This article was originally posted on MACUHO.org.
Nothing is worse than a stare. I don’t mean the blank stare you notice when someone is no longer paying attention. The worst stare is the scary kind your parents give you when you break something expensive that they just purchased. I’m giving the same stare to my staff right now. It’s the summer of 2012, and I’m working at a summer camp out in the northwest. Minutes ago, we were laughing, until someone made a racist joke. It wasn’t about my race, but it still stung. At this point I’m tired of having defensive reactions to senseless remarks. It’s exhausting enough being ever conscious of my ebony skin color everywhere I go. I stop staring and I speak. I tell them I have a proposal. From now on, anytime someone makes a racial or sexist slur, they have to say 2 genuine acknowledgements about that same group. Everyone nods. It’s as if they’ll do anything to stop me from being upset. Someone slipped and made a Black joke the week before, and my reaction was less than positive. “Okay, then. We all agree. Let’s try to remember that there are others ways of being funny.”
Diversity is a Buzzword
I overreacted. I was working with 15 and 16 year olds at a horse ranch summer camp. I assumed most of them only thought of diversity as a buzzword, and others told me they heard racist things in their rural households all through childhood. Who was I to tell them to censor themselves? I gave up of censorship and sought to help them learn to celebrate the differences of others. It took a few months – which in camp terms is the entire season – but the inappropriate jokes died down. I felt more comfortable with joining others for off-camp activities, and it felt great to let my guard down. But, it was only a first step on a long journey. Who would come into their lives to show them that diversity and inclusion was more than just refraining from saying negative things about another cultural group? Did they themselves identify as being part of a diverse country?
What It Doesn’t Mean
My fiancée, Tynesha Story, sent me the link to Jesse Thorn’s Bullseye podcast a few nights ago. Thorn interviewed author, journalist, and hip hop critic Jeff Chang. Chang, of Chinese and Hawaiian descent, recently wrote “Who We Be: The Colorization of America.” Thorn tells us the book is about the positives and negatives of “mainstreaming of multiculturalism … [and America] as a nation of people with shared cultural identity, as well as cultural distinctiveness.” At one point in the podcast Chang talks about how some White Americans feel that diversity only pertains to people of color. But, that celebrating and acknowledging diversity can mean shining light on all people regardless of skin color.
I wish Chang could have done a few talks at the summer camp I wrote about at the beginning of this post. We would have all done well to hear about how multiculturalism extends beyond the exotic. Culture tells a story, it unites people, it has its scars, and most of all it is rich. Who is anyone to say that a person of European descent is devoid of diversity? We need to reframe the way we think about differences.
What They Care About
Currently, I work on a campus that is predominately White, and my student staff is a reflection of that. I often struggle with inviting my staff to events out of the diversity center, because I don’t want them to feel like I’m being one sided – like I want to them to come hear about my story. I know they’d benefit from engaging in the various dialogue the diversity center provides. But, I fear – as Chang explained – they will only see diversity talks as something only pertaining to people of color. My assumptions and ignorance get in the way. So it seems it’s up to me to reach out to my staff and my students and discover their thoughts on these topics. Are they celebrating themselves and the richness of their peers? Are they curious about where they’ve come from? I’m hoping to spark more conversations and find out who we be at my institution.