How Well Are We Nurturing Racial and Ethnic Diversity?

Classroom Ideas

By Louise Derman-Sparks

Teachers of young children have long recognized that we must address issues of diversity and prejudice, a perspective often referred to as multicultural education. It is also time to ask: what exactly are we doing in the name of multicultural education? Are we truly nurturing racial and ethnic diversity?

Teaching diversity is where most curriculum programs score low, according to Sue Bredekamp, Director of the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a national accreditation group based in Washington, D.C.

Culture is not an abstraction to young children. It is lived and learned every day through the way family members interact; through language, family stories, family values and spiritual life; through household customs and the work family members do; and through society’s values as transmitted by television and children’s books. Too many early childhood programs ignore current research about how children develop identity and attitudes. They also reinforce misinformation and stereotypes — even when that’s not the teacher’s intention.

Typically, multicultural programs for young children can fall into three traps: a curriculum centered in the dominant culture; a “color denial” curriculum; or a “tourist-multicultural” curriculum.

It’s not that teachers aren’t trying. The work we have done represents the best we’ve known up until now. But it is time to take a careful and critical look at what we are doing in the name of multicultural education. Rather than dwell on self-blame or guilt for our weaknesses, we should focus our energy on learning from our mistakes and moving ahead.

Following are the three most common problems, and how they manifest themselves.

A Curriculum Centered in the Dominant Culture.

This shortcoming often crops up in comments like: “I don’t see why I have to do multicultural curriculum. My class is all white. We don’t have any problems with prejudice like the teachers do in classrooms that are mixed.”

This approach ignores that children are living in a society with ever-increasing diversity. Further, it reflects a lack of awareness of how socially prevailing attitudes shape children’s ideas and feelings about other peoples and cultures.

All children are exposed to bias, and from a variety of sources, not just the family. For example, every Thanksgiving there is an explosion of stereotypes about Native Americans, through television specials, greeting cards, decorations, school handouts, children’s books and skits in which children dress up as “Pilgrims” and “Indians.”

A curriculum centered in the dominant culture does nothing to counter the biases that children absorb as they go about their daily lives. Consequently, it does not equip them to deal fairly with diversity.

Classroom signs of this approach include:

  • A classroom environment in which teaching materials and activities depict only white people and dominant culture beliefs and behaviors.
  • Activities in which people are consciously or unconsciously stereotyped.
  • A curriculum in which there is little or no acknowledgement of the differences that exist among members of the dominant culture in terms of family life styles, specific cultural traditions, and behaviors.

Teachers should also be aware of a variation of this dominant culture approach that shows itself in statements such as, “My children come from deprived homes. They don’t know how to be an American. My job is to teach them how to fit in.”

According to educator Carol Brunson Phillips, this argument falsely assumes that if children fail in school, it is due in part, or totally, to their cultural background. It incorrectly assumes that because children are from “different” cultures they are unable to take advantage of “the opportunities for social equity in this country,” Phillips says.

There are serious dangers here. Under such a misguided approach, education is used to eliminate cultural differences by teaching children and parents new cultural habits and thereby curing their alleged “cultural deficits.” Further, this approach is in direct contrast to a multicultural curriculum that recognizes the positive things that all children bring to school and that encourages children to be proud of their cultural background and identity.

The “Color-Denial” Curriculum.

Asked about the racial/ethnic composition of her class, one teacher proudly said, “I don’t know what color my children are. I never notice. They are all just children to me. I treat them all alike.”

The materials in this classroom — the pictures of nursery rhyme characters decorating the walls, the dolls, the books — were 95% white and reflected the dominant Euro-American culture. One of the three books about “differences” was The Story of Ping, a book filled with stereotypic illustrations of how people in China lived.

Yet the children in the class were 75% African-American, 15% Latino-Americans, and 10% White-Americans.

Despite these figures and her approach, the teacher is sure she is teaching all the children equally.

This is a classic example of the “color-denial” approach. Originally seen as a progressive stance against racial bigotry, it is oblivious to what children can see for themselves and what people of color experience every day. It mistakenly assumes that bias comes from noticing differences, rather than from institutional and interpersonal behaviors that rank differences for economic, political, and social purposes.

By implicitly setting up the dominant culture as the norm, we end up equating “We are all the same,” with, “We are all white.” Such a curriculum fails to acknowledge or consciously teach about diversity. It reinforces white children’s ethnocentrism, and it miseducates children of color by denying their life experiences.

Preschoolers are aware of variations and wonder where they fit in. And they are often fascinated by skin color. Consider the following scenario:

Coloring with brown crayon, Donald, 3 1/2, announces at large, “I’m brown too. I’m about as brown as this crayon.”

“Yes,” appropriately responds his teacher, “your skin is a beautiful brown.”

Positively acknowledging one’s skin color is an important step in children’s developing concepts of who they are and how they feel about themselves. Another teacher might have said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what color you are; we are all people.” This would have diverted Donald’s attention from his skin color. It would have been an inappropriate response, based on the mistaken notion that noticing color causes prejudice. In fact, such a response could have taught Donald to think that there is something wrong with his skin color.

