Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Diversity Conundrum

Where I get all deep and stuff.

I had a conversation at work yesterday that got me thinking (again) about a topic I think about quite a lot anyway... First let me premise this as... if I say anything offensive it is TOTALLY unintentional. I'm not trying to talk about ANY SPECIFIC group, so much as the ACT OF GROUPING and how this is sort of a moving target. I'm even going to end this projecting outward...

Human beings as wanderers were tribal. They recognized their own clan as SELF and other clans as OTHER, while to ALL of us now (short an anthropology degree that specialized on that area), we would not see there was any distinguishable difference. But human beings have something at their core that craves an in-group/out-group definition. Maybe it is the need to be a part of something, and in BEING part, there, by definition, have to be outsiders.

I have a few separate thoughts that I hope will logically tie together in the end, so bear with me.

Heritage: A West Coast Perspective

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Among my friends, if we'd talk about our heritage, we had people that were maybe a QUARTER this or that (I have two 'pure-blood quarters—added together I am full HALF Scandenavian)--but I didn't know anybody who was even HALF of anything at a country-level. I know, though, in that area on the Iowa/Minnesota border where my grandma grew up, there is STILL a dense Norwegian population. People today can still be found who are ALL Norwegian, in spite of being more than 150 years past the major immigration. There are cities in Michigan that are nearly all German or Dutch, or Pole. This was a strange finding, moving east as I did. That there are STILL people who stay 'in-group' at A COUNTRY level. People who moved west tended to do so in small family units, where people who stayed east (other than the cities) stayed closer to home and 'their own kind'.

In this melting pot (the west)... a REAL melting pot... nobody thought about the varying shades of light tan—I mean SURE, if somebody was black we noticed—that was pretty rare (TWO in my high school class... a whopping 1%)—but I had friends who were part Native or part Latino and it never crossed my mind other than just being interesting  (I have a good friend who is Chinese and that was a noticed but INCLUDED minority—those kids never had trouble getting a date, for instance)

The Italian/Irish 'Gentrification'

I want to pick on these two fabulous ethnicities a bit for a very specific reason. These groups arrived 'latish' to do 'undesirable work' and were heavily discriminated against for several decades. They were the foreigners nobody trusted who never got respectable employment in a bank or a high-end shop. They were the service workers and the laborers...

Until they weren't. Until there were other groups to fill in that low end of 'who can associate with us but only at the lowest level'... Until racism had a NEW target... with browner skin and a stronger accent. Now there are a LOT of people with mixed heritage that includes one or both of these, where at one time, it would have been scandalous.

The Case of XXXX Middle School: Detroit

When I first moved to Michigan I was part of a research team testing an intervention with 8th graders in Detroit designed to keep kids engaged in school. There were three middle schools involved. One of them was a middle class school with 100% black students. And it ran like a well-oiled machine. The kids were engaged, worked hard, academically striving. There was no smart-mouthing. It was a whole lot more orderly than any other middle school I've been in EVER. One school had a falling population so was actively recruiting expelled kids from other schools, so I will leave that one out of the mix, because DUH, and BOY HOWDY, of COURSE it had problems. But the 3rd school—one in Southwest Detroit had about 60% black, 30% Latino and 10% white kids. This is Detroit, so the black students STILL owned the achievement domain—those were the kids 'allowed' to work hard without getting crap for being suck-ups. The Latino kids had a large enough minority that they got to be the 'hip bad-ass' kids—sassy, but some were popular. The white kids? Full-on delinquent material. They were so disengaged, even in 8th grade, that I wanted to cry for them. Their long term goals for themselves were so measly—they didn't have real dreams for what they could be. The black kids wanted to be the lawyers and engineers. The Latino kids wanted to do construction or drive trucks. And the white kids wanted to be strippers—I'm dead serious—what do you DO with that goal when a pair of girls says that in full seriousness-- “The money is good.”

Do you see how the expectations are turned on their head from our normal stereotypes? Do you see how being a member of the MAJORITY plays roles most of us outside of the environment would never consider? Because we are busy applying NATIONAL minority stereotypes... and those DO have an impact... I mean Detroit is STILL an example of a city that is angry and full of attitude--because at a NATIONAL level it is a minority... but at the LOCAL LEVEL, individuals experience it differently.

But do you ALSO see how that one school with no diversity whatsoever had the biggest advantage of all? No distractions from the task at hand. ALL they had to worry about was educating.

The Case of Scandinavia and the Best Standard of Living in the World

Do you see how this might be? Just from my example. Now there is a little diversity in the Scandenavian countries, but... not a lot. It's like Portland. It is really easy to be magnanimous about racial diversity when you don't have a large enough set of any one group to cause any problems. Sure. We love everybody! (and they do—it's sincere—I lived there(Portland, not Scandinavia)—If I wanted to marry a person of another race, you can bet your bottom dollar that's where I'd go—because of course at a coupling level there is a layer of discrimination that lingers even after coworker and friend discrimination goes away)

What I'm saying is a little hard to say, as I admire so many of the policies of the Scandenavian Countries—I wish we'd adopt a lot more of them. So I don't want to take away from the achievement they've managed. But it really IS easier with less diversity.

