Challenging Stereotypes in Neohumanist Diversity Curriculum
By Didi Ananda Devapriya
(pictures from Gradinita Rasarit Mihai Bravu and Gradinita Rasarit Bucuresti Noi Schools, Romania)
Small children are spontaneous scientists, gathering information, making hypotheses, testing them, and drawing conclusions that eventually crystallize into a belief system that then embeds itself deep in the unconscious mind. When these beliefs remain unchallenged, and are confirmed by repeated experience, they harden and set like plaster, and become difficult to reshape in later life. Consciously seeking opportunities to introduce themes that address human diversity in an inclusive way is a key feature of successful Neohumanist early childhood education. When diversity curriculum is appropriately designed, it can help to correct and prevent the solidification of stereotypes and blind prejudices in the formative mind of the child.
Infants are born into a state of undifferentiated subjective consciousness. In that state, others do not exist as separate entities but rather as an extension of the self. The baby literally experiences an attentive mother as a continuation of its own mind and body, responding directly to her thoughts and desires without any effort to communicate to an outside entity. An infant’s cry is not a form of intentional communication but rather a pure subjective expression. As the layers of the mind develop, the objective mind begins to form, and to sense others as distinct, separate entities, not controlled by the desires and needs of the subjective self. At this developmental stage, “stranger anxiety” normally forms, in which the child perceives others as alien, unknown, and potentially dangerous. The mother or other important attachment figure becomes a safe anchoring point from which the child explores the environment and other people, continually checking and measuring the mother’s reactions before determining the safety of a new situation. Imagine then the messages a child indirectly receives when he feels his mother’s anxiety as she draw him closer to her in the bus whenever someone from a minority group passes by, how she laughs nervously and in embarrassment if he points out their different skin color, hushing him to be polite, and how the child begins to notice similar consistent reactions in other trusted adults as well. Even though nothing “racist” was said verbally, the child quickly deduces consistent patterns and forms a hypothesis that “others” are not safe or to be trusted. In this way “us” and “them” thinking forms not only develop as recognition of difference but those differences are assigned values and become the basis for the transmission of socio-sentiments. When other experiences and information continue to confirm this hypothesis, it calcifies into a belief, and the child grows up into an adult who without a conscious reason may feel a vague nervousness, embarrassment and unease whenever faced with the “other”.
However, as these beliefs are still in formation, if the child comes into contact with other experiences that do not fit the hypothesis, the whole hypothesis may be discarded and a fresh one formed based on the new information. The challenge of NHE diversity curriculum is to create situations in which stereotypes and other limiting beliefs can surface and be questioned and discussed openly without embarrassment or fear.
As always, the example of the teacher is fundamental. Diversity curriculum is not about just teaching children to be “polite” in order to mask an underlying fearful feeling of discomfort and separateness. Children will see straight through the politeness and sense the real attitude it hides, and form their conclusions accordingly. In order to effectively teach diversity curriculum, Neohumanist teachers must consciously challenge their own socio-sentiments. One of the best ways to do so is to actively seek to form close personal bonds of friendship with people from other social groups. It is difficult to continue to generalize or stereotype a whole group once one has cultivated a warm, loving friendship. In order for such friendships to break down our unconscious stereotypes and limitations, it is important not to assume that respect means to minimize differences, and see the other as an exception to the rule– “you are not like them, you are one of us”. Rather, it is important to acknowledge differences and listen with interest and respect to the other person’s own experience of those differences. I once became close friends with a Russian woman my age, and realized that I actually knew nothing about Russia – growing up in Cold-war America, Russia and Communism was just a synonym for something dangerous and evil, and conjured up grey, monotonous images of sturdy robot-like people. We had great fun discussing the stereotypes we had both learned about each other and finding out what life had really been like growing up in our different countries. This then gives great insight and empathy for the actual human experience, and is much more real than the distorted information received from stereotypes. After the developmental stage of realizing the existence of a separate, and thus unknown objective world follows the social stage of realizing that “others feel as I do” which makes others knowable and familiar again through the bridge of empathy. This basic truth that others have the same feelings as I do resonates deeply with the child’s innate sense of dharma, and when empathy is well modeled by sensitive adults, the child easily expands its empathy and love. However, children also encounter callousness, fear, shame or other barriers to empathy when observing the interactions of the adults close to them with people from other social groups. This creates an internal dissonance with the child’s emerging moral sense of rightness but often, in time, the child will tend to surrender their own intuition, overpowered by the confusing and contradictory information from the stronger adult world. In NHE diversity curriculum, that natural emerging moral sense must be supported, strengthened and nurtured through discussions that validate the child’s intuitive understanding, by asking them questions that get them to reflect if the messages they have absorbed really make sense to their hearts. For example, in Romania, one of the stereotypes of Gypsies is that they all steal, and this immediately surfaced in the discussion, when I brought a Roma friend to the circle time. They already knew Iulia very well, and loved her and played with her freely, but when she introduced herself as a “Gypsy” then several stereotyped reactions immediately appeared. “Yucky!” said one girl, and “All Gypsies are thieves” declared another, and almost all of the children chimed in unison that it was true – as all of them had heard this repeated hundreds of times by adults. I then asked, “Do you really think that all Gypsies steal?” “Yes, I saw it on TV, so it is true” and they began narrating different recent news stories. “OK, do you think that in Germany there are some people that steal?” “Yes” “Do you think that all Germans steal then?” “No” “So if you think that in Germany there are some people who do bad things and some people who are good, do you think it might be the same with Romanians? and with Americans? And with Gypsies?” The discussion continued, with Iulia then sharing pictures from her childhood. The children discovered that her favorite color was red, she enjoyed the same games and songs they did. They also felt sad when they heard how some children had hurt her feelings when they didn’t want to play with her because she was Roma. They even acted out a role play of a similar situation in which they all helped to defend the Roma child.
