James Baldwin (1960), an American novelist, playwright, and activist, once said that children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
It’s easy to see how this can relate to blatant racism, but how are we as educators contributing to our students of color feeling locked out of the environment we have created?
Our students are absorbing more from what they see and feel than what they are being taught; thus, the materials we choose to use and the scholars of the discourse we share can have a profound impact on our students.
I recall reading all these amazing stories for our required reading textbooks about young White men who go on adventures in the woods, often with their dogs, or I would learn about these brilliant mathematicians and scientists who changed the world with their theories and inventions.
None of them looked like me.
The people that students of color would learn about came from recycled lectures about ancient Chinese dynasties during Lunar New Year, Latinx warriors during colonialism, or oppressed Black Americans during Jim Crow.
Consuming that type of media can be traumatizing for students of color because we see ourselves in those limited stereotypical references.
To Baldwin’s point about imitation, how could children of color imitate their elders if they did not see themselves doing miraculous things in science, music, math, and art?
Before 2008, children of color, especially Black children, were told that they could become anyone they wanted to, even the president of the United States. It was just something parents of color said but never really believed until Barack Obama was elected.
The importance of representation is buttressed in view of the record number of people of color and women candidates running for the 2020 presidency. As educators, we can offer our students a diverse set of heroes by selecting materials that are more inclusive and less Eurocentric.
Having an Inclusive Environment
The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” is incomplete in my view and should be adjusted to, “It takes a diverse village to raise a child.” As part of this diverse village, keep in mind that every figure you choose to share with your students will become part of their village as well; therefore, choosing solely Eurocentric figures will suggest a White supremacist approach to your teaching that would taint the safe environment you worked so hard to establish. Once you get to know your students and establish an environment that is safe and productive, you can maintain this environment by making MUSIC in classroom.
Make them the experts. As you make room for discourse in your classroom, give your students the room to speak about the topic as it relates to their background or cultural upbringing.
Use your resources. We teach groups with anywhere from 18 to 30+ people, and each one of them have unique experiences, so it might be wise to pull from who you have in your class. Scholars come from every part of this world; bringing that culture into your classroom will make that student feel seen and heard.
Support your students’ unique perspectives. Every student is an important addition to the cohort, and their feelings should be validated. Your students may be speaking from cultural perspectives that might be foreign to you, and it is important not to mischaracterize their zeal.
Involve yourself as the learner. In a student-centered classroom, discovery should be at the forefront of your lessons. Allow space for posing questions to which you do not know the answers and collaborate ideas for solutions with your students.
Combat the overuse of Eurocentrism. Your students are listening and watching very closely to the things you say and choose to share. Even when teaching a predominantly White group of students, we have the capacity as educators to use resources that are not part of the Western canon. Reflect upon the hidden curriculum you might be imposing upon your students.
As we continue to create environments that are inclusive of other cultures, we will simultaneously deconstruct the limitations of the colonial mindset and rewrite more complete narratives.
Video: “Changing the Stories We Have Inherited From Colonialism,” with Priyamvada Gopal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOnBiHHPLm4&t=13s
Collin Edouard is currently a Gates Cambridge Scholar working on a Master’s of Music in Choral Studies. He earned a BFA in Vocal Performance at The City College of New York, and an MA in Music Education at Teachers College of Columbia University.
Baldwin, J. A. (1960, July). Fifth Avenue, uptown: A letter from Harlem. Esquire.