Saturday, April 18, 2009

Re-imagining Diversity

I went back to my undergraduate alma mater this past week, in order to serve on a panel focused on workplace diversity. I certainly understood why I was asked to participate, since diversity was actually in my previous job title. And, I certainly believe that diversity within the workplace is beneficial.

Yet, I just finished reading Kathleen Parker's op-ed in the Washington Post a bit ago, and I have to say that my initial reaction was to be bothered by her comments. Terms like "social engineering" usually come across to me like excuses white folks can make for not wanting to interact with "others." And, I will admit that I will render judgment as quickly as Judge Judy.

That is not useful.

I have come to the conclusion that I simply want to have diversity in my world. It is a lifestyle choice I made a long time ago. I feel like my life has been enriched, because my network really is a rainbow coalition of folks. I am interested in learning about things beyond what I know. I am curious about other cultures (though I need to be a better traveler, because my adult intercultural experiences have all been here in the United States, and that is not enough).

I love the fact that my neighborhood here in Washington, Logan Circle, is indeed diverse. People of all sorts of backgrounds do indeed interact (in good ways and bad) with one another. It feels like a place where I can be myself without judgment or criticism.

However, I have to remember that there are others who have no desire for that level of diversity, particularly outside of the workplace. People often talk about whites wanting to live in homogeneous communities, but that ignores the large number of blacks, for example, who seek homogeneity as well. Prince George's County, MD is where many black folk with money elect to reside. There are people with pre-conceived images of blacks who would be gobsmacked to see the wealthy black enclaves of Mitchellville and Tantallon. Just like whites in Northern Virginia who are in solidly white wealthy communities, so too are these black folks.

Perhaps there needs to be a recognition of diversity within this context as well. Some people really do want to live among people who look just like them. And as long as there is not a concerted effort to prevent anyone, regardless of who he/she is, from moving into that community, then there is no reason necessarily to judge. I want to live among a wide variety of people. I want to see the world as I walk around my neighborhood, and I do. I love it. I would be miserable in a homogeneous community. And it's that perspective that I have to remember when it comes to the way others choose to live.

To truly believe in diversity means accepting difference. Kathleen Parker helped me to see that a little more clearly today.


Scott said...

"I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stifled. I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.
But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey—I think you truly deserve credit as one of the few people who practices what you preach on this topic. Both intellectually and in your personal life I think you truly believe in diversity. Personally, I try not to try to use the word since I think it is both overused and too vague to be really meaningful. You probably have an unspoken definition of good diversity (lots of races and ethnicities) but you ignore bad diversity (more Nazis, more criminals).

Despite your sincere commitment, I would have to say that you do live in a largely "homogeneous community." How many people in your Logan Circle "community" are pro-life, are Republican, are NASCAR fans, drive pick-up trucks, define marriage as between a man and a women, studied science or math or engineering (not liberal arts), or attend church every week? I'd argue that you probably know some people who hold these beliefs or have these experiences, but they are pretty scarce in Logan Circle.

The world isn't divided into "good" people who want diversity and "bad" people that don't want diversity. One of the largest single factors for families (not you) in choosing where to live is the schools. My son is not in school, but when he is, I'm not so sure I am going to want him to be in a diverse setting if diverse means more criminals in my neighborhood. Do I want him to be going to school where the majority of kids don't expect to go to college? I don't want him in a school where the other parents encourage him to "experiment" with drugs. I want them to share my values. However, I would be thrilled if he was exposed to people from other I for or against diversity?

Christie Martin said...

I am one of those Pro-Life, church every Sunday, white middle class folks described in the previous post (minus the NASCAR, please). I must say that Jeffrey Harris has been more than inclusive, kind, and open-minded to my particular culture. Although one's physical address does not necessarily include the range of diversity one would prefer, there are efforts that can and should be made to keep oneself from living a limited life. Social networking, when done well, can provide one opportunity. Actually seeking out cultural diversity may be an artifice, but it can also provide needed depth to one's experience.

There is an open-mindedness that seems to have become unfashionable of late, but Mr. Harris has in abundance. It is an ability to recognize that although there may be some profound differences in lifestyle, point of view, and opinion, there is still a valuable person behind all the rhetoric. We have, as a culture, forgotten how to disagree without animosity. That is a profound flaw. In our arrogance or insecurity of our convictions we must attack any challenger to them. This is holding us back from forming the types of relationships that overcome the differences between us.

Even if I do still tend to think I'm always right, I do enjoy being shaken from my myopia once in a while. At the very least, disagreement does wonders to clarify your own opinion.