A Rich Tapestry

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” ~Maya Angelou~

For a number of years, I’d been sort of vaguely keeping track of the authors I was reading. I wanted to get a sense for what authors I naturally gravitated towards and how diversely I was reading. Most years, my reading was about 60% male and 60% white. As a white male, I decided it was time to be more intentional about my reading selection, so for 2021 I set myself the goal of reading at least 50% of my texts from perspectives/experiences different from my own.

Not only was this a very worthwhile experience with regards to the texts I discovered and read, but also in what it taught me about my own reading habits and preferences. For one, I rarely read books due to their physical proximity—I don’t just walk into a book store or library and find something that looks interesting; for many years I’ve been carefully pulling together my reading list based on recommendations, references, and my own research and growing interests. With such an approach, it wasn’t hard to add a paradigm of authorial diversity to the books I bought or borrowed.

Over the year 2021, I learned much and had a number of realizations:

1. I like to think I’m a person that is willing to question my personal assumptions and beliefs. I believe that holding our positions, values, and ideas with humility not only makes for richer, more authentic interactions with others, but also allows us to grow. No matter how far I think I’ve come, I recognize that there is always more to learn, and most of that recognition comes from reading texts by those who have different life experiences from my own.

I deeply resonated with the identity war taking place in the narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I’ve been caught in that awkward limbo between cultures, drawn in multiple directions and not quite fitting into any of them. Yet the context of the story, both in Vietnam and in Los Angeles was foreign to me, the choices the narrator makes are heavily contextual and so watching him struggle not only with his identity but also with how that impacts his allegiances was eye opening. I would not have made the choices he did, but nor am I able to fault him for making those choices within the situations he was placed.

2. I cognitively know that across the human species, there is a multiplicity of experiences. And yet it is so hard for us to not automatically take our own experience, background, culture, and values as the norm and measure all others against them. I think the human mind is very good at making judgments and sometimes that is a crucial skill, a matter of survival or deep insight. But judgment, measuring, and seeking to categorize always happens from within our own familiar context which necessitates that those are often subjective. Yet we think of them as objective, even subconsciously. That’s not so say that we should not evaluate the world around us, but rather that doing so with a desire to only quantify, to always put into smaller boxes, to wrap our tiny selves around the largeness of other cultures and different experiences is a futile and misguided effort. It is a constant reminder to me when I read from varied perspectives that my way of seeing the world is not the only right one—I know this, but I often find myself forgetting.

For example: I come from a culture where we love and respect our parents, and those parents give us tools and encourage us to decide our own future paths. There is a lot of value in this but it can also come with anxiety and uncertainty about that future. In numerous instances, particularly in Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, I came across interactions between children and their parents that differ from that. Respecting parents includes obedience to the ways that parent has planned and provided for their child’s future. Li Lan is responsible not only for honoring her father, but for their family’s standing in Malacca. Her own desires are important, crucial, and central to the story, yet they cannot and should not take precedence in her relationship with her father and Amah. This is a good reminder to me that many of my students interact with their parents in different ways than I do with mine: not better, not worse, but different. And that will change the way they interact with them, with the world, with the decisions they have to make. It helps me to understand them better.

3. No single place, culture, religion or tradition holds a monopoly on the full truth. There is truth (or wisdom, to use a perhaps less fraught term) to be found all over the place, even in traditions and ideologies that we disagree with or that do not resonate with our circumstances. It is very easy to dismiss writers, thinkers, and artists, with whom we disagree wholesale, as though nothing they have to contribute contains value. But that’s a reflection of essentialist, simplistic, and closed thinking that does not believe it can learn from other traditions.

This past year, I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. A number of his concerns, arguments, and approaches are closely situated in the class and liberation struggles he’s engaged with during the 1960s. I see numerous flaws in his primarily Marxist approach to understanding power dynamics and resistance. And yet, what he offers on the balance between individualized learners and the power of collective engagement with a topic is truly revolutionary (pun most definitely intended). His ideas on bringing students into their own learning process rather than having education be something that is done to them gave words and definition to a primary aspect of my own educational philosophy. And his insistence that collaboration with peers can lead to significant education gains as opposed to the more individualistic approach of western education have helped me to better understand the value of classroom culture, group work, and peer coaching.

It was such a valuable experience last year that it was definitely worth the extra time, effort, and money it took to not just read the works that were more easily accessible, but to be intentional about the authorship of what I was reading. I plan to follow a similar pattern this year and look forward to what new authors I will discover, what new ideas I’ll get to mull over, and which new worlds will unfold themselves through the writings of those who are different from me.

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