don’t use the term n***er. In our culture, that is not an appropriate word to use.” The conversation then began to talk about the different colors of everyone’s skin at the table. Nothing was ever brought up again about the word he chose to use. He had probably heard it in the home (from another person or tv) and was trying it out for the first time. Skin color was then discussed in a positive manner at a time that the children were ready for this new awareness. How do I know they were ready? Because they were the ones who brought it up, not me.

I have no scientific proof or evidence; I have my experiences. In my experiences, I have noticed that, when discussed in a matter of fact, positive way, when the children bring it up, the classroom doesn’t seem to be segregated in anyway. They play with each other regardless of skin color. I do notice that as children get older, or maybe it’s because they have been more exposed to the negative, there is a tendency for the children to group according to their race. This seems to especially be the case when the children have a negative experience with race and differences.

Children will break off into groups that have similar interests as themselves. For example, there is a group of three boys who eagerly seek each other out on a daily basis. This is a very mixed group (both racially and linguistically; one boy speaks only Spanish, one speaks only English); however they have managed to play together on a daily basis for over two years. These boys are all very active and love challenging themselves physically. They climb everything (slides, ladders, monkey bars, etc…)! They enjoy each other’s company so much that one day one of the boys insisted that he needed to go home because his friends were not at school that day. My point in this is that, without regard to race or even communication, these boys have still grouped themselves together.

I have witnessed one child actually say, “I can’t play with you, you aren’t the same color as me.” This is not a statement that was developmentally accurate for a child this age. A statement like this can only be interpreted to mean that someone has told him this; or given him the impressions of this in some way. This is very untypical of a young child. It also forced opened the door for the teacher to talk about cultural differences with the children.

I say forced open because the teacher would now have to take a new approach to cultural awareness; rather than talking about respecting people, she now had to talk about respecting color.

So, how do we teach children about race? I say we don’t. I say we teach them to respect all people and not focus on the color of their skin. Are stoplights any better because they were invented by a man whose skin happens to be black? Is peanut butter any tastier because of the color of the skin of the first person to create it? Is Ella Fitzgerald a better singer because she has darker skin than Julia Andrews? I think they are both fabulous singers in their own genres.

Children need to be taught to respect all people; focusing on the color of everyone’s skin only magnifies the differences in their minds.

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