Talking about Class and Culture

In the landscape of identity issues such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, family structure, religion, and ability/disAbility, I often hear from colleagues, teachers, students and school leaders that there is one topic that seems almost too difficult and taboo to address: socioeconomic status.

The other day, a teacher emailed me to ask how to be proactive in setting up a classroom environment that honors and respects the diverse socioeconomic spectrum. Her concern, much like of other teachers, is that we are about to go on Spring Break. For some of our families, Spring Break is a time of travel and leisure. Some of our families will travel internationally to see family, friends, or to return to a favorite vacation spot or home. Some of our families will stay home, be cared for by family or extended family, or be engaged in a camp or day-care learning environment. And, some of our families will find creative ways to get through two full weeks of vacation by taking turns off from work, bringing children to their work place, finding sitters here and there, or setting up play dates during the work hours so their children will not be home alone. This range of experiences exists at Park School, and this also exists at many other schools in our country. 

This teacher was wondering: "How do I engage the students, in an age appropriate way, to be excited about the break from school while also acknowledging that this is a conversation about privilege and access?" 

Truth is, I stared at her email from about five minutes. I began to draft an email. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and cut them out. Before I knew it, twenty minutes had passed and I was still down to "Dear ____, what a great question."

To buy myself some time allow myself the space to respond thoughtfully, I promised this teacher a blog post. 

Truth is, I have stared at this blank screen for about fifteen minutes. I began to draft a post. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and ... well... 

You get the picture.

To me, just like race, ethnicity, religion, faith, sexual orientation -- class is an identity. Class isn't just about how much or how little we have; class is also about how we understand money, how we learn about money and wealth, what our relationship is to money and wealth, and what those factors mean to us. Class is about how we behave, how we relate to, and how we manage conversations about ourselves and our earliest messages about class and identity. Like other cultural identifiers, these conversations can be difficult for some, easy for others. But, once I began to understand class as a cultural experience, talking about it made much more sense to me. I became more open to learning about the experiences of people from socioeconomic backgrounds both of my own and outside of my own. I became more open to asking questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they shared and what they felt. And, I became more open about sharing my own, too. 

I can tell you how I deal with conversations about class in my own family. Not long after school started, my children began to tell me about the new friends they had met. They told me about how nice their peers were. They told me how a friend showed them around when they got lost. They told me how they learned the culture of the school -- where to put your backpacks, what to wear to a school dance, and what kind of activities people sign up for after school. They also told me about the ways in which their new friends spent their summer vacations: traveling around Europe; spending the summer in Hawai'i; upgrading to the new iPhone. 

I knew what I had walked into. My children were sharing aspects of class. Of culture. Of socioeconomics in a way they have not experienced themselves. I admit, the reaction in my heart was of sadness. Between the lines, I could hear the question, "Why don't we do those types of things?" in their voices. I could hear them teetering on adolescent jealousy. I wanted to say something that would help them feel better. I wanted to give them something that they could share when the topic of summer vacations or long weekends came up.

Instead, I did the opposite.

I told them that those experiences sounded really interesting. I asked them if they had good questions for their new friends -- what could they learn from their adventures. I asked them, "So, did they tell you what they saw in Europe or what they learned?" or "Did they feel any different being outside of the United States?" or "How did they describe the food in Hawai'i? Was it good? Ask them what they thought tasted the best!" or "Ask them what they enjoy most about the apps on their new iPhone or what kind of music they like to listen to in their playlists. Which songs on their playlist make them dance? Make them laugh? Make them cry? Make them sing out loud like no one is listening?"

I want to teach my children to develop a sense of wonder and of curiosity about other people. I want them to see that it wasn't about what their friends did or what we did, or what they had and what we had; rather, it was about what we could all learn from each other's experiences. How could we open our own hearts and minds to the experiences of others? How do we develop humility? How can we model asking about experiences and developing a real sense of curiosity for each other's lives?

When I travel to different schools and this topic of socioeconomics comes up, I often find that teachers turn to the "just don't talk about it" approach. They tell me that they never ask the students, "How was your weekend?" or "What did you do this weekend?" But, they then get caught in this bind of, "But am I teaching children to be ashamed of their experiences? How can I nurture this sharing without making people feel badly about themselves for having too much or not having as much as others?"

For our younger students (and, of course, all our students!), there are ways in which we can frame questions or prompts to guide their learning and sharing. Below are some prompts you might put up during your morning circle time or in your warm-up for the day. Do these questions and prompts solve our tension and apprehension about socioeconomic status? No. Of course not. Do they help us get closer to teaching and modeling curiosity, wonder and respect for each other's experiences? Possibly. Maybe. Do they help us start our journey towards finding what works for our classrooms, our age groups and our Selves? I hope so -- would love to hear how these worked out, if you try some of them!

"During this vacation/long weekend, ..."

  • I felt happy when __________.
  • I felt proud when ____________.
  • I noticed that ____________.
  • I learned that _______________.
  • I was interested in _____________.
  • I was curious about ____________.
  • I wondered why ______________.
  • I read ____________.
  • I heard __________.
  • I listened to _____________.
  • I shared _____________.

In our lower division, I have often snuck into morning circle and closing circle (it's my favorite time of day!). Brilliantly, teachers have set up structures for all students to feel heard and affirmed. I can imagine, after this activity, each student simply saying 'Thank you, Carly" or 'Thank you, Alan" after each statement. This acknowledges that the contribution of each student is important in our classrooms. 

Will this work on the playground or the lunch room or the free-period in between classes? Likely not. But, it does help equip our students will the skills to talk about their vacations or long weekends in a way that shifts from "what I have and where I went" to "what I experienced and what I can share."

I'd love to hear about the strategies and ideas you have used at home or at school, too! Feel free to send me an email and let me know!

Also, while this post was about personal and relational engagement about class, our friends over at Shady Hill School spent a whole year talking about institutional approaches to discussing socioeconomic issues. Check out this great article by Head of School, Mark Stanek about this issue. 

Teleseminar on Anti-Racist Parenting

Join Carmen VanKerckhove and me as we host a free teleseminar on Anti-Racist Parenting! I believe it may be limited to 50 callers during the Q&A session. Within 24 hours, Carmen reported that we were up to 121 registered participants! Carmen will likely post the MP3 online a week or so after it's done. So, be sure to check back

On this 60-minute call, you’ll learn:

  • Why avoiding conversations about race is the biggest mistake you can make
  • How you are sending hidden messages to your children about race without even realizing it
  • Why you should never proclaim to be colorblind
  • How to transform the simple act of watching television into a profound lesson about diversity

and much, much more.

No matter what your current situation is, I guarantee you’ll get at least one golden nugget of information during this never-before-offered call.

So, won’t you join us? Reserve your spot now!

******

On a separate note, our dog of 8 years just died :(, so I'm doing more parenting than blogging these days. Will be sure to write again very, very soon!

Tools for Teaching Diversity in a Diversity Free Zone

(Originally posted on Anti-Racist Parent) 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.