Keep Celebrating Differences
A Teacher’s Response to Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism”
In his recent New York Times piece “The End of Identity Liberalism,” political scientist Mark Lilla attributes Trump’s win to a liberal obsession with identity politics and what he calls the “moral panic” about racial, gender, and sexual identity. He also blames teachers and the press for helping to create a generation of liberals who are “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups.” He begins his article by slamming the “general liberal” tendency to celebrate our differences, because it has been “disastrous for a democratic politics in our ideological age.”
As a kindergarten teacher devoted to exactly this kind of celebration of difference, I take personal offense to Lilla’s argument. I have seen children develop empathy and compassion as a direct result of the kind of celebration of differences that Lilla finds so problematic. I have seen children shift from assuming their experience is the “norm” to learning how to ask questions of their peers, and critically examine their own perceptions and assumptions. And this did not happen by itself.
Young children are prone to sorting one another by common attributes, and we ask them to do this all the time in math and literacy. This tendency to sort — compounded by the tendency toward in-group favoritism, the negative messages about people of color that children continue to pick up from the media, and racial segregation — encourages prejudice, and, at the very least, a lack of understanding of others.
Over the years, I have seen white children mis-label and single out children of color, in various ways — in play, and during conversations about subjects such as the Civil Rights Movement. I have heard children say, in reference to classmates of various races, “they are all black so they couldn’t have come to my school in those days,” or “they all look the same.” I have also heard students say misinformed and misguided statements about race and skin color, such as thinking skin color is “all about your mom.”
Silence around differences can work to exclude children of color, and any other member of an identity group deemed as different from the norm, and impede learning for all young children.
Children have also made statements that display bias, such as “black people are homeless,” and statements that reflect misunderstandings of difference, such as, referring to women wearing hijab, “they cover their hair because their hair is dirty.” According to Lilla’s argument, when confronted with these statements of bias and ignorance about difference, the appropriate response would be not to educate about these differences, but to retreat into silence, and to search for commonalities, for a unifying vision.
But I know from experience, and from all the research on the failure of the so-called “colorblind” strategy, that letting children come to their own conclusions about what difference means allows bias and ignorance to grow unchecked. And worse, silence around differences can work to exclude children of color, and any other member of an identity group deemed as different from the norm, and impede learning for all young children.
Several years ago, I realized that when I taught about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my students were not able to grasp the themes I’d wanted them to. For example, they couldn’t understand non-violence as a strategy for change or that social movements require people of all identities working together. I sensed that these two things were connected, that my students’ misperceptions of one another and lack of foundational understanding of race was blocking their ability to develop more sophisticated and critical understandings of the subject matter. I thought about how, in our core academic subjects, such as math and literacy, we carefully provide building blocks of understanding for each skill and concept taught. For instance, we would never teach algebra without first developing number sense.
After extensive research, I decided to explore ways of teaching that would lead to greater understanding, and greater inclusion, for all of my students … The results have been striking.
After extensive research, I decided to explore ways of teaching that would lead to greater understanding, and greater inclusion, for all of my students. The result of this is an exploration into, what one student named, “Same/Same, but Different” — in which we learn about many ways we are alike and the same, and through which I teach communication skills — so that all of my students learn how to communicate across differences with respect.
At the same time, I integrate the themes of what we now call “peaceful changemaking” into various aspects of the curriculum. Now, alongside the study of Dr. King, we study environmentalists such as Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work replanting the trees of Kenya, and Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first black children to integrate a school in New Orleans in 1960, and characters in books who work to solve big, social problems. My students also choose to honor people in their own families and communities who are “changemakers.” The results have been striking.
Now, children will ask each other before assuming they know something about their identity. And, because they have the facts straight about where skin color comes from, and a growing respect and understanding for the differences in their classroom, our conversations about ongoing social struggles are focused on the themes and big ideas, rather than on sorting out misunderstandings. The learning is deep and integrated, and my classroom is more unified than it once was.
A return to silence about difference is actually a return to privileging one identity over all others, and allowing this identity to reign. Because there was never a pre-identity liberalism, just as there was never a post-racial America.
