Monday, June 26, 2006

Respecting Diversity, Especially if There Isn't Any

During a visit to my city’s elementary schools, a prospective dad asked a principal, “Is there a lot of diversity in this school? Do you have many kids of color?” To which the principal responded by saying that (sadly) no, but for sure he really really really loves diversity and we could be certain that his school really really really embraces it.

Now if you live in Phoenix or Texas or Detroit, this probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable conversation, but Eugene, Oregon is more than 90% Caucasian. How diverse is an average kindergarten class likely to be? If it were a microcosm of the city, assuming twenty-six kids to a class, roughly two and a half of them are likely to be “of color.” (To be more specific, there would be 23.6 Caucasions, 1.2 Hispanics, 0.6 Asians, 0.3 Native Americans, 0.2 African Americans, and 0.2 “Others”)

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t always lived in the Great White Oregon, so it’s not that I don’t appreciate the benefits of racial and ethnic diversity. I’m not just a crabby old bitch either, I have a good reason to be nauseated all of the million times a day I have to hear or read how much this city “honors diversity.” It’s because Eugene is simultaneously the most diversity-sensitive and the least diverse city I’ve ever lived in (or even visited). Could it be that it’s a lot easier to “tolerate” people from diverse backgrounds when you don’t actually have to live and work with them day to day? And while that’s fine, can anyone really call it an education in diversity?

Reading about a great African-American during Black History month is good, but it’s no substitute for befriending, living with or otherwise collaborating with a person from a different culture or race. That’s how people learn to appreciate diversity, and often it isn’t a pretty road to travel. It’s discovering how a person’s cultural experiences may have shaped his perspective and accepting that sometimes that means you can never fully understand (and maybe even accept) some of the values he (or his family) holds. (Of course, this is part of getting to know anyone, but cultural differences can really escalate those difficulties.) It’s learning that no matter how close you are to someone, there are firm boundaries dictated by race, creed and culture. It’s recognizing that jokes, hurt feelings, discomfort, and even outright-racist-comments-made-by-an-eighty-two- year-old-aunt-with-whom-it’s-just-not-worth-arguing are all, inevitably, part of the package. That’s tolerance.

When your white high school friend asks if your black step-father in the back yard is the gardener and you reconcile your mixed feelings of love for your step-father and self-conscious embarrassment that your family is different, that’s a lesson in diversity. There’s no such thing as "tolerance" in the absence of tension.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do the best we can. I encourage my kids to watch “Maya and Miguel” on PBS just like all the other white parents in hopes that they’ll learn a little something about Latino culture. But I have enough self-awareness (and enough of a sense of humor) to know that just because my son has switched from mild to spicy salsa (like “Miguel” eats) doesn’t mean he’s intuiting that all people have inherent dignity.

Sometimes my husband will come home and joke, “I saw the black person who lives in Eugene today.” And having grown up in Indiana, Texas and Arizona, I don’t find that “funny” so much as I find it absurd and even bizarre. Unfortunately those “can’t we all just get along” feel-good books and television shows for kids are not in any way reflective of real life, and yet that’s what passes for “honoring diversity” in classrooms here. In real life prejudices, personality clashes and expectations render “respecting diversity” a far more complex issue, and one that can’t be addressed through a Cinco de Mayo classroom celebration (fun though it might be).

I have no delusions that my children will learn to honor or even tolerate diversity in the Eugene school system. I’ll settle for the good old-fashioned “Three R’s” for now, and hope they’ll learn to appreciate people who are different from them in some fundamental way by loving their black grandfather, their half-Japanese honorary aunt, their Latina Godmother, and her Arabic/Muslim husband, among others. An overwhelmingly homogenous school district purporting to respect diversity is good, but it doesn’t have the ability to actually provide an “education in diversity,” and I really wish it would just get over itself already.

18 comments:

June said...

I can appreciate your husband's sense of humor. I recently left the melting pot of New York City for the woods (some might call it "sticks") of upstate New York, an area that is predominently white. I'm half Asian and grew up in a community that was home to many Asians. So it's strange for me sometimes to realize that I'm now living in an area where there are so few people of color, especially the color that I personally identify with. When I see someone in town who is Asian, I make a mental note of it in my head ("10:28 AM, saw a Japanese woman at Price Chopper in the vegetable aisle") to later share with my husband. If it's a woman and she's my age and she has a daughter or son around the age of my daughter, I'm likely to follow her around the store, imagining in my mind what good friends we'd make, we two women of Asian descent.

