I'm a graduate student in educational theory (Master of Arts, Integrated Studies, to be precise). For several weeks, I've been immersed in feminist theory, race theory, Marxist theory, the birth of sociology, the jargonistic musings of Judith Butler on the intentionally difficult to comprehend Foucault.... And I have the kind of cold that kept me awake until 4am last night with fever chills and has left me giddy and directionless, today.
Forgive me if this post is somewhat less than concise.
Kwame Anthony Appiah has written and spoken often about his reasoned disavowal of race. He doesn't believe there are any races, and deconstructs both the original concept – as defined in North America with the African slave trade – and the current relevance of this sort of cultural leftover in his Tanner Lecture on Human Values (1994), among other papers, interviews and speeches. I mean, we've established that people of all ethnicities are equally capable, moral, feeling, loving, hurting people.... Right?
So, why do we need to talk about it anymore?
Well, because race is socially determined. Our culture tells us what race we are, establishing visible majorities and visible minorities and an increasingly difficult-to-determine mix of bi-racial, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed-race, erm... people. Black and white, gorgeous and beige, my kids fall into that last category. And while I'm hoping hard that the strident voice of bell hooks and the educated bluesman musings of Cornel West remain sources of profound pride for American black people; here in Canada – in multicultural Canada – I'd like to see my kids' generation drop their divisions, deny racial solidarity, and embrace something more like Appiah's cosmopolitanism. There is something so calmly appropriate about a theory of philosophy that refuses race, encourages knowledge of other cultures, and denies cultural relativism. You don't have to be just like me to be my brother. I will love you, just the same. And through my love I'm committed to learning more about you. But I will NOT stand by and let you hurt people. We have a human responsibility to protect each other from harm, even if it's you – my brother – who is doing the harming.
To me, that sounds just about perfect. Multiculturalism without assimilation. Globally situated learning and citizenship. And the outright refusal to allow nations to commit crimes against humanity just because their culture or their religion says that they can. Does it GET better?
And so it was from this warm, fuzzy, I'd-Like-To-Teach-The-World-to-Sing perspective that I sat down with my kids and a bowl of popcorn to watch Discovery Atlas's China Revealed.
Now, this film was done in 2006. China was going crazy with preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and aside from a few ethnic Chinese family members, extra kids, students and friends, I really don't know very much about Chinese culture. I am NOT an educated observer, here – let me make that very clear. But it was hard not to stare at the sheer focus demanded of children, in that film. It was hard not to cover my mouth when a father spoke of beating his young daughter because she didn't want to return to gymnastics boarding school, in that film. It was hard not to just stare in fascination at Wushu city, and at thousands of workers performing calisthenics together to ensure an injury-free day at the factory; at adult children with the same single-minded focus to please their parents, to serve their parents, as appears on the faces of elementary school kids. At the drive. At the SOLIDARITY – in that film. (I'm repeating this phrase because I do know that one film cannot adequately capture the depth and nuance of any culture. There is so much more I need to learn!)
But, HOW can one deny the existence of race in the face of that? Even while considering the vast differences of language and tradition within China's borders. Do we relabel it "culture", and continue to reach out, hold hands and sing Kumbaya? My kids will be competing with children from families with similar cultural influences for scholarships, jobs and promotions. My kids, who have been raised without corporal punishment, who have been encouraged to cooperate before competing, who walked early, talked early, and were reading by age three.... They can't do simple multiplication, like some of their first generation Chinese Canadian friends can. My kids have always been given the option to work on reading, work on writing, work on language study, science or do anything else we come up with together in our afterschooling home. (It really is up to them.) And they have always been rewarded for their efforts in these areas. Not punished for their shortcomings.
I'm a little worried that they won't be prepared for their global reality, fifteen years from now.
Anyway, this post was about teaching my son to write. I'd decided to post about that before diving into race theory and watching that documentary, and now our little writing exercises read with a decidedly different flavour. I do apologize.
My Bug asked to learn how to write his name, so I told him I would help him. I wrote out his name for him to copy, and that was difficult for him. Frustrating. I wrote out a letter for him to copy. Still frustrating. I printed out a preschoolers' letter-tracing page from some website we found together. Didn't like it. The dots were overwhelming and made no sense to him. So, I wrote a letter, just one, with a highlighter and asked him to keep his pencil on the green line. He took the pencil with some hesitation. Standard pencils are small and awkward for his three-year-old hand; fat round or triangular pencils are too big and clumsy. (He's always preferred paintbrushes.) But then? He did it! HE DID IT! And asked for a page more. And then I gave him the parts of the other letters in his name, not all together, just a page of lines, a page of curves, a page of initial connections, all written with electric green highlighter....
And I watched him light up with the joy of his own success.
I don't know if my kids will be able to compete at the global level. In many ways, I hope they won't have to. But, mostly? I hope this light, this spark they have – that we can keep it going for as long as possible. I'm hoping hard for forever :-)
I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider. I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day. At Multicultural Mothering, I write about my multiracial family.
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