Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (1)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I will be posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 1:

The purpose of my talk is to remind ourselves of why it is important and meaningful to talk and listen to kids about difference, and to consider why we as adults refrain too often from this discussion, not only with children, but also among ourselves. I also offer my own thoughts on how we, as parents and teachers, might find ways of talking and listening that work for us all. In particular, I offer insights and approaches from the discipline in which I am trained, anthropology, which has engaged in more than 100 years of discussion on the meaning of difference.

Look around our classrooms and communities or read the news, both local and national, and it is hard not to notice that differences between people matter – even or, I suggest, especially in communities as apparently “homogeneous” as our community. These differences can include race, ethnicity, culture, language, class, gender, religion, and ability, among countless other ways that we might distinguish ourselves and each other. In my talk today, I will focus particularly on race and culture because they have been, and continue to be, especially powerful ideas and practices about difference among people in the United States and around the world today.

We know from our own experiences that difference can be cause for celebration and pride, and for conflict and pain. Children are no less aware of and sensitive to difference than adults are. They see it around them – even despite, for example, what we grown-ups might consider our well-intentioned efforts to keep our kids “color-blind.” They also observe our reactions, witness our behavior, and look to us as models for how they themselves ought to act and think. So, it seems to me that our challenge as teachers and parents is to help children make sense of what difference does and does not mean in our world today. At the same time, it seems to me that we might cultivate in children a sense of how we might think and act differently about difference. After all, we – adults and children alike – are not only members of our society and culture, we are also the makers and breakers of our own rules and customs. There is always, then, the possibility for change. This is why it seems to me important and meaningful for us to consider the matter of talking and listening to kids about difference – and for us, as teachers and parents, to be able to articulate a case for having this conversation to those who might require persuasion. In this talk, I offer words that you might use.

My interest in how we talk and listen to kids about difference emerges from my concerns as a second-generation Korean American raising children of “mixed” heritage. On their father’s side, my children can claim roots in Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe. Initially, I thought simply celebrating our family’s mixed heritage might be enough – that is, passively exposing them to the “positive” meanings of difference.

Then my daughter came home from school and asked me: “Why is it so important about Barack Obama?” Being a college professor, I demurred – I deflected the question back to her so that I could understand what she was asking me. I asked her: “What do you know about Barack Obama?” She told me: “Everyone is excited that he is running for president. Why?” So, I told her: “A long time ago, before your grandparents and your great-grandparents were born, some people, even a lot of people, in America believed that someone who looked like Barack Obama could never be president, could not go to school like you can, and even could belong to someone else who owned him.” Since then, Beanie and I have read stories together about enslavement and the Underground Railroad, and about heroes of the civil rights movement, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We have talked about how she, with a Korean American mother and a white American father, is like Barack Obama, who had a white American mother and a black Kenyan father.

Talking and listening to my daughter has changed my mind about whether or not “passive exposure” to race and ethnicity, and history and heritage is enough. I think we must talk and listen to kids about difference actively. If we do not guide our children on how to understand difference, then they will take their ideas from other sources who might not share the same cares and concerns that we have or who might not take the time and effort to explain what difference does and does not mean.

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