“It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
The first thought that this quote invoked in me was one of frustration, specifically with regards to diversity and inclusion initiatives. They annoy me. A lot.
It’s not because I think that diversity and inclusion are bad because I don’t; we genuinely need more marginalised voices in all spaces. Authentic diversity and inclusion are wonderful because it opens up access to hearing so many new perspectives that change how we can understand ideas, how our society works (or doesn’t), and how to make communities better.
But these days, diversity and inclusion are commonly used as buzzwords in policies by a variety of institutions to make them seem more equitable without actually making them more equitable. In the private sector, we know that most companies pay DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) lip service. The recent high-profile firing of Timnit Gebru shines a light on this, but it extends far beyond her and into other fields.
In the public sphere of education, teachers have traditionally had a number of targets on their backs: teachers (especially Black teachers) receive punishments for teaching about police brutality, those that speak out about any issues in the school risk being targeted and isolated, and they’re still expected to have higher levels of morality (whatever that means) than the average non-teaching person. And all of this trickles down into how students exist within those spaces. Black students, from the very beginning, are viewed more negatively by white teachers, and Black families are given the responsibility of navigating potential threats and harms while their children are socialised into white spaces. It often leaves a lot of people of colour asking “Where are all the teachers of colour?”
For disabled people, we’re often forced to work with non-disabled teachers who have no training on any forms of disability; this often leads to students and their families having to unnecessarily fight a system because they refuse to accommodate them at all or refuse to provide the accommodations the family and student say they need, often citing that it’s “not in the policy.” Because the schools aren’t designed for (but are slowly changing for) disabled students, they’re not made for disabled teachers and staff; the expectations on us remain identical to our non-disabled peers, even when it’s obvious they shouldn’t be. We’re few and far between, especially if we disclose our status before getting hired (even in schools that “focus” on programs designed to accommodate disabled students), and we’re also the most excluded within “special education” (and the fact that we’re still using that euphemism proves that we’re being ignored by our non-disabled peers). If we disclose our disability status after getting hired (should we have ‘hidden’ disabilities), we receive harassment.
But this is the system working as intended.
Diversity and inclusion have been co-opted, and they’ve been made into commodities, as ways to sell us things or attract our attention. They’ve been used as ways to ‘ease’ our discomfort with institutions, even when that hasn’t necessarily been earned. This can be seen in schools as they gradually shift toward “diverse and inclusive” environments, even though the people who were brought in as part of those initiatives point out how the environment is still hostile to them.
The clearest way to make this point is how diversity and inclusion have been “allowed” into curricula. Nearly every curriculum includes a section or a separate guide book about “learning diversity and inclusion.” They’re often vague with lofty goals that would be impossible to meet if ever someone were to actually check that people were implementing it; they include claims about “giving” students more agency, even while the content outline denies everyone that opportunity. They outline the “need” to provide disabled students with accommodations, even as schools receive minimal resources to provide even the most basic (or opt not to because they intentionally want to keep certain populations out of them).
And most of all, they focus on the involvement of a leadership team, as if they should be the arbiters of “what students need,” who speak for and over them while claiming they want to “give students agency” in their learning. The same people who, in all honesty, are likely to reprimand teachers for building units with their students, actually creating an environment of mutual learning and agency among all participants.
I know because this has been my experience.
Creating environments of mutual learning has always been my goal, especially as it fits so easily into the topic I primarily teach: language and literature. Every year, I have always started off by developing my units with my students. What did they want to learn about?
This doesn’t mean that I totally ignored what I was mandated to teach; it just means that, with my students, I built a set of units focused primarily on them and integrated the necessary skills; we even scoured the database of (usually horrible) books that the IB DP provided as “required options” as a team, focusing more one what would be relevant or interesting.
The first couple weeks of school are always my favourite because that is where we built trust and rapport; it’s where we got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, interests and hobbies, wants and desires.
But it’s also the hardest to defend to administrators who don’t see it that way and just “want things done by the book.” Granted, it’s only hard to defend because they don’t want to listen.
But one year, after everyone had come in with their lists of ideas, my students had decided they wanted to read Far From You by Tess Sharpe as a class. Some had read it and loved the idea of a story told in non-linear narrative; others liked the idea of a thriller with a bisexual protagonist. One kid, in particular, was astounded to see that it had positive representation of a recovering drug addict, which drew them to it because they had experience with drug addiction in their family, and they wanted to see what it was like to engage with drug addiction from a different perspective.
