46. Diversity and Commonality

One of the many priorities teachers have is to make sure children know how diverse our species is. Another is to make sure they know we all have a lot in common. After years of struggling with this balancing act, I still don’t know how to give children the “right” message about diversity. To what degree should we accept and pass on the message that no one can know how it feels to be _____ unless they’ve been ______? And to what degree should we stress the fact that we’re all in this together?
Having looked at the issue from both sides now, I’m pretty sure both sides are absolutely right. You can’t reach an intimate, profound, total understanding of any group unless you are part of that group, and even then it can be a struggle. And that is no excuse not to do the best you can. In this article, I’ll try to scratch the surface of yet another issue, and give equal coverage to both points of view.
First, there’s the viewpoint of the group that’s somehow different: “If I’ve spent my life ______, it is part of my identity. You may learn in school that we exist, and have a right to be treated as equals. You may learn about some of the symbols we use, some of the traditions we have, and lots of things that make you feel you know what it’s like to be ______, but you don’t. And you can’t have a race-change, gender-change, whatever-change, and then be qualified to write an insightful book called _______ Like Me. So all those well-meaning lessons that let children try balalaikas, wheelchairs, menorahs, and Mankala are teaching them about stereotypes and souvenirs, not letting them into the essence of otherhood. It may be that those lessons are doing more harm than good.
Now let me step out of the separatist persona and answer: You gotta start somewhere. If we want to save the rainforest, it helps to be dealing with people who know what a tree looks like. If rainforest-type trees aren’t available, maple trees. Or pictures of trees. To someone who
knows a rainforest well, the maple tree lesson may seem sadly deficient – almost counter- productive, but the child who’s seen a maple tree is a little closer to understanding than the child who hasn’t. It shouldn’t be presented as more than a peek, but it should be presented. And wearing a sari or kimono can start to open a window on another culture.
It’s nice to have easy answers. It makes it easier to take sides. Life would be simpler if we could pick a line of consistent, or at least compatible viewpoints and stick with them. But as a Jewish, disabled, agnostic, semi-vegetarian teacher (the list of minorities could probably go on ad infinitum), I’m discovering more and more things I just don’t know. And one of the things I don’t know is how and how much to stress diversity and how and how much to stress commonality.

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