Friday, September 4, 2009

A Rant on Society by Talyn: Race vs. Culture

Once upon a time I was in a seminar about "bridging the achievement gap" with hundreds of other educators. That means they were discussing how to fix the problem of certain minority groups not performing well in our public schools.* Anyway, the keynote speaker asked this large group if it was important to plan our lessons based on the race of our students. There were several people who spoke up, and in very politically correct terms explained that yes, it is important for them. They claimed it was important because these different racial groups learn differently due to their different backgrounds. I was extremely uncomfortable listening to these carefully worded, "what you wanted to hear" answers while bells, whistles, and sirens were exploding in my head saying, "NO!! NO!! YOU'RE WRONG! IT'S NOT TRUE WHAT YOU'RE SAYING, although it's nicely put and seems like a good message. IT'S JUST NOT TRUE!" I ended up having to stand up and share my own view because I seemed to be the only one that had it.

First a bit of a disclaimer, I grew up in a place where there was really only one minority group visible to the eye, Native Americans. Although looking back I can see there was prejudice and stereotypes associated with this group, it rarely reared its head as there wasn't much contact between them, on the reservation, and all of us white people in town. The one African-American kid we had in our high school for a while seemed to fit in just fine. And the handful of Asians fit in just as well. I don't recall ever seeing a hispanic person until I was in high school and I left the state on a family vacation. As far as I knew, racism was a thing for the history books.

As my experience has expanded, I have come to know that there are pockets of crazy people who continue to be racist even today. There are also places where longheld grudges make racial harmony difficult. I do maintain, however, that we no longer live in the 60's and the vast majority of the country has moved on. Well, we've moved on to the extent that we can, what with people everywhere continuing to divide people based on lines of race.

During the last election I remember hearing the result of a certain poll. The reporter, after sharing the numbers of which race and gender were supporting who concluded that there was no such thing as the typical white male voter. I wanted to grab his shouldter, shake, and say, "Duh! There's no such thing as a typical female hispanic voter, or male african american voter either!" It just seemed ridiculous to me that because 54% of a certain racially and genderally based group supported one candidate, suddenly said candidate had the backing of the entire group. What of the other 46%? That's almost half for crying out loud!

I apologize, it appears I have gone off on a tangent. I guess what I'm trying to get at here, is that for some reason it is still encouraged in our society to divide people into groups based on race. Whether it be on a political poll, a drivers licence, a consumer survey, or in a classroom setting race dividers seem to be the accepted form. (No Child Left Behind just loves to divide students into groups based on race at testing time.) The opinion I shared in that meeting of educators was that dividing students into groups based on race was at best an arbitrary and useless division, and at worst harmful to individuals and the progress our society has made against racism.

What does race tell us? Race tells us approximate skin color, hair texture, and eye shape. It gives us loose hints into possible body type. Very loose. Race tells us about a person's body. What my fellow educators should have been using as information informing their pedagogy was not facts about their student's bodies, but information about their cultures and backgrounds. Teaching children based on race is a useless as teaching children based on other descriptions of their bodies. Do I consider the height of my students when creating a lesson? Their ability or lack of ability to roll their tongue? Why not their shoe size? Perhaps their haircut? Race is only loosely associated with useful information. Sometimes your race links you to a certain ethnicity, and from there to a cultural group. Sometimes.

Culture is useful information. An understanding of culture helps you understand someone. Culture can inform your opinions and shine a light upon certain situations. Race does none of those things. So why does our society insist upon dividing us into groups based on race?

Racially, Barak Obama is an African-American. However, his father was African, which is racially the same as an African-American, but culturally drastically different. (Not that it's useful to think of an entire continent as a cultural group. It's not.) His father was also absent. He was raised by white women. That's generally not the case for culturally African-American kids in Detroit, Chicago, or New Orleans. He was raised mainly in Hawaii. In Hawaii every race is a minority. It's not the same as growing up in the deep south, or in Northern Minnesota (where you're the only tan kid in a sea of pasty white). A few more of his formative years were spent at Harvard. I doubt that experience helped him bond with others in the cultural group society typically associates with his race. This is why I am torn on considering him the first African-American president. Racially, sure (which proves that we no longer live in the 60's thank heavens), but culturally, he's not even close. Not. Even. Close. Sure he spent a little while in Chicago where he probably came to understand the culture, but I have trouble believing that it's really his culture.

