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#Multicultivate: Can diversity really be taught?

Saturday, June 14, 2014, 1:00pm - 2:30pm
KPCCRadio (via YouTube)

By Jeanette Marantos

More and more Americans are living in families that blend race, cultures and genders, but judging from the startled and sometimes cruel response to commercials that feature diverse families, some are still uncomfortable or downright hostile to families from multiple backgrounds.

So how do experts recommend teaching diversity? Through conversations, storytelling and encouraging media to include more examples of diverse families, according to the Multicultivate forum held at the Mixed Remixed Festival Saturday, June 14.

The worst thing to do? Keep quiet, and expect attitudes to change, panelists told forum moderator Josie Huang,  emerging communities and immigration reporter for KPCC.

The cost of silence can be hilarious misunderstanding….“I’m half black and half Mexican, so I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, so you’re Puerto Rican?” said panelist Sonia N. Kang, vice president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC) and writer of The Mixed Up Blog.

...Or heart-breaking, as recounted by audience member Tom Elliott, treasurer of MASC, who shared the story of a young African-American boy who was adopted into a large Caucasian family.

“They never talked about (his adoption) because they just assumed this child would understand,” Elliott said, “but one day when this child was about 10 years old someone told him he was adopted and he was devastated. He came home and told his mom and his mom said, ‘We thought you knew,’ and he said ‘No,’ because he had seen their Golden Retriever who had had a litter of puppies, some of which had been black, so you just cannot make assumptions. Talking about differences and recognizing the differences, without judgment, is the key.”

Kang, who married a Korean man, agreed. “We get so afraid of talking to our kids about this stuff that we stay quiet. But they’re asking the questions in their head, so you want to give them a forum to talk about this as well."

And there are also practical reasons for discussing diversity, she said. “Studies show the benefits of telling kids about other cultures: You can talk more easily to other people and you also don’t have this myopic kind of view of the world. You have a bigger, global view.”

Here are some other pointers from the forum, which also included panelists Heidi Durrow, the half-black, half-Danish founder of the Mixed Remixed Festival and author of  the New York Times bestselling book that's geared for adults but has a strong young adult readership,  “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky;”  Terrence Franklin, a trust attorney and founding member of Sacks, Frazier, Franklin & Lodise LLP,  the African-American father of two daughters and partner of co-panelist Jeffrey Moline,  filmmaker, musician and songwriter.

Photo: Josie Huang, left, moderates #Multicultivate panel with Sonia Kang, Heidi Durrow, Terrence Franklin and Jeffrey Moline (far right) at Mixed Remixed festival June 14

Support media that promote diversity and ask for more

When General Mills created an interracial Cheerios ad,  the commercial earned praise from some but generated a campaign of angry tweets and emails. MASC families responded to the online attacks by posting photos of their families next to boxes of Cheerios, said Kang. “We didn’t want to respond from the haters’ point of view; we just wanted to say, ‘We are here and we support you.’”

Other companies have recently produced commercials featuring families with disabilities (Swiffer ad) and families with interracial and/or same-sex parents (Honey Maid's  #This Is Wholesome campaign) that also sparked controversy. 

Diverse families in Southern California sometimes overlook the magnitude of such advertising, said Franklin.  “It seems shocking that it’s been since 1967 that the Supreme Court made the Loving decision (which legalized interracial marriages), so why have we not seen these images before? That’s what seems surprising to me,” he said.

“It’s presenting everyday life just as everyday life is. More and more every day we see these images, and it creeps in a little bit at a time, so that hopefully people aren’t so shocked by the concept that people can love each other in ways that we haven’t traditionally expected them to.”

Don’t be afraid to share your story

Durrow spent her early childhood overseas, and wasn't confronted with questions about her race until her family moved to a predominately black neighborhood in Portland. “People would say to me, ‘What are you?’ and I’d say, ‘I am the very best speller in my class.’ I had no idea what they were asking,” she said.

“I learned after awhile, that they were really asking me, ‘Are you black or are you white?’ So now I’m 45 and I’ve learned how to answer their questions differently. I say ‘I’m half Danish, half black,’ ‘I’m mixed,’ ‘I’m an Afro Viking’ or I like to say, ‘I’m a story,’ which is puzzling to people. They say, ‘What does that mean?’ and then we get to talk about it.”

Franklin and Moline recalled going shopping with Franklin’s 16-year-old daughter and ex-wife at a very upscale store in Orange County. When the two women went in to try on some clothes, Moline said they struck up a conversation with the clerk, and discovered that she had decided from afar that Moline must be married to Franklin’s ex wife and Franklin was married to his daughter.

“We explained to her that we were the couple, and that was Terry’s daughter and that was his ex-wife,” Moline said, “but the extraordinary thing that came out of this is she felt safe enough to tell us she had recently been dating a black man and it was the first man of color she had ever dated...By talking about ourselves, we created a space for this woman to feel safe enough to share with us.”

Create, encourage and participate in multi-cultural experiences

Franklin said he was initially dubious when the Willows Community School announced that his daughter’s annual class trip would be to Memphis, Tennessee—until he learned that they made the trip in preparation for studying the American civil rights movement.

Most of the students who attend the school are Jewish, he said, with few blacks, so while his daughter has attended a lot of Bat Mitzvahs, this was an opportunity for her and her classmates to get a very different cultural experience. The students toured the National Civil Rights Museum, but they also visited the former Lorraine Motel where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, heard gospel singing at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church of Rev. Al Green, and met with African American students at a local school to talk about race.

“They made all kinds of connections with the culture, music and history of the civil rights movement,: Franklin said, “and I was really blown away that a school institution felt it was important enough to tell these stories.”

Share books and other media that include diversity

Huang noted that while 3,200 children’s books were published last year, only 93 were about black people, 34 about Native Americans, 69 about Asians and 57 about Latinos, starting a campaign called “We Need Diverse Books.”

Durrow said that’s why she organized the Mixed Remixed Festival, “so storytellers knew they had a place to tell their stories. It took me 12 years to write and get my book published but that’s partly because I got 48 publishing house rejections from people who said, ‘No one can relate to a story about a half black, half Danish girl.’ The problem is, people don’t know they can get their stories out there. We have to create more spaces for storytellers to get their stories out there.”

Kang said that’s why she always buys two when she finds books that deal with multicultural issues, one for her home and one for her children’s classrooms “so my children have an opportunity to see characters who look like them. We need to be knocking on the doors of Madison Avenue telling them this is what we’re looking for, and this is what we need.”

Use humor as a conversation starter

Franklin said he was moderating a panel about diversity for about 500 trust and estate lawyers. “This is a group with 2,700 members across the country and I’m the black guy,” he said. “The moderator asked, ‘How would you like me to introduce you?’ and I said, ‘ Why don’t you tell them that Terry is the African American fellow in the college.

'He said,  ‘Are you sure I should be saying that? Won’t that be uncomfortable for you and them?’ but I think that’s part of our point. You do what you have to do to get past the uncomfortable point and in this case it worked. He said his piece, we got a chuckle and that moved us into a wonderful discussion.”