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Teaching diversity with tacos and egg rolls

Multicultural events at USF often consist of groups assembled at tables in the courtyard of the Phyllis P. Marshall Center handing out plastic plates with an assortment of food. But on Monday, Paula Rothenberg, director of the New Jersey Project on Inclusive Scholarship and a professor of women’s studies and philosophy at William Paterson University, presented a lecture negating many higher educational institutions’ attempts at multicultural education.

“Instead of understanding multicultural curriculum transformation as a serious academic and intellectual imperative,” Rothenberg said, “they think it’s about sharing food and having a fashion show with people dressed up in their ‘native’ costumes.”

The lecture, titled “Beyond Tacos and Egg Rolls,” focused on how diversity should be presented in higher-education curriculums. Rothenberg authored Race Class and Gender in the United States, Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class and Gender and several other texts.

Rothenberg calls the approach most schools take when they try to present diversity “tacos and egg rolls.”

Rothenberg said some curriculums are not presenting material in the right context, and most textbooks are not written with different cultures in mind.

She said diversity in education is like a democracy.

“Everyone is for it, but it has no meaning,” she said. “The superficial ways in which educators approach diversity are dangerous.”

Educators often stick a few books from other cultures in their curriculum because they think the books accommodate all cultures, but Rothenberg said these are only quick fixes and do not solve the problem.

Rothenberg also explained how students perceive Hispanics after reading about Latin culture in textbooks.

“If you stop looking from a white perspective, you might look more at Latino/Latina culture in terms of skin differences,” she said.

Rothenberg said teachers might think they have good intentions when choosing textbooks that are considered neutral, but that the perspective of authors is always biased in their books.Rothenberg said students who use textbooks that show the history of different cultures through a white male perspective are misled.

According to Rothenberg, theory impacts student observation and teaches students what to see and what not to see.

One Sunday morning, Rothenberg took her young daughter to a bakery, and after looking at many figurines on the tops of wedding cakes, Rothenberg said her daughter asked what black customers would have thought about all the white figurines.

USF Sarasota/Manatee diversity coordinator Pat Lakey said the lecture opened her eyes to the way perspectives of individuals creep into curriculums.

“When I was in college, I never thought of who wrote the books,” she said.

Roy Kaplan, professor of Africana studies, said diversity can be addressed throughout the University, including the math and sciences departments. He said educators need to teach about all people involved in a subject’s history, not just the known white males who contributed to its progress.

Rothenberg concluded her lecture by saying she was not promoting cultural relativism. She said she wants educators to specify the context established in textbooks.

“When we don’t want to see race, class and gender, we hurt each other all the time,” she said. “Courses can become more enriching, but only if different perspectives are shared.”