Know Thyself: Expect Diversity

My daily survival does not depend on my knowledge of any minority culture. As Peggy McIntosh (2008) points out, there is a great deal of unrecognized privilege for those that are privileged. The observation on being white extends to many categories that I identify with; certainly, not every part of my identity rests in a place of privilege. However, without awareness of this, I could easily subvert these aspects of who I am. It would be easy to simply follow the majority culture and change my persona to match. Just as many teenage students of mine transform and manipulate their persona to fit in, I could easily do the same. My knowledge of minority culture would not need to be developed in any way and my daily survival would not be impacted in any way.

In fact, my teaching does not depend on my knowledge of any minority culture either. I can address the needs of the majority of my students without acknowledging the multiple narratives that students have about their cultural identity. I can teach standards and maintain a classroom with a positive relationship between every student and myself. But, I would be missing something.

The privilege of my white skin and my male identity that I enjoy sets up an unbalanced power paradigm. I do not need to adapt; without action from myself, I would be expecting my students to adapt. With every moment of this, I would be affirming the discrimination that had come before me; I would be sending it to the next generation of diverse citizens. Without self-reflection that turns to action, I have the privilege to remain ambivalent and can inactively choose to keep oppressive systems in place. As Hiam Ginott says, “I am the decisive element in the classroom.” I can and do choose to inspire my students by engaging their student voice – rather than continue their cultural torture that would exist with inaction on my part. Everyone, especially students that are developing deserve to be who they want to be and not who majority culture tells them to be.

Giving life to Howard’s idea of cognitive dissonance, where he describes being raised in a way that is different than the way he operates in his daily adult life (Howard, G. 1996, p 323), I grew up with a bland and homogenous understanding of racial equality that is different that what I know and believe today. I learned, through personal reflection that racial equality is much more than making everyone equals because the great melting pot actually erases history and makes a palatable story for the future and ignores the rich and multi-faceted narrative of a vast network of people. Instead racial equality is about honoring and giving voice to differences so that everyone can be celebrated.

The first step I must take is to understand myself. I must understand what I bring to the table in both bias and culturally responsive instincts. To start with my own identity, I grew with a very neutral definition of being white. I grew up in the white majority town of Eugene Oregon. Despite my parent’s liberal tendencies and a family history of fighting for equality, I had no significant exposure to people that needed racial equality.

I was not aware, really aware in a personal way, of the racial injustice that exists in the world on a daily basis. I was not aware of the constant cultural appropriation that I was raised on; this appropriation in my “cultural education” was what I thought was cultural appreciation. One such instance of this was my defense of a white blues singer – one who grew up with me – that had adopted a singing voice and accent imitating the voices of the Mississippi Delta despite his otherwise homogenous and white upbringing that mirrored mine.

In fact, despite my parent’s best efforts, they led a fairly stereotypical “Leave it to Beaver” lifestyle. I grew up with a father that worked for the family income and a mother that took care of her kids; they had three children, one cat, one dog, and lived behind a short white picket fence in a very average middle class neighborhood. I had one “token” black teacher growing up. The teacher ignored racial identity and instead lectured about a very textbook based European History. I even had a Philippino best friend (but he was adopted at a young age and lived another average “white” life). I thought these people were evidence of my cultural diversity. Further, this friend of mine was blind and never saw himself as different. In his ears, everyone sounded the same. In fact, my awareness of racial identity, other than my whiteness, did not develop until I went to college. I was a product of my own socialization. This concept is more fully developed by the work of Howard (1996). The question is how we take the lessons of our own socialization and turn them into positive action. Once such powerful instance in my life happened my first year in college.

As a freshman in college, I had a teacher talk about art and the world from the perspective of the “black man;” he spoke about car doors locking when he walked down the street and people pre-emptively crossing the street to avoid walking past him on the sidewalk. I remember discounting his attitude; I am also certain that I was significantly, still to this day, affected by his attitude. The class was Textual Analysis for Theatre and we studied the play “A Raisin in the Raisin in the Sun,” by Loraine Hansburry; we even performed parts of the text. There we were, a classroom full of mostly white 18-year-olds, trying to dawn the personas from this black south-side Chicago family. The conversations between classmates after school was nothing but complaints, “how can they think I can play a black man that is half my age and from half-way across the country?” However, the experience was still valuable. If anything builds empathy, it is walking in the skin of the unfamiliar with the intention of being empathetic. There was no multi-cultural content in this class. I did not feel like my identity was valued or heard; this experience was exactly what I needed to develop as a person. The culture was completely different than what I had previously experienced. As a student I was not comfortable; Hillis (1996) would say that this helped me learn; if a student is comfortable in their classroom they will have a lessened ability to learn (Hillis, M., 1996, p 125). The classroom culture had to change completely for me to grow as a person aware of diversity.

This teacher knew his students. He knew that the shock value of having to go through the exercise of empathy would change our lives – and it did. I look at the world differently from that point in time. I was primed for deeper conversations about diversity and artistic responsiveness. My training as an artist has many similarities to my training as a teacher. Both fields require a personal performance of content where information is given and received; performances and classes vary (or should) depending on the people in the room, the comments made, the adaptations made for everyone in the room, and the relationships that both the teachers and all of the students have with each other. Both teaching and bring an artist are creative, reflective, and reactive for the practitioner; both are rooted in the community and intended to serve everyone that show up to the performance. My upbringing did not give me much to show up with. Growing up in bland white culture, I had little to talk about and identify with.

I now take the lead that Howard (1996) suggests. After reflecting deeply into my past and researching my ancestors I can reclaim my cultural identity. I have, for many years now, thought of myself as American, Irish, Scotch, and French Canadian. I am lucky that there are so many identifiable parts of my past.

Know THY STUDENTS, linked here.

Know THY SUBJECT, linked here.

Back to Prologue and Epilogue, here.


Hillis, M. R. (1996). Allison Davis and the Study of Race, Social Class, and Schooling. In J.A. Banks (Ed.), Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge and Action (pp. 115 – 128). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Howard, G. (1996) Whites in Mulitcultural Education: Rethinking Our Role. In J.A. Banks (Ed.), Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge and Action (pp. 323 – 334). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

McIntosh, P. (2008) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In A.V. Kesselman, L. D. McNair, and N. Schniedewind (Ed.), Women; Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology (pp 388 – 392). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Author: David Orace Kelly

International Teacher - Arts and Education Leader

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