Teaching Diversity - Learning Tolerance?

Chair, Equity and Diversity Action Committee

For the past several years, I have taught History 10, Ethnicity and American Culture, at Santa Monica College. This course fulfills both my college's and U.C. Berkeley's American Cultures graduation requirement. As with other faculty members in California's community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, Santa Monica College faculty support exposing students to the comparative historical experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, European Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos and Latinas. In teaching about the diversity of the American peoples, the underlying assumption is that students are learning to understand and tolerate cultural differences and accept racial and ethnic diversity.

I have certainly enjoyed many "teachable" moments, but occasionally something happens in class that causes me to question whether or not tolerance can be learned from teaching about diversity.

During the first year that I taught the course, I walked into the classroom and immediately sensed something had occurred. A young woman who appeared to be African American and sat in the front of the room was visibly upset with a group of African American women who sat in the back of the room. I asked what the problem was. One of the women in the back said, "We wanted to know why she thinks she's better than us and won't sit with us." The other student replied, "I keep trying to tell you that I'm NOT African American. I'm Israeli-African-my mother is Israeli and my father is from Africa. I'm Jewish." One of the women in the back of the room then said, "I know that if I went to Africa I'd be accepted as African, so you are like us." Then an international student from Ghana chimed in, "No, in my country, you would be seen as American!"

This incident helped me to formulate one of my major student learning goals: that students learn the difference between external appearances and the internal cultural complexities that make us individuals. On the first day of class, I break students into small groups to discuss and define "race" and "ethnicity," so that the distinctions are clearly framed in the context of the course. Throughout the course, as the historical experiences of various groups are unveiled, I keep reminding students of the external and internal and how historically groups were treated due to perceived physical differences despite their cultural assimilation to the United States. Later in the semester, students write an essay defining their ethnic identity, in which physical appearance is a component, so that I can see whether or not they have observed and learned the distinctions about themselves and can express them in writing.

Despite these efforts, I occasionally have experiences that make me question whether or not students have learned this. For example, as I lectured on pre-World War II Asian immigration to the U.S., an African American female student blurted out, "I really don't want to sound or be, you know, racist. But I was kind of shocked the other day. I saw this Japanese woman who was dressed up really nicely like an American professional. And when she talked, she spoke perfect English. I was surprised, you know?" This came out of a discussion as students spoke about their encounters with persons who appeared to be one thing, but turned out to be something else, such as Korean Bolivians and Japanese Brazilians. I then asked the student what she thought I was? As she stammered that I could be Japanese or Chinese, it dawned on her that the larger point was that I was just like the woman she had encountered-a person born and raised in the United States who happened to have an Asian face.

But perhaps the most daunting episodes arise when students who have expressed outrage, dismay, or surprise at certain historical events, such as the socalled "Greaser Act" passed by the California Legislature in the 1850s, the massacre of Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre in 1871, the 1915 opinion of a Stanford University sociologist that the "Mediterranean" Europeans were skilled at not being truthful compared to the blond truthtelling Europeans, or a photo of a slave with a deeply scarred back, reveal their own deep-seated prejudices in the classroom.

Recently, as my lecture turned to Asian Indian immigration in the early twentieth century, I asked the students if they could explain the difference between Hinduism and Islam. One student ably explained major elements of Hinduism. However, as another student began to explain Islam, another student began making what he probably thought were funny asides about "vestal virgins" and "Allah is great!" to the students around him. I asked him to stop. Then, I turned to the origins of the Sikhs, who had emerged in India in an area located between Hinduism and Islam. I began to show drawings and photos of Sikhs. While I was explaining that in the wake of September 11, 2001, Sikhs were attacked and one was murdered because they were tragically and erroneously thought to be Muslims, another student began making joking asides about the drawings to his friend who had been making the previous comments.

I stopped the lecture and asked the student what was so funny. Instead of apologizing, which is the usual response, this student attempted to justify it by pointing out that the drawings were funny. "Look, he has twigs coming out of his hair!" For a class of students outraged that the English in Virginia made fun of the Pamunkeys for their tattoos, shaved heads, and ear piercings, I found his response both outrageous and curious. I pointed to the group and told them to stop their behavior and that I was trying to teach them to tolerate these differences.

I spent the rest of the day mulling over what had occurred, talking with several of my colleagues. Perhaps I was the one who had gotten it wrong. Is teaching diversity a way to promote tolerance? Do students actually learn tolerance through exposure to diverse groups and experiences? Might something else be at work?

I realized that up until this point in the course, students often asked questions based on their not knowing much about the various groups, or they knew enough to be sympathetic or to be careful in how they expressed themselves. However, I had just introduced a group, the Muslims, and shown drawings and photos of Sikhs, who students knew little about but could respond to as familiar in the wake of 9/11 and in the midst of a war in Iraq and on terrorism. My students may have been responding as Americans in wartime had in the past, vilifying the Germans in World War I or the Japanese Americans in World War II or the communists in the Cold War. In other words, despite my best intentions, the current climate might be affecting their responses.

Perhaps the original assumption in teaching multiculturalism, that teaching diversity means students learn tolerance, needs reexamination. As my recent experience suggests, the order might be reversed. Maybe we are teaching tolerance while our students are learning about diversity. Or while I thought I was teaching diversity in order for students to learn tolerance, I was in fact the one who was learning about the context of my students' cultural lives and learning about diversity and tolerance.

As faculty, our challenge is not only to broaden student understanding of others, but to foster acceptance and appreciation which may or may not happen. If this is the case, we may require new approaches.