Last week two of my friends arrived at their sons’ elementary school to find a celebration of global diversity (or something like that), with various parents representing different parts of the world. The (White) woman representing Africa had painted her face brown, was wearing an “African” dress and had a Black baby doll strapped to her back. The activity associated with Africa was fetching water. This was the most offensive representation perhaps but not the only problematic one. In fact even in the absence of such explicit racism, collapsing diverse continents or countries into selective cultural stereotypes through such celebratory ‘culture-days’ does no one any good because it promotes limited, essentialized notions of “culture”. In 1994, Montreal writer, educator and artist Clifton Ruggles put it this way:
“The ‘tourist approach’ to multicultural education promotes the notion that exposing students to different customs will increase the students’ tolerance of other racial and ethnic groups. This form of multicultural education promotes a superficial ‘surface ethnicity’ marked by food, clothes and music and commodifies ethnicity in our consumeristic society by assigning it a market value. The ‘tourist approach’ decontextualizes ethnicity from its historical roots and renders it nothing more than a salable commodity.
“Appreciation, without the necessary insight into the social and political struggles that embody a people is appreciation without substance. It is through an understanding based on an awareness of other communities’ struggles, that empathy can develop toward people whose lives are embedded in different cultural realities. True multiculturalism must exist on the bedrock of understanding and empathy. Because many of these struggles are reactions against systemic racism, the empathy I am referring to must embody a recognition of personal and collective responsibility. It beckons us to explore the extent to which the power and privilege some of us enjoy is directly responsible for the disempowerment and disenfranchising of others.”*
Congratulations to the courageous parents who wrote a letter to and met with the principal of the school to call her attention to this inexcusable racism of the representation of “Africa” and the problematic event overall, despite anyone’s “good intentions”. Props to the principal, who has committed to educating herself on these issues and ensuring that all teachers and parents of children at the school understand why such representations are unacceptable.
*Clifton Ruggles (1994, February 3) “How Education can fight racism.” pp. 144-147 in Clifton Ruggles & Olivia Rovinescu (1996), Outsider Blues: A Voice in the Shadows. Halifax: Fernwood