The ABCs of Diversity (Carolyn Helsel & Joy Harris-Smith) -- A Review
THE ABCS OF DIVERSITY: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences. By Carolyn B. Helsel and Y. Joy Harris Smith. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2020. Xiii 189 pages.
Being different isn't a bad thing. In fact, being different is part of what it means to be human. We come in different colors, genders, sexual orientations, religions, ethnicities, and more. While once upon a time there was a "melting pot" theory that suggested to Americans, who are a diverse lot, that we should all assimilate into one national identity. Those differences that make us who we are should melt away. There are still people who hold on to that idea, and even actively resist diversity education out of the fear that if we learn how to not only live with but embrace the diverse realities of our nation then the Eurocentric (White) identity that they believe defines the United States will be lost. There is, however, a more beneficial path to take, and it’s one that affirms and celebrates our distinctives. When we can do this then we can affirm the premise that out of the many we are one people—and that doesn’t mean becoming a bland melted reality. It looks more like a salad with lots of ingredients. The question is, how do we help our children understand the value of these distinctives so that they don’t fear them but welcome them?
Carolyn Helsel and Joy Harris-Smith have written just the book for the moment. It's titled The ABCs of Diversity. It's the kind of book that parents, educators, schools, and religious communities will find valuable as we ponder the impact of our differences in an increasingly globalized world. Although the book is published by a religious publisher and authored by seminary professors, tit is a book that transcends religion. Yes, religion is addressed, but not in a way that will hinder its use in non-religious settings.
As for the two authors, Carolyn Helsel teaches preaching at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. She is the author of two books that address issues of racism and White privilege—Preaching about Racism: A Guide for FaithLeaders and Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White ChristiansTalk Faithfully about Racism, both published by Chalice Press (2018) and were honored by the Academy of Parish Clergy together as their Book of the Year in 2019. Helsel’s co-author for this project is Joy Harris-Smith, who is a former New York public school teacher and now serves as a full-time lecturer in speech communication in ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, which is where the two met in a class when both were M.Div. students at Princeton. Helsel is White and Harris-Smith is Black, thus they bring their distinctive backgrounds to this important conversation.
The reference to ABCs seems appropriate when talking about children and education, but it's not just a witty way of titling a book. They have outlined three sets of ABCs that guide the conversation about diversity. The first level, speaks of our automatic ABCs when it comes to differences: Afraid, Back away, and Control. That is how we often start our engagement with people who are different. While that is where we often start, that’s not where the authors want us to end up. Thus, there are two other sets of ABCs to consider. If we can get beyond the first level, then we can move on to the next level, which is Acknowledge, Be Present, and Come Closer. This is an expression of intentional engagement, where we acknowledge our differences, are present to the other, and then draw closer. This is personal engagement with others. From there they would have us move to the third level: Access, Build, and Cultivate. This third level of ABCs is what it will take if we’re to move to a more just society. That involves cultivating new relationships and experiences, as well as cultivating within ourselves more capacity for lifelong learning.
The book is composed of eight chapters. The first chapter outlines the ABCs noted above. Then the discuss how identities are assigned at birth, especially gender identity (ch. 2). They remind us that we are complex and complicated entities. They also remind us that identities are not static. They will change over time. This chapter leads to a chapter on identity and diversity in action, in which the authors tell stories of experiencing the growing pains of discovering diversity (ch. 3). From there we move toward how we experience our differences. There is a chapter on gender and sexuality (ch. 4), one on race (ch. 5), then religious differences (ch. 6), and social media (ch. 7). In other words, how is our use of social media impacting our understandings of identity? Chapter 8 is titled "Old Enough to Know Better." This is a chapter on microaggressions, and the way adults relate to each other, which so often influences children. As I write this review, we're living at a time when a certain segment of the population believes their right to say and do as they please even if it hurts others all in the name of freedom. The authors suggest we should know better, though it appears that we’ve forgotten the lessons learned earlier in life. In fact, it starts with the concept of common courtesy.
The conclusion of the book is titled "Choosing Our Place in History." The question is, do we want to be on the right side of history? That is the question that diversity education asks of us. Do we wish to live in a polarized world or are we open to finding ways of building bridges to the future? That is the core message of the book. It lays down the foundations for helping our children and ourselves make sense of our differences and positively experience them.
The book then offers three appendices. The first appendix provides the opportunity for the two authors to share their experiences of coming to terms with their identities. In these brief “autobiographies of culture,” we learn about the authors' distinct life stories, reflecting the differences presented by being White and Black. They write in the introduction to the autobiographies that “one of the tasks we wanted to accomplish in this book was to model the kind of cultural excavation we can each do on our own lives, listening to our own histories and uniqueness, and sharing that with one another” (p. 124). The second appendix offers bibliographies, some annotated, of books that can lead to greater empathy, ranging from picture books to books for older teens and young adults, as well as a book list for parents. The final appendix provides curriculum activities for teachers and parents. Here there are two sets of activities. One for younger children and another for older children and youth.
I believe this is a wonderful resource for parents and teachers, religious and otherwise. It's filled with wisdom that emerges from the life experiences of the two authors, both of whom are parents and educators. The fact that the authors, though both are Christian and ordained clergy, represent different life stories helps model for us ways of engaging with one another in constructive ways. If our children are to grow into adults who embrace diversity, it will be helpful if parents and other adults can model that kind of life for them. Thus, Helsel and Harris-Smith offer in The ABCs of Diversity a true gift to parents and teachers that speaks to our times, especially as forces push back in resistance against diversity education.