The samples below are reproduced (names changed), with permission, from actual letters written by an Upper Valley mom and principal.
My daughter, Cal, who is in 8th grade mentioned to me that the dance tomorrow night has an Hawaiian Luau theme and that there is a reduced entry fee incentive to wear a costume. Without knowing more than that, I feel compelled to write to find out more and with some concerns that this raises for me.
I believe that, as a nation, we do a rather inadequate job learning about indigenous/native cultures, so when the exposure to one of those cultures is less an opportunity for learning and more about adapting it for our entertainment, I believe as educators we send a wrong message. The harm of one small dance organized by students who may mean no harm on its own arguably is negligible -- but when it is part of a pattern of a society's cumulative disregard for inclusion, I find it more problematic, and therein lie my concerns. Since [school name] has diversity as one of its guiding principles (indeed one of the reasons we chose to have our daughter attend,) I hope that you will share my concerns.
I am hoping that if the dance does indeed have the theme, that it might be followed with a school-wide initiative to know more about native Hawaiian cultures that involves a more comprehensive look. I am happy to help in that endeavor and offer these thoughts with a generous spirit.
Dear Cal’s Mom,
Thank you so much for your message. "Hawaiian Luau" was in fact the dance theme, and it's not the first time; it's a popular one, chosen every few years by one class or another. You are absolutely right to express concern at this, and I felt immediate regret that I had not realized it myself.
It gave me real pause to think that this had not even occurred to me. I do know something about the history of Native Hawaiian people and their struggles to retain an authentic heritage through two centuries of onslaught from mainland cultures. I know that the Hawaiian islands were quite deliberately converted to a sort of massive theme park for U.S. tourists, following the waves of repression by whalers, missionaries, and plantation owners... but obviously that knowledge is not the same as an active awareness. It's a testament to the success of the tourist-trade imagery that it's now so embedded in mainstream U.S. consciousness that island people's regalia can be reduced to party costumes in New England without a second thought by a person in my position.
So I agree that this can be an opportunity for education. This year our faculty is reading Deborah Meier's book "In Schools We Trust." She writes about the struggles with complex issues of race and other differences in her school in Boston, and says this: "There's more danger in avoiding sensitive subjects than in occasionally making blunders... Examining the reasons why [some well-loved books in her own life] were offensive [to some other people] led to an expansion of my knowledge of history and culture--an opening to new thoughts, not closing of mind to old ones." Although I don't know at present just how we'll do that, it seems like the right goal for our students and ourselves.
Referring to the concern you've raised and citing the passage above, I'm inviting all the teaching teams to discuss this. Before school started, we had a wonderful workshop day with Hector Miles, who will be working with us through the year on "welcoming diversity" and helping to train a Diversity Team, including faculty, students, and community members.
Mary Davis, who teaches English electives for older students, would also be glad to have you visit class (the one called "Viewpoints" is probably the most fertile ground), as her students often develop a commitment to activism out of study of social justice issues. Both she and I would be happy to talk and plan further with you to see how this might work.
I appreciate and welcome your "generous spirit" in this. You've already expanded my awareness, and I believe we can help that happen for more people at [our school].
Last Updated: 10/22/08