by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan
I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of how to teach, expose, and experience diversity in a “diversity-free” zone (thanks for the segue Tami!). I directly experience this issue personally and professionally every single day of my life as the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small, private college in the Boston suburbs, where there are very few students of color. Not only are there very few students of color, there are very few people who have ever met or talked to a person from a historically underrepresented group prior to coming to college. So, each and every single day, I actually get paid to teach diversity in a diversity free zone.
I could certainly go on and on about the challenges of my job serving as a person who is often tokenized in meetings, being the go-to person on issues of diversity, or being the “brown friend” to well meaning people. But I’m assuming here at Anti-Racist Parent I’d be preaching to the choir. So, rather than give my vocal chords a workout, I thought it might be helpful to share the toolbox I heavily rely on each day to teach diversity in a diversity free zone. Reading the comment threads, I also realize that there are people who read ARP who aren’t necessarily parents (broadly defined) but who are teachers looking for ways to add diversity to their classrooms or to their curriculum. So, I hope this at least starts some helpful ideas for people looking for some ways to grow as Anti-Racist Parents:
- Turn to your local college. Many colleges have offices like mine – they are called a variety of names: Multicultural Office, Student Activities, Affirmative Action office, Diversity Office, etc. These offices/organizations typically have the responsibility of hosting diversity related events, especially during heritage months like Latino Heritage Month, Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, etc. Check their websites and see if they have a list of programs (or ask if you can get an email copy of their programs). Call ahead and ask if the program is “family friendly” first, though, if you intend to bring small children. In my case, of the 30 or so programs a year that are diversity related, almost 1/2 of them are family friendly! And, I always love when I get calls from the community asking if they can bring students, children, etc. The other great bonus about tapping into your local college is that the programs are often FREE. At some colleges, specific groups are required to perform community outreach – you may find a number of sororities and fraternities or service organizations sponsoring these events. Again, please call to make sure they are family friendly!
- Diversify your library at home. Intentionally buy or borrow books that have diversity represented in them. In our house, we have a great mix of children’s books that have stories around cultural diversity. If your local library does not have them, a number of online sellers will have them. If I’m looking for a particular book, I tend not to go to a mainstream online seller; rather, I find a cultural organization online to see if they have any links to recommended books. By going with cultural organizations rather than mainstream, I get a more accurate description of the book and the position of that cultural group. For example, when I was looking to purchase some children’s stories that were centralized around the Native American experience, I went online to a mainstream retailer, and a number of recommended titles came up. But, when I went to the cultural organization’s website, I found these exact recommendations under a heading “Books That Promote Stereotypes of Native Americans.”! Woah! So, I was really glad I had taken the few extra seconds to see if the books were supported by that group. I think this is incredibly important!
- Continue to read educational and well written blogs .. like Anti-Racist Parent of course! While you may not be surrounded by diversity, we are often surrounded by ignorant comments. So, reading blogs like ARP give you the tools and understanding to be an “Agent of Interruption.” And, if you are educated, you will pass that education on to your children (or students). I work in a predominantly white institution and am often, by default, the diversity educator. But, since finding Anti-Racist Parent, Racialicious and some of the blogs of people who write here, I have assigned reading these blogs as HOMEWORK assignments to my students! It’s helpful for them to see that there are others out there who share the same language and passion for interrupting racism.
- When you can, choose to do business in diverse neighborhoods. I currently live on the town line between a upper middle class, predominantly white town and a middle/working class, predominantly people of color city. I choose to do my personal and professional business in the predominantly POC city.Even with the rising price of gas, I choose to drive a little further to the grocery store and wait a little longer for street parking because it is important for me to do business where there are people of color. I certainly can buy the same gallon of milk, the same bread, and the same box of cereal at the grocery store in the predominantly white (and closer to my house) town, but I choose to make the drive. Again, with the price of gas and proximity, can you do this all the time? Maybe not. But, is it worth doing it enough where your child(ren) see that people of color do the same thing that white people do in their same daily way? Yes.
