What is not diversity

Three black people (in a room full of white people) is not diversity

In my diversity class this week, I said, “I’m afraid to fight the anti-racist fight because I’m worried those who actually experience racism will say, ‘What do you know, white girl?’” My professor says, “and because how hard they’ll push you on these issues.” I say, “Yes, I just need to get over myself and fight anyway.” My professor responded, “Yes, you do.”

I acknowledge I need to get over myself, my justifications for avoiding race, ethnicity, and culture in my fight against gender-based violence. My favorite phrase in undergraduate was, “Violence affects people of every gender identity, race, and ethnicity” to blanket cover the issue that I was white and talking to a room of white people and a few members of minority races/ethnicities. “It affects everyone” doesn’t cover it. I can’t say this and think I’ve addressed the problem.

In class this semester, my black peer is saying, “I don’t feel oppressed as a woman; I feel the racism first.” Another peer mentions how black women are less likely to talk about being raped because the men who rape in their communities are already disproportionately arrested and discriminated against. Have I considered the difficulties a Black woman faces in seeking help if she feels it could be “at the expense of African-American men or her community”? Consider, for every white woman that reports her rape, at least 5 white women do not report theirs, and yet, for every African-American woman that reports her rape, at least 15 African-American women do not report theirs (Bureau of Justice Special Report 2003).

If you’re white and struggle with reporting a rape, imagine that fear and stigma compounded by racism. As a white woman, you face victim-blaming and shame and fear. What if you’re facing societal messages that you, as a black woman, are so promiscuous and sexually available that you are incapable of being raped? And with the racism, you know the system is set to incriminate you and your people. So why would you call the police? For these reasons and many more, 80% of rapes that do get reported are rapes against white women. However, minorities are more likely to be raped in the first place. Women from minority and indigenous groups are actually targeted for rape and assault far beyond that violence white women experience. Yet, they account for only 20% of reported rapes.

For all these reasons and more, I can’t say I invited a black woman to sit on my panel and say I addressed diversity. “Violence affects everyone” is not a valid way to talk about this problem. I can’t ask a member of a minority group to tell me her story and call myself educated about all issues of race and ethnicity.  No, there is more to the intersection of race and multiple oppressions than that. True diversity is the other story in its entirety, multi-faceted, represented by many and actively sought in every conversation. 

Acupuncture and ethnocentrism

After dealing with a chronic skin condition for over a year, after a year of steroid treatments and prescriptions that strip my skin of nutrients and leaves it cracked and often painful, I decided to stop going to dermatologists and go to a Chinese acupuncturist. Several people asked me if I actually thought acupuncture would help. What does qi have to do with my hands? The best I heard was, “I think you have to believe acupuncture will work for it actually to work.”

I responded to the questions, Chinese acupuncture and herbal medicine began thousands of years B.C and developed into a well-founded and proven medical system that serves an entire culture as a legitimate form of medicine to this very day. It’s ethnocentric to say that Western medicine, which developed later and more slowly, is the only form of cure in our world. Dear Western society, did you build a world and did you develop meaning for your society and call it legitimate? So did hundreds of countries around the world. Who told me the rest of the world is not legitimate, their meaning false?

I do not believe what I grew up with is the answer and I will broaden my horizons every day until I feel that I know more. I began acupuncture treatments exactly a year after I began suffering from this skin condition and for the first time, I began to feel relief. Not because I believed it would—I believed steroids would help too—but because my traditional Chinese doctor felt my pulse and looked at my tongue and treated me with needles, heat, and herbs as she strove to center me and bring my whole body back—not just rid my hands and feet of a “surface” problem.

Is your medicine healing and true or is it outside of my experience, outside of what I’ve been told is legitimate, and thus subject to rejection, denial? I refuse to believe my dominant culture has the answer.

Similarly, today, if I look at therapies, one feature that is particularly gaining ground in trauma recovery is mindfulness and mind-body connection, which is a main component of therapies like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction. In all the literature on the effectiveness of such therapies, I generally do not read that mindfulness originated in other cultures, such as the fact that it is an important piece of the Buddhist religion. If I do a literature search on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based practice in treating immigrant and refugee populations affected by trauma, however, there is mention that mindfulness is particular relatable to other cultures where mindfulness had meaning before Western society realized its worth.

Multiculturalism is realizing the inherent worth of other cultures, not the worth that Western society grants a culture. It’s daring to heal, love, think, and speak – to open yourself to the world and step outside what you know. To realize the worth of other countries alongside your own but not to accept anything blindly.

Buddhism in itself with its calm mindfulness seems harmless but it is a religion that is also used to keep hundreds of thousands of girls and women in sexual slavery in Thailand. Buddhism, as practiced by some, preaches that being born a woman is karmic debt one must pay for sins in a past life. This karmic debt is used to subordinate and enslave women. Thus, every time you put a Buddha figure on your dash, what are you accepting? Just like when you put a cross on your dash, are you remembering the evangelicals who are spreading hate in Uganda. If you are Muslim, do you believe in the jihad for love or just accept Islam’s rejection of the experience of LGBTQI individuals?

