During the last week of school holidays, the full time teachers met out of town for our annual Kairos Teachers’ Retreat. The final meal together was a Friday night dinner, at which we spontanously offered a multicultural set of blessings on the meal. Jeff shared the Friday night Kiddish ceremony, with bread and wine. Sidra shared the Surah Fatihah from the Koran as part of her Namaaz practice. Thapelo recited “Thapelo ya Morena” (the Lord’s Prayer in Sotho), Jenny shared the Hindu food prayer, “Brahmarpanam”, and (in the spirit of secular reverance) Nicola offered thanks to Kim for cooking the yummy curry. We were awakened to the extraordinary diversity in our little group of Kairos teachers on this wonderful land at the tip of the African continent. The traditions of each ritual represented a comprehensive belief system in our world, and the sharing of these at the same meal was an inspiration.
Difference is such a difficult and delicate matter, for so often it is overlayed with difference in power — either economic, political or social power. In a primary school, the difference between adults and children is the most obvious distinction, with adults intrinsically carrying more social “power”. As they grow towards high school, boys and girls come to be more conscious of the distinction between them. In Kairos we are fortunate to enjoy a reasonable cultural and racial diversity (although I hope this will improve in time — please spread the word!). These differences enrich our school community, but they also are likely to import the complexities of our society into our school — and I hope they will, because this adds contextualised relevance to those times where we teach topics such as racism and sexism and other forms of prejudice.
I feel it will be helpful to offer some food-for-thought ideas around awareness of difference.
When there are overlapping differences in a community, people in the more “dominant” groups generally tend to be unconscious of their privilege of being dominant. For this reason the less “dominant” group tends to struggle to communicate how they are sometimes impacted by the more dominant group.
For instance, whites, men, heterosexuals, abled people and those earning an income are less likely to be conscious of the day-to-day struggles of the “Others” — people of colour, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities or those who are unemployed, et cetera. When people find themselves falling into a combination of these less dominant — or “target” — categories, they are likely to be impacted more severely. Often this amounts to oppression, and from the economic point of view, oppression can be quite real even in a healthy democracy where minorities are protected legally.
Because of widespread inequality in our world, even more in South Africa than most other countries, our society is set up for systemic prejudice against target groups. Moreover, our children are influenced by any racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice which they experience in the adults in their care. Similarly, children from families that fall into target categories are influenced by any aspects of internalised oppression which they experience in their families.
The various forms of unconsciousness in ourselves as parents and teachers is a powerful hidden curriculum for our children. This is the same phenomenon which Prof Jonathan Jansen calls, “Knowledge in the Blood” in his eponymous book, otherwise known as integenerational transmission of prejudice and trauma.
As some of you will know, we have been recently exploring ways of improving our anti-bullying policies, and more on this in a future Hmmm. What I would like to point out here is an interesting similarity between a child witnessing an incident of nastiness in a classroom and an adult witnessing an incident of prejudice in some or other social setting. In both cases the bystander is an integral key to the solution of the problem. As an illustration, you may enjoy watching Jackson Katz’s TED.com talk about the importance of the male bystander in addressing sexism (click here). With regard to addressing bullying, it’s important that we empower and educate our children to challenge a nasty act before it turns into a pattern of bullying. Just as the adults who carry privilege have more social power to challenge prejudice, so do children in a class who carry status and influence have more social power to stop bullying before it starts.
And so there we were, a multicultural bunch of teachers enjoying an outdoor meal together beneath the stars, feeling able to share a blessing from our diverse backgrounds: and this included a Muslim prayer, a Jewish prayer and a prayer in an African language, three cultural categories that face an enormous amount of prejudice in our world today.