Working with my ELL students, I've heard many heartbreaking stories about how they're treated by their peers. It's infuriating to know that this kind of bullying is happening anywhere, but it really hits home when it's happening to kids I care about so much. Two of my newcomer students once told me that students on the bus would overhear them talking and say, "Spanish is stupid." or "Mexico sucks!" (Never mind that neither of said students are Mexican.) I hate that other kids are making my students feel ashamed of who they are - I could honestly cry right now just thinking about this.
Their stories have really gotten me thinking about my own childhood with a lot of appreciation for the way I was raised. I grew up in very diverse communities and was fortunate to have friends of many different races and ethnicities. It was just never an issue for me. (Huge props here to my parents for raising their children to be accepting to everyone.)
It wouldn't be accurate to say I didn't notice the differences in my friends. Of course, I could see that their skin color was darker, their hair was a different texture, or their facial features were significantly different than my own. Those differences, however, held no value to me. Those differences were no more important than the differences in my friends with blonde hair and blue eyes. The physical differences were very matter of fact; they were not noticed with any biases attached. (Once, however, I remember going to play with a friend and thinking that her house smelled "weird" because of the Korean spices simmering on the stove. But this was still probably more about my adversity to new foods than to her culture.)
In fact, it wasn't until 8th grade (after my family moved to a new community) that I heard someone refer to 'The Mexicans" at the high school with negative connotations. It might sound stupid, but I was shocked to hear this reference because I hadn't ever considered them as a group (in an "us" vs. "them" way). In my head, saying you were Mexican was like saying you were German or Irish (like me) except that you tanned easier (much like the many Italians in my neighborhood).
As an adult, I don't just tolerate diversity, but I embrace it. I have such an appreciation for diverse people and ideas, and this is something I try to instill in my students. I make a point to teach my students about people and ideas that are different from their own. Any of my former students can tell you my mantra for learning about others: "Different is different, not better or worse!" It's completely natural to notice how others are similar or different than ourselves, but I try to teach them not to view these differences with judgment.
And when I have my own children, I plan to raise them to love everyone, regardless of differences. I hope we live somewhere they can be exposed to many people who are different from them so that "different" becomes the norm. I hope this will help them to be open-minded and accepting of everyone and that they never, ever stand by while (or, God forbid, take participate in) others are made to feel less for who they are.