What Does It Mean to Affirm Diversity?

Sonia Nieto

Educators must recognize five realities before meaningful actions can occur

About 15 years ago, I was interviewing a young woman for admission to our multicultural teacher education program and I asked her why she had chosen to apply for this particular program. (At the time, we had a number of undergraduate teacher preparation programs from which students to choose).

The young woman, let’s call her Nancy, mentioned that she was doing a prepracticum at Marks Meadow School, the laboratory school of our School of Education at the University of Massachusetts. Marks Meadow is an extraordinarily diverse place with children from every corner of the globe representing multiple languages and various social and economic backgrounds.

When the children in her 1st-grade classroom were doing self-portraits, one of them asked Nancy for a brown crayon. She was momentarily confounded by his request, thinking Why brown? It never before had occurred to her that children would make their faces anything other than the color of the white paper they used. “I decided then and there that I needed this program,” she confessed.

As naive as her reaction was, it was the beginning of Nancy’s awakening to diversity. It was also a courageous disclosure of her own ignorance.

Ill-Prepared for Diversity

It is by now a truism that our country’s public schools are undergoing a dramatic shift that reflects the growing diversity of our population. Yet many educators and the schools in which they work seem no better prepared for this change than was Nancy a decade and a half ago. Most educators nationwide are very much like Nancy: white, middle-class, monolingual English-speaking women and men who have had little direct experience with cultural, ethnic, linguistic or other kinds of diversity, but they are teaching students who are phenomenally diverse in every way.

Given this scenario, what do educators–teachers, aides, curriculum developers, principals, superintendents and school board members–need to know to create effective schools for students of all backgrounds, and how can they learn it? Let me suggest five realities that educators need to appreciate and understand if this is to happen:

* Affirming diversity is above all about social justice.

Contrary to what the pundits who oppose multicultural education might say, multicultural education is not about political correctness, sensitivity training or ethnic cheerleading. It is primarily about social justice. Given the vastly unequal educational outcomes among students of different backgrounds, equalizing conditions for student learning needs to be at the core of a concern for diversity.

If this is the case, “celebrating diversity” through special assembly programs, multicultural dinners or ethnic celebrations are hollow activities if they do not also confront the structural inequalities that exist in schools.

A concern for social justice means looking critically at why and how our schools are unjust for some students. It means that we need to analyze school policies and practices that devalue the identities of some students while overvaluing others: the curriculum, testing, textbooks and materials, instructional strategies, tracking, the recruitment and hiring of staff and parent involvement strategies. All of these need to be viewed with an eye toward making them more equitable for all students, not just those students who happen to be white, middle class and English speaking.

* Students of color and poor students bear the brunt of structural inequality.

Schools inevitably reflect society, and the evidence that our society is becoming more unequal is growing every day. We have all read the headlines: The United States has one of the highest income disparities in the world, and the combined wealth of the top 1 percent of U.S. families is about the same as the entire bottom 80 percent.

Growing societal inequities are mirrored in numerous ways in schools, from highly disparate financing of schools in rich and poor communities, to academic tracking that favors white above black and brown students, to SAT scores that correlate perfectly with income rather than with intelligence or ability. Although it is a worthy goal, equality is far from a reality in most of our schools, and those who bear the burden of inequality are our children, particularly poor children of all backgrounds and many children of Latino, Native American, Asian American and African American backgrounds. The result is schools that are racist and classist, if not by intention, at least by result.

Inequality is a fact of life, but many educators refuse to believe or accept it, and they persist in blaming children, their families, their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, laziness or genetic inferiority as the culprits. Once educators accept the fact that inequality is alive and thriving in our schools, they can proceed to do something about it. Until they do, little will change.

Positive Acculturation

* Diversity is a valuable resource.

I went to elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the 1950s. My classmates were enormously diverse in ethnicity, race, language, social class and family structure.

But even then, we were taught as if we were all cut from the same cloth. Our mothers were urged to speak to us in English at home (fortunately, my mother never paid attention, and it is because of this that I am fluent in Spanish today), and we were given the clear message that anything having to do with our home cultures was not welcome in school. To succeed in school, we needed to learn English, forget our native language and behave like the kids we read about in our basal readers.

Of course, learning English and learning it well is absolutely essential for academic and future life success, but the assumption that one must discard one’s identity along the way needs to be challenged. There is nothing shameful in knowing a language other than English. In fact, becoming bilingual can benefit individuals and our country in general.

As educators, we no longer can afford to behave as if diversity were a dirty word. Every day, more research underscores the positive influence that cultural and linguistic diversity has on student learning. Immigrant students who maintain a positive ethnic identity as they acculturate and who become fluent bilinguals are more likely to have better mental health, do well academically and graduate from high school than those who completely assimilate. Yet we insist on erasing cultural and linguistic differences as if they were a burden rather than an asset.

* Effectively teaching students of all backgrounds means respecting and affirming who they are.

To become effective teachers of all students, educators must undergo a profound shift in their beliefs, attitudes and values about difference.

In many U.S. classrooms, cultural, linguistic and other differences are commonly viewed as temporary, if troublesome, barriers to learning. Consequently, students of diverse backgrounds are treated as walking sets of deficiencies, as if they had nothing to bring to the educational enterprise.

Anybody who has walked into a classroom knows that teaching and learning are above all about relationships, and these relationships can have a profound impact on students’ futures. But significant relationships with students are difficult to develop when teachers have little understanding of the students’ families and communities. The identities of nonmainstream students frequently are dismissed by schools and teachers as immaterial to academic achievement.

When this is the case, it is unlikely that students will form positive relationships with their teachers or, as a result, with learning. It is only when educators and schools accept and respect who their students are and what they know that they can begin to build positive connections with them.

* Affirming diversity means becoming a multicultural person.

Over the years, I have found that educators believe they are affirming diversity simply because they say they are. But mouthing the words is not enough. Children sense instantly when support for diversity is superficial.

Because most educators in the United States have not had the benefit of firsthand experiences with diversity, it is a frightening concept for many of them. If we think of teaching as a lifelong journey of personal transformation, becoming a multicultural person is part of the journey. It is different for each person.

For Nancy, it began with recognition of her own ignorance. For others, it means learning a second language or working collaboratively with colleagues to design more effective strategies of reaching all students. However we begin the journey, until we take those tentative first steps, what we say about diversity is severely limited by our actions.

Comfort With Differences

Taking these realities to heart means we no longer can think of some students as void of any dignity and worth simply because they do not confirm to our conventional image. All students of all backgrounds bring talents and strengths to their learning and as educators we need to find ways to build on these.

Acknowledging and affirming diversity is to everyone’s interest, including middle-class white students. Understanding people of other backgrounds, speaking languages other than English and learning to respect and appreciate differences are skills that benefit all students and our nation as a whole. We do all our students a disservice when we prepare them to live in a society that no longer exists.

Given the tremendous diversity in our society, it makes eminent good sense to educate all our students to be comfortable with differences.

Sonia Nieto is a professor of language, literacy and culture at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass. 01003.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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