Minnesota Mamaleh: About Tokenism

Not diverse. But darn cute.

When I was a classroom teacher MLK Jr. Day meant that I was gathering a few books, previewing an amazing video and busily creating a version of a different-colored-hands-holding-hands project that brought a tear to my eye because it was just so Creative! Effective! And meaningful!
At the end of the week I’d gather up my materials and put them away until the following year. And that, my friends was tokenism.

Tokenism is defined as the practice of making only a token effort or doing no more than the minimum, especially in order to comply with a law.

Ouch. That hurt a little bit, didn’t it?
Now don’t get me wrong here. I think that a little bit of effort is good. Very good, in fact. But it’s a baby step. A start.

What really matters is what you say and do on regular days.

For example, in December I went into Kayli’s classroom to be the Hanukkah mom. For many of the kids it was their first, and perhaps only, exposure to anything Jewish. A lot of hate happens from lack of knowledge. And learning about each other is a gem of a step forward that I was honored to be a part of.
But the rest of the month the classroom operated under the assumption that everyone celebrated Christmas. Christmas coloring sheets, playing Santa’s helper, creating a beautiful calendar as a Christmas present.

Remember? What really matters is what happens on the day-to-day.

So regardless of guest speakers or special projects, if the everyday language and curriculum centers around and screams the message: This is what we ALL do, then we’ve tokenized. Accidentally and unintentionally. But tokenized, nonetheless.
Many of us parents and teachers are ice skating on the fine line of wanting to expose our children to the whole wide world, but aren’t quite sure how to go there in any other way than one-off style. We’ve fallen into the tokenizing trap and we can’t get out.
So right here, right now, I’m going to give you a little nudge, a little boost, a little START in the process of moving away from tokenizing and towards authentic diversity. Here are:

Three Ways to Vamp Up Diversity Education

3. Timing: Black History Month. Women’s History Month. Gay Pride Day (Ahem). They’re nice. And good. Really good. But they can’t be the only months or days or lessons that curriculum represents people from diverse backgrounds. Give equal time to each theme, holiday, group that you’re representing. One lesson won’t cut it. You’re planning on teaching about MLK this week? Fab. Maybe your lesson can serve as a jumping off point for an on-going study. Next month you can hit some of these Famous Black Americans and after that maybe one of these.
2. Wording: “Boys and girls I bet you’re all so excited for Santa to come!” is just plain out of date. Don’t say it. The same holds true for, “When you play in your backyard” “When Daddy comes home from work” “The last time you went on vacation” “When Mommy and Daddy” “When you eat, try, do, say.” All  of it. Don’t be afraid to ask kids (And their parents) to tell their stories. And don’t be afraid to listen to those stories. Most will be happy to tell you, we can all learn from each other and you’ve lost absolutely nothing by asking.
1. Books: It’s really ALL about the books. You can’t read twenty-five Christmas books and one Hanukkah book. No, you really can’t. Same holds true for reading the entire Magic Tree House and Junie B. Jones series and one short, poorly written MLK book. Seriously. N-O. Sort the books in your theme baskets. If every character represents a white-middle class-together mom and dad-family then your book collection needs to be revamped. Your local librarian can help you find a wide variety of books and many sites are dedicated to listing and reviewing multicultural literature. Yep, right here at your fingertips. Diverse characters, authors and illustrators count. Commit to adding one diverse book to your collection at a time.
All of these things (How’s that for eloquent?) can be applied at home, too. Look at your books, your activities, your foods, your words and your friends. Make those changes. Widen that net. Show your kids how it’s done. And learn right alongside them.

Still not diverse

Still not pretending to be.

And still darn cute.

For the record: I’ve heard the “Have diverse friends” advice many-a-time and it has always made me cringe. I can just imagine myself at ECFE scoping the room for a Mama of color to befriend. Wrong, oh-so-very wrong. But broadening who you take an interest in, have over for play dates, invite out for drinks with true intent? That’s the good stuff right there. That’s the day-to-day real authenticity that will change the world. Cue sappy end music here, if you’d like.