The Other Very REAL Side of the Coin

We are ALL better off for knowing a lot of kinds of people. When we get insular, we get STUPID. People I know who've never really traveled and don't know people from very many ethnicities tend to just think their way is right and everyone else is wrong. THEY happen to be the wrong ones (and no, I won't qualify this--I know they may not know better, but they are ignorant and wrong to not respect other people having different backgrounds and allowing them to follow those and acknowledge for THEM it is right). There are a lot of right ways to live and a lot of positive approaches (and belief systems and habits). But only through a lot of intermingling can we learn UNDER it all are very basic similarities—behaviors and attitudes about what is decent: kindness, caring, helping; and what is rotten: hurting others, stealing, lying.

And it is through this SHARING that this transformation is made where we move up to the next level in 'in-group/out-group'--what now seems to be racial... or religious... let me give a religious example...

Small Town USA, circa 1970

My home town had... pretty much ALL practicing Christians... Seriously. WEIRD, religiously speaking... the groups that were 'out group' on that term... were the Catholics and Mormons—both significant groups... but both the only 'non-protostant Christian mainstream' groups.

I'd, of course, HEARD of Jews, but honestly, I didn't think about them religiously much... I thought of the WWII genocide as racial. I'd heard of a few others... but it never occurred to me other faiths were practiced in the US. By the time I lived in Portland, I had several Jewish friends, several Buddhist friends... knew a few Wiccans (I still didn't know any Muslims that I knew of—though in those days, the Arabic distinction was... you know... Arabic... and religion wasn't brought into it, many Arabs being Christian and all, I never thought to ask).

NOW, the great evil seems to be Islam, strictly because now we've heard of it and it seems strange and different. Anyone who wants to claim it is more radical than Christianity can look at the Christian tenets the Ku Klux Klan supposedly draws on—every religious group has their radical nuts and every religious book, abused hard enough, can justify it.

The Logical Future

When we are in space, living with peoples from OTHER planets, we are going to see the humans as the desirable in-group. Their race or religion won't matter at that point even a little bit, because the scope of evaluation will have gotten enough wider and there will be a new out-group grouping to focus our need for OTHER on.

But I wish we could all see our commonalities and just celebrate our differences sooner than that.


Christine Murray said...

This is really interesting. I'm the only bio child in a family of seven. I'm white Irish/Scottish, my sister is Chinese, I have another sister who's mixed race and two brothers from Romania. Ireland is still predominantly white north Oceanic, and I worry about how their differences from the rest of the population will shape them as people.

Even people trying to be nice differentiate, and that causes problems. My eight year old sister gets so irritated with people asking her about being a Chinese orphan that she's developed a tough shell and doesn't let many people in. She doesn't want to be singled out all the time.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say, but I think we have to acknowledge that social groupings and perceived difference has a huge impact on people reaching their potential.

Great post, Hart.

Alison DeLuca said...

I always think about this when I hear of the incredible schools in Scandinavian countries. I was a teacher in the inner city, and boy, did I learn what it was like to be the minority! Sometimes it was wonderful, but at times it was incredibly difficult. And heartbreaking. I cried myself to sleep on several occasions.

Extrapolating to writing, I make a point of including a diverse set of characters in my books. Here's the thing, though - they are set in the Edwardian era. In order to reflect the attitudes of the time, I have to include a mindset that I hate to even think about, let alone write.

In any case, before I continue that tangent, great post!

Sarah Ahiers said...

This was a really great post! And your point about MN and Iowa is very spot on. I hardly know anyone with tons of mixed heritage. My mom's 100% German and my dad's 50% German and 50% French Canadian and that's how you get me. I have a lot of friends who are wholy scandinavian. Though, i also have a mixed race family, with a cousin who's korean and another cousin who's biracial.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

An excellent article, Hart. I can relate to your Portland experience, growing up in Eugene. One day my Dad came home from work to find me with my friends sitting around the dining room table. Later he told everybody what he noticed ... there was a black girl, a native American, one with Scottish roots and me, the white covered wagon chick. Black families were in the minority in Eugene, but we really didn't think about it when we were young, regarding friendships. I remember thinking for years how great Eugene was, because it wasn't prejudice. It really still was, but I didn't know it. We were more prejudiced about Californians moving into Oregon than the color of the skin of those born there. Have you ever heard of S.N.O.B. - Society of Native Oregon Born? That is another example of banding together as a tribe, I think.

Interesting to know that there are still towns in America that still are of one culture, besides Amish communities.

Your last line sums it up. When things get heated up on FB, I try to remind my friends that though we disagree, we all need to band together and not become torn apart over isn't worth it. Decisiveness is a tool of manipulation to tear us apart.

Thank you, you work so hard on everything that you do. You inspire me!

