The Shared World
the state of the world
by jennifer d. klein (aka j. deborah klein)
"This is the world I want to live in. The shared world….
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost."
“Culture exists in community, and community exists in context.”
For Anne and Andre
On an elementary school walk-through last fall, a colleague and I encountered a bulletin board ostensibly demonstrating students’ learning through crude drawings of European pilgrims and Native Americans. Each drawing included a short narrative about the experiences of that group during Westward Expansion. I saw my colleague, who is Osage, stop dead in her tracks. Pointing at a Disney-like image of a Native American, she could barely get the words out: “This isn’t culturally appropriate,” she told our guide. “The students are drawing a stereotype,” she stuttered. “We shouldn’t do this.”
My colleague looked over at me as though searching for better words, and I stepped in. I’m usually very careful not to speak other people’s truths for them, but I could see she had more to say and was too angry to articulate it. “It’s dehumanizing to portray another culture this way,” I told our guide. “Think of the difference between using real photographs of real people in a meaningful way, as compared to drawing a caricature of who they are. There are thousands of different indigenous nations in the world; this is just the Disney cartoon version of an indigenous person. Instead of making a living culture more real and human to students, it’s doing the exact opposite.”
I’d love to claim that these mistakes are rare, especially in schools with an intentionally global focus, but they’re all too common. These approaches serve to exacerbate stereotypes rather than bringing living cultures alive in authentic and nuanced ways for students. I’ve seen cultural festivals where students dress up to look like the stereotype, and it’s like assuming the Disney princess version of Mulan captures the original Chinese folktale from the Ming Dynasty, which actually carries layers of cultural nuance—and is significantly different than the Disney interpretation. I’ve seen well-meaning teachers play dress up, too, portraying only ancient or stereotypical images of a given culture rather than trying to help students see how alive and nuanced it still is today.
I don’t blame teachers and I believe our intentions are usually good; after all, if we’ve never engaged with a culture we’re trying to teach about, how can we capture it accurately for students? I hear this concern from teachers all the time—what happens when we reach the end of our authentic knowledge and can’t help students see that bigger, more humanizing picture of others’ experiences? Students have grown up with the stereotypes, too, with the pervasive message that most cultures can be reduced to a caricature, and many spend their childhood singing along to songs which further reduce cultures, such as those from Aladdin which suggest that the Arab world is “barbaric” even after criticism forced Disney to change the lyrics. If we want to help our students overcome those misrepresentations, we have to understand ourselves where realities end and stereotypes begin.
Following are a few suggestions that can help you avoid the slippery slope of mirepresentation and build authentic projects grounded in intercultural understanding.
I saw “The Queen of Katwe” on a plane recently, and it left me feeling a little better about Disney. Though it’s probably more imperfect in its representation than I can recognize, since I’ve never been to Uganda, the film is based on the true story of a chess champion who grew up in poverty. Instead of portraying her story through cartoons or foreign actors portraying a culture not their own from inside a Hollywood production studio, it was cast with Ugandans and filmed on site in Africa. At the end of the film, each actor is shown with the person he or she portrayed, with an overlaid narrative about what that real person has done since the era depicted by the film. In one case, the actress even kneels to pay tribute to the woman she portrayed and, in a deeply human moment, the woman pulls the actress back to her feet.
This simple technique brought the stories to life as those of real people, people we got to see and understand through an actor’s portrayal but whose experiences go well beyond the screen or final credits. When we move away from fictional stereotypes and toward realities, we help students see the communities and contexts that give birth to cultures, and by doing so help students foster their ability to engage with those cultures authentically and constructively.
Coming in Spring of 2017 from Solution Tree Press: