Hi Emma, I teach in a secondary school with 31 different nationalities. About one-third have relations from Angola, Nigeria, Algeria, and other countries in Africa. Most of these students have been born in Ireland and identify as Irish. We’re trying to promote the Yellow Flag for inclusion and diversity. We also want them to be proud of their heritage. Have you any ideas on how best we can do this?
First of all, your students are lucky to have a teacher who cares as much as you evidently do; they are off to a good start. One of the many horrible memories I have from school was being about 8 years old, and telling my teacher that we didn’t need to send “pennies to the black babies”.
I had just been in Nigeria and they had skyscrapers and fancy cars and mansions, and all of this stuff that we certainly didn’t have in inner-city Dublin in the 1980s. I was reefed out of the classroom quicker than Bob’s your uncle, and into the corridor, where I endured a grown-arse woman yelling into my face about the need to fix the chip on my shoulder. So your commitment certainly makes for a welcome improvement to things in my day.
I think one of the major issues is that when people think about diversity and difference, the emphasis is often on racism. There is a tendency to still perceive being black or brown as being defined by experiences of it. African cultures are still certainly imagined as inferior.
There is little understanding that people have their own rich and valuable cultural worlds from which we could often learn a lot. We have to stop stigmatising and fearing other peoples’ cultural backgrounds. Nobody is trying to threaten Irish culture. It’s not like people are coming to Ireland and forcing their languages, their knowledge systems or their bureaucracy on the Irish people. Most people do just want to get along.
A universal condition of humanity, one that is shared the world over, is that most people just want their children to be safe. They just want them to have access to the opportunities that are every human being’s birthright, but which – as a result of a global system that is skewed massively in favour of disrupting and destabilising the global south in order for the global north to continue exploit and extract its resources – might not be available in their home countries.
Another thing I’ve seen as well is a lip service to a “diversity” that is not really inclusive. An institution will want the non-white faces in the promotional photograph or the brochure, but there is still a lack of respect for different cultures, and God forbid any of us poster kids behave in a way that is “too black”, or demonstrate any evidence of having a different perspective that might be the result of the fact that we often experience the world differently.
In terms of your students, at least they are not the only ones. Your school sounds incredibly diverse, so that is going to be beneficial. For me, growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, it was the sense of being utterly alone and that nobody else could relate to or even be particularly empathetic to what I was going through, that really damaged me.
Okay, some suggestions I would make. First off: language.
Most of these kids are going to be bilingual, trilingual if not even more. Most Irish people do not speak more than one language fluently. Can the students introduce their languages and teach some of the other students some words or phrases that represent the cultural values of those nations? National dishes, and music could work well too, and for black students in particular hair is a great one – how we braid it, the politics of it.
You mention Angola. Angola has a thriving dance culture, with dances like Kizomba and Kuduro enjoying worldwide popularity, especially amongst Angolan diasporas in places like Brazil and Portugal. Can you have a lesson or presentation on their origins and significance? Can any of the students teach the others Kuduro?
Can the Nigerian students tell the others about the Nigerian cuisine, which is so central to our cultural identity? Things like jollof rice, egusi soup and pounded yam. Could some of these dishes be made in Home Economics? Or could they introduce the other students to Nigerian Afrobeats, the genre currently hugely influencing popular music?
What about similarities between our countries in terms of colonialism? Just like us, Nigeria was colonized by the British, Angola by the Portuguese, Algeria by the French. Could you look at post-colonial literature, the influence of Irish writers like Yeats on Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe?
Best of luck, and your letter is kind of making me want to move home, which makes me think of the poem “Home” by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. For any class, reading that would be a good place to start.
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