In today’s multicultural society, groups and individuals identify themselves and live within the context of their ethnicity, ‘race’, class, culture and gender. A clearer understanding of the terms and how they are interlinked, also how the role of religion plays a part within this framework can help schools to promote tolerance and acceptance of a rich diversity of people both throughout the curriculum and within their establishment.
Any individual can identify themselves on a myriad of levels: in a personal sense, a social sense, on an ethnic, cultural, spiritual or religious basis and by way of their moral values. As a consequence, identities can be seen as flexible or even conflicting (cited in Bhavnani and Phoenix 1994), with no one person’s identity being the same as another, and each person having their own unique mix of allegiances (Richardson and Wood 2000). In order for any individual to feel valued all of these separate themes need to be acknowledged. Cummins suggests,
‘Affirmation of identity thus refers to the establishment of the respect and trust between educators and students…” (1996, pg 4)
therefore proposing that shared understanding of a student’s perspectives is critical to the approval of their personal identity. Furthermore, the negotiation of an individual’s identity has far reaching effects for their sense of self and both personal and social aspirations.
Ethnicity refers to a collection or nation of people who are more than a mere collective group but an aggregate consciously related by common origins and shared experiences. Incorporated into a group’s ethnicity is a distinct language, religious beliefs and political institutions which are passed down generations. (Cashmore, 1984). Similarly Madge (2001) considers a list of requirements that embodies ethnicity which include country of origin, society, aspects of skin colour and culture. However Meighan and Siraj – Blatchford (2003) argue that everyone has an ethnic and cultural identity but often the term ‘ethnic’ is used to objectify a minority group or as a
‘…euphemism for ‘black’’.
Meighan and Siraj – Blatchford (2003) also remind us that there is no scientific foundation for defining the human races, that the variation within the human population is bigger than between; humans are in fact therefore more homogenous that any other species. This view is shared by Jones (1991) who believes that what is meant by ‘race’, is in effect colour. He argues that classifying people leads to judging people which in turn leads to prejudice (cited in Haralambus and Holburn 2000).
The term ‘class’ is purely a social stratification of wealth and prestige the result being social inequalities. An individual’s class position can be predetermined by birth, ‘race’ and education nonetheless sociologists argue that within a capitalist society, an individual’s class position can be largely achieved (Haralambus and Holburn 2000).Unlike the Indian belief in the caste system by which you are born into your class and remain so.
Cultures, argues Cashmore (1984), are not rigid but evolve and develop. Cultural traditions can be indistinct within a society for example because of technological advances. Culture has many definitions but the definition made by Linton (1945) who considered culture as a way of life for its members, a gathering of routines and ideas that are shared and conveyed to further generations has common links with the idea of ethnicity, so the two seem to be intrinsically linked.
Gender has far reaching effects within some social settings for the individual. While ‘sex’ is the biological difference between male and female, gender is the social construction and the cultural role that society imposes upon the individual. (Abbot and Wallace 1997). The role of the individual, depending on their ‘race’ and gender and within their cultural and ethnic setting helps to establish their personal and social identity and so each have inherent common characteristics.
A belief is something which is true and real for the individual whether or not it is based on factual evidence or a belief based on a religious or faith institution. Taylor et al (2002) define religion as a collective of individuals with a shared system of beliefs who adhere to a set of approved practices and activities while Hammer (1995) defines religion as a system of beliefs and practices that help the participants cope with life.This can often be at the heart of a people (cited in Taylor et al 2000). Dimensions often regarded as fundamental to a religion can shape the individual. Smart (1968) identifies seven common dimensions that religions share: Doctrinal, Mythological, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, Social and Material. (cited in Bastide, 1987).
Doctrines or common beliefs are shared by followers therefore uniting them, but this idea is not exclusive to religion; non religious sectors share common beliefs particularly in light of loss of faith in institutions and belief systems by members of society. An example of this is the emergence of New Age beliefs, developing spirituality through individualism (Haralomobos and Holburn 2000).
The mythological dimension relates to stories, myths and historical narratives that are passed down through generations such as the Bible and the Qur’an. Copley states that stories are
“..central to the great world faiths”
(Copley, 1994, pg 28)
and suggests that stories can be used as a useful teaching and learning tool. This allows individuals to think about their beliefs, whether secular or religious, in terms of the themes and morals of the story.
Similarly, the Ethical doctrine relates to the way in which a life is lived. This is more a moral code of living that can be taught and developed through historical narratives. Religion often provides the guiding rule for human actions and principles of conduct with social values firmly rooted in religion even for secular beliefs, with the recognised moral code for the Christian faith being the Ten Commandments (Taylor et al, 2000).
Rituals, festivals and ceremonies endorse social solidarity whatever the event and promote a sense of social unity, as does group worship by unifying individuals and upholding their sense of belonging. The same sense of community can be felt within a non religious or secular context from the football terraces to the Scouts and Brownie packs each with shared ceremonies and symbols continuing this sense of membership (Taylor et al, 2000).
