If you are attempting to raise progressive, socially conscious children, it’s no secret that school will mess your kids up.
Having left the East Coast and our entire families behind for professional opportunities, my husband and I established a network of extended “relatives,” consisting of very good friends and neighbors. These friends became de facto Aunties and Uncles to our two children. Didn’t matter that folks came from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities. Uncle Mike (Japanese American) and Uncle Jim (Korean American) were simply family.
Then one day our son came home with a special assignment. To celebrate the rich diversity of the school (a public school, grades 1-5) in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the pupils in this particular first (or was it second?) grade class were encouraged to bring a dish from her or his “home country.” Huh.
I think it’s fair to say that most parents of African American children dread the day when they have to discuss the history of U.S. slavery with their kids. This has nothing to do with shame or political correctness. It’s just that a) schools usually bring up the topic in a horrible and offensive manner and b) the conversation often happens much earlier in a child’s life than one might expect.
As cheerfully as we could, my husband and I pitched what we thought would be a sure winner: Why don’t you bring mac and cheese, son? Everybody loves mac and cheese! The kid wasn’t having it though. Anybody can bring that. You can even get it out of a box. What’s so international about that??? We explained that the U.S. is our home country, so let’s call up Nanny in Virginia and get her super secret recipe! But the disappointment was too great. Why can’t we just call Uncle Jim and ask for a recipe from Korea?
Dutifully, we went to the world map on our son’s wall and put one finger on our current “home” (Los Angeles) and moved it all the way over to the great land of North Carolina, which is as far back as we could go without making up stories. This lesson was followed by a more official visit to the California African American Museum where our son and his three year old sister were bored by my lectures about slavery and U.S. history. The mac and cheese ended up being a big hit at the school potluck, since most of the other kids either brought tacos or enchiladas, if they contributed anything at all.
I get it: the school was working hard to celebrate “diversity.” But too often “diversity” assignments in schools results in lazy thinking, at best, but usually cultural insensitivity, as we were to experience many, many times with both of our children.
In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t caved to the authenticity game that the school was playing. The rules were simple: pick a box and jump in it. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have offered up some kimchi or at least some spareribs. But we opted for “truth,” which meant that a 7 year old learned about the Middle Passage. Why couldn’t the teacher just ask every student to bring their family’s favorite recipe? Or why couldn’t each person learn about a new country and bring a popular dish from it? There are a multitude of ways that schools can be inclusive and respectful without being marginalizing. (Please include your suggestions in the comments below!)
Years later, while she was attending summer camp, we found ourselves in a similar situation with our daughter. This time: “wear an outfit from your home country.” She wore a cotton dress from Target. What could be more American than that?