Voices in Education

Understanding Diversity: What’s a Parent to Do?
There is no question that U.S. society is becoming increasingly diverse. This diversity spans race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, geography, educational background, ability (cognitive, social, physical), religion, and language. Schools across the country are not exempt; they are also increasingly diverse. What is the role of parents in helping students understand diversity in order to live meaningful lives?

When one thinks about diversity, he or she might begin by looking inward rather than outside of the self. Each of us brings layers of diversity to particular social contexts, and acknowledging this diversity can be an important precursor to living and learning with others in a school community and beyond.

In this article, I provide what can be considered some strategies or suggestions for parents to help their children more deeply understand human diversity. A central theme of the article is captured in the title: What’s a Parent to Do? Perhaps more than a set of strategies or suggestions is the importance of parents having the mindset to lead their children in ways that are welcoming and supportive of all people in a school community. In some instances throughout this article, I have intentionally shared personal stories to help elucidate the points made. I have included these narratives to (1) suggest that I am consistently and persistently learning about myself and others; (2) emphasize the richness and possibility embedded in personal experiences; and (3) invite others to think about their own stories related to diversity and how those narratives have shaped who they are and what they believe thus far about themselves and others.

Four Suggestions on What Parents Can Do

Broaden Social Network Comfort Zones
An important step to deepen understanding about diversity is to socialize with people whom you may not normally (or naturally) associate. The idea that we learn best from those who challenge our own ways of thinking and being in the world is relevant when thinking about diversity. The point is that broadening social networks can be important to the ways in which we better understand ourselves and others. Invite new friends over to dinner parties or simply set up opportunities for coffee with other parents in your child’s classroom.

Engage in Real Conversations About Diversity
As I was growing up, my parents talked directly and explicitly about matters of diversity with my siblings and me—namely, we talked about race. During the early years, conversations were more superficial. For instance, I was known to interrupt adults during conversations when they used language like “the Black man” or “the White woman.” I queried: “What Black man?” or “What White woman?” My curiosity forced my parents into answering questions about race that they probably were not ready to answer. Later, as I grew older, the conversations grew more intense. For instance, we talked about my impressions of a high school teacher, who, I felt, was teaching solely to the White population of students in our class. My experiences as well as those of my parents drove real conversations about diversity with me and would not allow my parents to espouse a color- or culture-blind discourse in our home. In essence, real talk about diversity allows for expanded cognitive and social consciousness that can make a difference in the actions of those in the family unit. The nature of the discourse at home can show up in how students respond to and work with others at school.

Be Careful Not to Generalize Unsubstantiated Assumptions
My grandfather, who died at the age of 82, would sometimes say things about other groups of people that were clearly a result of the times in which he was born and also a consequence of his experiences growing up in the segregated south. I cannot stress enough the importance of judging people as individuals and not allowing stereotypes and misconceptions to shape beliefs about a broad group of people. Learning as much as one can about others is an important strategy in breaking down stereotypes and rejecting the perpetuation of hurtful unwarranted and unsubstantiated stereotypes and assumptions.

Don’t Think of Diversity Awareness as a Destination but as a Journey
Finally, it is probably not appropriate to think of diversity awareness or consciousness as a destination. Learning about the self, another, and the self in relation to others requires that we consistently engage in processes of introspective learning. In this sense, the processes of becoming more aware are most important because one never really becomes completely “competent” or aware of a wide range of diverse perspectives, ideologies, worldviews, people, and practices. Indeed, I have been deeply engaged in processes of trying to better understand myself and others for most of my life. Moreover, it has been through these processes—my journey—of trying to broaden my conceptions that I have increased my knowledge and understandings of myself and others. Thus, we should consistently work to gain insight about the ways in which diversity works and—perhaps most importantly—can work in society and schools.

Thinking about, addressing, and building a skill set as well as knowledge about diversity can be critical components in helping students live meaningfully both domestically and internationally. Schools (namely, teachers, counselors, and administrators) cannot solely accomplish the goal of providing students with what they need to understand the many nuances historically and contemporarily that shape our diverse society. Parents need to help with this important work.

About the Author: H. Richard Milner IV is associate professor of education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (2010). He speaks to teachers, students, administrators, and parents across the country, and can be reached at rich.milner@vanderbilt.edu.