Saturday 15 February 2014

A perspective on diversity

At the swimming pool the other day I spent a few (rather chilly) minutes watching my daughters from a distance.  Now they're older, and more confident in the water, I am able to do this and enjoy the new feelings invoked by seeing them play together or independently. It struck me that, when your children are little, you only tend to see them close up. You look down at the top of their heads when they're holding your hand - or when they're really tiny, you peer down from above when they are cradled in your arms.  But the benefit of perspective allows you to see much more. I was looking at what makes the girls the same, and what features they have that are different. I was seeing them as whole people, rather than looking through a distorted lens that only allows you to see disembodied bits at close range.

Sometimes it helps to look at things really closely, and other times to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. I love the images of sand close-up, like this one - that show all the beautiful complexity and individuality of the grains, which are invisible to the naked eye.

When I think about diversity, then, I try to zoom in and recognise all the aspects that make us different and unique.  As a child, there didn't appear to be much diversity around me - I attended a mainly white school, lived in the middle of a large predominantly white housing estate and rarely experienced other cultures. Into my adult life this gave me a sense that I didn't really know what diversity meant, but of course I was mainly thinking of colour - the issue for me was literally black and white.  But of course I was in the midst of difference all the time - of class, background, religion, politics, physical ability, regionality, appearance - I just wasn't 'zooming in'. I felt ignorant of difference but didn't ask the questions I needed, to understand it better. (I'm still working hard to get better at this).

The recent Diversity Day at Northern College (part of an embedding diversity project funded by NIACE Equality and Diversity Innovation Fund delivered by @TeachNorthern) allowed me to spend time reflecting on this.  I considered my own differences and the things that make me unique in a positive sense, but that may also generate limiting assumptions (in myself and others) and hold back the development of self-esteem. As someone who was born with a genetic abnormality that meant years of operations and teasing at school, I understand very clearly what this means and how it feels to be singled out. We all do, in our different ways - and connecting with these feelings builds empathy and understanding that makes us more mindful and self-aware as teachers.

On this amazing and rich day I was also reminded of the importance, not only of zooming in to appreciate difference, but of zooming out to understand our similarities.  The wonderful Rachel Allwood (@Allwood_RF) suggested that, in the end, of course we are all the same because 'we all die'. In his book, Human Universals, Donald Brown talks about 'those features of culture, society, language, behaviour and psyche for which there are no known exception.' This list of over 60 features includes belief, classification, conflict, dreams, gift giving, jokes and music - they are common to every human being. When we look at what makes us different, then, it is valuable to remember and celebrate what we share too.  Sand and snow only gain their beauty and meaning when individual, unique elements join together.  My daughters are different in so many ways, but they share my smile and their dad's sense of humour. And of course, they both really love swimming.

Brown, D.,1991, Human Universals, New York McGraw-Hill
Sand image via @FascinatingPics

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