Is diversity a waste of time?

In Forced Diversity « The Elementary Educator Third Grade Teacher considers that attempts at diversity and diversity trainings are a waste of time. I, politely disagree.

First, I have discussed this in a prior blog post, Things I’ve learned while teaching black children… The Blog of Ms. Mercer. Here is an excerpt from that, but don’t worry, I have more to add…

Okay last post to reflect on comes from Doug Noon at Borderland. He posts about teaching about justice in the classroom, and how this is under attack from folks who consider it “frivolous” (”they need to learn to write, not complain” –maybe they could learn to write their complaints?) Here is my anecdote on this…Back when I first met my husband (who is African-American) at San Francisco State, he related this story to me. He was an older student (26 when we met), slowly working his way through school while working. He had grown up in the 60s the foster child of much older parents (his dad had lied about his age at 16, and went off to fight in WWI–no, I didn’t leave off an “i”). His parents had grown up in the segregated South of East Texas, and shared some of that experience. Terry ran into a young white man (younger than him) from suburban San Diego. The subject of Rosa Parks had come up, and the young man couldn’t understand what the conflict was. Terry explained that she didn’t want to sit on the back of the bus. The young gentleman from San Diego didn’t understand, sit on the back of the bus? What did that mean? Terry then explained about Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. The young man didn’t believe they existed, why would people put up with that, it couldn’t happen! You could say that this story does not have anything to say about teaching a justice curriculum, the gentleman had made an error of fact, BUT…he is also not willing to conceive that a situation like segregation could even have existed. This shows poor critical thinking, because he can’t conceive that such conditions could exist. Without social justice education, students will have difficulty in seeing other points of view, and seeing others as they are, instead of how they are perceived through a prejudiced lens.

That’s more about history, what do we need to know about each other now? Well, I teach in an area with a large number of Hmong refugees. I could share family stories of fleeing to Thailand that young students share with me (they know, even though they were not yet born when these event took place). Ignorance about this is leads to ugly assumptions. Many people have NO idea why these refugees are here–they supported the CIA’s efforts against the communist government in Laos during the Vietnam War. “Why don’t they know English, they should learn English before they get here.” I like to say, they’re over here, cause we were over there and they did our dirty work.

At a diversity training I attend last year a really ugly story was shared that shows the awful consequences ignorance can lead to. Most Hmong are animists and perform shamanistic rituals to rid members of evil spirits, etc. that can be manifest by nightmares, headaches, lingering low-level illness, etc. One of those rituals is the “string ceremony”. I saw a string around a students neck a few years ago, and asked her about it. She explained that it had been placed there to get rid of nightmares caused by evil spirits. During the training, the speaker relayed a story about a P.E. teacher who upon seeing a student wearing an old string on his wrist, cut it off (thinking, I’m sure, why’s he wearing that ratty looking thing?). This was a big deal because the ceremony involves a lot of time, effort, and some expense on the part of a family.

So I ask, is ignorance bliss? Maybe for that P.E. teacher, but I think not for the student.

Juan Williams on KXJZ about MLK hits on the issue of diversity in schools (not just training), where he points out that schools are becoming more and more segregated with these figures,

~80% of white children go to school 2/3rds of black and brown students go to minority majority schools and 10-20% go to hyper-segregated schools (+90% minority).

I have taught at some of these schools where there were literally NO white students in the entire elementary school. Laying aside the second class education issues (separate has never been equal), there are other concerns. White students will not learn about minority students in a situation like that, and minority students will not gain experience with dominant cultural norms (or feel comfortable there) if this persists.

11 thoughts on “Is diversity a waste of time?

  1. I have worked in 3 different schools, all of which minorities were the majority.

    “~80% of white children go to school 2/3rds of black and brown students go to minority majority schools and 10-20% go to hyper-segregated schools (+90% minority).”

    I do not quite understand this quote. From my experience, the student population of these schools represents the neighborhoods in the surrounding area. We have school zones. It sounds as if you would like to bus students into schools to make the population more diverse. I do not necessarily agree with you. If the population of the surrounding neighborhood is 90% minority, then the school population will mirror this. Are schools becoming segregated or are the neighborhoods becoming segregated? I do believe that different cultures can learn valuable information from each other, but I think the problem lies within the neighborhoods. If diversity doesn’t exist in the neighborhood, how can we expect it to exist in the schools?

