Educating our children on diversity and acceptance

Just recently, an earth-shaking, blood-curdling event happened in Minneapolis, Minnesota when racial discrimination-related violence was supposed to be outlawed or at least minimized. African-American George Floyd met his untimely and violent end when a white American police officer by the name of Derek Chauvin arrested, tackled, and committed the most brutal method of restraint for a law enforcer: tackling his neck, which proved to be very fatal. What was Mr. Floyd’s offense? It was merely an accusation hurled by a convenience store crew that he yielded a fake $ 20.00 bill. As a result, Officer Chauvin was fired from his job and is facing charges of murder for the George Floyd incident which should have been a simple exercise of humane treatment and respect for one’s rights even if under arrest.

This is not the first time that such an incident related to racial segregation and to the enormous gap between whites and non-whites has happened in peacetime. In April 1968, the highly esteemed civil rights pioneer and Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee by a white supremacist by the name of James Earl Ray, who was subsequently imprisoned. Thirteen years earlier, African-American Rosa Parks was thrown out of a bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger; hence, her refusal led to a series of battles against racial discrimination and prejudice in the United States. In martial law-era Philippines, Kalinga village chief Macli-ing Dulag was murdered in April 1980 for openly opposing the building of the Chico Dam in his community.
The fight for diversity and acceptance is ongoing, regardless of where one is located in the world. For instance, in Australia, the indigenous Aborigines have been valiantly and unceasingly fighting for their rights to be recognized as Australians and to be treated equally as the white Australians, who in reality descended from the immigrant Europeans who settled in The Land Down Under. The Rohingya people of Myanmar, who are Muslim, have been fleeing the state of Rakhine due to the violence they have experienced in the hands of the military junta and are now forced to settle in Bangladesh, which has a border with Myanmar. As for our very own Filipino context, our very own indigenous peoples and even Muslims from Mindanao have been treated cruelly and unfairly by the rest of us just because they are a part of the minority.

Diversity and acceptance in education: the real score
Are prejudice, discrimination, and segregation limited only to the outside world? Do we school teachers and administrators actually prevent from happening in the school setting? The answer is plain and simple: Definitely not to both.

In the case of the Philippine educational landscape, discrimination, prejudice, and segregation still prevail. All of us stakeholders are guilty of these seemingly venial sins of humanity in various guises, in one way or another, and whether through omission or commission. Overt and covert examples include children subjecting their mixed-race peers to ridicule for their looks, language proficiency, and even cultural habits; students and teachers fat-shaming or thin-shaming their peers; Catholic schools refusing to accept applicant students whose parents are unmarried or are non-Catholic; students openly and/or secretly shaming their classmates who are financially challenged, emotionally struggling, and mentally ill; refusing to work with co-teachers who are known to be “eccentric” (in reality having a different mindset in terms of work and thinking skills); ridiculing teachers or students who are LGBTQ and accusing them of deviant behavior even without sufficient basis; and, shaming our students for performing poorly in our respective subjects or courses. Even the educational system tends to be discriminatory and at times politically incorrect; for instance, books in the primary grades blatantly define the father as the breadwinner and the mother as the homemaker, therefore creating resentment among children from single-parent households and same-sex parents. Another example is the prevalence of standardized tests from western countries such as the United States and United Kingdom that do not conform to local contexts; even if they are rendered valid, they lack consideration of test takers’ schemata and local contexts.

Despite the Department of Education’s efforts to convince many of our youth to finish their education despite being left out of school for long stretches, we admittedly sometimes discriminate against people who have taken and finished the Alternative Learning System (ALS) or those who are overage for either elementary or high school (or even college). Deep in us, we ridicule them for their weaknesses even if we do not know the whole story. We also have prejudices against former juvenile offenders who are currently finishing their education and reforming their lives simply because we think they would be recidivists.

Why do prejudice and discrimination occur among us teachers and students alike? First of all, we have no prior knowledge of one’s real story and experiences, thus making unfounded assumptions about others. Second, we tend to be unfamiliar with other cultures, whether foreign or local, and thus we lack cultural sensitivity. Third, we are so engrossed in staying within our comfort zones and within our jobs that we refuse to see the real, bigger picture and listen to others’ stories and sentiments. Fourth, we are at times self-absorbed, wallowing in our own issues and problems, therefore failing to see what others are going through or have just gone through in their lives. Lastly, we have been accustomed to pejorative terms such as Bumbay (Indian), Tsekwa/Beho/Intsik (Chinese), Egoy/Negro/Ulikba/Tutong/Baluga/Sunog (referring to dark-skinned people), tanga (referring to people of low intelligence), baliw (referring to people with mental illnesses), baboy (referring to fat people) and other cringe-worthy, caustic, and politically incorrect terms.

Never too late to educate our children on diversity and acceptance
The world today is diverse especially in terms of race and ethnicity, intelligence level, health, body weight and shape, and social stratum. Apart from other basic needs as defined by the late scholar Abraham Maslow, education is a need that everyone yearns for and must undertake to endeavor. However, we unwittingly deprive others of education through our own sanctimonious behaviors, exclusive cliques, and discriminatory professional practices. As a result, there are troubled students who drop out, refuse to interact with their peers, or even get into trouble or commit suicide and we are partly responsible for not accepting, loving, and helping them early on.

We teachers have the duty and the responsibility to teach our children the values of acceptance and respect for diversity through example and modeling. These may be easier said than done, but we can achieve together.
Let me share with you five simple, practical tips on how we can educate and model acceptance and respect for diversity:

  1. Listen to our students and our fellow teachers. Instead of mocking or judging them for their being different, we must listen to them affirmatively and sympathetically. Empathy is the key.
  2. Research on different cultures. We must do this with an objective mind and an open heart. With a plethora of sources available for us to use today, we cannot definitely make excuses for being ignorant of others’ cultures.
  3. Read stories and studies about others’ mental, physical, or emotional challenges. People who have physiological or psychological problems do not deserve to be judged, insulted, or reviled especially when they are currently suffering. We have to listen to their stories and to research on their conditions as to avoid labeling and discrimination. We teachers also have to provide them with strong, constant support and services in order to tide them over and to empower them to reach their full potentials.
  4. Use appropriate labels instead of pejorative ones. The power of language cannot be gainsaid and has proven to change lives, whether for better or for worse. Instead of labeling one as a special child, we may instead use the term child with special needs. In place of the term that refers to one’s medical condition, we may refer to one as a person with (medical condition). In the case of ethnicities, we must use the correct terms (e.g. African-American instead of black) in order to define people as who they can be instead of just referring to their skin color or race. We teachers must remember that we promote acceptance and respect for diversity through words, which can later result in wholehearted, sincere acts of love and compassion.
  5. Treat everyone equally and help those who are struggling. Children and other people feel loved, accepted, and appreciated when we teachers treat everyone equally and without prejudice. As for those who are struggling, we must assist them with their difficulties especially when these difficulties hinder them from their full development and achievement. Above all, we must affirm them whenever they do good deeds in order that they would feel that they are part of the school community instead of being outsiders.
    Acceptance and respect for diversity must start within us through our creed and our deeds. With these, humanity and community would surely prevail and we would have both to bequeath to future generations. #