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.