Jill said...

So true! Here in "progressive" Minnesota we also fancied ourselves really respectful of diversity, all the while experiencing very little of it. In the last ten years or so the population of our cities (Mpls/St. Paul) finally became more diverse and GUESS WHAT? Major white flight to the burbs and all of a sudden our historically blue state became much more red.

I'm not immune either . . I had my black kids in an all-white private school, later switching them to heavily diverse public schools. . and now am grappling with where to send my white four year old when he is school-age. Really truly "respecting diversity" is hard to get your hands on and even harder to live.

Anjali said...

What a fabulous post, Staci. And I'd like to point out that even though I live 5 miles or so from the Philadelphia border (more specifically, 5 miles from West Philadelphia -- of hip hop fame), most of our suburban school districts are 95% or more white, and most of these suburbanites never even go into Philly and actually see people of color!

landismom said...

So true. I think it's important to recognize the difference between 'tolerance' (which has a sort-of-looking-down-the-nose-while-gently-nodding quality) and true acceptance. Only life experience (and it doesn't always work) can bring the latter.

Pendullum said...

I live in a truly ethnic city and for that I am truly grateful.
My daughter has as do I friends of colour, she has parents that are new immigrants as do I...
And she has friends with gay parents , she has just makes friends...
And for that I am grateful as well...
My nephews are growing up in a town about 1 hour away from us...
And they came with us to our local park... and they would not go into the kiddie pool because they were truly afraid of the coloured people...
Talk about a real slap into reality for us...
We automatically assumed that they would be exposed to the same life as our wee miss...
How wrong we were... and we learned very sadly how bigotted the brother in law was/is....

Mom101 said...

Wow this is just amazing. I reread it twice.

We joke about how we stay in nyc for the diversity and yet in our new neighborhood, diversity equals a white couple with an adopted chinese daughter. Also, some of the doormen. It makes me uncomfortable to be around too many white people. Years of training, I guess.

Thanks for this elegant essay. More peopel should read it.

ninepounddictator said...

I liked this post. I moved from a large, very diverse city, to a smaller, not so diverse one, in Canada...

Anyway, I had a really hard time adjusting....And I would love my daughter to get more diversity, that's for sure....

Wendy said...

When we were still in the suburbs of Portland near Intel and Nike, the kids schools had people of all different races, and they thought that's how every place was. Moving them to almost totally white Bend was a shock to them.

Food Mum said...

What a great post, you put it all so well. Living in South Africa is about as good an experience of diversity as it is possible to get, but even so I am lucky that we have a good school near us that combines good education with accepting pupils from all economic backgrounds, thus including a representative mix of South Africans a minority white, the rest black or coloured (which here are seperate racial identities). Even here in the suburbs of Cape Town it is possible for a child to go to a private school of nearly all white children (usually due to economic divides) and only experience diversity through employees, like the gardener example.

I grew up in rural England, with almost no personal experience of other races as a child, but I think the main lesson to teach any child is respect for every person and appreciation of them as an individual. If the child learns that through parents' example then they will extend to respecting racial diversity too when they encounter it.

Your kids with so many loved family members of different combinations will have no problem.

Mommy off the Record said...

Hi! Congrats on your perfect post award! I was just referred over by Mom-101. I appreciate your view on this. I live in CA and we have quite a bit of ethnic diversity here, but I grew up in private schools where most of the kids were "white." Now I am married to a Latino man and my son is of mixed heritage. I want him to go to school with children of all religious and ethnic backgrounds so that he can appreciate different cultures so we will most likely choose a public school for him.

Anyway, great post and congrats!

Queen Haline said...

I can see why Mom-101 gave you a perfect post award. This is a very lovely, well-thought out essay.

It is also relevant for me since I'm now living in Tanzania where I am the diversity. Funny... but in the US we are obsessed with diversity. But for most of the rest of the world, everyone is just fine sticking to their own. And although it totally conficts with my own personal values, sometimes I wonder if that is such a terrible thing. In the US, even in diverse settings, people have a tendancy to stick to their own.

I'm just thinking out loud. Great post.

Hally

sunshine scribe said...

