Diversity: it’s not just about celebrating differences

“Is your son biracial?” asks the ~17-year old behind our grocery store deli counter, as he flips our cold cuts on to the scale. He has hazel eyes, medium, bronzed skin, and straight, wiry hair.

“Well, yes, he is.” I reply.

“I thought so. I’m biracial too. He’s a handsome kid!”, the teenager says, directing a grin of shared kinship toward my son, who is too busy leaping from tile to tile without touching the “yines” to return it in kind.

“Well, thanks!” I respond.

Not an unfamiliar conversation for me at all — especially not from a kid this high schooler’s age, in this part of the country. In the town of Greer where we live, between Greenville and Spartanburg, SC, about 3 in 4 people are Caucasian, with the other 1 in 4 being either African-American or Hispanic/Mexican, with a tiny smattering of Asians/Indians/other races/ethnicities. I imagine most biracial kids around here, like the teenager in the deli, jump at the chance to identify with a fellow mixed-race person. Perhaps this type of conversation happens less in more diverse, urban areas…I’m not sure.

My black and biracial students usually ask me this same question about Paul (or say it as a statement: “oh! Your son is biracial”) when they meet him for the first time. Black mamas and grandmas smile at our family when we’re out shopping or walking around somewhere, because they know too. On the other hand, it surprises most white people, who find out Paul is biracial when I show them pictures of him with his cousins, or his granddaddy, or they see us out with members of my husband’s family.

This is partly because Paul is very, very light-skinned for a half black, half white biracial kid, so it’s not exactly surprising that it isn’t obvious. But people of color always know — they see his subtly biracial facial features, and his wiry, slightly curly “good” hair — and they know that he is half one of them.

I’ve been observing all of this since Paul was born over four years ago, and I find it all to be a really interesting, tacit commentary on how we humans perceive race — or maybe more generally, how 99.9 percent of us have a tendency to first perceive the things that make us the same as others, not necessarily the ones that make us unique/different. Unless there is something about a person that you can notice right away (skin color, dress, piercings, tattoos, hair style, etc.), you assume they are like you. You can chalk it up to the passing on of the “herd/tribe” genes via evolution, or being the nature of how God made us, or maybe some mixture of both. But whatever the reason, it appears to be true.

There is a lot of talk these days about diversity and uniqueness in the media, in schools, in politics….really everywhere it seems. While diversity by definition is about the differences between us, it is also about the ability of a group of people, or even just one person, to be able to see themselves reflected and represented in ways that are meaningful and deemed valuable by our culture.

I think that the reason that diversity, particularly race, is part of our the national conversation so prevalently right now is because of our current president.

Barack Obama: our first black president…right? Nope…actually our first biracial president. Yet he IS our first black president because though his genotype is biracial—half black/half white—his phenotype is that of a black man. He looks like a black man. He has a black wife and two black (oops! Nope…1/4 white, i.e. mixed race) daughters. He talks like a black man and has the mannerisms of a black man when he is with or talking to other African-Americans. (Think of the funeral coverage of the Charleston shootings.)

I truly believe that President Obama got elected both because he looks 100% African-American in skin tone and mannerisms, AND because he has a white mama. Furthermore, I believe he would not be our president today if he had had two black parents, yet looked exactly the same and had the exact same political platform.

And here is why: the majority of Americans could look at him and see themselves. Black people looked at him and saw themselves in terms of identifying with his physical features, or phenotype. White people looked at pictures of his mama and grandparents, and heard him easily switch into “talking white” when he was with mainly white people/audiences on the campaign trail (which he could do easily, having been raised primarily by three Caucasian individuals) and could see themselves. In other words, the majority of voters, even ones with vastly different cultural experiences, had the ability to see themselves in him, and trusted him enough to vote for him.

A few other current examples, some about race, some not:

Academia: Both my husband and I work in higher education, at colleges that have relatively high numbers of minority students and first-gen college students compared to the institutions we attended. Both of us have heard from our minority students about how much it means to them to have professors that are also minorities.

Students of color who can see in-person the achievement of those who look like them, or similar to them, helps to validate their educational choices and shows them what they can do if they want to…and its way more powerful than a white professor telling them the same exact thing.

Madeline Stuart: The beautiful young woman with Down Syndrome who has launched a successful career as a fashion model, smashing stereotypes and making insightful comments about how our culture views those with disabilities.

Also in this same category is Chantelle Brown-Young, the woman from American’s Next Top Model with vitiligo. Or perhaps Dove’s campaign for “real beauty” that includes plus-sized, curvy, women in their ads. All of these women are allowing thousands of their peers to see that their bodies and selves, traditionally excluded from the industry that sets the standards of beauty in our culture, are worthy of emulation.

Misty Copeland: The first African-American woman to become a principal dancer for the ABT (American Ballet Theatre), and to dance the role of Odette/Odile in the classic Swan Lake with that company. She has spoken candidly and emotionally about race and her chosen profession. She talks about how important it was to have Lauren Anderson (first African-American appointed a principal of a major ballet company in the U.S.) as her own role model, and embraces her own identity as a role model for any African-American/minority coming up as a ballerina now.

And finally, my most personal example:

Women pastors: In 2012, the first time I personally saw a female pastor in the pulpit of a church giving the sermon (and I mean a regular, Sunday morning church service…not a mid-week chapel service, or women’s service, youth service, etc.) I had tears streaming down my face literally the whole time.

I truly hadn’t realized how much hurt had been built up in me over the years and decades of hearing adults and pastors at the various churches I had attended up until that point say things like: “the Bible clearly states women should not be ministers or elders”, or “men are so much more able to relate to both men and women than women are”, or “if women begin taking over leadership roles in the church, then men won’t have the opportunity to step up and be the men God has called them to be,” or “it’s fine for women to lead other women in ministry, but they shouldn’t ever be over men” and on and on.

There was something incredibly powerful about seeing someone female like me up there in that position of respect and honor. That day marked the beginning of some healing for me that I hadn’t even realized I needed until that moment.

So, I’ll conclude this post on just one tiny aspect of what diversity means (particularly in respect to race, but not limited to it) in America by saying these things:

  • Diversity and inclusivity are both worthy and valuable in and of themselves.
  • Diversity is important because it allows under-represented groups to tap into human’s basic need to see people who look like us deemed by our culture to be successful, valuable, beautiful, important, and worthy of emulation.
  • Finally, it is up to EVERYONE, particularly if you are a member of a majority group who enjoys positive representations of yourself on a daily basis, to be educated about and promote diversity wherever you live and work.

Diversity is definitely a grey issue…wouldn’t you say? 🙂 ~Erin


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