Wednesday, May 20, 2009

POINT OF VIEW/ Joel Assogba: We must teach our kids to welcome diversity


Racism is certainly not a part of human nature. A newborn child does not instinctively have prejudice against others. Prejudice and racism are learned from the society that raises the child. These attitudes are derived from fear and ignorance, and it is only by combating them that we will ever achieve a truly multicultural society based on mutual respect.

One of the best things we, as parents and educators, can do to help our children understand and fight against prejudice is to ask questions and listen to them as they talk about their discrimination experiences.

The other day, I had the opportunity to exchange ideas on racism with a group of multicultural children and their parents. I could not hold back my tears when I heard some of them talk about their painful experiences:

"I was playing with a friend in the schoolyard the other day, and a group of ethnic Japanese boys spat in my face," said a 13-year-old Filipino-Japanese boy. "They told me to go back to the Philippines, or to die."

"My best friend invited me to his home after school. His father asked me where I was born. When I replied 'Japan,' he laughed and uttered: 'If you were born here, why are you black, then?'" said a 7-year-old African-Japanese boy.

Most ethnic Japanese children sympathized with the victims after hearing their stories, but the big problem was many stubborn Japanese adults who said they live in monocultural neighborhoods, and think talking about racism with their children is useless.

When these adults say they don't have cultural issues in their communities, they are defining "culture" in a narrow sense, thinking only of racial and language differences. Some issues are just less visible.

For instance, there is discrimination against other East Asians in Japan. A Korean-Japanese acquaintance urged her children not to reveal their Korean origin in order to avoid mistreatment. Many Japanese of Korean or Chinese origin were born here and speak no other language but Japanese. Visually, and often in their living habits, they cannot be distinguished from the ethic Japanese. Still, the ethnic Japanese do their best to ostracize them.

To survive, these people often hide their identity by using a tsumei ("pass name"; a Japanese-style name). Such hidden diversities can be a springboard for people to think about the need for anti-racism and multicultural education.

"I'm not racist. I treat all people with respect, and I expect my children to do the same. Why do I have to do more?" a Japanese mother asked me after one of my lectures on racism prevention.
Of course, there are many Japanese who are not actively racist. But the question is: How many Japanese parents and teachers are actively anti-racist?

There's no such thing as being passively anti-racist. It is not enough to set a good example. Nor can one shield children from bigotry.

If a society continues to discriminate against racial and ethnic groups, it will nurture prejudice in each new generation. If we avoid these subjects with our children, we actually run the risk of strengthening prejudices we want them to reject. Children are barraged by images and ideas we don't control on the playground, on television and at school.

However free from prejudice we may be, our children, even very young children, can absorb the biases they encounter outside of our homes.

We must teach our children to be critical thinkers, specifically about prejudice. Critical thinking is when we strive to understand issues through examining and questioning. Young children can begin to develop these skills, to know when a word or an image is unfair or hurtful. This is also a time when children are in the process of developing empathy. Here are a few suggestions for adults to arouse critical thinking in children:

・Encourage children to think and talk about images they see in books, on television and in movies. Use age-appropriate books and stories to help them begin to understand struggles for justice and equity.

・Find moments to practice empathy with children: "If I was ridiculed because of my ethnic origin, I would feel terrible. How would you feel if that happened to you?"

・Don't let racist and prejudicial remarks go by without intervening. It's important to let children know from a very early age that name-calling of any kind--whether it's about someone's religion, race or ethnic background--is wrong. Each time we don't intervene, we are indirectly giving children permission to be cruel.

The quality of our children's future is at stake. In the 21st century, the ability to communicate and work with people from different racial and ethnic groups is as essential as computer skills. Japanese children will inherit a very diverse society from now on. We, their parents and educators, must help them learn to live and work closely with people whose race, religion or culture may be different from our own.

1 comment:

Peter Matthews said...

Dear Joel,

I read your article on teaching kids to welcome diversity - thanks for such practical advice. I live in Kyoto with Japanese wife and 12 year old son - no problems so far! I suspect that Kyoto is a city that accommodates new people more easily than most cities in Japan, because of its long history as a center for education and hospitality. The city seems to treasure its history and conventions and unconventiality all at the same time.

As a writer/illustrator you might like to join an NPO site I have created - the Research Cooperative ( which is international and multilingual, for researchers, writers, editors, translators and so on.

Best regards, Peter