15-14 Story 1: Teaching Race and Diversity in Schools

Synopsis: Can race be taught as a school subject, like chemistry and foreign language? And if so, what kinds of curricula are best for making students understand how different races fit into and benefit society? We talk to two researchers about the answers to these questions and take a slightly different look at race, ethnicity, religion and how they affect our perceptions of the world.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Lawrence Blum, Prof. of Philosophy, Dist. Prof. of Liberal Arts & Education, Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston, author of “High Schools, Race and America’s Future: What can students teach us about morality, diversity, and community.” Todd Pittinsky, Prof. in the Dept of Technology and Society, SUNY-Stony Brook, lecturer at Harvard Univ., author of “Us + Them: Tapping the positive power of difference.”

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Race & Diversity: Teaching them as subjects in schools

Gary Price: During Black History Month, schools highlighted the events surrounding slavery and civil rights struggles in America, and the many contributions of African-Americans to all aspects of our lives and culture. However, they don’t teach about “race” itself. That was a void that Lawrence Blum wanted to fill. Blum is a professor of philosophy, and distinguished professor of liberal arts and education at the University of Massachusetts – Boston. He writes about his experience of teaching race as a subject in school in his book, High Schools, Race And America’s Future: What Can Students Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, And Community? He says that the students he taught seemed to be at ease in a very racially and ethnically diverse classroom, perhaps more than adults would be in a similar situation…

Lawrence Blum: I do think that the students that I taught were more comfortable with racial differences than people of my generation were. But I don’t think they necessarily understood the way race operates in society better. I just think they were more comfortable on an interpersonal level, but that there was quite a bit for them to learn about how race had structured American history and how it still continued, unfortunately, to be a divide that disadvantages some groups and advantages others.

Price: The students explored how race affects who we are and how we perceive the world. They found that some perceptions of race are molded by ethnicity, as it was for two young men in Blum’s class: Jacques and Jean-Paul, whose families were from Haiti. Neither student spoke with an accent, and so they were identified with African-Americans – a situation that didn’t sit well at home…

Blum:  Their parents were not exactly prejudiced against African-Americans, but they felt that being identified with African-Americans would not do their sons much good. But, in Jacques’ case, his mother worked, I think she worked in a nursing home with a lot of other African-Americans. And so he reported in this interview I had with him that over time his mother actually changed her view about that. And she came to see that African-Americans were not that different from Haitian-Americans and that she didn’t have any basis for being prejudiced against them, and so she became more accepting of his African-American friends that he brought home from school.

Price: Blum says it was a hopeful thing, because it showed that Jacques’ parents could change their attitudes about African-Americans through their own experiences, and with help from their son. Blum came up with a variety of assignments for his class on race, diversity and perceptions. In one he asked them to write down a racial incident they had seen or been involved in. A story that came up for discussion was about a White couple who attended a Latino-themed dance and were made fun of because of their “stiff White hips”…

Blum:  When they first start talking about it, many of them say, “If I had been at the dance, I would have laughed, also.” But once they start putting that view out there, they start reflecting on it, and then it doesn’t seem to them right to make fun of that couple. And so some of them start to sort of back away. So in other words, even if they would make fun of that couple they start thinking I would have been wrong to do that. And so they start sort of processing that. And then some of the students start injecting the sort of racial element into it, so obviously it’s not nice to make fun of somebody for something like the way they dance, and it’s shaming and those things are bad. But then the question is, is it worse if they say “stiff White hips,” if they kind of racialize the couple’s not dancing very well?

Price: Blum says the class was split on whether bringing race into an insult made a difference or not. One student, though, made a very good point that challenged the others stop and think…

Blum:  One student said “Well if you say “stiff White hips” you’re insulting all White people, not just that individual couple. So you’re not just saying “Oh, that couple dances badly,” you’re kind of saying it’s part of White’s racial nature not to dance well. And that is obviously a much broader group to be insulting than if you just insult this single couple. So I think they made some real moral progress in thinking about the way race comes into these kinds of situations that they encounter in their lives.

