Lessons on Tolerance
from a Multiracial Perspective
by Safara Fisher
Multiracial/ethnic births are on the rise in the United States making it increasingly more complex to identify race and ethnicity. “Between 1960 and 1990, the number of interracial couples in the nation increased nearly tenfold, rising from 157,000 to roughly 1,500,000; and the 1990 U. S. Census counted nearly 2 million children nationwide living in multiracial households” (Public Policy Institute of California, p8). The national Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines a multiracial child as a child who has two parents, one parent from one of the racial/ethnic groups and the other parent from another. The racial and ethnic groups that together define a multiracial child have been identified by OMB federal standards for multiple-race based data as:
- Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, Hispanic or Latino (of any race), Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and white (Public Policy Institute of California p4).
The increase of multiracial people identified by the OMB data has become a federal civil rights policy issue. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund expressed reservations about collecting multiracial data before establishing tabulation methods that would not impede civil rights efforts. So what can we do with this data? This data explains that the methodologies by which we measure and calculate race are becoming outdated. It is therefore evident that the principles of tolerance used to teach about race within our public schools are also missing an important component: the identification of multiracial children within the classroom. We need to advance our teaching practices about tolerance to address our modern society interests and take it upon ourselves, as educators to address race and ethnicity more completely. This is especially significant to teachers of elementary public children who are beginning the self-identification process, and require a safe environment that welcomes discussions on tolerance from a monoracial and multiracial perspective. How can public elementary schools organize and expand curriculum units to encompass the individual identification process that multiracial children address by being in the classroom? What can elementary children of all races take away about how race and ethnicity has shaped society by the increase of multiracial births? How can elementary school teachers become more familiar with the changing identification of minority children as they become more multiracial?
The increased presence of multiracial children in America is a significant trend in society that challenges the racial and ethnic stereotypes of our culture. The choice to use this information to better educate all children from a multiracial perspective is a small step towards acknowledging that an educational system based on the myth of meritocracy is failing our children. This myth has led children in America to believe that if they work hard, they can achieve and become what ever they dream of becoming regardless of their race or gender. The truth about how socio-economic lines are drawn in this country reminds us that many occupations within society of high esteem and class are occupied by a select group of elite predominately, white males. We need to begin a new system by which, the unearned advantages that are inherent in the color of ones skin are explored in relationship to feelings of belonging or abandonment within the lives of children in the classroom. “The negative “privilege” that gave me cultural permission not to take darker skinned Others seriously can be seen as an arbitrarily conferred dominance and should not be desirable for anyone” (McIntosh 78).
Public elementary schools have begun to create a dialogue about race and ethnicity as it relates to children. Such discussions need now to broaden to encompass a multiracial perspective. Examining how public elementary schools effectively approach multiracialism within the community is a good way of determining whether the use of race-based data continues to be an effective tool in desegregating our society. We have a responsibility to address ethnicity and race as it relates to the emergence of multiracial people. Multiracial people, by their racial composition call into question how racial distinctions have been used as a foundation for the distribution of wealth and opportunity. A multiracial community is the present and future profile of America that could create a large racial divide amongst our youth, if not addressed by the public elementary school system.
Multiracial children as minorities in America need to learn to affirm themselves within the communities they live in. They need to feel as though they belong and are welcomed within the multiplicity of races and ethnicities that make up their communities. The community has a responsibility to use its school to encourage communication about cultural differences so as to open up a dialogue about various advantage systems. “In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need to similarly examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation” (McIntosh 79). It is in within public schools where a large minority population exists, that multiracial children should be encouraged to explore their identity with other children, so that collectively they can begin to understand race as it relates to advantages and disadvantages. This can create a dialogue about how minority youth have felt ostracized and how separatism for anyone can diminish ones self- esteem. Public schools need to take a responsibility for America’s history with cultural and racial differences and to develop amongst all children an understanding of the predominant stereotypes and assumptions about race that have divided of people. Recognizing the presence of multiracial children emphasize people as individuals, modeling to all children an inclusive perspective on people and culture. “Most models of personal identity development operate on the premise of single racial or ethnic heritage” (Cortes 7). By acknowledging multiracial children in the classroom, we as educators demonstrate a willingness to take a more diverse approach to our nation’s history and future development. This can allow all children to develop a sense of ownership for their heritage as Americans and feel proud of their family backgrounds. It makes the statement that race-based stereotypes are wrong and that we should as individuals feel at liberty to present ourselves in a cultural context that feels most comfortable.
- Multiracial children have the ability to teach teachers about the importance of individuality in the process of a self -development because of the pressures they have endured to conform to a specific race. In the process of effectively educating children about their race, teachers can take a multiracial approach to race and acknowledge a child’s unique self in relationship to the racial group within society they are inherently a part of. Multiracial children contain this insight because an integral part of their self-identification process is to understand the races derivative of both parents and decide how they wish to define themselves. Multiracial people in America endure a lot of criticism within the culture of America, which tends to look negatively upon the self-concept of an interracial identity. The needs of multiracial children are not unlike most children, to be recognized as individuals. Teachers within public elementary schools should make this need expressed by multiracial children a part of a lesson promoting tolerance within the classroom. “Each year brings more students who reflect racial mixing. Addressing issues raised by this demographic change will become a growing challenge-as well as opportunity- for educators at all levels” (Cortes 6).
Multiracial children can be used to help further extend a discussion of race and ethnicity to encompass how pressure from various racial groups to identify themselves has impacted their lives. It is important for educators in public elementary schools that work with various cultures to demonstrate that people of all ethnicities and races should celebrate their commonalties, and that culturally, differences exist within each family individually. The administration should support teachers as a demonstration of their commitment to their diverse community, by providing supplementary materials for their lesson plans on tolerance using multiracial and monoracial children to further demonstrate the schools commitment to self-awareness.
Public elementary school life can be a strong support system to reinforce the identity formation process. Extra-curricular activities or school wide events can extend the schools commitment to learning about race and ethnicity to the student body. A school-wide project may consist of a shared discussion about a book read in each class that identifies various cultures and what the children have learned about one another. Principals can ask teachers to select a day out of the month to demonstrate their classroom’s heritage to the school or, have students bring in family photos to share and talk about their backgrounds and culture. Such activities can give multiracial students an outlet to discuss and question their own identity in relationship to themselves as minorities as well as provide the class an ability to draw parallel lines between race, culture and ethnicity.
Extending the role of educator to the parents is an important component to effectively teaching children of diverse backgrounds. It is especially important for children of multiracial families who have endured multiple racial and ethnic barriers. Teachers need to be proactive with parents of multiracial students to help educate themselves about their student’s heritage at the same time apply a similar process to other minority children. This can often provide teachers with an idea of how race and ethnicity in relation to the multiracial children has been discussed previous to the classroom environment and open up a means of discovering how other children have experienced race and ethnicity. Parents should be asked about how they would describe their own cultural and ethnic heritage and how the multiracial identity has been supported at home (i.e. family discussion, books, tradition, travel, art). This added knowledge from parents could allow teachers to demonstrate a greater sensitivity to the needs of all their students. It will prevent any assumptions being made by teacher based on what they physically identify from a child’s appearance.
Overall, the needs of a multiracial child are not unlike most children. Multiracial children want praise, recognition and acknowledgment from their community as an individual. Multiracial children are representative of various races within a minority context and should not be overlooked by teachers or administrators in the methods and practices for tolerance instituted within our public elementary schools.
Copyright © 2000 Safara Fisher and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.