Broken System, Part II: “Diversity Training”January 12, 2010
In the first part of my "Broken System" series, I addressed the need for a landmark Supreme Court decision to be able to adequately affect the inequalities inherent in our public school system. In response, the inevitable debate began: what would actually fix these problems? A lot of great ideas have been suggested. However, at this point, many of the big changes proposed would be hard to push through, even with government backing, due to the mind-set of our general society. This post offers a possible solution to significantly alter our culture’s relationship to race, which could lead to positive change within our education system.
As a teacher and youth worker, I’ve been through my fair share of "diversity trainings." And let’s just skip to the point and say that most of them are a big waste of time. They’re either too simple and obvious for people with any sort of awareness (or personal experience), or they’re too superficial to get anybody who really needs it to take it to heart. A couple hours of "diversity training" is never going to help a youth worker relate to kids of other races or backgrounds and/or get over their own sub-conscious (or conscious) biases.
The main problem, of course, is that these "trainings" come too late. Way too late. We wait until these folks are grown adults, with decades of experiences and ways of thinking behind them, and then we pretend that we can change their minds with some magical training. It doesn’t work like that. And we know that.
So how are we supposed to change race relations in our schools (and country)? How are we supposed to address volatile situations like the one in South Philadelphia High?
Well – what if we actually got over ourselves enough to talk to youth about it all? What if we directly addressed these issues? What if we taught our kids that talking about race isn’t a bad thing, that it can actually be helpful and positive? What then?
When I was in college, I remember we had a "Race, Culture, and Ethnicity" requirement. To graduate, we all had to have a certain amount of credits (I think amounting to a one-semester course) of classes pertaining to "Race, Culture, and Ethnicity." The idea was a good one – but the practice wasn’t so hot. I believe "Cultural Anthropology" (i.e. "hey, look at all those ‘backwards’ brown people") counted towards that requirement. Ironically, I actually argued myself out of having to fulfill it.
Again, though – the requirement was "too little, too late" to make any sort of real difference.
So my question is – what if there was a "Race, Culture, and Ethnicity" requirement throughout the U.S. public school system? What if, every year, as part of the mandatory Social Studies curriculum, all kids had to learn and talk about race? What if every kid in the States, by the age of 10 or so, actually knew the difference between "race" and "ethnicity"? What if kids were taught to have honest conversations about race – up-front and real – so they didn’t end up turning towards race-based affiliations based on ignorance? What if?
We live in a world where talking about race is assumed (by adults) to be painful and uncomfortable. Where a conversation about race or ethnicity or oppression is expected to be frustrating, and turn to anger and high emotion. Where both sides begin the conversation as opponents on the defensive, as opposed to participants in a dialogue.
Because we have been implicitly (and sometimes, explicitly) taught from a young age that that’s how those types of conversations are supposed to be. Kids aren’t stupid. They catch the body-language. The discomfort. The tension. They learn to avoid those topics, to suppress it. If they ask a question like "why does that child have darker/lighter skin than me?" they are shushed – as if difference in hue is a shameful thing, as if talking about it is morally wrong. They are taught to parrot the words "we’re all the same, race doesn’t matter" while simultaneously learning that race is a huge deal.
But they never get to talk about it. Due to our segregated lives, most kids don’t have somebody they know well enough of a different background to ask real questions about it. And so they – we – are left ignorant. We are left not knowing, not understanding . . . which inevitably leads to fear.
And when fear takes hold? South Philly High. The South Philadelphia community. The divisive battles about race that continue throughout our country.
All because we’re too stupid to just talk about it. It’s ingrained in the American culture. We just don’t have real conversations about race. We don’t talk to our kids about it. When students bring it up in class, we frantically try to avoid it and move on. Everybody is so scared of the topic of race, we continue on this path towards misunderstanding and injustice.
And the only way to change that – to change a whole culture – is to work with the kids. Start a whole generation of youth on a path towards understanding each other. Facilitating conversations where naturally curious 5 year-olds can ask each other – what’s it like, having different skin color? Do you do things differently than me because of it? So that, later, the 10 year-olds can wonder – without fear of conflict – do you really eat different foods than I do? Why? Why do you talk differently? Leading to the 15 year-olds going deep enough and knowing enough to say, "Wait a minute – we actually have a really similar background, in terms of the ish we have to deal with and overcome." Taking away the fear, the stigma, so that relationships (good or bad) can be based on commonalities and real differences, as opposed to the "unknown" fear of racial difference.
And I know – it would be painful at the beginning. Very few teachers would be able to do this right (because they’ve been steeped in our culture of discomfort, too). There would be some incidents. But if you started it in first grade, say – and then added a grade every year as the first cohort progressed – you could achieve some positive momentum. And by the time that first group made it out into the real world?
Not everyone would be super "aware" and "understanding." There would still be prejudice and ignorance. But, suddenly, you’d have a whole generation of adults trained to be able to talk about race. Which is the first step to finding solutions. And the possible solutions they could find . . ?
Certainly beyond this blogger’s realm of imagination.
* I have written this whole post through the lens of race, but this could easily be expanded (and should be) to include all forms of inequity and oppression (socio-economic class, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, etc.).
** I should also stress that I’m not exactly inventing the wheel here – many before me have proposed similar solutions, although perhaps not on such a large scale.