Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (3)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I am posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 3:

As a parenthropologist, I have come to think that the difficulty of talking and listening to kids about difference comes in part from our own discomfort with talking and listening about difference among ourselves, as parents and teachers. We need to create “the talk” about race along the lines of “the talk” about reproduction. In fact, there are now resources offering thoughtful advice to parents and teachers on talking and listening to kids about difference. Parents magazine, on their Web site, has an article on “Raising a Child Who Respects Difference” that suggest to parents: “First, Forget ‘Color Blindness’” and “Don’t Wait for Them to Bring It Up.” The Southern Poverty Law Center develops and distributes free materials for K-12 teachers through its Teaching Tolerance Web site. There is now even an iPhone app for this: The Race Awareness Project has developed two “games,” one called “Guess My Race” and another called “Who Am I,” which were designed to help (and guide) parents through conversations about race with their pre-school and elementary school-aged kids.

I suggest also that in order to create “the talk,” we as parents and teachers need to be clear about the words that we use. So, in the hopes that we can find the words for us to use, here is what anthropologists have to say about two ways of talking about difference that are especially salient in the United States today – race and culture.

I noted earlier that as an anthropologist, I am trained in a discipline that is concerned with both universality and diversity. What makes us the same? What makes us different? Anthropology also is distinctive in its holistic approach, in which we consider any given dimension of human experience as interconnected with still others. For example, is food a matter of physiological need, economic activity, religious law, local custom, climate change – or all of the above? The holism of anthropology is reflected in the fact that the discipline is comprised of sub-disciplines: The four fields of archaeology, biological or physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Four-fields anthropology became organized in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, building upon earlier traditions in the study of human “civilization,” which reflected then current concerns with differences among people – in their physical appearance, in their behaviors and beliefs, in the environments and conditions in which they lived – which were being encountered in travel and exploration and trade globally.

Following upon a much older philosophical tradition that so-called inner qualities, such as intelligence, were manifested in outer qualities, in particular appearance, it was thought that traits such as skin color could be interpreted as markers or even expressions of emotional, intellectual, and other “essential” characteristics. In fact, early and mid-19th century anatomists and physiologists – the fore-bearers of biological or physical anthropology – were involved in efforts to locate the sources of difference in the human body itself, taking measurements and creating scales that defined the “races” of humankind. In addition, it was claimed that the “races” themselves had developed separately, with each race representing “sub-species” of humanity, and “steps” in human evolution. Race became an explanation, or rather an excuse, for political, economic, and social policies that segregated and subjugated peoples.

This 19th century concept of biological “race” has been discredited in the work of 20th century scientists, including anthropologists, who emphasize the lack of concordance in so-called racial traits: Not only does difference in physical appearance not correspond with difference in emotional or intellectual characteristics, but even racialized traits associated with physical appearance (such as skin color, eye color, hair texture, eye and nose shape, and so on) do not correspond with each other. Nor is race coded in our DNA. Even to the trained eyes of geneticists, human DNA looks remarkably the same: There is more genetic variation in penguins and in fruit flies than there is in humans. In fact, geneticists tell us that two individuals who would be classified, according to physical appearance, as members of the same race, are likely to have as many or even more differences in their mitochondrial DNA as two individuals classified as members of two different races. Our genes provide evidence of the shared origins of modern humans in Africa. We are, indeed, a single race.

So, then how do we make sense of difference in physical appearance, which in the United States today, we continue to describe as “race”? Clearly, human biological variation exists, but what it tells us is a story about the migration of modern humans, out of Africa, to the far reaches of the globe, which is itself a remarkable tale with the power to excite the imagination. Human biological variation tells us a story about certain sets of genes arriving at the right time and place to be favored, or at least not disadvantaged, for survival – like darker skin closer to the equator and lighter skin in regions further flung. In other words, the difference in physical appearance that Americans call race could be described as a side effect of ancestry.

The discrediting of the 19th century concept of biological race and the 20th century recognition of human biological variation are developments connected also with a completely different way of thinking about differences – that is, the concept of culture. Defining and refining the concept of culture has consumed anthropologists for the last century, but at heart, culture is a way of talking about difference as behaviors and beliefs that are shared in groups through learning and teaching. The concept of culture is, in part, a reaction to the concept of race: It asserts that customs and habits are invented and become acquired. They are not innate to bodies and inherited through blood and genes. Culture also suggests that the most important and meaningful differences between people are the ones that they have learned since childhood then continue to teach to their own children. An example of the power of culture is, unfortunately, the persistence of the idea that “race” describes and explains differences between people.

As a parenthropologist, I suggest that it is critical that we, as teachers and parents, recognize the significance of what we do in our work with children – and the difference it can make. A few weeks ago, my daughter came home from school, bursting with a story that she told us at dinner. She had read a book called Amazing Grace, about a girl who wanted to be Peter Pan in her class play, despite discouragement from other children that Peter Pan was not a girl and Peter Pan was not black like Grace. My daughter told us in no uncertain terms that these were not good reasons and that she herself could be Peter Pan, just like Barack Obama could be president. Not only can we, as teachers and parents, make and re-make the meaning of difference by talking and listening to kids, but I think it also might be the only real hope that we have.

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