In NHE diversity curriculum one of the goals is to expand the child’s natural state of oneness and empathy that it shares with those in its “us” category also to the “other”. NHE does not seek to minimize, gloss over or ignore human differences, nor does it seek to place too great a value on the exotic. In contrast, “multicultural curriculum” that emphasizes the exotic, folkloric aspects of a culture can actually end up unwittingly reinforcing the superficial stereotypes rather than increasing an appreciation for diversity. One way to avoid this pitfall, is to avoid approaching a culture as a tourist, an outsider bringing the children to visit monuments, museums and restaurants – but rather to have the culture introduced by a native who is inviting the children into their own world. In the past few years, in our Romanian schools we often do a multicultural unit on the native country of one of our children. When we had children with a Greek father, we chose Greece, when we had a French girl, we chose France etc. This gives an opportunity for the child to feel the uniqueness of her own family history and traditions valued and appreciated rather than remaining invisible within the mainstream culture. The children become experts who can share special things from their family to the class, and sometimes their parents also come to share food, dance, music or pictures from their native culture. I recently attended a conference, in which a Roma rights leader mentioned that many teachers will proudly claim that they do not treat Roma children differently than other children, and that was their mistake, because they are different, and those differences should be acknowledged and addressed rather than swept aside and made invisible. However, even in more heterogeneous situations, this principle can be applied. For example, when we chose Africa and did not have any African children, we invited and a man named Victor from Ghana to come and teach drumming to the children over a 2 week period, so that the children would have a chance to get to know him as a friend. Besides learning drumming, they got to hear Victor tell about growing up in Ghana, see pictures of his family and hear music from his country. In all of these cases, humanizing a culture by getting to know a friend was an important element to help nurture the awareness that behind apparent differences, we have the same feelings and human heart.
However, the most challenging socio-sentiments are usually towards the socio-economically disadvantaged ethnic minorities within one’s own country. That is why in Romania we have also been doing diversity projects about the Roma people (or “Gypsies”) as they are the most socially marginalized and stigmatized minority in the country. Children are programmed from an early age to fear, distrust and hate the Roma to such a widespread extent that it is not difficult to find even quite liberal and enlightened adults who will say that they are not racist but Roma are really genetically criminal, promiscuous, etc. It is a vicious cycle because people, both individually and collectively, respond to our expectations about them whether positive or negative and such beliefs create self-fulfilling prophecies that further reinforce the stereotype with concrete examples that “prove” it is true. Again our approach was to invite a friend, in this case Iulia who has been working with AMURTEL as our project coordinator. Already, by her role and work in AMURTEL she had provided a positive model that contrasted with the usual stereotypes, and the teachers had a warm and respectful relationship with her. Before we began the diversity project, she attended several staff meetings and shared some of her personal experiences of being discriminated as a Roma, and this helped increase the insight of the staff and from those discussions the teachers were able to invent quite realistic, interesting stories for circle time. The teachers took care to present the Roma characters not only in stereotypical victim roles, but rather as heros and in powerful situations – though in several instances the characters experienced discrimination and then the children became part of a problem-solving discussion. For example, one of the stories “Ballerina Caterina” was about a Roma girl who goes to the city to look for work, and after watching a ballerina perform, dances alone on the stage, dreaming of becoming a great dancer. The director of the ballet sees her and then invites her to perform in the ballet. At one point in the story, a watch is stolen and she is wrongly accused – and just because she is Roma everyone believes she did it. But later the true thief is discovered, and she becomes a great ballerina. The children very much empathized with Caterina, and on the final day of the project when the children acted out the story as a performance, the girl who had originally said “Yucky” to Iulia, acted in the role of Caterina. This is the wonderful advantage of doing diversity curriculum in early childhood, when prejudices are not yet subtly masked and hidden, but rather jump right to the surface where they can be openly discussed and re-evaluated. The children are not yet rigidly entrenched in their beliefs and can quite easily change them when given information that resonates with their heart.
Strong personalities trust their own thinking and listen to their hearts. One of the aims of NHE is to create a new generation that can lead humanity towards an era of cooperation, respect and ecological balance. To achieve such a lofty goal, teachers must carefully and consciously nurture, strengthen and validate the inborn sense of justice and empathy that all children have and protect it from being overpowered by the entrenched divisive tendencies that have been passed automatically from generation to generation.