Monday, January 25, 2010

Is a diverse environment enough to inoculate against racism?

A Love Isn't Enough reader, Miriam S., sent me a link to a post on Motherlode, The New York Times' parenting blog. In it, guest blogger Larissa Kosmos recalls the first time she, a sheltered child from an all-white community, touched a black person:

When I was 10, I touched a black person for the first time. It was Easter Sunday and I was with my parents and older brother in Nassau, the Bahamas, during our school's spring break. At the conclusion of the mass we attended, the priest, who looked like any of the white Catholic priests I had seen in Parma, the suburb of Cleveland where I grew up, began walking down the aisle to shake hands with everyone in the congregation.

Alongside him, doing the same thing, was an altar boy wearing red and white vestments, a plump boy around my age with skin the color of dark chocolate. Before I could fully absorb what was happening — this ritual wasn't practiced at our church — the priest and altar boy had reached our pew. My father shook hands with both of them; I clasped hands with the priest; and the altar boy, his bright eyes meeting mine, leaned toward me, his hand outstretched. I hesitated. It was half a second that held my anxiety: Would black skin feel warm? Or have a different texture? Could the boy's color rub off on me? The pressure to be polite flattened my fear. It turns out his hand felt unremarkable; it could've been anybody's hand. Read more...

Kosmos says her children have a different experience, growing up in New York City with neighbors, classmates, teachers and doctors of color:

It's apparent that my kids are not mystified by people with dark pigment and certainly not apprehensive of them. In fact, my daughter once wondered aloud if we had a black relative: Before we headed to Toronto last summer to visit family, including an uncle whom we hadn't seen in a long time, she asked—in struggling to picture him—whether he had white skin or brown. Both races are natural components of her world. She wouldn't guess that there's anything unusual about having elected a biracial president.

But the blogger wonders about children who are still being raised in homogenous neighborhoods.

On the anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration, I wonder about the perceptions of other kids, especially those growing up in America's homogenous neighborhoods. Are there children today who would hesitate to touch a girl or boy of a different race? Would you know if you were the parent of one of those children?

There is a thread here that is dangerous, I think. It is good that Kosmos' children are used to seeing people of color. Familiarity is a first step toward racial equality. But does familiarity mean that her children will grow up free of racial bias? It does not.

But I hear similar sentiments from other white parents raising children in what they feel are diverse environments: My kid sees people of color all around them. The boy who lives down the street is Mexican and they play together all the time. My daughter voted for Obama in her middle school mock election. Our pediatrician is Asian.

But there are several flaws in this point of view. First, it positions racism as all about the comfort of the majority culture: If my (white) child and I are comfortable seeing and interacting with people of different races--no matter how superficially--then there is no race problem here. In this thinking, the very presence of people of color in a community is enough to prove the absence of racism. It is centered on the reality of white people; there is no consideration for the experiences of people of color in so-called diverse environments, whether they indeed face racism.

Secondly, "diversity" is sort of a nebulous concept. How many different races of people does it take to make an environment racially "diverse" in a meaningful way? And what of the self-segregation that often happens in diverse environments? Do young people gain from diverse environments even if the black kids are sitting at one table in the cafeteria, the Native American kids at another, the white kids over here, the Asian kids over get the picture.

I've been reading a fabulous book by Jennifer Baszile, "The Black Girl Next Door." Baszile recounts her experience coming of age in predominately white Palos Verdes, California, in the 70s and 80s. Baszile's story is so similar to my own that sometimes I forget that I am reading someone else's memoir. I share her experiences of being "the only" or at least one of a handful of black kids in a neighborhood, in school, in summer academic camps.

If her school was so great, why, when she won a footrace in first grade, did her teacher agree with a classmate that blacks "have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people"? And why, when Jennifer's father accompanied her to school next day, was he careful to "assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, black, dangerous man"?

This may not be true of Kosmos, but I have noticed that for many white parents, a handful of people of color in an area constitutes diversity and the most superficial relationships with people of other races count as exposure. I wonder how many parents of the white children that Baszile and I encountered growing up comforted themselves with the idea that their kids were experiencing "diversity." The presence of children of color in a neighborhood or school may make white parents feel that the race thing is taken care of, but it does not necessarily lessen the "othering" that non-white children experience. It does not stop all heads from swiveling to the black kids in class on the rare occasion African Americans are mentioned as part of history...y'know the slavery and Civil Rights discussions. It does not change the experience of the black girls that "nobody dates" at my son's increasingly "diverse" but still majority white high school. It does not erase all those uncomfortable and alienating discussions about skin and hair care. It does not stop my stepson's friends from making "annoying" assumptions about how he should speak or what he should like or how he, who lives in the same middle class environs they do, should have some knowledge of the "gangsta" lifestyle.

As I look back on a childhood and adulthood spent in majority-white environments, I know that the more "diverse" spaces did not shelter me from racism. Indeed, diversity often provides cover for inequality. My presence and that of other people of color stood as some sort of proof of egalitarianism: "Our dorm floor doesn't have a problem with race; we have three blacks and an Asian!" Meanwhile, oh, the stony looks I received the time I dared dance with a white guy from another dorm at a floor party. We have let you in. We are diverse. But you still must acquiesce to the racial hierarchy. You still must know the rules.

As an astute commenter on Motherlode said:

Simply exposing kids to a diverse environment (school, neighborhood, friendship circle) is not enough to address the racial constructs that young children have already created...