Congratulations on the perfect post award. This is well deserved.

i grew up in a community without diversity and without any effort to teach children about it. The result? Many of my former classmates grew up to be racist rednecks.

I am married to a man from a different culture and skin colour and have a biracial child. Because of my own experience, having diversity around my son is critical and so is a school system that actively teaches it.

While they can't change the demographics of their school population at least they are aware and proactively trying to recognize the importance of issues of opression and for that I am glad.

Great post. Great writing. Great topic.

motherhooduncensored said...

I grew up in a diversity-less place myself and now living in the Deep South - there's more - but it's limited...

As a cultural diversity advocate (on hiatus to stay home with my daughter), I hope I can expose my daughter to all the wonderful people in this world - not just through books and stories.

Dutch said...

great post. you capture the hyprocisy of embracing diversity in its glaring absence quite nicely, which is also rampant in corporate america as well.

We are moving with our 1-year-old daughter to downtown detroit from san francisco primarily for an education in diversity. not just racial, as there is some of that in san francisco. what I wnat her to learn about is economic diversity and that not everyone grows up in a $3 million house and goes to a $28,000 a year private school and gets a BMW for their 26th birthday.

Where's the Coffee said...

One of the things I love about where we live is that there is a lot of diversity. There is a very small African American population, but our neighborhood is only about 10% white and largely comprised of people from an assortment of asian, middle eastern and latin american countries and India. I realized that my children don't even think in terms of ethnicity when I asked Monkey Boy to describe his friend, Marcel. He did his best, but there's no way I could have used his description (this tall, short dark hair, brown eyes and really funny) to pick Marcel out of a line up. A few days later I met Marcel while volunteering -- he was the only African American boy in Monkey Boy's class of 20.

movin'mom said...

Quite interesting and amazing timing.I am Mexican American. I grew up in Texas in a blue collar town that was very diverse. I went to school with black, white, mexican, chinese, middle eastern. native american, pretty much any and every ethnic background I could name. One of my good friends was in the process of meeting her pre- arranged marriage boyfriend in our 9th grade year,

However my brothers & I still dealt with prejudice. I had parents who were prejudice, My father was born in Mexico and became a US citizen when he was 17 years old. But it wasn't just my parents prejudice towards other ethnic backgrounds it was my own race that my mom insisted I stay away from. Even at a very young age I knew this was wrong. Being brought up in that environment inspired me to want to change the way my parents thought.
My father has since passed away but my mom has come forth light years in this area.

When I first had children they were born in Tennessee. It was very backwards there in the way people thought. I knew I could NOT raise children there and expect them to be accepting of the diversity in our country. So far, every move has consisted of accepting communities. Now we head towards Wisconsin. In another month, we will make the move.

I do not want my children to grow up in a bubble of protection, this is not real life. However I do want them to be safe. It's one thing to have someone perhaps say that My son cannot date their daughter because he is 1/2 mexican it's another thing to have him be put in a violent situation.

My children have all tried to keep a sense of humor about it, for instance when a lady at the gas station in Wisconsin told us about 3 things that happened this year at the high school because of race. My 2nd son said, But.....I'm a white mexican! we all burst out laughing. My oldest said,
Okay.....If I end up at THAT high school let's just say I'm Italian. I am glad they can be funny about it I just hope for their peace and safety.

My advice to them is to respect everyone regardless of who they are what color they are, their ability or lack thereof. That they cannot control the way someone thinks or feels, But how they treat people is how they would want to be treated. If they are respectful then hopefully they will in turn be respected.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post. I grew up in a very WASP area, and I'm happy that my son is now going to school with at least two kids in his class with english as a second language (Thai and Japanese). It's not hugely diverse, but at least there is some.

In Australia, our diversity is different from yours, but the key to me is that there is some.

KrisUnderwood said...

What a great post! I moved to Vermont a few years back. 'Talk about Appreciating Diversity, especially when there isn't any'.

I read this 'history of Vermont' book (I cannot remember the name right now-I'll check on it) with the basic premise of 'bringing in more african-americans and other people of color to the state for "ethnic diversity" in the early part of the 20th century:1920-30.'

They had to TRANSPORT people of another race to this state so it wouldnt look 'too white', to show they are diverse too.

amazing.

I have a mixed-race child who is two now. I sometimes wonder how she'll deal with it, in general, and living here in Vermont.