Kathy M.

Nate Wilson said...

Wow, that tale of the Detroit schools was an eye-opener. I'd never considered that behavior wouldn't follow national norms if the proportions were reversed.

It's a shame people use differences to exclude people, when its our differences that make us interesting. (And, make our dinner options so much tastier.)

ViolaNut said...

Chalk me up as an East Coast 50/50 (Italian and Portuguese). My dad (who taught at my junior high) used to call our lunch table "the United Nations", since we were pretty well mixed up racially - one girl was Korean, but adopted by white parents; another was an immigrant from Hong Kong; a third was of West African descent; a fourth, mixed race (but still 50/50!) with English on one side and Cape Verdean on the other (she self-identifies as black); and four of us were white but still, two brunettes, a blonde and a redhead! (No boys though... when you're 13, that's still cootie territory. *snort*) We joked that last year our apartment could be the basis for a LOGO sitcom, since we had a straight white chick (me), a bi Hispanic chick, and a trans Asian chick living here. (What? I hear you cry. No black lesbian? That's my cat {seriously, she's all black and likes girl kitties}. *snort*) I count close friends in almost every category you could come up with, and I love the variety of experiences my friends bring to my life... but I still think this country may have passed some kind of diversity watershed where there are SO MANY different kinds of people that we're just never going to get everyone to agree to live and let live. The line from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" comes to mind here - "Be excellent to one another!" Wish it could be that simple.

Helena said...

What a thoughtful post, Hart, and your point about tribes is spot-on. The first time I really thought about this stuff was years ago when I went to Pakistan. Only there did I learn that it's an extremely tribal country, and the locals don't think of themselves as Pakistanis so much as Punjabis, Sindis, etc. So the government tried to get everyone together by emphasizing religion (Hey, guys, you're all Muslim!). Boy, did that backfire -- now they've got tribes AND fundamentalism and the whole country is massively screwed up. In this country, I see the growing gap between the extremely rich tribes and the poor and failing middle class ones as hurting us even more than the racial divisions.

I'm fascinated by a school where the black kids think in terms of becoming educated professionals and the white girls want to be strippers -- it turns our stereotypes upside down. But what's the solution for kids with no dreams or ambition and a grim future? Boarding schools so they can be taken out of dysfunctional families and homes? Unrealistic, I know. Maybe it really will take aliens coming to earth to make us realize how we humans ultimately belong to one big tribe.

LTM said...

Wow, TH! You're tackling some weighty subject matter here. Being from the south, I've been exposed to many thoughts on this subject... I say that, but I don't think it matters where you're from. Opinions on this matter are like... belly buttons. ;p

But I like the whole when we're in space part. Now THAT will be a whole 'nother ball of wax! :D <3 ((hugs))

Johanna Garth said...

Such a great post. I like the local vs national twist. And since we've moved to Portland I'm desperate for diversity.

My kids are half Jewish and people think of them as "diverse" which is really strange to me.

Hart Johnson said...

Christine-that environment sounds a lot like the one I grew up in. You're right that I think that environment can create cautious, fragile identities. I hope your siblings all thrive, but chances are they will need all the support you can give.

Alison-I didn't realize you'd taught in inner-city--it's so important caring people do, but I can see it being really draining, too. As for the books--yeah, hard line between wanting to be inclusive and having to fit the reality of your time and place.

Sarah-HA! Yes, exactly. Those pure-bred pockets are so strange to me! Cool your family though, is venturing out.

Kathy-as a wannabe Oregonian born in idaho, I totally experienced a bit of that, though people seemed happier to include me than the Californians... still, no native was I! My best friend in college in Eugene was black and though I didn't notice prejudice, SHE felt a definite sting of being such an underrepresented minority--she craved people who shared her experiences--moved to Atlanta after college and then went to law school at Howard.

Nate-it was definitely an eye-opener, to me, too. Made me realize what an accident of birth circumstances so much of our experience is.

Leanne-I love your diverse friend group--that is definitely the key to keep us going. I knew, though, your heritage was pretty narrow (and all from islands, eh? Haven't we discussed that one--Europeans 'sort of' but not continental, both of us...

Helena-yeah, we forget there are places people are STILL really tribal. Pretty amazing! I don't know that I know the solution except giving people more opportunities to meet more sorts of people--to meet high achievers they identify with.

Leigh-yeah, sometimes I just have to dive in, eh? I don't think I stirred in the wrong direction... if I stirred anyone into thinking more about it, that's a good thing!

Johanna-teehee--I think anybody who identifies with any religion in Portland gets a diversity sticker! (Except maybe Buddhism--lots of Buddhists there). I hear you on craving diversity there, though--although depending on where you live and socialize, a little of it can be found. But not a lot.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Hart, I've never thought about all the tribes I've been a part of in my life. It's really interesting when you break it down.

Anonymous said...

I live in such a diverse melting pot I don't care about who is made out of what. If they're nice to me, I'm nice to them.