Diversity is not a four-letter word

We have a problem with homogeneity in the language classroom.

Not what you were expecting, right? First of all, who uses the word “homegeneity”; second of all, we spend our days talking about different cultures. How could we ever be accused of sameness?

It’s true, we do often present information about other cultures, or at least in another language. The problem is that this overarching mission can lull us into a false sense of security when it comes to diversity and inclusion in our resources, content and discussions. We don’t look for opportunities to diversify, because we figure we have that box checked. As a result, our students are learning about people who are like them in most ways, with the exception of speaking another language or living in another country.

Let’s leave one-color sameness to the dairy industry.

I realize this statement is inflammatory, and I mean no disrespect. As language teachers, we play an important role in introducing our students to the world outside of themselves. I think that sometimes we stop too soon when there are so many different kinds of diversity that go unnoticed and unrepresented in our classes, and this is an easy fix. Let’s look at some common problems and what we can do about them.

We feature racial and ethnic diversity and make it the center of the conversation.

If we have any diversity at all, it is often the focus of the lesson. Look at this artist who is a member of a minority group! They are remarkable in large part because they are a minority. They have overcome their minority-ness (whatever that means) in order to become the top producing minority artist in the nation. Did I mention they are not part of the majority?

You get the idea.

We often spotlight people of color BECAUSE they are people of color and whatever other context makes sense in our current unit of study.

We over-generalize race to stand in for all types of diversity, and we fail to mention lifestyle choices and other differences that intersect with our culture and the target culture.

Pick a trait or lifestyle that is out of norm, and I guarantee it exists in any and every country in the world. What a great way to add a different level to comparison! How easy is it for a person in a wheelchair to get around in Quebec? What supports are offered by various governments for people with autism?

We don’t talk about things that make us uncomfortable.

It’s not a moral failing for you to feel a little uncomfortable talking about differences, particularly types of physical and intellectional differences. However, the reason we experience that discomfort is because we have internalized the message that differences are bad. When a little kid points out a limb difference in the grocery store, the parent shushes them, rather than responding with an affirming and positive comment. “Yes, lots of people have arms and hands that look different than yours! Isn’t that neat, how we’re all unique?”

There is one large caveat: If you can’t talk about it, don’t.

If there is some diverse lifestyle that you think is morally abhorrent, leave it out of your curriculum. Disgusted by piercings? Don’t choose pictures with piercings. Your students whose experiences intersect with that lifestyle or trait do not need to be saddled with your negativity. Maybe they’re considering piercings, or maybe they have a friend or family member who has many piercings. Maybe they have never heard of piercings, but later on in life they will meet someone with piercings, and your disdain could affect their ability to connect with that person. The disadvantages outweigh the advantages in this circumstance. If you can’t discuss it in an affirming or positive manner, don’t talk about it–and then ask yourself why it bothers you so much.

We think diversity needs to be organic in order to have a place in our class.

This is something that I want everyone to know. I want to shout it from the rooftops.

You can turn the act of finding and centering diverse ways of life into a habit, like meditating every morning or drinking 8 glasses of water a day.

We are, all of us, surrounded by a culture in which the majority is correct and normal and everything else is strange. We marinate in it, like chicken cutlets in taco seasoning. We have internalized the messages of this culture, even if they do not represent what we believe.

I am a woman, married to a woman. When I met a new female colleague with a wedding ring, I asked her without thinking what her husband does. I belong to the minority group that is marginalized by this type of question, and yet I mindlessly participated in the stereotype of heteronormativity. No one is immune. It doesn’t make us bad people to realize we have these habits and predispositions.

It is, however, a problem when we realize it and choose to do nothing about it.

So, we practice. I practiced using “my wife” in various sentences in front of a mirror for weeks after my wedding, until I could say it without it feeling strange. I practice talking about my non-binary friends, using “they/them” pronouns, in the car as I drive. I follow autistic individuals on Instagram to see what kind of descriptors they prefer and use to describe themselves and others in the same group. I write scripts of how I might talk about a person with a limb difference in a way that doesn’t sound stilted or awkward. I plan lessons, make activities, and search for resources with my diversity and inclusion checklist sitting next to me, so I am constantly reminded that I can be looking to represent the voice and perspective of anyone who is not in every social majority group.

I practice. All the time. And I still make mistakes, use stereotypes, stumble over my words. And I acknowledge that it wasn’t ideal, and I show myself grace, and I try again.

Teaching might feel like second nature to us now, but it didn’t always. The first day of student teaching, we had no idea what we were going to say or how we were going to say it. This is the same; we need to take the concept of diversity and make it into a part of our teaching personality.

We assume we have to tackle every kind of diversity all at once.

There are so many different experiences that we can represent.

It doesn’t have to be a big thing; start with pictures. What color are the people in the pictures of your clothing unit? When you talk about families, do you include as many permutations as possible and point to the difference between families in a positive and affirming way? Can you add non-binary pronouns in the study of your next grammatical structure? Can the character of your next TPRS story be in a wheelchair? The possibilities are endless, and we just have to choose one.

You can find more information on the ways I expand my own worldview in this post.

And in the words of Andrew Jackson from Hamilton, “If ya don’t know, now ya know.”

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