We live in an increasingly multicultural world. This affords us wonderful opportunities for enrichment and synergizing collaborations as well as risks for misunderstanding and alienation. Which way we land in this regard often depends upon how we think and talk about diversity. (I summarize my perspective in an article I recently wrote on “positive multiculturalism” for The Pennsylvania Psychologist. Click here to read that article. While I’m addressing psychologists in the article, there are take away points that support this blog entry.) If we, as parents, can first get behind the idea that diversity enriches us and affords us wonderful opportunities for self-improvement and effective collaborations, the next step is to initiate an ongoing series of dialogues with our kid(s) about these matters.
What happens if we don’t have these discussions? Well, my experience is that, as with other important topics (e.g., sexuality), our kids’ attitudes and behaviors may end up being more influenced by the media they consume or what their friends think than the values and perspectives that we hold dear and embrace. There are so many examples of unfortunate stereotypes being overtly or implicitly advanced in popular media (e.g., there are acceptable uses of the N-word, Islam encourages violence). So, we all have to ask ourselves: who do we want to be the largest influence in the formation of our kids’ attitudes about people who are different from us?
If you agree with the above premises, here are some suggestions for getting started:
• Seek out positive multicultural experiences (e.g., go to an event during Black History month, attend a parade celebrating a different cultural background); then talk about them with your kids. Model that such learning is fascinating.
• When you encounter an “ism” (e.g., racism, sexism, agism) or hurtful behavior or language, ask your child or teen for his or her thoughts about what you witnessed. Ask what it would be like for him or her to experience such.
• Partner with your school’s administration in facilitating training in positive multiculturalism (see the article I mentioned above for a definition of “positive multiculturalism”). Stress the “positive” aspect as, in my experience, diversity training can be done poorly (e.g., stating obvious things in a preachy manner, not promoting interaction, promoting shame).
• Ask that your school integrate issues pertaining to multiculturalism in their bullying policy. For some resources along these line click here.
• In discussions with your kids get a full accounting of their opinions before sharing your own, offering empathy and agreement where appropriate. Once it’s your turn, these are some possible teaching points.
√ It is human nature to be impacted by cultural differences and that a denial of these impacts promotes alienation and misunderstanding. (If you’re interested in a fascinating internet based exploration of this try taking Harvard University’s brief Implicit Test. These are the five steps. 1. Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ 2. Click “Demonstration.” 3. Click on “go to the demonstration tests.” 4. Click on “I wish to proceed” at the bottom. 5. Click on the “Race IAT.” The test doesn’t take long and may offer you some thought provoking results.
√ Those who are different from us (e.g., racially, religiously, sexually) have a ton to teach us about ourselves and the human condition at large and that it is respectful to approach such differences as an open-minded student who wishes to learn more.
√ Certain language is hurtful, even if said in a “joking” fashion. You might ask your child for his or her thoughts about the examples you’ve encountered. Or, use some that follow here (each are real examples of kids trying to be friendly with, or joking with, kids from other races). Calling someone of Middle Eastern heritage a “terrorist.” Approaching an African-American teen with a friendly fist pump, asking “how’s my niggah?!” Asking an Hispanic kid to copy her homework noting “do you believe it’s the White kid who didn’t do her homework while the Hispanic kid did?!” Again, you might ask your child what he or she imagines it might be like to receive such communications.
√ The disparagement of other religions, races, sexual orientations and cultures is a symptom, whether privately held or overtly expressed. Like a fever it can have many causes, but figuring out its cause is a worthy enterprise and may open the door to healing. For a referral, click here.
√ Calling people names is rarely helpful, even when those names are “racist” or “bigot.”
√ We begin the deliberation of the value of another human’s behavior based on how loving it is, not based on it’s consistency with our own experience and tradition.
√ Discussions on multiculturalism do well to promote enlightenment, understanding and openness and do less well to promote shame, paralysis and fear of being called a name.
This is a journey without end, or at least not until we’re in the casket 😉 And, if you’re like me, segments of this journey will be very confusing and leave you feeling uncertain. But, as I indicated above, such confusions can promote the perspective that we are all students who merely wish to be loving and kind as we learn about our differences.