From Lilla’s attack on this celebration of differences, it follows that the “end of identity liberalism” in teaching would mean a return to silence, in classrooms all over the country, about race and diversity.
This is a dangerous request, as many teachers (the majority of whom are white women like me) already feel uncomfortable talking about differences, especially racial differences, with their students. Many may feel a sense of relief that Lilla let’s them off the hook.
But let’s remember: this return to silence about difference is actually a return to privileging one identity over all others, and allowing this identity to reign. Because there was never a pre-identity liberalism, just as there was never a post-racial America. The identity that was never called an identity was and has always been white, male and straight.
This identity determined (and still does) what was taught in schools, who was allowed into the country, who got to be President, who developed and was favored by policy and law. The way this identity works is to be so invisible, that is equated with being “American.” As Toni Morrison writes, “In this country American means white, everyone else has to hyphenate.”
Lilla’s argument is not a new one. It’s one that’s always been used to challenge the validity of ethnic studies programs and changes to the literary canon — the fear that inclusion of other voices will dilute the power and reach of the dominant, privileged narrative.
I have not stopped reading children’s books by white authors that feature white main characters, even as I am intentionally diversifying my classroom library. The intent is always to create greater inclusion and a stronger sense of classroom community, not to divide.
For example, Lilla writes that it is impossible to understand the women’s rights movement if you don’t “first understand the achievements of the founding fathers in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.” With this sweeping dismissal, Lilla assumes that, by learning about the experience of historically marginalized groups, students aren’t also learning about other aspects of American history, including the founding fathers.
He is proposing that any teaching about the women’s rights movement must be within the context of the founding fathers’ vision of America. Lilla doesn’t consider the possibility that the study of women’s right movements can shed new light on, and allow for a critical examination of, the ideas of the founding fathers, and that by examining this story from another perspective, the learning is not only more inclusive, but deeper, richer, and more complete.
Lilla fears that the inclusion of diverse voices automatically silences the ones traditionally taught in school. For him, the inclusion of diverse perspectives is dangerous, in so far as it erodes some kind of cohesive vision — one that will bind Americans together. He could not be more wrong.
In my role as an educator, I have not stopped reading children’s books by white authors that feature white main characters, even as I am intentionally diversifying my classroom library. The intent is always to create greater inclusion and a stronger sense of classroom community, not to divide. I have to assume that this is true for the majority of educators like me, as we respond to greater diversity in our schools.
We must steadfastly resist the idea that a unifying vision of America doesn’t examine difference.
Now is the time for educators to stand strong in our belief in inclusion and teaching about and celebrating difference. The easiest response for white educators like me, one we cannot consider, would be to return to silence. Whiteness, in the sense of white supremacy and privilege, must be challenged. The surge in activity of white nationalists, many of whom see a champion in Trump, must be challenged. And, yes, identity liberalism is a threat to white supremacy. As it should be.
What if, instead of blaming the celebration of differences for Trump’s win, we take seriously the idea that Trump won because he stoked the anger and frustration among white voters and directed this anger toward immigrants, and various other marginalized groups? What if we examined Trump’s tactics of demonization from a historical perspective?
As Howard Zinn writes in his People’s History of the United States, in the new American colonies there was only one fear greater than the fear of black rebellion — the fear that white servants would join enslaved Africans to overthrow the status quo. In a concerted effort to prevent this kind of mass rebellion, the ruling class decreed that all white men were superior to black.
This is the root of the narrative that was created about racial difference, a narrative rooted in white privilege and white supremacy. The appropriate response is not to ignore the existence of this narrative, because in so doing we maintain its privilege, and continue to buy into the idea of the “threat” of non-whites.
Instead, we must steadfastly resist the idea that a unifying vision of America doesn’t examine difference. A unifying vision of America, one that will, as Lilla writes, capture “Americans’ imaginations about our shared destinies” is one that will honestly and responsibly tell the truth about America — in all of its complexity, using the multitude of voices and perspectives critical to this story.