We’ve talked about how the “colorblindness” approach is not the most helpful way to interact with people of different races and cultures here and here. If you read those posts and are ready to consider a new way of interacting with children, you may be wondering… but what is the best approach?

According to Dr. Monnica Williams, identity can be thought of at three levels: individual, group or universal. Individual is the idea that each person is unique. Group is the idea that we are all members of certain groups, and universal is the idea that we are all human beings. Focusing on universal (“we are all human beings”) and ignoring that each person is unique and belongs to certain groups can be hurtful and dismissive of someone’s culture.

So what do we do with this information?

Adopting a “group” mentality is a sign of multiculturalism. It tells others that we understand that each person is part of their context – each unique and individual, but also defined by the culture and groups of which they identify.

When working with kids, we can adopt a multicultural approach by creating a safe space for discussions around race and culture. Here are three suggestions:

Be open to talking about race and culture.

Don’t shy away from the conversation because it is uncomfortable. It is in these uncomfortable places where we grow and learn about others.

Ask questions.

You don’t know everything about every child’s culture. So ask! What is the cultural makeup of students in your class? The students who are Latino/Latina – what is their country of origin? The students who are bi-racial – what two or more races are in their families? How does a student’s culture impact her worldview about certain topics? To what extent does the student identify as her race or culture and to what extent does she identify as something else, such as her gender or her American culture. Ask! Here are some language stems to help initiate discussion: 

  • I identify as [race, ethnicity, gender, etc.]. This is a big part of who I am. I’d like to know how you identify so I can understand you better.
  • When something comes up related to a student’s culture or ethnicity: “I am really not the expert here, and I don’t believe any one person can speak about a whole group of people. If there is anyone who would feel comfortable sharing his/her own story, that might help us understand a little better.”
  • “I don’t know what that’s like. I wonder if you would feel comfortable sharing a little of your own experience with me so that I can learn.”

Share your own experiences.

It is important that students view their teachers as human beings, not robots who stand in front of the class and disseminate information. In order for students to connect, teachers must be willing to share. And this goes beyond sharing pictures of new puppies and weekend activities. It involves teachers being willing to share their own cultural experiences and beliefs in an age-appropriate way. Think about this: for some students, a white teacher might be their closest relationship with a white person. For students of color growing up in communities of color, there may be perceptions about white people but limited interaction. A white teacher has an incredible opportunity to deepen a child’s understanding of white people by helping him see the complexity of different people. So in addition to asking questions about a child’s culture, a teacher can share about her own. Talk about what country your family originated from, the struggles your ancestors faced, and cultural traditions that your family celebrates.

In doing these three things, you can help children feel seen and understood. You can create a bridge between cultures, and you can create strong, meaningful relationships. 

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