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Exercise on Cultural Diversity:

True or False:

  1. Asian-Americans are the model minority because they all excel in school.
  2. White students are affected by their cultural or ethnic background.
  3. For most migrant or immigrant students, education is not a priority.
  4. African-American students have difficulty in school because they are verbal learners.
  5. All Hispanic students speak Spanish.
  6. American Indian Students are by nature quiet.
  7. You should speak up when talking to a student who is in a wheelchair.
  8. The majority of students with Learning Disabilities are boys.

Answers: 1. F 2. T 3. F 4. F 5. F 6. F 7. F 8. T

Clarifying definitions

Helping students understand and appreciate the complexity of ethnicity and race and racism is certainly a class lecture in itself. Teachers of psychology can help students recognize the influence of ethnic identity. Begin by helping them to understand easily confused terms such as “racism,” “prejudice,” “race” and “ethnicity.”

Despite evidence that there is only one human race, with many variations on that one race, the term “race” generally assumes biological differences that are most evident in physical appearances—a kind of pseudosubspeciation.

“Race” has social meaning often accompanied by stereotyping; it suggests one’s status within the social system and introduces power differences as people of different “races” interact with one another. “Ethnicity,” on the other hand, connotes common culture and shared meaning. It includes feelings, thoughts, perceptions, expectations and actions of a group resulting from shared historical experiences.

“Racism” and “prejudice” deal with the forming of unfounded and often inaccurate opinions about a group, leading to biased behavior against members of that group. From the mistaken notion that humans may be divided into clearly defined racial groups and that these groups vary in capabilities and aptitudes, racism gives permission to individuals to treat “racial groups” differently.

The power of labels

The recent and highly controversial change in ethnic classifications on the U.S. Census form could lead to a class discussion on ethnic classifications and the power of labels. Key questions for a class discussion on the topic might be:

  • Who should decide on a group label?
  • What are the issues of group identification?
  • What do racial identity theories help us to understand about use of ethnic labels?

Most Native Americans, for example, describe themselves according to tribal membership. However, in the United States we have generally used the terms “Indian,” “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” to define the original inhabitants of this continent.

The use of racial terms and their sociological and psychological implications for all ethnic groups must be understood in a historical context, which will enhance students’ understanding of the political nuances of ethnic labels. These labels were assigned and used originally to separate or define the group as different from the majority culture.

If there are ethnic-minority students in the class, you as the teacher must allow them to determine their own ethnic label and then encourage the class to honor this choice. The goal is to respect the individual’s or group’s decision about what to call itself. Having the opportunity to choose is empowering.

Misunderstandings

Whichever strategy they use, instructors need to be aware of some common, interrelated misconceptions about culture:

  • Culture as exotic. Students sometimes interpret cultural variations as odd, irrational or amusing and find it hard to stand back and view their own culture as someone from another society might do. For example, they may regard Latin American notions of time as mysterious and the North American emphasis on strict punctuality as 'natural.' The implicit assumption is that 'culture' is something that only other people have.
  • Culture as arbitrary. Students often fail to see how cultural customs fit into a group’s economic, political and kinship systems. They may decide that cultural variations are capricious and be puzzled when efforts to change other cultures’ ways meet resistance. Instructors can help, by putting cultural variations in historical and political context, rather than merely describing them.
  • Culture as explanatory. As Lonner and Roy Malpass (1994) have noted, people often use the term 'culture' to explain some behavior, as in 'Group X attacks its neighbors because it has a warlike culture,' without specifying the specific mechanisms that underlie cultural influences. This approach is circular, and begs the question of why cultural practices arise, continue, change and fade.
  • Culture as monolithic. Whenever we teach about diverse groups, it is easy to stereotype. People’s experiences are influenced by age, socioeconomic status, education and individual dispositions and are far more complex than any cultural norms. If group differences are exaggerated and oversimplified, students may conclude that any study that failed to examine people exactly like themselves has nothing to tell them.

Bringing culture home

One way to correct such misunderstandings is to have students examine their own cultural assumptions and expectations. For example, to show that everyone 'has' a culture, a teacher might ask students to analyze norms for conversational distance, speaking to strangers in public, challenging a professor in class, arriving at a designated time for an appointment, taking care of elderly parents and so forth. Because the United States is a diverse society, students from different ethnic and national, and from different geographic regions of the country, are likely to come up with differing norms.

 

 

 


 
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