faces of new americans

7/22/2010

Multicultural education

This was the topic of today’s Teaching Artist Journal (TAJ) Resource Exchange design team meeting.  The gathering was organized and facilitated by Barbara Cox, the Arts Education Partnership Coordinator at Perpich Center for Arts Education and Becca Barniskis, teaching artist and Resource Exchange Editor of TAJ.

First, teaching artists Lea and Carla talked about their experience as artists of color in the schools. Both were eloquent and passionate about the need for more dialogue about race in the classroom. Carla felt sometimes she is chosen for the job because the school needs a “chocolate colored” artist in the classroom. The assumption being that this is an adequate way to address issues of race in their school. Even though she is a classically trained dancer, she finds it amusing that her dark skin somehow casts her as a “hip hop” artist in this setting.

Followed their presentation, we looked at a 19-minute video from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The topic of her talk is the danger of a single story.  This is powerful presentation that weaves quite a few personal stories to make her point about stereotyping. Using the Critical Response Protocol, we discussed the content of her talk.

Even though the protocol is an excellent tool for focusing group discussions, we still did not have enough time to address all the questions raised by Adichie’s presentation. Such as how do we sort through the many true and false stories about a controversial topic? What should be the ground rules for talking about difficult issues of race? What motivates people to invest time learning about other cultures and race related issues?

At the end, there was a strong consensus that the topic is vast and there is a need for more dialogue.

I personally feel that the subject matter is not only immense but the road to discussion very thorny. It might be easier to teach students critical thinking tools to analyze the structure of power and its hidden agenda than talking about race.

The other choice is to use art to provoke dialogue. From my classroom experience, young students are far more capable of discussions about race than the educators. These days, they have had more real life experience with other ethnicities than the parents’ generation. As one high school history teacher once told me, the majority rules and others need to learn to melt into the pot. This consideration is a great entry point for dialogue. Many young people who participate in my classroom discussions don’t agree with the history teacher’s assertion.

I believe classroom is a great arena for discussion about the important subject of race. This issue is presenting itself more boldly in public discourse and political debates as white people increasingly are asked to share their inherited privileges with other minority groups. Being a white-olive-skinned and not part of the majority culture, I occasionally have found myself caught in the turbulent waters of race in America. It is all too common for reverse racism to manifest among people with different shades of dark skin. This is but one example why multicultural education is a difficult topic. As Carla mentioned at the beginning, the physical presence of artist of different ethnicity in the classroom does not in itself confirm a commitment to dialogue about cultures and race.

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