Diversity and the Construction of Identity
In the last few decades, social reality has greatly increased its complexity, challenging the educational system to prepare students to face and interpret this composite world. In the US, where ethnic, religious and cultural diversity is inherent in society, inclusive educational practices have been systematically under scrutiny since the 1990s. In the last few years, also Italian schools have begun to deal with the notion of diversity which is not limited to race, gender and ethnicity, but refers to the varied identities including also socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, language, religion and faith, age, national origin, and disability status.
Educators are at the forefront of this general effort to create environments meant for everyone and anyone to thrive in. One may doubt that adults especially find it difficult to come to terms with an environment that no longer looks like the one they grew up in, or one which accommodates needs they had never considered as viable before, while children seem to naturally embrace novelty and change. This is arguably why diversity and inclusion are often conceived in terms of subjects to be taught, rather than experiences to be involved in. Yet, diversity is the ineluctable trait characterizing today’s Western societies and a condition which educators are constantly exposed to.
Diversity and Inclusion as an Educational Choice
While the notion of diversity is something that we might rationally welcome, the experience of it might be harder to embrace as it makes us feel uncomfortable. Our brain in fact reacts to the unfamiliar in sort of “protection mode”: the unprecedented and unexpected is felt as a threat and our bodily response to this exposure is one of stress. This happens in a matter of instants before our rationality prevails and using all its stored info re-establishes “order” - and peace. This experience is not as exceptional as we might think. With due proportion, we react the same way if we are unexpectedly faced with a six-legged creature as when we are offered a cake which smells weird.
Our brain needs time to recognize a movie prop as well as to appreciate green cardamom. Being hardwired to “spare” energy, even after the stress reaction has ceased, our brain is slow in accommodating what is new and unknown and the more experienced we are in life, the harder it is for us to avoid these dynamics. Therefore, kids are naturally more prone to welcome the unfamiliar (and less ready to recognize danger). Like William Blake’s innocent children, they have not experienced evil yet.
However, according to Blake, the loss of innocence goes together with a diminished capacity for imagination. Arguably, exposure to diversity is not only fundamental in our process of adaptation to a complex and articulated social reality but also in the construction and of an individual identity. Therefore, we can think of diversity in terms of a potential for imagination and self-realization.
If we see the encounter with what is different and new as having a key role in the process of growth, we should then appreciate the role of the educational system as that of provider of both real and simulated experiences of diversity.
When we systematically expose students to diversity in the classroom, we contribute to building an inclusive environment where every and any one can recognize themselves and thrive. Self-recognition has in fact much to do not only with our capacity to conceive ourselves as individuals but with our willingness to participate – whether it is in school activities or social commitment.
Inclusive Textbooks and Material
Undoubtedly, representation plays a key role in the construction of an inclusive environment. Therefore, textbooks and school material become central in the choice of teacher’s educational direction. Following the example of the US and the UK and supported by a report of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which showed how subjects like gender equity and cultural diversity are covered in secondary school books around the world, also the Italian educational publishing has begun to address the issues of diversity and inclusion in their textbooks. In the last few years, while the Italian educational context has begun to present a diversity quotient similar to the American a British one, there are underrepresented students who may suffer lowered self-esteem because of this lack of representation. Textbooks generally deal with multiculturalism, but they still fall short on meeting good standards of diversity and inclusion in their use of images.
However, an attentive teacher can easily assess the variety offered by a textbook and prepare his/her own material thoughtfully. The points educators can verify when checking out a new textbook are as such “Does it feature people who look different from one another? Are they from different parts of the world? Do they have different abilities?”
Teachers should have the same care when they prepare their own lessons having clear that when students see themselves reflected in books, articles or presentations, they better connect to the material and therefore learn better. Therefore, inclusion in classroom activities enables students to fully and actively participate.
The Fable of “Neutral Language”
As we have seen, images are the first and immediate (not-mediated) place where people recognize themselves. Then representations are created through language and its articulation (words - sentences – narratives). When the present writer chooses the pronoun “we” instead of “I”, she is making a choice implicitly defining that "we" means "us teachers", which automatically excludes people who do not work in education. Language can therefore be used to include or exclude people and meaning can be produced to the benefit or the detriment of a group of people.
The manipulative potential of language is clear in advertisement, political speeches and, above all, propaganda. The British Library website offers a wide choice of articles and items on the theme of propaganda during WWI (British Library Propaganda >>) which can be used in class to investigate the impact word and images can have on the individual and society.
However, the current debate has moved to the negative effects language has on the psyche of those who have historically experienced marginalization and still suffer underrepresentation. Inclusive language has become a thorny and divisive issue often recklessly debated and exploited for political purposes. These linguistic and sociological developments should suffice to realise how language is not neutral and can become a space where one struggles for self-definition and the right to existence.
Language and Representation as Power Dynamics
From the standpoint of literature, the issue of language and representation can fruitfully be dealt with in the classroom by working on postcolonial writing.