I should clarify. I am not in a position to speak on behalf of my entire school. What follows are the implications of cultural diversity as they are apparent to me. My hope, however, is that I have earned the right to speak small truths into the theories and practices of my education colleagues both inside and outside of my building.
Last month, my middle school adopted a vision statement that includes the phrase, “…produce generations that embrace cultural diversity.” Embedded in this statement is the charge to become a school that embraces cultural diversity so that we can produce generations who do the same. But what does it mean to embrace cultural diversity? It seems innocuous enough.
The truth, however, is that the word “diversity” comes with its own set of historical baggage. Through the centuries, people from all sides of the political spectrum have rejected the virtues of a diverse society. A nineteenth century group of white abolitionists called the American Colonization Society assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 free African Americans to the newly formed west African country of Liberia. Abraham Lincoln was among the proponents of this “repatriation.” Furthermore, the colonization movement would eventually inspire the black separatist political and religious movement known as the Nation of Islam.
Conversely, The New York Times Magazine recalls how one social experiment in Virginia in the 60’s and 70’s set out to integrate an all-white private school for the express purpose of teaching the virtues of diversity to the white students who would one day become the thought leaders of a new society. Salon has a piece aptly titled, “Diversity is For White People,” which addresses the problematic ways in which the term “diversity” is used to avoid the difficulty of true anti-racism work.
So back to the question at hand. What does it mean for a school to embrace cultural diversity?
To begin with, embracing cultural diversity means both emphatically rejecting the white supremacy and white nationalism of the “alt right” and respectfully disagreeing with the black separatism of movements like the Nation of Islam. There is no place for claims of “good people on both sides” of Charlottesville. Diversity compels us to speak openly at school in opposition to any ideology that calls for the separation of people based on race. Furthermore, our curriculum should neither be Eurocentric nor Afrocentric (though a healthy dose of latter may be needed to counter the former).
Second, for a school to embrace cultural diversity means that its teachers and administrators must be equipped to have daily conversations about race with varying size groups of students. These conversations are not restricted to Social Studies classrooms. Diversity is cross-curricular. White teachers should regularly find themselves saying things like, “I am white.” Talking to a class about race can be difficult. Talking to individual students about race can be even more difficult. But it must be done if our product is a student that embraces cultural diversity.
Third, embracing cultural diversity means rejecting the re-segregation of the corporate education reform movement. We know that capitalism does not produce diverse communities. The most privileged neighborhoods and schools (mostly white) and the most under-privileged neighborhoods and schools (mostly communities of color) testify to this. It is in the lower middle class, where civic support is moderate to good and where housing is affordable, that we typically see the most diversity. The answer to the re-segregation of our inner city and suburban schools is not selective admissions and voucher programs. These only serve to exacerbate the problem. Affluent mostly white suburban schools should be looking upon lower socio-economic diverse schools with envy instead of animus.
Fourth, when we embrace cultural diversity we are embracing sanctuary for undocumented students. No one can truly embrace cultural diversity while clutching to the irrationality of xenophobia. Public schools are currently at odds with immigration policies espoused by the President of the United States. Education is about building bridges, not walls. The day that schools are required to obtain information concerning citizenship status is the day that teachers will become galvanized perhaps like never before.
Fifth, embracing cultural diversity means that on some level we acknowledge the reality of, or perhaps the need for, class warfare. This piece from The American Prospect takes the position that our society’s focus on diversity has distracted us from the real problem of economic inequality. This may very well be true, but I believe that embracing cultural diversity can also be a window to understanding class struggle. For instance, at my school, the answer to the question, “Why is our school more diverse than others?” is inherently about class and opportunity. I also believe in the possibility of a revolution of the people that begins in under-served urban schools (Reading for Revolution).
I am not naïve. We are not diverse because we have embraced it. Our decision to embrace cultural diversity is predicated on our student body being diverse. But regardless, we have been granted an opportunity, a gift even. For me it’s very simple, my school is a model of the kind of world I want to live in.