Schools can limit how children understand, communicate with, and interact with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds. Many teachers are not allowed to discuss important aspects of culture, such as religion. Other teachers may need more knowledge or professional development to develop a deeper, more meaningful understanding of diverse cultures. As a result, children end up receiving a superficial and/or stereotypical understanding of the diverse cultures that they will encounter in life.
Dr. James A. Banks a specialist in multicultural education notes how many schools use the contribution or additive approach to teach children about cultures. The contribution approach celebrates holidays, heroes, and special events. This approach mentions culture only during certain “special” times during the year (e.g., Martin Luther King in January). The additive approach, which is a step more advanced, adds cultural content, themes, and perspectives to the traditional, Euro-centric curriculum. An example Banks (2002) uses to illustrate this approach is that of a fifth-grade unit on “Westward Expansion.” Using the additive approach, teachers might add perspectives of Lakota Indians. However, the Lakota’s were already in the West. If we viewed this curriculum from the Lakota’s point of view it may be called “The Invasion from the East” (Banks, 2002). The traditional curriculum is Euro-centric and does not bring forth multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, both the contributions and additive approaches do not change the existing curriculum. As a result, children do not learn to understand the world from different viewpoints.
By only celebrating Cinco de Mayo in May or learning about Native American perspectives during “Thanksgiving” children are developing a very basic understanding of culture. Children are not taught to critically think about whether Native Americans would call this day “Thanksgiving.” Some Native Americans have claimed that for them, this day would be called “A National Day of Mourning.” I remember going to school and learning about cultures through a multicultural week that highlighted the “contributions” of various cultures. This approach led me to develop a mainstream-centric perspective of other cultures.
We need curriculum that teaches children to view concepts, issues, themes, and perspectives from several ethnic perspectives and points of view. One way to teach this is by looking beyond the cultural contributions of an ethnic group. I remember learning about African American culture through African American History week. I developed a mainstream-centric view of African Americans. I learned about the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and so on. We celebrated the end of racial segregation and discrimination. We celebrated everyone having the right to equal treatment.
However, it was never questioned why so many years after the civil rights movement—racial inequities still existed? We didn’t explore how African Americans may have felt about the civil rights movement and the changes that did not take place in society. Banks suggests the transformation approach of the curriculum so that children can view issues from more than one perspective. This requires restructuring the curriculum which schools often don’t engage in because it takes more time, effort, and training.
Parents can help children develop multicultural competence. Building multicultural competence requires children to have an awareness of their culture and an understanding of how their cultural worldview may be different from others. This can be accomplished by helping children develop a meaningful understanding of culture.
At first, children will have questions about the visible differences that exist.Parents should do their best to answer questions that might sound racist or stereotypical. By starting with the concrete, visible aspects of culture parents can then move to more abstract or invisible aspects of culture. For example, if you were discussing the Asian Indian culture, you could ask children to point out what they know about the culture. They may point out skin color, dots, saris, food, smells, etc. While this may seem like you are simplifying the culture to its basic elements (i.e. essentializing culture), these are the types of conversations that need to happen before you have can guide them to a more deeper understanding of their cultural values, beliefs, practices and worldviews. Through this process, we can empower our children to have the cross-cultural skills that they will need to understand, effectively communicate with, and interact with people from diverse cultures.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.