  2. Woody, good question. That is something that Mr. Williams discusses in a bit more detail in that podcast, but it does not fully explore the subject. This “self-segregation” is really about those who are able to move out, leaving. So not only have whites largely left these neighborhoods, but the middle class of all races have as well. In addition, it’s still not unusual for neighborhoods as working and middle class blacks move in, to have whites leave. I live in a neighborhood that is gaining in black and brown (Latino and East Indian) populations. I’m waiting to see if that slows white flight out. I don’t know that busing will get you out of this morass, but it is a serious issue and needs to be addressed. It also means that white students are not spending time with blacks, and often not with Latinos, so if you don’t make an effort to teach them about those cultures, they will not learn it on their own, or they will be it will be by watching gangsta’ rap videos, and Def Jam comedy hour. You can make your own call about how to solve the problem, but it is a problem.

    Matthew: Thank you for your support!

  3. The idea that segregation, no matter the cause, hurts us all was the central thesis of Kozol’s Shame of the Nation. It’s a good book. I recommend it.

    Thanks for this post. I’m thinking about why diversity feels threatening to some people.

  4. I agree with Woody that part of the problem is the neighborhood diversity (or lack thereof). But, that doesn’t change the difficulties for our schools. If students are never exposed to anything outside of their culture, our neighborhoods will continue to be segregated.

    Another problem in many neighborhoods is that those families who can afford it send their children to private schools. This is certainly their choice. However, it means that the schools don’t always reflect the neighborhood.

  5. Alice,
    I agree with you that we do have a problem, I just like to look at the other side sometimes. Majority culture neighborhoods have been here since the beginning of time. People feel more comfortable living next to people that have the same beliefs and cultures.
    Living in Southern Maryland, about 20 miles south of Washigton D.C., I have seen white flight first hand. I do agree that we do have a problem with this.
    Until people get the stigma of different cultures being wrong out of their mind, we will always have this problem. I see it slowly happening in some places. But we have a long way to go.
    Look at what our government is doing in Iraq. Stripping a culture of their beliefs and values, sure does send the right message to the American people. Until our government respects and understands all cultures, the problem will persist.

  6. Pingback: » A Lifetime of Personal Diversity Tending the Kinder-Garden

  7. I don’t know if “threatening” is the word I’d use to describe the post that started this from Third Grade Teacher. He seems more bored, or feed up. Believe me, I’ve felt that way at some (most) diversity trainings. They suffer from many of the same maladies that all PD has, lots of lecture, not much interaction, and it’s all at one level, instead of differentiated, but the original post questioned the need for it at all. Is that ignorance because he didn’t have a context for why this might be necessary, or is he hostile to the ideas of social justice and that race based differences may be reflecting an unequal system. That reads more as hostility, not threatened to me.

  8. And following the theme, each of us will hear or read the post with our own ears/eyes formed by prior schema, a perfect example of diversity itself. I’m surprised Third Grade Teacher doesn’t feel reading, writing and arithmetic can be taught, observed, even enjoyed within the subject of social studies, celebrations like Kwanzaa, Hannukah, and Christmas. Seemed odd and very narrow to me. His use of the word “forced” did imply resentment and hostility to me, but it made me wonder why his solution to the predicament was whatever form of neutered/bland/generic/”non”-reflective-of-society curriculum he seems to want to turn to. I agree with you, acknowledging diversity is essential, because it’s who we are. Teaching HOW diversity has been handled in the past is a history lesson, a guide to the good points and the bad. It shows where we’ve been, where we are, and offers up the problems for solving, which is what we ask students to do every day in school. And it’s a scary subject for teachers who don’t know how to teach the subject, who don’t want to teach the subject, who don’t believe they should teach the subject, and who want to treat every student like some colorless, faceless tabula rosa devoid of cultural influence. Fear indicates threat.

  9. I left a comment here last evening that got lost when I didn’t type in the anti-spam captcha. This one’s going to be shorter.

    I think that people do feel threatened by diversity. The post Alice referenced…(forced diversity=more tension, waste of instructional time, doesn’t work) indicates at least three different threats. The “doesn’t work” criticism, I think, refers to the belief that cultural awareness will help us overcome our prejudices. That criticism, based on Elementary Educator’s post, seems accurate.

    Michaele, thanks for the “Lifetime of Personal Diversity” post.

  10. Maybe we (including me) are ascribing feelings/motivation where we shouldn’t. Who knows what “feelings” Third Grade Teacher has about diversity programs? He said they were a waste of time, and why, that will have to be enough. Saying he was hostile was probably psycho-analysis via long distance and over the Internet, surely fraught with error. But I don’t think ascribing fear, or saying he is threatened works either. I guess you could say some folks feel threatened. I get the sense of annoyance more often, “Why do we have to bother with this? Aren’t we past this yet?”

    Love all the comments, especially Woody’s willingness to ask hard questions.

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