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Helping Children See Through Bias You, Me. ..and THEM!

At first glance, these three article titles—Making the Multicultural Connection: Multicultural Education: Development, Dimensions, and Challenges: American Pie, A Multicultural Snapshot – – all taken from recent educational journals, might indicate that multicultural education is simply the latest buzzword in a field well-known for leaping from trend to trend with little regard for classroom reality. However, in the case of multiculturalism, classroom reality may have already outdistanced the educational theorists.

Although classrooms increasingly reflect cultural and ethnic diversity and approach the “browning of America” predicted by Workforce 2000, critics of multicultural education continue to debate the issue. As teachers attempt to acknowledge the differences within their classrooms, and, consequently better meet the learning needs of all their students, some scholars argue that multiculturalism will polarize America. And. while teachers and administrators struggle through unending committee meetings to rewrite curriculum, adopt new textbooks, and train and retrain their peers, docents in museums, historic sites, galleries, and zoos can already offer students existing programs and exhibits that help young people see themselves as part of a world of diversity.

Although many of today’s classrooms offer a cultural diversity of their own, museums are in a unique position to help school children value such diversity. In those situations where the visiting class is predominately of one ethnic or culture group, of course, the museum can offer what that classroom cannot — glimpses of the art, artifacts, and environments of other groups. And, when the class on tour contains cultural or ethnic diversity of its own, the museum can help individual class members by validating the contributions of their group.

Multiculturalism doesn’t separate; it provides a framework for finding commonalities. Docents can help school children “see through” the racism and other biases that, consciously or unconsciously, separate groups. The following six areas of bias were identified in Implementing Title IX and Attaining Sex Equity: A Workshop Package for Elementary-Secondary Educators by Shirley McCune and Martha Matthews. While schools are still working out the hierarchies, museums can go ahead and start helping children recognize and eliminate these biases.


One of the most fundamental forms of bias is the exclusion of a particular group from an exhibit or discussion. Fortunately, in recent years many museums have recognized such omissions in their exhibits and have taken steps to include groups that were previously excluded. However, when such corrective steps have not been taken, the docent has an even more important job of including such groups in tour discussions. When bias is obvious, though perhaps unintentional, simply asking children “Who’s missing?” can provoke thoughtful analysis of an exhibit. Guide children to think about what is excluded as well as what is included in an exhibit, and you help them see a culture or era from a new point of view.


The selection of photographs and artifacts in a museum exhibit may portray different cultures, and males and females within those cultures, according to one particular characteristic or role. Although adults can usually identify the stereotypes this kind of selection creates, children frequently need a docent’ s help in understanding that a museum exhibit may picture only part of the truth of a given situation.

It can be particularly important in art museums, for instance, that children discuss how and why an artist might choose to depict only part of a culture. Tell the children that “not everyone looked like this,” or “not everyone lived like this.” Then, follow-up by asking, “Why might the artist have only shown us these people, and not those who looked (or lived) differently?”

In a history setting, you might tell youngsters that “not everyone owned one of these.” Then you could ask them, “How would life have been different for the people who couldn’t afford to own one of these?” If questions such as these aren’t asked, children may leave your museum with a very skewed view of a culture or era.


Historical truth is often distorted when only one interpretation of an issue, situation, or group of people is presented. Letting children role play different participants in a museum exhibit situation allows them to see different viewpoints. “Did everyone agree with this?” is a helpful question that promotes seeing different sides of an issue.

To address the notion of selectivity within an exhibit or site, try creating a parallel situation. Ask children what they would include in an exhibit about themselves. Would the exhibit be the same if their brother or sister made the selections?


The historic home that ignores the servant or slave that maintained the way of life of the owners, the zoo that glosses over captive breeding controversies, or the art museum that fails to mention the conflict surrounding its burial artifacts denies children the information they need to understand the complexities of societal issues and problems. Ignoring prejudice, racism, discrimination, exploitation, oppression, sexism, and intergroup conflict may be more pleasant, but it fails to prepare children to, hopefully, avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. Children often come to the museum with questions concerning such controversies, which they may have heard about on television or discussed in the classroom. The wise docent is prepared to answer their questions honestly. Isolation

With all good intentions, special “days,” “weeks,” or “months” have been . set aside to recognize the achievements of people from specific cultural groups. Black History Month in February and American Indian Day in September are just two examples. The danger in this type of bias is the implication that the experiences and accomplishments of these cultures are somehow separate and unrelated to those of the dominant culture. Museums often strengthen this form of bias by offering special programs about these cultures only during the special week or month. Education departments and docents should resist the impulse to fragment cultures by discussing them in isolation.

Linguistic Bias

Language is the tool of the docent, and it is a powerful purveyor of bias. When Native Americans are said to have “wandered” or “roamed” across the land, the implication is that they had a purely physical relationship to their environment, much as would an animal. Conversely, if white Americans “traveled” across the same land and “settled” it, their taking of that land seems more justified.

Words that dehumanize a group of people (“hordes” of immigrants, for example) erase the diversity within a group and make it more difficult to see the group as individuals. Just as children in your tour group will respond more positively when you call them by name, they will respond more positively to cultures different than their own when the words used to describe those cultures create individual lives.

Cultural Immersion

Docents, those people who (unlike classroom teachers) work with the real art, artifacts, animals, or plant life of the multitudes of world cultures, have an extraordinary opportunity to help children see the truth of those cultures. Their impact is even greater when they themselves understand the culture from the inside — when it is their culture. To that end, docent training that includes content instruction from members of the culture group represented, and a docent corps that includes multicultural diversity, offer more to visiting school children than is possible otherwise.

For some, the question may still remain — why should museums be leaders in multicultural education? The answer emerges when you consider that the fit is a natural one. The immediacy of objects from a culture, the diversity among visitors, and the ” right now” opportunities to help children “see through” cultural bias put museum educators in a position that classroom teachers are still seeking.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Helping Children See Through Bias: You, Me…and THEM!,” The Docent Educator 4.2 (Winter 1994-95): 18-19.

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