With over 80 different ethnicities comprising the United States population (U.S. Census Bureau), it is undeniable that the country would be overflowing with rich cultures. Whether it be the food we eat, the holidays we celebrate, or the traditions we honor, we all affiliate with a different type of culture. However, in today’s day and age, it seems as though pride in one’s culture is beginning to remain inside the walls of the home and family. Without culture in public life, no one would learn tolerance, as well as respect for others.
Culture takes a backseat specifically when it comes to the high school environment. Coming from a predominantly white high school, I have seen how individuality tends to disappear. Could it be that, at this age, everyone is trying to “fit in?” Erik Erikson, an expert on human development, says that “pre-teens and teens experience overriding conflict between self-identity and role confusion as a fifth stage in development.” So, when the majority is doing, wearing, or representing something, it can be very hard to go against the current and stand out. I myself find this to be true at times, in a class full of white students wearing the same type of clothes, whereas I have darker skin and a different background.
For example, I am conscious about my ethnicity partly because it has negative connotations attached to it, based on surrounding areas largely populated with Hispanics/Latinos. Some students have formed (whether they mean to or not) generalizations or stereotypes about people of my ethnicity because of their experiences. When I mention that I am a Latina, their responses are somewhat hesitant, and the situation is a bit awkward. This does not mean that everyone I have met has reacted in this way, but I have experienced it before in my school.
I do not stand alone when it comes to this view on culture. In an interview with two juniors from my high school, I have found out that they, among many others, have a rich culture at home, but do not express it in school. Kianna, an African-American newcomer to my town, said that “I didn’t feel welcome at first, because of my race. And yes, I have cultural traditions in my family. We have annual get togethers, eat certain foods, pray before we eat, and finish everything on our plate.” Concerning the topic of race, she said, “I have experienced racism in school. When I said the word ‘homie’ to my friend, I overheard another girl comment ‘Ugh, bringing her ghetto language to our school’.” It is that kind of intolerance that fosters hesitance, and eventually an overall lack of individuality.
In a second interview, Bridgette, a Hispanic student, says of her culture, “My family, other than being diverse, is pretty cultured. I had a quinceanera celebration, I visited family in Puerto Rico, and my mom makes Spanish food all the time.” However, when asked about culture in the school system, Bridgette responded, “Culture in any school system is not fully recognized until someone initiates a conversation about it. It is only talked about on special occasions.” Although it may be inaccurate to say that every school has these problems, it is likely that some, such as mine, do.
So why is it that differing customs tend to stay out of the school?
With the enrollment of white students in my high school being 87.3 percent and Hispanics making up 5.2 percent of the student population this year (MA Dep. of Elementary and Secondary Education), it is understandable that some cultures are not represented as much. However, in a broadened sense, the white population also have beliefs of their own. They are made up of numerous ethnicities such as Irish, Canadian, French, etc.
In knowing all of this, more needs to be done in schools to encourage students to accept other customs. Schools like my own need to graduate from the foreign language week/month, to starting conversations about differing cultures on a regular basis. I have found that starting dialogue groups (where students get together to talk about social issues such as these) is a significant step towards embracing diversity. Teachers and students need to keep the conversation going in order to keep the traditions and cultures of America alive.
For teachers, changing the methods through which they teach can help. Instead of assigning a worksheet on the material learned, having students discuss it in an honest dialogue would help them to hear other people’s opinions and perspectives. This approach would be especially useful when it comes to the more involved topics such as racism, gay/lesbian rights, current global events, etc.
For students, it is skills such as learning how to actively listen and accept different opinions that make a difference. If these skills are mastered, it can only get easier to see the differences in people as a great thing.
It is one of Jean Snell’s thoughts, a clinical professor of teacher education at the University of Maryland, that stood out to me very much. She said, “There is a richness that comes from students working side-by-side with others who are not of the same cookie-cutter mold.”
Through my own experience, I have come to truly believe that there really is only one “you,” so why not embrace it? First, be confident in your unique qualities, and then accept that everyone is also unique in some way. With everyone starting by taking a look at themselves, acceptance of diversity in culture has the potential to be the new trend that spreads throughout the school.