We need to talk about Diversity

But why is it so hard?
Maybe the Billy Goats Gruff can help.

This article unpacks some of the uncomfortable feelings associated with developing Diversity in the Early Years. We all want to make a positive difference as we work towards creating more honest, inclusive and open settings. However, sometimes it feels like ‘Diversity’ is almost a taboo subject. Why?

In order to answer this question, we firstly need to paint a picture.

Imagine the Three Billy Goats Gruff for a moment. They can see a beautiful pasture on the other side of the ricketty-racketty bridge. It is an idyllic scene, with bright sunshine flooding the pasture, puffy white clouds and birds chirruping. Most importantly, there is as much delicious green grass as they could possibly want to eat. Wonderful.

However, there is a problem.

They are prevented from living happily ever after not by the bridge itself, but by what lives under the bridge. An evil, nasty and frightening troll. Up until now their fear of the troll, and what it might do to them, has stopped them from attempting to cross the bridge.

Eventually they all summon up the courage to cross. But it takes three attempts before it is fully successful. Firstly, the smallest Billy Goat Gruff crosses. The middle-sized Billy Goat Gruff then follows. And finally, emboldened by the previous attempts, the biggest Billy Goat Gruff tries. He actually stops mid-crossing. He squares up to the troll, faces his fears, and blows the troll out of the water. And out of their lives forever.

So what does this fairytale have to do with the serious issue we’re facing when we think about Diversity? How can we foster a deeper understanding and acceptance of diversity in the Early Years?

Let’s start by considering the beautiful pasture on the other side of the bridge. We can think of this as our ‘ideal pasture’ version of what the world around us could look like. A world that is equal in opportunity, accepting and inclusive of everyone, regardless of their similarities and differences. So, similarly, what would an understanding of ‘ideal diversity’ look like?

Idyllic pastures in mountains

‘Diversity Ideals’ – a view of the idyllic pasture

An equal and inclusive world is one where diversity is valued for all the benefits it brings to society. It is one where we notice and celebrate the ways in which we are both different from, and similar to, each other.

By creating a deeper understanding of our differences, be they race, culture, ethnicity, language or identity, to name just a few, we learn to look at the world from a variety of new perspectives. These viewpoints provide us with new ideas and they feed both our imaginations and our creativity.

Being respectful of each other nourishes our cultural sensitivity and it develops a deeper insight into the lives of others. We are curious and inquisitive beings by nature, and so we can bond with each other as we discover differences and similarities between us.

A diverse and inclusive society provides balance and opportunity. It also nurtures our outlook and makes us happier. It offers us, in fairytale terms, a significant part of our ‘ideal pasture’.

Unfortunately, we are not there yet. We are still on the other side of the bridge. In the land of ‘Diversity Reality’.

barren land along rocky mountains

‘Diversity Reality’ – where we are currently standing

This landscape is very different. In the story, perhaps the sunlight doesn’t reach all the parts of the Billy Goats’ Gruff original field. As a result, the grass is patchy, tough and full of weeds because it hasn’t been uniformly nurtured. Some parts of the meadow are lush and green while other parts are stunted and under-nourished.

So it is for us in our world.

There are very many examples of daily injustices happening in very many parts of our world. They are often due to prejudices relating to, for example, skin colour, culture, and religious beliefs. People are often stereotyped based on how they look. Not only are these injustices carried out by individuals, but often they can happen through institutionalised prejudices too. They can take the form of physical attacks, but more often they are in the guise of subtle microaggressions. These are almost ‘hidden’ and/or often unacknowledged slights and put-downs. Therefore, we all have to be extremely thoughtful and reflective in order to make sure we are not behaving in prejudicial ways towards others.

This is why it is so important, in our Early Years’ settings, to examine our own behaviours. We need to make sure that we aren’t unwittingly using any discriminatory behaviour, language or culture. We need to build a bridge to take us from our current reality towards our ideal; a more equal and respectful society. First of all though, we have to deal with the murky darkness underneath the bridge, where the troll lives. For the purposes of this article, let’s name that place ‘Fear’.

