Approaching the Problem of Race in America Through Diverse Literature
One look at the United States public education system will reveal startling truths. Low-income, culturally diverse students have underperformed in both reading and mathematics in almost all levels compared to their middle and upper income white peers. The consistent achievement gap between African American/Latino American students and whites has been the focus of the U.S. Department of education’s recent studies. Studies also show a link between cultural diversity and low income. High poverty schools have higher numbers of African American and Latino American students and many of these students have limited English proficiency and literacy. The same studies show that nearly half the students in schools attended by minorities are impoverished. These students also encounter cultural discontinuity at school on a daily basis. This cultural discontinuity, “defined as a cultural disconnection between children’s home environment and that of the school”, heavily influences their attitude, performance, and learning ability. When cultural discontinuity and low-income status combine, many of these effects are multiplied. Boykin notes the existence of an “Educational hegemony in that ethnocentrism pervades our nation’s public education structure, practices, and curriculum”. He expands that
“schooling consists of more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but promotes a particular worldview and way of interpreting reality.”
This eurocentric system and practice does not match the experiences of many culturally diverse students, who think and act in unique ways that should be valued rather than discouraged. Those students whose cultural backgrounds more closely align with eurocentric norms will perform better in these settings and also be perceived as more intelligent.
Educators “often fail to recognize culturally diverse ways of knowing, speaking, and interacting, and thus invalidate students’ funds of knowledge”.
Because of the Eurocentric nature of teacher preparation in the U.S., much of traditional pedagogy lacks culturally diverse input. The system’s brokenness calls for radical changes in order to even the playing field and better serve culturally diverse children. Large scale pedagogical change does not happen overnight, but educators would do well to begin enculturating their students by making wise choices with the literature and media they use in the classroom. Incorporating diverse narratives may help sever the bonds of cultural discontinuity in the classroom and thus reap the benefits of a culturally rich classroom.
Why should educators strive to be culturally responsive in their teaching? For years the country has made an attempt to not consider color at all. However, research shows that the “colorblind” approach—
”teaching children that it is racist to acknowledge racial and ethnic differences- can actually reinforce racist attitudes and assumptions, and especially reify systemic racism”.
“Young children are hard-wired in their brains to notice differences and to categorize them. So it is vital during early childhood to put some context around making sense of differences,” said Shannon Nagy, preschool director in 2011 at Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School in Chicago. Children, especially minorities, start to become aware of their own ethnic identities and internalize hierarchical systems as early as six years old. Eurocentric pedagogy often fails minority students as it can be at odds with the many diverse ways of thinking that students from other cultures possess. Author Paula Harris in her book Being White cites a test with which a white evaluator finds that an entire kindergarten class was deemed academically unfit, unable to follow sequences, and had inadequate vocabulary. The report concluded that all the students needed special education. When the teacher inquired what question was used to determine this, the evaluator stated that in order to measure sequencing ability the students were asked to explain the stages of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The teacher demanded a reevaluation after realizing that her predominantly Latino class does not eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but burritos and tamales for lunch. The second test asked the stages of making a burrito and all but one student passed. Luckily for these students, the teacher demanded a fair reevaluation. If not for this, a whole group of minority students would be deemed “not as smart as white kids” and crippling self doubt would soon take root. This eurocentric approach could have potentially affected these kids’ lives, their education, future job possibilities, and income. Without proficient, culturally tolerant pedagogies, teachers everywhere are doing their students a great disservice.
