Engaging other cultures

Tomorrow is 中秋节 (Zhongqiu Jie), mid-Autumn Festival (a.k.a Moon Festival and Lantern Festival). This morning I visited Jie-jie’s kindergarten classroom to tell them about the festival, read a book about it and make some paper lanterns.

On the whole the event went pretty well. I printed out the characters and brought along some paper lanterns and a mooncake mold from China. I am forever a huge fan of Jie-jie’s teacher but, at one point she said something that struck me. At the very beginning of things, just as we were talking about the existence of a Chinese holiday not generally celebrated in the US, the teacher said something like, “but they still have holidays just like we have holidays.”

In my book I talk about how typical approaches to diversity education posit fundamental similarity between all culture and identity groups and rely upon that assumed similarity in arguing against prejudice and hostility to engaging cultural difference. While I can see the value in such a perspective when you want to argue, for example, that Muslims are people of faith just as capable of being “American” as folks of any other religion. However, I wonder if the “we are all the same deep down” approach is counter-productive because it makes homogeneity the key to acceptance and, ultimately, belonging. I worry that such an approach supports a perspective that, in identifying intractable difference, requires (or at least does not preclude) moral evaluation of that difference (e.g. they don’t do it the way we do it and, hence, we do it better).

How about this as an alternative:

There are perspectives, cultures, motivations and ways of doing things that are completely different from one another. These differences can make it more difficult to get along and understand each other. Learning more about other people, cultures, beliefs and ways of life will help you understand yourself and culture as well as giving you a little information about others and why they do what they do. The more you know about these things, the more you will be able to work through disagreements and accept that there are times when the people can do is “agree to disagree.” Then you can move on to the business of getting along and sharing this shrinking planet.

Maybe too much for kindergarten, but I think you can see where I am going: there will be wars, genocides, hate groups and book burnings, but for the most part it isn’t like that. As I’ve said before, all over the place people are piecing it together on the basis of one simple commonality – we are here. There is nothing more fundamental than that.

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