Scary troll face lurking under a bridge

‘Fear’ – the troll in the murky darkness

Promoting Diversity in the Early Years can be challenging. There are so many reasons to be fearful. You might recognise some of these in yourself. (They certainly resonate with us!). We’ll outline a few of them here:

In considering how to promote Diversity, we have to challenge our own assumptions. ‘Am I behaving respectfully towards others?’ ‘Does the way I use language provide enough conversational space between us?’ ‘Am I always framing my responses in positive terms?’

This reflective, questioning approach ensures that we are trying our hardest to be sensitive towards others, but it stirs up anxiety and uncertainty within ourselves. We realise we may not be using terminology correctly, or expressing our words and actions in the best ways. In fact, we might not even know what ‘the best way’ is!

As a result, we may come to feel that it’s probably better to just keep quiet and not draw any attention to ourselves. In admitting to others that we really don’t know ‘how to do’ Diversity we possibly make ourselves very vulnerable and open to judgement. We might believe it is probably better just to leave sleeping dogs trolls lie.

Another issue is that there are no hard and fast rules we can use. It’s not as if there is a simple path we can follow that will give us all the answers. Each individual and each setting is unique, and that is why it is so hard. We have to respond with integrity, professionalism and understanding, and that is not always easy when we are not sure we are fully equipped to do so.

This in turn results in a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and the potential outcome of us being seen to be ‘wrong’. We might even inadvertently cause offence. Simply by not knowing what is appropriate in a particular situation.

As a result, even if we acknowledge how important it is to promote a better understanding of Diversity, we may not know how to do it in practice. By not knowing what practical actions we can take, or how to scaffold this learning, it is possible for the best intentions, actions and ideas to fall by the wayside.

Finally, there may be a ‘lazy’ element to our fear. It is challenging to step out of our comfort zone and face our flaws/inabilities head on. Much easier just to make the right noises for a while and then go back to doing nothing about it. This behaviour demonstrates a certain amount of self-indulgence and a lack of urgency to change the current state of things.

By allowing our fears to paralyse our actions, we are in danger of highlighting the fact that we value ourselves over others. It is more important to us that we feel safe and comfortable, rather than trying to change the balance for the greater good of society as a whole. This makes us passive bystanders rather than active participants in the effort to truly promote an understanding of the importance of diversity.

So what can we do to address this fear? We need to turn our attention to the bridge connecting where we are, with where we want to go.

a strong stone bridge across a river

.Strengthen the Bridge

There is much we can do to promote an understanding of the importance of diversity. And it doesn’t have to be threatening and overwhelming. We just have to grow our awareness, intention and knowledge little by little. By doing so, we will increase our children’s awareness and understanding too.

It isn’t easy and there will be challenges ahead. Because our bridge is still quite ricketty-racketty, it is likely we will fall over, make mistakes, and perhaps even hurt ourselves occasionally. But that’s OK. We can acknowledge our learning, pick ourselves up, and try again. Gradually, the bridge will strengthen, the darkness will lighten and our confidence will grow. Surely that’s better than doing nothing?

The bridge is already going in the right direction. We just need to take some careful first steps so that we realise we can all do this together. We need to be honest, open and transparent in our efforts to promote diversity in our settings. And we need to feel a little uncomfortable and vulnerable as we step out of our comfort zone. Let’s be brave together!

As Jenn Raven says:

We, in the Music Education sector, must work together to dismantle the injustice that impacts upon so many of the children we work with.

And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do through our ‘Doing Diversity Differently’ series of courses and songs!

Dr Clare Seymour
Clare has spent much of her professional career (over 30 years) in international settings. Part of her Doctoral research involved exploring the often hidden aspects of institutional racism. As a result she has a longstanding interest in, and passion for, promoting positive Diversity.

In addition to school music-teaching, Clare also has over 10 years’ experience working as an international music examiner – an understanding and respect for Diversity is so crucially important in every aspect of her practice.