New curriculi and teacher training emerged throughout the country in response to the covert injustices present in eurocentric pedagogy. The Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed an anti-bias curriculum called Teaching Tolerance that has now been used by over 16,000 teachers. Their mission statement declares dedication to “reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children”. Their website includes an open blog for teacher networking, a magazine subscription, and free film, literature, and teaching kits. The Anti-Defamation League trains students and teachers to deal with the continuing problem of anti-semitism in America. Welcoming schools is “a comprehensive approach to creating respectful and supportive elementary schools with resources and professional development to embrace family diversity, create LGBTQ-inclusive schools, prevent bias-based bullying and gender stereotyping, and support transgender and gender-expansive students.” These programs have provided healing across the country. Students and teachers alike are coming up with their own units and curriculi to broach the topics of race and ethnicity in the classroom. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond “believes that racism is the primary barrier preventing communities from building effective coalitions and overcoming institutionalized oppression and inequities”. Border Crossers, whose mission “is to train and empower educators to dismantle patterns of racism and injustice in our schools and communities” hosts trainings around the country. The National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) is a “peer-led professional development program that creates conversational communities to drive personal, organizational, and societal change toward greater equity and diversity”. This organization creates seminars designed to include “personal reflection and testimony, listening to others’ voices, and learning experientially and collectively”. The Whiteness Project provides interviews from whites of different backgrounds that describe their relation to and understanding of their own whiteness. The interviews are paired with thought provoking statistics about societal norms and experiences such as
“73% of millennials believe never considering race would improve society”
This startling statistic reinforces the colorblind notion of a presumed post-racial society and can render reconciliation impossible due to lack of awareness. Despite popular belief, there is no more developmentally appropriate age than elementary school to start learning about race and ethnicity. Children are aware of their differences at this point, and their newfound knowledge of fairness allows them to care deeply about equality. By late elementary school, students are learning about the civil war, slavery, and other parts of American history. Unfortunately, discussing race, privilege, and experiential prejudice, has been discouraged because it has been deemed too messy. Many parents fear their children will get the wrong idea about race; that students of color will feel helpless and whites will feel shame and guilt. Colorblindness in academic literature is referred to as “reluctance to address race”, much different from the presupposed, premature belief that all are equal. As a result, students are rendered completely incapable of addressing differences by middle school. One study performed by psychologists at Tufts University shows that by age ten “white children are so uncomfortable discussing race that, when playing a game to identify people depicted in photos, they preferred to undermine their own performance by staying silent rather than speak racial terms aloud”. In all other areas of cognitive development (memory, information processing, categorization etc.), older children should outperform younger ones. Being raised in a colorblind environment stifles this skill and makes students unable to create informed opinions regarding race.
Providing students with diverse literature and culturally responsive curriculi at an early age can help prevent this stagnation and honor racial differences. It is impossible to exist in our current society without having internalized notions of racial superiority and inferiority. Children deserve to learn about racial justice and white privilege in developmentally appropriate but overt ways. Unfortunately, most literature and media does not provide students with diversity of perspective. Traditional socialization “renders us racially illiterate”. Studies show that white people are less moved by the pain of black people than by the pain of other whites, that teachers are more likely to respond to questions from white males than any other gender or race group and that the lighter a person’s skin, the more likely white people are to view them as intelligent, competent, trustworthy, and reliable. Many of these biases begin when children start to observe them in books, in their schools, and in their libraries.
Between 9-14% of books are by or about people of color, despite the fact that children of color now constitute more than 50% of U.S. public school students.
Non-white students often grow up never seeing themselves as characters in books. While students of color have a harder time relating to these narratives, white students also fail to develop a compassionate heart for the absent stories of their fellow non-white students. We learn compassion by understanding other’s stories and identifying their perspective through narratives. In fact, the word compassion is derived from the Latin words “pati” and “cum” which together mean “to suffer with”. Intentional diversity among literature and curriculi will help bring all students to a higher level of understanding and achievement.
Diverse narratives tend to be either absent due to eurocentrism or censored due to the nature of America’s history with slavery and white supremacy. We Need Diverse Books is “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people”. The website pleads supporters to encourage publishers who are putting out quality diverse content, request diverse books from your library or bookstore, and “write a letter of appreciation to an author you know who produces diverse materials”. Teachers are encouraged to create diverse reading programs like that of Allie Jane Bruce, librarian of Bank Street Corner For Children’s Literature. Bruce created one for her 6th graders when a curious student of her’s innocently questioned the inconsistency of book cover art and narratives they described. This year long curriculum “used book covers as a starting point to examine biases and stereotypes in children’s literature and the wider world. The class engaged in conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, body size, and more”. These students took a field trip to the local bookstore and noticed a lack of diverse characters on the book covers as well as the fact that minorities faces were often obscured whereas white characters were prominently shown. They ended up meeting and discussing their concerns with the publishers, who promised the children that they would do their best to fight for a just, equitable system. Allie Jane Bruce has since published an article for further suggestions regarding racial reconciliation. In it she suggests mixing up news sources to include racially diverse coverage. She lists sources such as “The Root”, “Colorlines”, “Latina Lista”, “Indian Country Today”, “Hyphen Magazine”, and “The Aerogram”. She also suggests books such as Waking Up White by Debbie Irving and White Like Me by Tim Wise as well as an informative PBS short called “Race: The Power of an Illusion”. Censorship and eurocentrism can only be combatted through awareness, advocacy, and intentional inclusion of diverse materials.
