Why learn about other cultures?
Learning about other cultures is one of the best things you can do in your homeschool. Especially if you want to contribute to more peace and understanding in these tough political times.
If you’re thinking about how to discuss tough issues like immigration, you’ll want to start off by exploring identity. How people think about themselves as members of a nation, race, ethnic group, religion, culture, or community. It might surprise some children to learn that there are “other cultures” at all, especially if you don’t live in a very diverse community.
For white liberal Americans like me, it’s tempting to say that we don’t have any particular identity or culture – we’re “citizens of the world”. But many people are proud of their heritage and steeped in their culture’s history. From the names they give to their babies to their clothing, hairstyles, social customs, and sense of what is sacred.
This is a giant topic, so I won’t try to tackle it all in one go. I also won’t try to tell you how to teach your children about their own identities. You’ll know best how to impart your own culture, religion, language, and other aspects of your family’s and community’s culture.
Helpful Strategies for Learning About Other Cultures
What I want to do in this post is discuss 3 simple rules for learning about other cultures, especially indigenous cultures. Obviously I am a white lady, not an indigenous person. I don’t want to speak over indigenous people or make it sound like I’m an expert on indigenous cultures, when I am not. But I’m speaking up after a lot of sitting back and listening online to the conversations that people of color and especially indigenous folks have with one another. Rather than asking them to do the work, I’m going to try my best to put this information forward so that it benefits everyone.
1 – Consult the people themselves.
This is the single best way to ensure that you are learning accurate information AND doing so in a respectful, helpful manner. When you learn about a culture straight from its members, you are honoring their perspective. Just as you would want the opportunity to fairly present YOUR culture, traditions, values, etc. to an outsider, rather than have someone misrepresent you, innocently or maliciously.
How can you ensure that you are learning about a culture straight from its members? You can:
- Buy books written by people of that culture. Even better if the publisher is also from that group. There are many excellent lists online about Native Americans and First Nations in general. If you are wanting information about a specific tribe or nation, you can also search for that specifically.
- Read articles written by people of that culture. For example, the Haudenosaunee nations have a website that details historical and present day information.
- Watch YouTube or other videos by people of that culture. For example, this video shows a Haudenosaunee woman speaking to a child, addressing the question of whether “Iroquois” is a correct name for their nation.
The most important part of this is to present cultural history as belonging to the people of that culture. It’s their story, their artifacts, their ancestors.
I had this brought home to me when I was searching for fun art activities to do with my child. I landed on a “free unit study” on Aboriginal Australia. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that the person was not an indigenous Australian, had not consulted any indigenous Australians, and had only a vague idea of what indigenous Australian culture is. She presented indigenous Australians as all one group (they aren’t) and called them “Aborigines” which is not the term they prefer. The suggested projects and accompanying information were useless because it was both inaccurate and vague.
2 – Teach and practice respect.
As a teacher, I have had MANY a stern conversation with students who think it’s “funny” to imitate fake language sounds from minority languages. (Think “ching chong” type nonsense.) Or mock another group’s clothing, facial or hair styles, or beliefs. It’s not a joke if it disempowers and insults the recipient.
The word “weird” also comes up a lot when kids first encounter a culture very different from their own. But what’s “weird” to you is normal to someone else, and YOU are the “weird” one to them! I try to get kids to tell me exactly what seems “weird” to them. Sometimes it leads to an interesting conversation. It’s OK to notice differences and reflect on them.
Another easy way to practice respect is to avoid cheapening things that are sacred. If a particular mode of dress or object is sacred, don’t make a craft or Halloween costume out of it. There are many other ways to get “hands on learning” going without turning someone’s religion into a craftivity.
3 – Discuss the tough stuff.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just celebrate other cultures without having to get into the messy, uncomfortable past? Except people today are very much influenced by what happened in the past. Present day members of disenfranchised or oppressed groups still feel the impact of generations of war, slaughter, racism, forced removal from their land and homes, “legal” removal of children from parents to be raised in boarding schools, and the list goes on and on.
You might feel that your child is too young to understand awful realities like racism, genocide, and oppression. But from the perspective of people of color, this doesn’t work. They don’t have the luxury of waiting until their children are “old enough” to learn about unpleasant realities. Those realities inform their lives every day.
It’s heartbreaking to have to tell your child that people hurt one another on purpose, kill others, or take away children. But if they don’t know these things, they won’t really understand. They won’t get why having your culture mocked with Halloween costumes is such a big deal. Or why people are protesting a new telescope on Hawaii, or a pipeline in North Dakota.
It’s OK to build up to these conversations. Your four year old won’t be able to process them the way that your eight, twelve, or fifteen year old will. But we have to start somewhere.
Some Dos and Don’ts Based on These 3 Rules
- DO teach about indigenous people living today. DON’T make it sound like Natives only existed in the past.
- DO use accurate names for nations, tribes and individuals. And DO make an effort to pronounce them correctly.
- DO help your child understand that there are many different indigenous nations and groups. They don’t all use teepees!
- DO spend your money in a way that benefits actual indigenous people. DON’T use materials or sources by those who are taking advantage or mischaracterizing.
- DON’T let your child learn about indigenous people from Little House on the Prairie. If your children are going to read material that is derogatory or misleading, DO make sure they have a good factual base first.
The bottom line is this: Give all people and cultures the same respect that you would want given to yours.
If, like me, you grew up making paper dolls of “Pilgrims and Indians” at Thanksgiving, rather than actually learning about the REAL Thanksgiving, this might be a wake up call. We weren’t given a real education on these topics. We read “classic” books that contained racist, outdated ideas. And we were taught that Western civilization was the best, even though we stepped on some toes along the way.
But we can do better for our own children! Learning about other cultures is rewarding AND useful in today’s society. If we’re all going to live together, we have to try harder to understand.
If you’re from an indigenous culture and you feel I’ve left something out or gotten something wrong, please let me know so that I can add it or change it. I want to provide the best information so that people like myself, who want to educate our children properly, can do so respectfully. Learning about other cultures is an important lifelong skill!