Being an anti-racist parent means having substantive discussions about race and racism, not merely relying on the presence of people of color to do the work for you. As I wrote on Love Isn't Enough a few months back:

Most parents agree that child rearing involves proactive efforts to educate, instill strong values and prepare children for life's challenges. We talk to our children about the things they should and should not do. We talk about sex–maybe not always well, but we generally talk about it. We talk about the importance of education, how it paves the way for future success. We talk about alcohol and drug use. We talk about faith or lack of faith. We talk about safety–teaching little ones to stop, drop and roll, and to avoid strangers. We don't leave these important things to chance, because the stakes are too high.
If love alone won't keep a toddler from touching a hot stove or stop a teen from engaging in unprotected sex, why, then, do so many of us think love is all you need to keep a child from absorbing prevalent biases against people of color or being damaged by them? Read more...
I agreed earlier in this post that familiarity is an important first step in achieving racial equality. The problem is that for too many it is the only step. You don't get to the mountain top just by living next door to a black family, It takes more work than that.


M and M said...

Tami, I love this post. I've been thinking a lot lately that my job is FIRST to understand my whiteness - as a crucial part of building a more inclusive and diverse community for myself and my family. You named a struggle I've been engaging on some levels, but have been unable to say, or don't trust myself enough to say. I'm excited to go back and reread this and check out the book you recommended. I hear over and over from teens I teach about the very dynamic you've poked at here; I think of our high schools as full of islands of sameness in the midst of diversity. It's confusing. It's problematic. This is a good thinking post for me, so thank you for your perspective.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for this, Tami.

theolderepublicke said...

I really liked this post because I see a lot in higher education (I'm a graduate student at a public university) the notion that "if we just make things more diverse everything will be better." I'm all for inclusiveness and am not arguing against race-based affirmative action, and I believe, as you do, that diversity is an important first, and perhaps necessary, step to battling our racism. I just believe it's not the cure-all that others claim it to be.

I do have have an additional question for you, or anyone else who cares to respond: can a diverse environment ever be a net-bad thing for someone? In other words, can some diverse environments be so toxic, with so many people at loggerheads and so much latent hostility, that they might be worse than less diverse environments?

One of the reasons I ask this question is because ever since I moved to Chicago from Denver, I have noticed within myself much more hostility toward persons of color (I am white and male and in my mid-30s), even though Chicago is much more "diverse" than Denver (Chicago is also, of course, very segregated, de facto, and probably more so than Denver, although I think such sweeping generalizations can be problematic, too.)

I'm not sure what exactly the cause of my hostility is. I guess it's partially due to my own failure to challenge myself and perhaps also to the fact that because Chicago is much more diverse, my white privilege is challenged more directly than it ever was in Denver.

But I think it also has to do with the environment. Maybe in that sense, it's true what Martin Luther King Jr. said, something to the effect that southern segregationists ought to come to Chicago to learn to hate.

I should stress that my question about diverse environment is not asked in order to absolve myself of responsibility I have for challenging my own racism. It just seems harder here.

I'd like to say that I really do like your blog and it's a true service. This post, especially, was great and I look forward to reading more.

Tami said...


I don't think diversity is ever bad, exactly. But, as you point out, it is often really hard. It is easy to be all "we are the world" when you never really have to confront anyone who is different from you, you never have your tolerance challenged.

Interesting point you make about moving to Chicago (where I used to live). I wrote some time ago about a good friendship that I once had that broke up as I perceived my (white) friend becoming more racist and intolerant after moving to Washington D.C. and working in a predominately black environment.

While this friend had other black friends, we were all, but for race, very like her: educated, middle class, corporate professionals. Other blacks, I think she tended to view as noble, downtrodden figures. My analysis is that living and working so closely with many different black people challenged her unnuanced views. It did not help that DC (and Chicago) has many problems related to poverty, urban living, etc. that have nothing to do with blackness but are easily seen that way.

Black people are neither inherently saints or sinners--just people. If your view of black people has been effected by a sort of lefty mythology (like my friend's view), interacting with REAL and varied black people can be a shock. It can also, in an urban environment, be really easy to associate pathology with blackness as opposed to other social ills.

I'm rambling right now, but that's my take. Diversity isn't ever bad, but it can be super challenging,a nd I guess it can backfire if you aren't willing to do work.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

This is an example of another stunning essay; every point you make is an important one. Thank you.

theolderepublicke said...


Thanks so much for your response.

I freely admit to letting myself fall into some of the cognitive traps you mention, concerning associating blackness with urban pathology. I--and I don't think I'm the only one--recognize a disparity between what I know intellectually and what I allow myself to think at a less detached level.

Again, thanks for the response.

Lyndsay said...

It is definitely a first step as you said. My friend who wears a headscarf has told me how much safer she feels in Toronto compared to the small city where she did her undergrad. She's told me about the comments strangers in that city made to her. I've heard my family ask on occasion why immigrants all settle in Toronto. I can see why. But certainly things aren't perfect.


Thank you for your thoughtful and provocative essay. You've done agreat job of breaking down a core issue in our society. Especially, helping people to see the issues of race through a "lens" that is often used--"a lens of true consciousness".

Ettina said...

I think it's pretty obvious that just being exposed to other races isn't enough to ensure that you won't be racist - I mean, in southern US before the civil war, plenty of white children grew up knowing black slaves. If anything, that kind of experience made them more racist.
There is the fear of the unknown, but there's also how, as a young child, you learn the places people tend to hold in society. And if race (or gender, etc) is a strong determinant of your place in society, a child will notice that and try to make sense of it.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

In some ways, "a diverse environment" can make some forms of racism worse.

I grew up someone who is really disturbed by rooms that have no brown faces, but not actually in the company of brown people. The fact that homogeneity distressed me left me thinking I understood something about race issues. I really, really didn't.

To this day I consider myself worse on race issues than many other subjects, precisely because my first reaction is, "But I grew up in a diverse environment!"

I have an infant child. I hope to bring her up to be better at this than I am.

(Here from the carnival of feminist parenting. Thank you.)


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