Incorporating diverse narratives brings the classroom one step closer to the richness and fullness of a culturally relevant classroom. All students, whether members of a minority or majority culture, benefit from the varied perspectives offered. In this classroom, student’s diverse ways of knowing and thinking are valued rather than brushed aside. Only then, can the education system hope to emerge from an ethnocentric hegemony that excludes students into an all inclusive, multi-ethnic learning environment that properly reflects the student population.
“U.S. Department of Education NCES 2006-071.” Accessed May 7, 2016. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006071.pdf.
“Are We Losing the Dream – The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.” Accessed May 7, 2016. http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/a-multiracial-society-with-segregated-schools-are-we-losing-the-dream/frankenberg-multiracial-society-losing-the-dream.pdf.
“Anti-Defamation League: Leaders Fighting Anti-Semitism and Hate | ADL.” Anti-Defamation League: Leaders Fighting Anti-Semitism and Hate | ADL. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://www.adl.org/.
Apfelbaum, Evan P., Kristin Pauker, Nalini Ambady, Samuel R. Sommers, and Michael I. Norton. “Learning (not) to Talk about Race: When Older Children Underperform in Social Categorization.” Developmental Psychology 44, no. 5 (2008): 1513-518. doi:10.1037/a0012835.
“The Book Cover Project.” Bank Street. Accessed May 07, 2016. https://www.bankstreet.edu/library/about/book-cover-project/.
“Building Racial Justice in Education.” Border Crossers RSS. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://www.bordercrossers.org/.
Bruce, Allie Jane. “On Being White: A Raw, Honest Conversation.” Children and Libraries CAL 13, no. 3 (2015): 3. doi:10.5860/cal.13n3.3.
Cholewa, Blaire, and Cirecie West-Olatunji. “Exploring the Relationship Among Cultural Discontinuity, Psychological Distress, and Academic Outcomes with Low-Income,Culturally Diverse Students.” Professional School Counseling 12, no. 1 (2008): 54-61. doi:10.5330/psc.n.2010-12.54.
Forgiarini, Matteo, Marcello Gallucci, and Angelo Maravita. “Racism and the Empathy for Pain on Our Skin.” Front. Psychology Frontiers in Psycholog 2 (2011). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00108.
Harris, Paula, and Doug Schaupp. Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
“Welcoming Schools.” Human Rights Campaign. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://www.welcomingschools.org/.
Maxwell, Lesli. “U.S. School Enrollment Hits Majority-Minority Milestone.” Education Week. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/08/20/01demographics.h34.html.
“SEED Engages Teachers, College Faculty, Parents, Community Leaders, and Other Professionals to Create Gender Fair, Multiculturally Equitable, Socio-economically Aware, and Globally Informed Education, Communities, and Workplaces. Click Here to APPLY NOW!” National SEED Project. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://nationalseedproject.org/.
National SEED Project. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://nationalseedproject.org/.
“Can Racism Be Stopped in the Third Grade?” Science of Us. 2015. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/05/can-fieldston-un-teach-racism.html.
“Teaching Tolerance.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed May 07, 2016. https://www.splcenter.org/teaching-tolerance.
“It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Race.” Teaching Tolerance. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://www.tolerance.org/too-early.
“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism -.” The Good Men Project. 2015. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/.
“Who We Are.” The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond -. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://www.pisab.org/who-we-are.
“We Need Diverse Books.” We Need Diverse Books. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://diversebooks.org/.
“Whiteness Project.” Whiteness Project. Accessed May 07, 2016. http://whitenessproject.org/.