A social studies topic that has a place in every classroom, every day is cultural studies. Culture isn't something separate from the self. I can't park a piece of myself at the classroom door. My whiteness, my hetero-femaleness, my German roots, my age--none of these can be separated from my identity. My students are no different. If I am to teach the whole child, I must ensure that I am a culturally responsive teacher. In order to perform responsibly, I need to honor my students' funds of knowledge and welcome their multi-cultural, multi-dimensional selves in our community of learners. That discovery process will begin with learning about one another. Learning about others has potential to make our eyes different since we begin to look beyond the self and one way of knowing and believing, to accept alternatives.
Opening the dialogue to meaningful discussion on diversity issues serves not only to enlighten and to build knowledge but to interrupt the hate that results in oppression, racism, and other discriminatory attitudes and actions. Silence is not an effective strategy; it is actually hindering our ability to develop comfort in interacting with those who are different from us—we need to talk about diversity issues so that we can cross lines of difference.
This cultural border crossing will imply that we check ourselves when we are tempted to interpret acts and expressions of people from a different cultural group as wrong or inappropriate just because they are not the same as our own. I know when someone dresses differently or exhibits unfamiliar mannerisms, I wonder why they would want to draw attention to themselves. That response, though, implies I am looking from an ethnocentric lens. When I look without that bias, I can accept viable alternatives to my way of being in the world and be open to the possibility of difference. I cherish my culture, so making the sign of the cross when I hear a siren, isn’t weird; it’s a marker of my faith. Just because someone lives in my community doesn’t mean he/she needs to assimilate. For many cultures, that implies cultural suicide. The degree of acculturation will be determined by the individual. I like Debra Magpie Earling’s (Bitterroot Salish) statement on this subject: “Honor your own beliefs, but also open your mind to the beliefs and perspectives of others.”
Socially, we often look upon difference as negative, as a stigma rather than as simply—being different. Books, especially those that I classify as Cultural Identity Literature (CIL), have potential to open eyes and minds. When educators infuse the curriculum with rich connections to students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, they build important connections.
I coined the term CIL to enlarge the traditional term multicultural literature (MCL) because many people who use the term MCL use it to identify literature that is diverse in geography, race, or ethnicity. While there is no single definition of the term "multicultural literature" as it is applied to books for children and young adults, I prefer Ambika Gopalakrishnan’s (2011), which speaks to the purpose of multicultural literature: to validate “the sociocultural experiences of previously underrepresented groups, including those occurring because of differences in language, race, gender, class, ethnicity, identity, and sexual orientation.” (5).
Books, especially CIL titles, enable us to hear stories of diverse people living in different places and accumulating alternate experiences. These stories help readers not only to realize that others have a story of their own but to encourage us to develop familiarity with what we might otherwise perceive of as strange. By building culturally responsive mindsets, hopefully we can train ourselves to be emotionally present and to extend some measure of understanding so that we can see from another’s vantage point or imagine an alternate experience. And hopefully we can look beyond ourselves to embrace alternate or enlarged definitions of terms like normal or minority. CIL provides a training grounds for civil discourse because it enables readers to experience diversity of thought and to recognize that their reality, their understanding, their experience is not the only one. With teacher support, they learn to interrogate their biases, to consider alternatives, and to make room for new learning as they struggle against long held assumptions, often planted by misinformed media messages or by provincial experiences.
For example, reading books about mental illness, handicapping conditions, and related issues provide opportunities to talk about the social norms that permit children to bully and tease with impunity any vulnerable “others.” It allows exploration of questions like, where do we get our images of the ideal and how/why do we perpetuate them? Living on the social margins presents difficult challenges for youth. The alienation that some young people experience as a result of their differences can be assuaged by books that communicate they are not alone in the world.
Setting high expectations, providing lessons that don’t rely too heavily on competition, and paying special attention to how meritocracy and individualism operate in classrooms are essential considerations in building a culturally responsive environment, one that promotes social cooperation, justice, and ethical practices.
Gopalakrishnan, Ambika. Multicultural Children's Literature: A Critical Issues Approach. Thousand Oaks,
CA: SAGE Publications, 2011.