Price: The students studied the history surrounding race and slavery both here and in other parts of the world. They also discussed different aspects of their lives where race or ethnicity made a difference, including hairstyles, educational expectations, using the n-word, immigration, and others. Blum says the course was a success, and showed that race could be taught on it’s own …

Blum:  So I ran into one of the students from the class a couple years after she graduated from high school and she said to me, “You know, in your class I learned that race was something that you could study. It wasn’t just something that like happened to you in society. It wasn’t just your experiences, it wasn’t just your feelings, it wasn’t just opinions, it was actually a body of knowledge.” I wanted the students to be intellectually compelled by the study of race, and to sort of recognize that that study was something that would help them understand the foundations of their own racial experience.

Price: A lot of what we know about diversity is gathered not in the classroom but in everyday life. Todd Pittinsky is a professor at SUNY-Stony Brook and a senior lecturer at Harvard. His book, Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference dispels many of the myths surrounding how different groups feel about each other. There are many “others” in the world, and we all belong to several of them simultaneously…

Todd Pittinsky: It can be a religious other, which becomes meaningful and consequential. It can become a political other – certainly in Washington, D.C. we’re seeing the danger or the downsides of highly polarized communities. It can be a nationality, certainly we have nations coming into conflict. You know China is a huge population, yet we see it very often as a “them.” So in a lot of different situations – and this is something that researchers and folks have known for a very long time — that we belong to groups and the groups we belong to can become very meaningful to how we perceive others.

Price: Pittinsky says that the media in all its forms likes to dwell on the problems that arise between different groups, such conflicts in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews; and disputes here between different racial and ethnic groups. He says that we aren’t born suspicious of one group or another. In fact, his research finds that there’s a lot less friction caused by racial, religious and ethnic differences than the news would lead us to believe…

Pittinsky: Most of us come to difference with a real appreciation and interest and that has been completely left out of the equation. We’ve really only thought about the negative, which is present, but it’s, you know our work consistently shows that 33% of folks are extremely positive towards difference. This is not the middle ground of being willing to wade out further. This is folks who really enjoy difference, who really dig down deep, and the majority is positive towards difference. Now, that’s not to say that the minority is not important, the minority that may be negative is not important and can’t get us into a lot of trouble. But it is to say that we’ve got to stop assuming that somehow human nature has this “original sin,” because it just doesn’t.

Price: The positive feelings he found between groups even extended to people who have been portrayed as bitter enemies – the Arabs and the Israelis. Pittinsky says that their research in the Middle East showed that there are sincere, positive feelings between both groups. He also found that it’s not just the religiously or ethnically ambivalent who feel the most positive…

Pittinsky: The folks who were most positive were as attached to their own ethnic communities and religious communities if no more attached than average, which is a bit of an eye-opening thing. There was nothing about appreciating others that required someone to be less attached or less committed or less passionate about their own religion, their own ethnic connection.

Price: Pittinsky says that another myth is that we need to feel “empathy” for a different group in order to appreciate or have positive feelings about them…

Pittinsky: What we find in our work it that empathy is understood as really “empathic sorrow.” So people very quickly go from this notion to really only considering our capacity to walk in someone else’s shoes and feel pity, or sympathy or sorrow. So in our work, we look at “empathic joy.” And what we find, is that when you feel joy empathically for the members of another group, and you have experiences that allow you to not just feel pity or sympathy for others, but really to feel happy and positive, that’s a much stronger predictor of who will go out of their way to form friendships, to mentor across groups, to really building a community of folks who come from different groups.

Price: Pittinsky and his group wanted to find a word to describe this joy. Although there are more than 400 terms in literature that describe negative feelings between “us” and “them”, there was not even one to describe positive feelings. So, they got creative…

Pittinsky: The closest we could come was “tolerance,” and for a bunch of reasons tolerance really isn’t what were talking about. So we coined it. We went to the Greek, “allo” is “other” and “philia” is a “liking”and we put it together for “allophilia” to refer in a very short, concise way to what we were finding in our research and what we see in our communities which is interest and enthusiasm across difference.

Price: Pittinsky hopes the word, and the feelings behind it, catch on around the world. He has not only research in the book, but steps individuals, groups and government can take to create more appreciation between the “others” in society. You can find out about Todd Pittinsky’s research in his book, “Us +Them,” available in stores and online. For a look at how young people view differences, and how race can be taught as a subject in schools, pick up Lawrence Blum’s book, “High Schools, Race and America’s Future,” also in stores and online. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. I’m Gary Price.

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