I think we do a disservice to all African-Americans by plunking him down in the same group with them. They have just as much right to agree or disagree with him on any array of political topics as a person in any other racial group has. Just as I'm not tied to any of the policies of the first freckled President with big hips, they shouldn't be tied to him based on his body.

Race is different than culture. And cultural information is only useful to a point. It turns out, as educators, and as human beings, we should be informing our pedagogy through getting to know people. Knowing people. That's useful. That's helpful. That's moving forward.

*The most convincing explanation/solution I've ever seen was in the ninth chapter of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

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Blogger Lark said...

Well said.

I have always felt that the politically correct diversity programs in public schools and communities are damaging. Celebrating diversity divides and separates us all. People should be united not divided. Our country has always used the motto “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

Enjoying all kinds of different cultures is important to help us appreciate each other and our individual heritage. But that is entirely different than the push behind diversity. The leaders behind diversity are not on the same page as our creator. He asks us to be united.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Courtlin said...

So as you know I didn't actually read your is too long and there are no pictures. But one of my favorite things about you being pregnant is your rants.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Janna said...

Hey Talyn, nice post. I'm definitely gaining some new perspectives on race and culture living in Hyde Park, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the US! I have a book recommendation for you: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, by the sociologist Annette Lareau. I read it for an education/human capital policy class I took last year. It's extremely well-written and addresses the contents of your post very well, and I think as an educator you'd enjoy it.

Hope all is well with you, Kevin, Alena, and the little one to come!

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Tony said...

I agree with your viewpoint, Talyn. Canada has always encouraged and supported (including materially) multi-culturalism. In 1971, the federal government announced its policy of multi-culturalism. It challenged all Canadians to accept cultural pluralism, while encouraging them to participate fully and equally in Canadian society. I do agree with the politicians intent - that all should fully participate in society, but at the same time ENRICH it by sharing our individual unique cultures. Canada has the Charter of Rights and Freedom entrenched in the Constitution and will therefore always try towards that ideal. However, there will be distractions along the way.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Yes, race is different than culture. I was actually thinking that same thing before I got to the part where you actually say it in your blog post. I live in Toronto, which is pretty much the most culturally diverse city in the world, and I have come face to face with culture clashes here. All the time we are thinking about the different cultural groups in our ward and how we can get them to mix more... there's just something about us as humans that makes us want to group ourselves.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I like this rant.

My two cents:

1. God doesn't put people in categories. Why do we?

2. The downfall of the purified early American society began when the people "began to be divided into classes" (4 Ne. 1:26). I believe as long as we place labels and categories on each other, we can not be one.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Cary said...

1. I agree 100%.

2. Being "politically correct" is far overrated.

3.I felt nauseous just reading about government testing. The stupidity of it all, not just it's interest in race but the entire mess. I was only in public education a short while but it quickly became my arch nemesis.

4. Courtlin is hilarious.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Talyn said...

When you 4th graders were trying to fill out the race/ethnicity question on their standardized test, a whole bunch of them didn't know what they were. I guess they always just defined themselves by something more useful. They kept asking me, "Mrs. Wong, which one am I?" I would ask them where their family came from and they would tell me a list of places that could get them into several of the different answer choices. I eventually told them to just fill in a bubble. Take that NCLB.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Talyn said...

Emily, I've always though that it was a little bit silly to have the goal to be to get cultural groups to mix. I mean, if they refuse to ever interact with each other, that's a problem, but generally we choose friends with whom we have something in common. What's wrong with that? I guess it's just like the difference between a bunch of people being friends, or being clique-y. One isn't destructive, the other is. I guess then the solution to cultural groups refusing to mix would be to show them what they have in common with each other.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Jonny said...

Very good.

1:29 PM  

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