Embracing a Heritage of Difference: Tales and Musings on Inclusion in the Classroom 

By Aliyah N.C. Teaching artist and arts writer (alynaomie.com)

Royal Jamaica. Manchester Parish. Feb. 2015 © Aliyah N.C.

As a teaching artist, I find my biggest goal is to make my students feel included. On the walls and within the classroom, it is important to me that they see themselves reflected. When I hear my students say things like “I paint ugly” or call themselves stupid, my mind translates: “I paint different. I am different. I am not like the others.” They see the work that ends up on the walls and all they know is it’s not like theirs.

Even from such a young age children learn to internalize a certain standard tradition of art. They know that no one likes black or brown—and if your favorite color is dark then you’re a weirdo, to put it lightly (and not in a good way either). They learn that anything that is different must be inherently bad. They learn that western European art is the only kind of art. (Where is the uninhibited child all the greats talked so much about?)

As a newbie to the trade, I hadn’t expected this from children’s art of all things. One month I remember a few of my children and I were helping out for a student show. We were painting a piece of cardboard black to use as a display for our works. The students frowned. What if it made them look poor? Couldn’t we just buy black poster board instead? I thought about the sought after handcrafted look in interiors. What made this so different? At the end of the day, all it really boiled down to was style.

For this reason, it is important to me that a variety of different styles are represented in the classroom. What you may know as taste or style, I have come to understand both as a student’s own unique voice as well as a broader representation of shared cultural values, ties, and heritage. It’s less a matter of whether certain colors are “good” or “bad”; or even whether a matt finish is inherently “better” than the hand-painted look. 

Oberammergau, Germany. 2010 © ThirstyOrchid

I was reflecting back on my time in college one summer when it first hit me. My sense of style always seemed to stand out from the crowd. I was told to use less color or to use more “natural” colors. In other cases, people were amazed, astounded by my strong sense of color dynamics, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why. Juxtapositions like these were rampant on my visits to Jamaica, in the architecture and in the landscape. Everything burned brighter closer to the equator, so much so, that many times I was convinced that my own skin was made of the local, red bauxite clay.

On the other hand, our art curriculum celebrated pastels, neutrals, and overall muted pallets without context. The neutrals of a Dutch painting were considered to be the more—and I quote—“sophisticated” choice. But while many of my colleagues had never been to the Caribbean, as an international student, I had lived abroad in southern Europe for a number of years and I could tell you that the weather in the north was often rainy and cloudy. So, the use of neutrals in their paintings was likely just honest at best! (On a side note, historically speaking, brightly colored oil paints have always been hard to come by, too.)

In 1946, while visiting an exhibition of children’s art organized by the British Council in Paris, the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, most known for his cubist paintings, was quoted saying this: À douze ans je dessinais comme Raphaël. Il ‘a fallu toute une vie pour apprendre à dessiner comme un enfant. At the age of twelve, he learned to draw like a Renaissance artist, but it took him a whole lifetime to learn to paint like a child. Now, we learn to paint like Picasso, but the lack of diversity in our curriculum still persists.


  1. “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race.” Erin N. Winkler, Ph. D. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
  2. “Why Diverse Books Matter: A Resource Guide for Families and Educators.” Kelsey A. Johnson, MFA. Texas State University.
  3. “Rewriting Art History.” Jacob Urist. The Atlantic.
  4. L’Art Des Enfants (French Edition). Corrado Ricci.
  5. “The Year of Hygge, The Danish Obsession With Getting Cozy.” Anna Altman. The New Yorker.
  6. “Jamaican soil: an agricultural crisis.” Liz Solms. Frank151. Archived.
  7. “Why Classical and Contemporary Paintings Look So Different.” Robert Gamblin. Gamblin.
  8. Picasso (French edition). Antonina Vallentin, p.14.

Aliyah N Campbell​

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