Regardless of the reasons they wanted it, they chose it. So I added a small class set to my order list, and the school got it for me. No problems thus far.
Working together, we created a unit of what we wanted to explore and how we wanted to ‘show’ that knowledge. We started reading it, sometimes as a ‘reading circle’, sometimes silently in class, and sometimes at home; it was one of the few novels that I’ve seen kids read straight through so their classmates couldn’t spoil it for them by accident.
They developed their own research projects based on the impressions the novel left on them. Some kids researched and wrote about ways that we could better deal with drug abuse, turning them into videos and podcasts; one kid wanted to give a presentation about where the stereotypes about drug users come from, while another wanted to explore and present the ways in which laws about drugs impact society.
There was genuine learning happening throughout that unit, and the students were proud of what they’d done. I even had their families reaching out to me saying they’d never seen them so engaged in a literature class before and that they were surprised at the work and effort they were doing at home, even without me giving them homework.
By my standards, it was a success.
But there was one parent who wasn’t happy, even though their child was the most engaged: my boss.
By my boss’s standards, everything I was doing was “wrong.” I was met with a lot of pushback once she figured out what the novel was about (as if they didn’t have any time to review the orders I’d sent them). I had my arguments prepared about “learning diversity and inclusion,” showing all the documented work that my students and I had done together to create this space of genuine learning and highlighting sections of the relevant IB documents.
None of that mattered because they had one argument: “You shouldn’t humanise them.”
Which ‘them’? Were they upset that the protagonist was bisexual? Or were they upset by the positive representation of a recovering drug addict?
I never received the answer because I was barraged with excuses about how “parents are complaining,” which was interesting because my emails showed otherwise. I was told it was “irresponsible” of me to make such a decision for the children, despite the fact the book was targeted to the year group I taught.
“And it’s just the wrong kind of diversity.”
So what was the right kind of diversity? And this is a question that I feel like I’m forced to ask every year, at every school, in every place I go. I ask it because it needs to be asked.
But the answer’s still the same: The “acceptable” tokens, whether they are people who’ve made themselves to fit that role or people who’ve been whitewashed or manipulated to placate our need for “diversity.” We want the people and topics that don’t hit too close to home; we want them to be a ‘safe’ distance away from us.
It’s the reason why we can easily talk about the watered down versions of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s why key aspects of his beliefs are hidden; it’s why statements he made about the danger of white moderates are hidden and obscured in favour of the first few manipulated lines of a famous speech. It’s because we, white people, have whitewashed the image of King so much that we can’t stand to look at the people we haven’t; instead, we choose to ban and hide them, like we do the history of the Black Panther Party, so that reality isn’t presented in our little “educational” bubbles that churn out “proper” citizens.
It’s why, when I read through the history books that discuss the Industrial Revolution that many of the schools I’ve worked at use, they sanitise everything. They won’t talk about the labour strikes, and they most certainly won’t explain the real problems the Luddites were fighting against. In fact, the most negative thing they’ll discuss is how children used to have to work in dangerous conditions, but we made laws protecting children (excluding those who are starving from poverty or murdered by police)! Then they’ll use that to juxtapose how “great” we are because we don’t have child labourers any more “unlike those other countries” like China or India or anywhere else they can think to other, while also ignoring how it’s the companies based in our so-called “great” countries that enable and encourage this.
It’s why we’ll talk about how brilliant people like Alan Turing were, how he “helped defeat the Nazis” by cracking the Enigma Code, but we’ll conveniently forget to mention how he was tortured for being gay despite his brilliance. We’ll hide it as much as we can, making sure that he can be used as one of our “acceptable” tokens because he did something we can claim as “useful,” even though we deny his entire identity to do this because some people find it “upsetting.”
And it’s why we’ll hide all the atrocities committed by the United States military behind excuses when they’re taught in history classes rather than ever acknowledging the abuses that our government has committed. Instead, our materials (and even some of our colleagues) will continually state that we were, in some way, justified. We never were.
In so many ways, it’s a laughable situation that highlights how nonsensical the “movement” toward diversity and inclusion and schools has become.
I want for education to be diverse and inclusive, and I will work towards it. But we need to examine what we continually consider “a step forward.”
Especially because it’s merely just a step to the side to make it feel like we’re going somewhere.