What does your world look like?

One of the exercises I do at adoptive parent trainings (and I've also done this in my class I teach at Metro State University) is the bead cup exercise. Basically, the object of this exercise is to explore one's social "world" through a clear plastic cup and assorted beads that represent communities of color. Yes, in many ways it is essentialist; however, it is a visual wake-up call and a call to action in terms of being real about the diversity (or lack thereof) in our social and community interactions.

The bead cup exercise (as I implement it) looks like this – using the following colored beads to represent the following racial and ethnic groups:

white = white               
black = African American, African Caribbean or African
yellow = Asian/Pacific Island       
red = Native American Indian, Aboriginal, First Nations
dark brown = South Asian Indian, South or Central American, Latino
medium or light brown = multi-racial, Arab

[As not every racial or ethnic category can be listed, improvise or choose a bead that you feel best reflects the racial or ethnic heritage of the person]

Place a bead that represents:

1. Your Self
2. Your mother
3. Your father
4. Your siblings
5. Your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/partner
6. Your two closest friends
7. Your neighbor (next door apartment, house next door, roommate)
8. Your primary dentist
9. Your primary dental hygienist
10. Your primary physician
11. Your attorney, if you have one
12. Your accountant or financial planner, if you have one
13. The mayor of the town or city you live in
14. The tellers at your bank are…
15. The television sitcom or show you most enjoy watching has a cast that is mostly…
16. The social clubs you belong to are mostly…
17. If you attend church/temple/mosque the congregation is mostly . . .
18.     and the pastor/rabbi(s) are . . .
19. Your co-workers are mostly . . .
20. Your direct supervisor is . . .
21. The President/CEO/Executive Director of your company is . . .
22. The people who come to your house (for dinner, etc) most often are . . .
23. The people whose home you go to most often (for dinner, etc) are . . .
24. Your favorite movie star is . . .
25. Your favorite singer/band is . . .
26. The movies you like to watch star mostly . . .
27. Your favorite tv news anchor you watch on tv or cable is . . .
28. The bands/singers you listen to most are of . . .
29. Your favorite author(s) are . .
30. If you have art/posters on your walls, they are of which culture?
31. Your child's favorite television show has a lead character that is:
32. The principal of the school your child(ren) attends is…
33. The teacher at the school your child attends is mostly…
34. Your child's teacher is…
35. Your children in your child's class are…
36. Your child's primary babysitter is…
37. Your child's Sunday School teacher (if applies) is…

38. Your child is… (and when I do this exercise, I have the parents hold their "child/ren" in their hands next to the cup and ask how the cup reflects their world, then I have them put those "child/ren" into the cup, and ask the parents to reflect and respond.

I thought about this because of this post on Racialicious.
One of the things I think we can understand is that there are many
things we each have or had no control over. The race of our parents,
for one. The race of the other members of our family other than a
romantic partner (and kids). But there are many other things we have
tremendous control over – our doctors, our dentists, the community and
neighborhood we live. Everything is about choices and while we may
think we have little or no control over many aspects of our lives, we
really do. It's just that some of these areas may be easier or more
difficult financially, in terms of our supports, and/or according to
our values.

And we need to look at whose values and needs are most important for everyone.

My world was controlled by my parents until I graduated from high
school and that in that world there was nothing but white beads. I am
very happy with my "world" right now because I shaped it, slowly, over
the years. Sometimes I got it very, very wrong. There were times in my
life when I made friends with Asians and other people of color because
of their race and ethnicity; and like a lot of adoptive parents, this
inauthentic approach meant I did not develop true or loyal
relationships with these folks. But I worked on that.

In LaToya's column,
she states that she found her community through other shared
activities. And, like LaToya, that is also how I found my "world."
Through seeking to develop relationships with other people through
shared activities.

I found many of my current friendships through my children. When
picking them up from school or daycare, taking the time to talk to the
other parents there. Developing the relationships so that our kids had
play dates out side of school and inviting the parents to stay for
coffee or tea. I found another group of friends through a writing group
I joined specifically for Asian women. I didn't become fast friends
with ALL the members of the writing group but two of those women have
remained as my closest friends today. I moved to a neighborhood that is
diverse and developed friendships that way. My cup right now would look
pretty multicultural.

What color is your world?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

15 thoughts

  1. Jae Ran, I love this exercise and have done other versions of this before. The visual cuts past all the rationalizing we TRAPs tend to do regarding the ethnic/cultural environment we are providing for our children.
    Some feedback on this version: We have large Arab-American and Mexican-American populations where I live; there really isn’t any bead that represents folks who hail from these ethnic groups. May I suggest adding these ethnicities to the Dark Brown group?