The Experiential doctrine deals with the supernatural element of faith, the inner strength provided by the faith an individual has in a belief system and the overwhelming trust and certainty for that faith. This trust and confidence however is not exclusive to religious belief and can be attributed to those who have humanist ideals, occult or pagan beliefs (Harolombus and Holburn 2000).
The Social doctrine considers the shared interests and communal involvement of followers of a religion, valuing the need for being a part of something. Shared worship and rituals can create a sense of belonging and unity therefore providing a social support for each other. (Taylor et al, 2000). This aspect of social inclusion is shared by many non secular movements also.
Finally, the Material dimension relates to buildings, important works of art and places. Many religions have sacred places in which to worship and also important places geographically that they visit. These include Lourdes, Mount Sinai and the river Ganges to name a few. However non-religious groups also identify with places of worship for example Stonehenge is particularly important to Paganism.
Educators have an immense task of positively affirming all of the children in their establishment in order to create a sense of inclusion. Increased understanding of equal opportunities within a school creates an inclusive environment which benefits all children regardless of ‘race’, sex, ability or background. There is however the concern of the “hidden curriculum” by which children are learning attitudes from their educators that go toward the reproduction of potentially negative aspects of our culture (Meighan and Siraj – Blatchford, 2003).
Within most classrooms various faiths are represented. Affirming a child by acknowledging and celebrating their religion helps to extend the knowledge of others around them. This way, children understand that people and religions are not all the same while celebrating their richness and diversity (Copley, 1994).
From a personal perspective, I firmly believe that children should be entitled to celebrate their individual skin colours without risk of racism or stereotyping. Having mixed race children myself has highlighted the fact that racism is still alive and well in UK society. For example, subtle messages during unguarded moments from well-meaning acquaintances - ‘well he’ll be good at sports, won’t he’ –have, unfortunately confirmed this.
The Barnet Civic Forum developed the ‘Celebrating Diversity Action Team’ to enable children in school to challenge racism. With a wide cross section of faith and ethnic minority members, the team issued a statement which announced a stance on diversity and racism. In brief, they were to value and celebrate the diversity of cultures, faiths and languages; allow everyone to participate fully in the life of a community; acknowledge that racism prevents this; challenge all forms of discrimination and stand up to racism. This action motivated both the children and parents take the issue of racism seriously (Paxton, 2003). Another successful approach was Bradford’s Linking Schools Projects whereby two very different schools within the same district, one with English as the first language and one with mainly South East Asian heritage and English as a second language, were brought together to promote friendship and tolerance in a bridge building exercise, in view of the inclusive nature of the exercise children with physical and behavioural difficulties were included, the results being an undoubted success. (Ackroyd et al 2003) These positive and successful approaches could surely be adapted and used throughout Primary school.
Equally, black people should be positively represented throughout the curriculum so that white children appreciate the valuable contributions other cultures have made to human progress. Positive images of a wide variety of different ethnic groups should be displayed in order to challenge stereotypes and to instill self-worth and respect. A further issues is the media portrayal of particular groups which can serve to perpetuate stereotypes – for example Black people are often portrayed as athletic or criminal, and some countries are only portrayed as famine-stricken.( Brown 1990).
The same inclusive approach needs to be extended to those children who live with a disability. Brown (1990) states that often people refer to someone as ‘a disabled person’ recognising only their disability and attitudes such as this need to be addressed. All children should be given the opportunity to interact with each other and positive images of people with disabilities are presented to the children not stereo typical images. Equipment, toys and activities should be accessible for all children to be able to play together dispelling any misconceptions or fears in other children and provide support and knowledge to those who need it.
Similarly the need to be inclusive and aware of the hidden curriculum lies in the way boys and girls are differentiated. Sexism is often based on the idea that an individual’s sex predetermines their potential therefore restricting opportunities, with females often discriminated against the most because of patriarchal attitudes. Gender attitudes develop early therefore children need to see both sexes involved in a wide-ranging variety of roles both conventional and unconventional to ensure acceptance. It is essential that the curriculum includes females particularly within Science, History and Literature topics as stereotypical imagery within school texts perpetuates imbalances in society. (Robinson and Richardson, 1997). Wallace and Abbot (1997) warn that even with the introduction of the National Curriculum girls are subtly encouraged to make choices that propel into ‘female’ jobs and a secondary role within a patriarchal society. It is crucial that the attitudes of educators reflect an inclusive society and do not unintentionally reflect stereotypical roles, for example asking a boy to carry something heavy but asking a girl to wash the paint pots.
The expectations of a child are often based not on objective evidence about them, but on assumptions made about them. Many of these are inferred or unconscious and not expressed, and are usually related to ‘race’, culture, ethnicity, gender and social class (Richardson, 2002). It is an educator’s job to embrace and acknowledge the rich diversity all the children collectively bring to the classroom, while understanding that the children do not need to be treated the same because they are not the same as each other, but be respected and accepted for their differences.
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