We belong to globalism and each other. You can pick and choose what you believe, but you must know what choices are made in the name of every belief you hold. Multiculturalism is actively seeking the truth no one wants you to hear.

The strongest and the bravest person I know

We can be so afraid, so afraid, so closed to experience.  I’m driving downtown on the most beautiful blue-sky fall day to volunteer for the first time at the International Institute of St. Louis. Everything feels so perfect and right, even though my cat used my yoga mat as a scratching post this morning and my bike tire had a flat. I was upset about these small problems earlier, but as I drive, I feel like I am a part of something meaningful. I always feel this way when I drive away from my ambitions and enter into a room where I am afraid and vulnerable. Before I enter the room filled with immigrant and refugee men and women, I am afraid. I am going to be their tutor, to help them learn English and navigate this society here, pass their citizenship tests, but I know nothing about them. All I know is that I am afraid because I’ve never here before: I’ve never leaned over the shoulder of a woman who is older than I and more filled with more life experience than I and yet, I must try to teach her something.

It’s active, it’s time consuming, and it’s worthwhile to think so hard, to try so hard to go beyond the experiences where you feel comfortable. To be the only person of your gender or your race in a room. It’s terrifying—for a moment.

The moment of fear passes quickly and within five minutes of entering the room, the teacher is so desperate for my help, I immediately am delegated to a table of four refugees and given worksheets to do with them. I’ve had no orientation, no training yet. But they need me. We begin, and the best I do is learn their names and smile and slowly work through each English word on the worksheet. “Thank you, teacher. Thank you,” one student says to me on her way out the door after our 1.5 hour class. Throughout class she struggled to say any basic word in English and yet, on her way out, clear as day, she says, “Thank you, teacher.”

Yet, as she says, Thank you teacher, I have this deep emotion inside me that whispers, she’s the bravest person I know. I don’t know anything about her but her earnest kindness, her determination to learn English and fight for her humanity in this society, which I know can be so devastating and horrible to immigrants and people who are different from white American majority, I know she is stronger than anyone I will ever be.

The fear I had before, it only lasts a moment, the moment before I dive in. The moment poised at the top of the diving board when you let yourself realize how far down it is to meet the water. I dare you to meet the water. Multiculturalism, to stop being afraid and open yourself to the experience that terrifies you.

The black man’s data

In my diversity class, my professor tells stories about oppression, about being black and his confrontation with his own homophobia. My peers and I struggle through the difficult discussions. I talk about how I avoided eye contact with the black man when I was running the other day. My peer says, “I’m black so in the diversity classes the white peers look at me like I can tell them everything they need to know about being black.” Be our data, we’ll pump you dry of your experience and try to learn what you live. He says, “I’m not your data. I’m a person.” Now, we’re almost through this semester and the honest and raw friendships that are emerging have begun to transform us. Slowly, we all get over ourselves. An international student said in the beginning of the year, “In my country I never met a LGBTQ person, it’s hidden, could I work with them because I don’t know anything about them?” Now she says, “I’m grateful I’m learning.” People ask each other, “Do all Christians hate gay people?” After class, I write my friend who is gay and Christian, ask this friend to write me a story of his experience—how God doesn’t mean oppression. After class, I write poems. In class, I say I’ve been racist, and one black peer in my small group says she’s been afraid of black men too and we spend two weeks talking about our implicit associations. Do I hate Muslim men and believe every Muslim man is bad because of the associations I get from my culture and media? I find my hatreds and my oppressions, where my world is centered and how I look at everyone else.

The second week of class, I write this poem, which I will leave you with today:

I won’t turn off the sounds that say
Why? Why? Why?
Why am I, the black man, your data?
And those LGBT people, I cannot work with them.
I can’t understand Christians, those homophobes.
And what were you going to say, little white girl?
Until the room feels smaller
like we’re sitting in each other’s laps saying, get off me get off me,
but the best thing you ever called me is “little white girl”
and the best person I became was after I left and I sat on my back porch
in the St. Louis heat, the police car rolling through and through the alley
with the orange lights flashing saying you’re safe here or you might be –
when I don’t know what I’m protecting myself from anymore
because the little white girl was my biggest fear and you said it out loud
so I wasn’t afraid of it anymore (my friend likes to say “the silence
around a subject gives it it’s power;” the silence, the silence the silence).
The silence because in every diversity class I hear that I’m a little white girl
so what do I know and “white girl” is said with the pain
of a thousand years of avoidance and racism so white is white like spit
and my people’s spit has done so much harm
and the stories are told like I matter so much more than you
but for a second, when you call me “little white girl,”
I feel what it feels like to be nothing more than your race; maybe just a taste
a taste of being afraid to be seen as only white—
so I live for a split second what people live their entire lives—
little white girl, sitting on her back porch in the night after class,
I think, this is it. I can let this in and it can sweep me away,
Be changed.

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