  2. We did this exercise at the 1.5 hour
    “Transracial/Transcultural Awareness Training” at the agency we went through. I have mixed feelings about it. I thought it was interesting how many of the other parents (all were white except for me) when asked to reflect upon their cups said “Well it is not very mixed but its not on purpose” or “We just don’t happen to know very many ‘other’ people” (this is a direct quote, I avoided laughing/barking at the use of “other” here, but barely)
    I considered sharing with the other APs that as a Chicana I reflexively go out of my way to know other Latinos, and that its not an “accident” per se that my cup had a lot of brown in it, but I had decided to opt out of educating others in the first five minutes of this training.
    It was interesting though, and did make ME think about what we can do to make sure our daughter encounters/has relationships with non-White/non-Latino people.

  3. This was one of the things we did in training pre-adoption that had the biggest visual impact on me. The crazy thing is that my husbands cup was so much more colorful (working in the military does have certain advantages). It helped me to see just how boring my life really was – and so one-sided.
    I hope most social workers use this exercise. It is worth its weight in gold.

  4. I think I’m stealing this exercise for my students at school when we discuss what diversity means. Many of them think they’re diverse because of the enormous hispanic culture in Florida, but if our school is nearly 60% hispanic, then how diverse can they really be?

  5. My husband and I are both Asian as well as our adopted children. Sometimes I wonder if our world is TOO Asian. My kids are surrounded by Asians because of the community we live in and because of the close knit group of friends we have. Is there a down side to being very comfortable with your race because you are surrounded by your race? I wonder how they’ll do if they go off to college in a much less diverse area…

  6. Addressed to may… I wouldn’t worry too much about negative effects. The Asians who end up the most conflicted and angry about identity issues tend not to be the ones who grew up in a strong Asian-American community. I’m saying this based on being one of the angry ones. The Asian-Americans I’ve met who grew up in places like Hawaii seem to be ten times as mellow.
    I think being comfortable around diverse groups of people is stage two… being comfortable around your own is ideally stage one.

  7. I like your expanded version of this exercise better than the one that I first used. To help me reflect on my world, I made a bracelet of the beads from my cup. I wore it and thought about what it would take to change my world. I created an action plan. In the past six years since I first did this exercise I have made significant changes. My world and the world that my sons experience is changed — less white, more black and brown. Nevertheless, I still have work to do as a parent. Upon our return home from Pact camp, my son had a frank conversation with me about the half day flag football camp that he attended this week. My son told me that it was helpful that there were African American coaches. However, there were an insufficient number of African American kids on the teams. I started to point out that his fall football team will consist primarily of kids of color and his head coach is African American. In addition, he just finished an NAACP leadership academy… I shut my mouth when I realized (too late) that my justifications were hurting our conversation. My 13 year old son looked at me and said, “Mom, you want to feel comfortable around people 52 weeks out of the year. And, so do I.” Point taken son. I need listen harder and do more.

  8. This seems like a great exercise. It also has me craving jelly beans.
    But I think the absence of Middle Easterners/Arabs is a real problem. One could improvise a light brown… but I do think this group should be included.

  9. I’m surprised it doesn’t mention anything about the child’s friends, or least the best friend– since friend(s) could have a lot of influence over the adopted child. I also would have put grocery store checker over bank teller because who goes in a bank anymore? Anyways, good exersize to get you thinking.

  10. Thanks for posting this! My husband and I did it and it was very thought provoking and convicting. You always have such great info. and ideas.

  11. Wow, this is great! I unfortunately have no beads, but I was keeping track in my head. It all started out so well! Very diverse. But by the time I got to your favorite band, the shows you like on TV, art I like, most of the media stuff it was all white, white white.
    One problem I noted was that there isn’t really a bead for Arabs and other Western Asians (like Persian, etc.). One of my answers was a Turkish friend/bf/neighbor and I had no idea what bead to make him without such an option. I ended up putting him under white. Without Western Asian, that’s the closest, I’d think.

  12. Weird. I JUST did this exercise Saturday at a foster parent training. It really made me think about who we surround ourselves with, and what I should be doing to stretch our circle.
    Thanks for posting this.

  13. My world is pretty much Asian and white. Some might say that this isn’t “normal” by Toronto standards, but it really depends on which part of the city you live.

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