Beyond Diversity Days

There was an interesting story recently on Cultural Diversity Day at a local middle school. In addition to featuring dancing, self-defense, and dialogues, a few speakers lectured on their experiences or cultures, including a Sikh speaker:

Wearing a bright blue turban that matched his outfit, Gurparkash Singh, a scientific writer for Bristol-Myers Squibb, told about the Sikh faith. He said it’s easy to identify a Sikh person by looking at the shape of his or her turban. Sikh turbans are triangular and stop at the nape of the neck.

The writers covering the story spoke of the event as going “beyond diversity” and pushing forward what cultural diversity days are all about. It sounds like the event was really well-rounded and incorporated a lot of communities and backgrounds (and probably went far beyond “cultural” diversity to many different concepts of community diversity). I find myself uncomfortable, however, with classifying a religious community as “cultural,” and further, with tokenizing different communities on a single day of diversity awareness instead of incorporating a diversity-framework or lens into an educational or pedagogical model.

I’ve always had a problem with “diversity” days that attempt to substitute “ethnic” foods and dancers for engagement with the fact that there are many American experiences in the United States, and further, that these experiences exist in a fluctuating system of access to power and privilege.

This diversity day sounds like many others; it assumes there is a unified, single, “mainstream” experience of the U.S. while ignoring or marginalizing the many narratives subsumed into the larger weave of this country’s cultural fabric. In New Jersey, home to one of the largest South Asian, Sikh, and immigrant populations in the country, the structure of this diversity day underscores the continuing segregation of our social spaces.

At what point do we recognize that “awareness” is a limited model for diversity education? I understand the logic behind fear and ignorance, but to a certain extent, awareness may be insufficient to prevent or avoid the real safety concerns and experiences that “non-mainstream” communities face. I think authenticating and legitimizing the “American experience” is just the beginning, but does not go far enough to truly teach sensitivity, open-mindedness, and consideration.

As a community, how should we help move forward the dialogue of diversity and awareness/education? Don’t get me wrong; I think these efforts are an important first step. But I also think that a single school-day devoted to acknowledging that there are experiences beyond a WASP framework is not enough to develop a beloved community. What would you do if you had the opportunity to redesign or reframe diversity education?


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7 Responses to “Beyond Diversity Days”

  1. sonny says:

    i'd start by changing the name to social justice education. i agree that "diversity days" and such can be a good first step especially for young kids but the diversity (and multicultural) framework fails to address power relations. and oppression is all about power. the reason sikhs face so much bigotry in the US (and many many other places) is not simply about people not being aware of who sikhs are – it's not just about ignorance. it's about systemic racism. the educational approaches we should be using to confront and challenge racism and other forms of oppression has to go beyond diversity and into understanding power and privilege. here's a great example: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080225/doster

  2. sonny says:

    oh, and not all dastaars are triangular in shape.

  3. sonny says:

    i’d start by changing the name to social justice education. i agree that “diversity days” and such can be a good first step especially for young kids but the diversity (and multicultural) framework fails to address power relations. and oppression is all about power. the reason sikhs face so much bigotry in the US (and many many other places) is not simply about people not being aware of who sikhs are – it’s not just about ignorance. it’s about systemic racism. the educational approaches we should be using to confront and challenge racism and other forms of oppression has to go beyond diversity and into understanding power and privilege. here’s a great example: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080225/doster

  4. sonny says:

    oh, and not all dastaars are triangular in shape.

  5. justasikh says:

    Awareness, like tolerance, has results that only touch the surface.

    Acceptance, comes from understanding.

    Sadly, understanding can take time too and where Sikhs fail is in using the tools of our society — media, communication, presentation, and the all pervading sound bite.

    What this may be is a failure of Sikhs to participate in society as people first.

    Too often information about sikhism is given out as "I am a sikh and I believe in langar so let me give you langar and you can acknowledge me to be a good person because i feed people and am a sikh as well so now you know" kind of way.

    The more difficult task is to simply be on a path of continuous learning and growth to become informed, live, and be the message you wish to share.

    If your world view point is isolating you, you are failing. If you are connecting with others while maintaining your values, that is progress.

    When people get familiar with you they connect and want to know more about you. The opportunities to connect don't happen often enough.

  6. justasikh says:

    Awareness, like tolerance, has results that only touch the surface.

    Acceptance, comes from understanding.

    Sadly, understanding can take time too and where Sikhs fail is in using the tools of our society — media, communication, presentation, and the all pervading sound bite.

    What this may be is a failure of Sikhs to participate in society as people first.

    Too often information about sikhism is given out as “I am a sikh and I believe in langar so let me give you langar and you can acknowledge me to be a good person because i feed people and am a sikh as well so now you know” kind of way.

    The more difficult task is to simply be on a path of continuous learning and growth to become informed, live, and be the message you wish to share.

    If your world view point is isolating you, you are failing. If you are connecting with others while maintaining your values, that is progress.

    When people get familiar with you they connect and want to know more about you. The opportunities to connect don’t happen often enough.

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