We live an idealistic society. This society claims to value diversity, and I’d like to think that, for the most part we do. Realistically, we don’t. Bear in mind that I am not making this statement from an ivory tower. I’m not excluding myself in making this statement and saying that I am one of the people who actively values all diversity because to a certain extent, we are all guilty of what I’m about to talk about.
I, as many a millenial, was raised in a time and a place that succeeded the heart of the Civil Rights Era. I remember growing up in suburban, sheltered Mount Prospect, Illinois, believing that all of these “civil rights” that my teachers kept talking about were issues of the past. In a sense, they made it sound like we were all, by that point, wearing paper bags over our faces–that we were colorless and that differences were irrelevant.
The reality is this: We are not colorless, differences are relevant, and in order to make any progress in this country, we need to confront our uncomfortable feelings, find the root of them, and resolve them in order to become more universally empathic beings.
And this will never happen if we don’t start having conversations about it.
Now maybe this doesn’t entail an external conversation. Maybe it takes an internal conversation with oneself, one where we objectively analyze ourselves and the root of all our emotions and fears. Maybe, in some cases, it does take external conversations.
Lately, someone told me I had an irrational fear. She was, in fact, spot on but, at the same time, astutely obvious. All fears are irrational; they’re predisposed perceptions about what “could happen.” In fact, many emotions are irrational, which is why we cannot control them and why were are seemingly unable to restrain our external responses in the heat of a significantly emotional moment. And this, in essence, I believe to be the root of all fears, and subsequently, the origin of a lack of appreciation for diversity.
I suppose that’s a bit rash to say–lack of appreciation for diversity. It’s exceedingly clear living in the city of Chicago, and even teaching in a fourth- or fifth-grade classroom, that we don’t disregard all diversity; in fact, a great deal of diversity is celebrated. I do it every day in my classroom when I ask for incorrect answers, encourage students to share alternative methods for problem-solving, and cultivate creativity through vulnerability and connection with one another through personal narratives. Yes, that is, indeed, a bit rash. And what I’ve come to realize is that do, in fact, appreciate diversity, but it’s only the diversity with which we find ourselves feeling comfortable.
“Diversity” has gone so far as to become a “buzz” word–at least in the field of education. Ears perk up when you mention it, because one of our biggest “fears” is the thought of being perceived as a racist or a bigot. No one wants to be labeled that way, so what do we do? We take as many steps as we can to showcase our appreciation for diversity to where we discuss it in interviews, put it on our resumes, and even host school-wide days about respecting differences.
But what happens when that “diversity” lies outside the boundaries of mainstream diversity? If this “diversity” only lies within the confines of what is socially accepted as “diverse,” is it any longer diversity?
I had an epiphany about a year ago, when I realized one of my personal prejudices, confronted it, and began to resolve it. For the longest time, I harbored feelings of ill will towards many who practiced Catholicism or Christianity, and if I’m being entirely vulnerable, I’m not sure those prejudices have been fully assuaged. I suppose this stemmed from my last relationship, where my boyfriend and I were actively discriminated against, and the basis for this discrimination was rooted in a firm belief in God and the Bible. Eventually, I realized that this was irrelevant, that many people interpret the Bible differently, and that there was one very significant commonality between me and “those people” that were discriminating against me, and that was fear.
We both feared each other. They feared me because I was different and threatening to their or their son’s perceived place in heaven, while I feared a lack of acceptance. I feared rejection, and so it became easier to automatically assume I’d be rejected by those with a strong faith rooted in the Bible, making it easier for me to reject them and discriminate against them first.
After some intense self-talk and several instances that disproved my prejudices and biases, I was able to realize that it wasn’t religion, per se, that was promoting this discrimination; rather, it was a lack of education, which eventually led to ignorance, something both out of my locus of control and theirs, in a sense. We can’t help the way we’re raised, and we have little control over the routines through which we grow from an early age. The sad thing is, though, at a certain age, ignorant actions and thoughts become routines, and those routines, even if they are rooted in misinformation, become the truths by which people live. They become our morals, and that’s why, once again, education will save us all, especially if we start it at a young age.
The National Association for Multi-Cultural Education states one of its objectives is “to proactively reframe public debate and impact current and emerging policies in ways that advance social, political, economic and educational equity through advocacy, position papers, policy statements and other strategies.”
Note the word “proactively.” As teachers, it essential to bring current issues in social justice into light to help expand and broaden our children’s minds and to expose them to mistakes of the past so that they may, in fact, pave the way for the successes and triumphs of the future. In fact, even the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, one of the most respected names within the field of education, cites that accomplished teachers make a concerted effort to highlight inequity and provide access for all to help students see themselves in the curriculum and uphold the democratic values on which our society was founded. They even go so far as to mention sexual orientation in their standards, and this is for a certificate area specific to 7-12 year olds.
A need for this proactive approach was especially evident yesterday, as we concluded our unit on Human Growth and Development, more casually known as “Sex Ed.”
The boys snickered and sneered at each other when one of the boys posed a question about gay people. One of the boys wondered if two men could, in fact, have a baby if they wanted to. Naturally, my colleague and I fielded the question appropriately, scientifically, and benignly, as to not preach personal values or opinions; regardless, it was clear that by the amount of uncomfortable emotions that manifested themselves through laughter and looks around the room, that many had never been exposed to this kind of diversity before. They had never been formally educated on it.
My original intent was to expose my students to this type of diversity, “gay” diversity, if you will, back in November, to gently introduce them to different types of families and help them process a stimulus that tends to cause uncomfortable feelings due to its “degree” of diversity. You see, currently, it lies outside of the aforementioned “mainstream diversity.” Unfortunately, innocent ignorance rooted in irrational fears prohibited this discussion, bringing to fruition the exact problems I feared and foresaw 6 months ago.
My original intent was to expose students to gay people, so that the context of “sex” was absent, so that students could view gay people as people who “choose to marry someone of the same gender,” prior to viewing them as people who “choose to have sex with someone of the same gender.” Now, because of the way this content was delivered (in the context of sex) a stereotype was perpetuated, ignorance was fueled, and “gay” is once again only relevant in the context of “sex.”
Models of Unconditional Love
Gay people live, work, and play all around us. We’re business executives, Starbucks baristas, gas station workers, teachers, lawyers, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and everything else in between. While this type of diversity is, at times, seemingly “invisible,” since it can’t be manifested through our skin color or even absolutely determined by the type of clothing we wear, it is by no means, colorless or irrelevant. It isn’t “nobody else’s business” or “a part of our personal lives that has nothing to do with our job.”
It is a huge part of who we are, and we should be able to celebrate it. “Gay diversity” shines in one of the most empathic and visceral ways that a person can be “diverse.” Our diversity resides in our vulnerability. Our diversity exposes the intricacies and depths of our colors when we do the thing that all humans on this earth are meant to do, and that is love.
By keeping these colors hidden in schools and in front of our children, and by not proactively exposing children to all types of diversity, not just the diversity with which we find ourselves comfortable, we are taking away our children’s ability to learn how to love in all sorts of ways. We are taking away models of unconditional love.
And let’s be honest, this world, our children, and our society can never have enough models of that.
Think hard about this. If you share this post, if you even just start talking about it, you have the ability to make this ever-so-present problem visible, and you can be part of its solution.