- Find shows that include diversity in both positive and negative ways. I am not a fan of pre-teen television (especially now that my almost-5-year-old says she is w-a-y too old for Sesame Street!), but we do watch it. I am specifically not a fan of a certain channel that I feel stereotypes pre-teens of color. But, alas, my daughter seems to have won for now. She is only allowed to watch that channel if Jorge or I watch it with her. We try to steer her more towards the shows that have families of color, and we’ve found some success there. But, she also likes to watch a show that both Jorge and I find disturbingly racist. We do let her watch it, but we constantly ask her questions about what she just saw or heard when an issue comes up. Yes, she’s 4 years old, but I believe the lessons she’s learning about ways that people aren’t treated fairly are equally as important as shows that reflect her ethnicity. It’s never too early to start, right?
- But, find MORE shows that are culturally diverse. My absolute favorite show right now is Ni Hao, Kai Lan. I’m sure I’ll find something wrong with it eventually, but for now, I love it. It’s the only Asian show that balances the Asian part with the “I’m a little girl” part. The other day, I asked my daughters if they wanted to have Chinese food for dinner. My 23-month old then said, “Oh, Mama. Chinese. Like Kai Lan!” I nearly cried. Growing up, there were no characters that reflected my ethnicity. I know Dora paved the way, and we certainly embraced her representing our Latino side. But, now, my kids have Kai Lan… representing the Asian side! Hurray! I haven’t quite done my homework on this one, but with the accessibility of YouTube and such, I hope to find more diverse cartoons from other countries out there!
- Diversify your music. One of the best ways to learn about other cultures is through music. I have a very low tolerance for children’s songs. I have a responsibility to teach my kids the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “A-B-C”, but there is truly only so much I can take. And, thankfully, their taste in music has evolved, too. My kids listen to anything from classical to Chubb Rock. They can sing “Bebot” (edited version) by the Black Eyed Peas and “I am Not My Hair” by India.Arie.
- Be sure to have an inclusive curriculum. If you are a teacher, take a close look at what you are teaching and what you are not teaching. Does your lesson plan only include a white perspective? Are you including the very rich and diverse history of our country or just one perspective? Are you talking about contributions and inventions from people of color or just from white people? As a former teacher, I can attest that more often than not, textbooks tell a very one-sided story. As a parent, is your child coming home from school with only one-sided history? While you may not be able to change the textbooks at school (though, it’s worth the fight!), are you supplementing the school lessons with a diverse inclusion lesson at home
- No diversity organizations? Start your own! There are very few professionals of color where I work, and yet I felt the need to start a support group for us. Unfortunately, a professionals of color group would have been too small, so I opened up the invitation to anyone who wanted to join a Diversity Discussion Group. After my first announcement, about 50 people expressed interest. That dwindled down to 30, then 20, and now we have about 15 who regularly attend the discussion group. There are a few people of color, but the rest of the group is white. When asked “Why did you join this group?”, the answer from both parties was “to meet people who wanted to talk about diversity.” So, from there, we talked about books, issues, media, language, foods, our own heritage, etc. I don’t think we are a diverse group, but we are a group who wants to grow as individuals. Maybe start up a group with parents from your child’s school or play group. Get together and hire someone to watch the kids 1x a month. No time for a book club? Focus on movies from other countries and have a movie discussion group, rotating locations each time.
None of the above will end racism. I know that. But, I do think it’s a helpful start for those who are living, learning and working in diversity-free zones. I know there are others out there with tools in your tool box. Comment? Share? What has worked for others out there?
NOTE: You’ll notice that I don’t recommend simply going to places like soup kitchens or homeless shelters or community outreach organizations to expose oneself to diversity. Believe me, they are important. When it’s linked to diversity, though, I believe this can go horribly wrong as a diversity lesson. Too often (depending on the demographics of your town/city and shelters) people of color are seen as “needing help” or “down and out”. And, this “savior experience” when white people go and save people of color by serving them some food is incredibly problematic. Again, I’m not at all saying that community service is bad. What I am saying is that performing community service as an easy way to expose people to diversity MAY NOT be positive. Largely because community service (at least as defined in the college setting) does not always equal quality contact, discussion and learning. If you are going to link community service with diversity, I ask (beg?) that you also approach it by addressing power and privilege in our society.
Liza Talusan is the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts. She is an active member of Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence (www.girlsaspire.org) and believes that mentoring is one of the best way to make changes in this world. She serves as an advisor and mentor to students of color as well as to organizations designed to educate and promote cultural diversity. And, she’s often found causing trouble….