In the final analysis, a “color-denial” perspective ends up being a curriculum centered in the dominant culture. Classroom signs of this approach include:

  • An integrated classroom where the environment, materials and teaching styles do not acknowledge cultural diversity.
  • A teacher’s belief that young children do not notice differences or are unaffected by society’s biases. Some teachers also mistakenly believe that discussing differences with children teaches them prejudice.
  • Explicit or implicit expectations that all children should fit into the dominant culture’s norms of development, and that child-rearing methods are the same for all.

A “Tourist-Multicultural” Curriculum

This is the most common problem, not only in school curriculums but in teacher education courses.

The original intent behind multicultural curriculum was positive: “Let’s teach children about each other’s cultures so they will learn to respect each other and not develop prejudice.” This was a significant improvement from previous thinking, but in practice, such a goal frequently deteriorated into a “visiting” of “other” cultures: a special bulletin board, a multicultural center, an occasional parental visit, a holiday celebration or even a week’s unit on another culture. And then it was back to the “regular” daily activities, which tended to reflect the dominant culture.

This “tourist” approach doesn’t give children the tools they need to comfortably, empathetically, and fairly interact with diversity. Instead, it teaches simplistic generalizations that lead to stereotyping rather than understanding. Moreover, “tourist” activities do not foster critical thinking about bias, nor teach children to oppose bias. Moving beyond the “tourist” approach is key to nurturing diversity.

Signs of this “tourist” approach include:

  • Planning multicultural activities at given “special” times in the curriculum rather than integrating them into the teaching environment and all daily activities.
  • A patronizing approach that treats “other” cultures as quaint or exotic and disconnects them from children’s lives.
  • Centering multicultural curriculum on holidays and disconnecting it from everyday life. Children do not learn about how other people live, work, and interact, only how they “play” on holidays. In many curricula teachers focus on the Chinese New Year as “the” time to teach about Chinese-Americans. The class builds a dragon and parents are asked to come to school wearing “Chinese” clothing. The parents, students, and teacher cook a “Chinese” dish, and the children get to play with chopsticks. This approach trivializes other cultures. It doesn’t deal with real-life daily problems and experiences of different peoples, but only with surface aspects of their celebrations.
  • Using images and activities of groups based on the past rather than the present. This misrepresents “other” cultures and makes it seem as if they have little to do with children’s lives.

So as we critique our own programs and identify the problems we face, the question is: “What are we striving for and how do we get there?”

Several books provide concrete information on how to nurture diversity. A variety of resources are listed in Anti-Bias Curriculum, (Louise Derman Sparks and the ABC Task Force 1989. National Association for the Education of Young Children).

Some of the components we should strive for are the following:

  • Including diversity in all aspects of theclassroom environment: in wall posters, photos, art decorations and charts; in books, dolls, puzzles, and math games. We must move beyond tokenism, for example, having only one African-American doll, or one book about Japanese-Americans.
  • Hiring a staff that reflects different cultures and teaching styles.
  • Seeing racial, cultural, gender and disability diversity as an integral part of the program, affecting all aspects of the curriculum.
  • Fostering bicultural, bilingual development when working with children who are not part of the dominant culture. While we give them the skills needed to participate in the dominant culture, we must also make their home culture, including their language, part of the curriculum.
  • Teaching the children to think about stereotyping, for instance, noting that there are “unfair” images that hurt people’s feelings. Teachers should discuss stereotypic images and messages that appear in books.
  • When a child teases or rejects another child on the basis of race or ethnic background, treating it is as seriously as physical aggression. Teachers must also learn how to handle such incidents and help children learn from them. Take the following example, as noted in the Anti-bias Curricu-lum.

    “Craig’s eyes go like this,” says 4-year old Ruth, pulling her eyes up. “They look funny.” Her teacher replies: “Craig’s eyes are not funny; they have a different shape than yours. Craig’s eyes are the same shape as his family’s eyes, just as your eyes are shaped like your family’s. Your eye shape is fine. Craig’s eye shape is fine. Both of your eye shapes are good for seeing. It is OK to ask questions about how people look.

    It is not OK to say they look funny — that hurts their feelings.”
  • Fostering children’s skills to stand up for their rights and the rights of others. Teachers can help students empathize with others, and give suggestions on how to challenge discriminatory behaviors by other children. Teachers can also encourage students to challenge other forms of discrimination such as a lack of books about people of color in the school library, or the lack of handicap-access at the local grocery store, or the fact that there are only white dolls at the toy store.
  • Providing opportunities for staff members to discuss issues of diversity and bias with each other and with parents.

This list may seem overwhelming, and nurturing respect for diversity is hard. The important thing is to look on such a list as a guide, and to start on that process of change. (The timeline for that change is a decision for each individual and each program).

As Carol Bunson Phillips notes, “Nurturing diversity through our own variety of multicultural education will require some work — but to start involves only a simple commitment to self-enlightenment. For as we take on the challenge to redesign our institutions based on fuller understanding of the problems within this society, we will do so with a stronger belief in our own power to resolve them. It is my wish that we take on this work and that our teaching will result in the liberation of the human spirit.”