I talked a few days ago about how much I treasure curiosity, in myself and in others. And diversity is a great tool for curiosity, because it naturally surrounds us with people who might reasonably be expected to have had different life experiences, and thus to have developed different concerns and different values. Diversity isn’t about “tolerance.” Have you ever been tolerated? It’s pretty uncomfortable.
But most of the environments I’ve ever inhabited haven’t been all that racially diverse. Growing up in Michigan, our town was actually two towns, divided by Broadway; white to the south, Black to the north. You could watch the “for sale” signs go up on the lawns in our neighborhood when their oldest kid got to sixth grade; K-6 was in a neighborhood elementary school, but 7th grade was in the city’s one junior high, north of Broadway. I saw white flight in person every year as my friends moved from Muskegon Heights to Norton Shores, a community that was 96% white.
An engineering college in far northern Michigan in the 1970s? Pretty white.
West Texas in the late 70s-early 80s? Pretty white.
Oakland in the mid-80s to early 90s was far more diverse, though still somewhat geographically segregated. And going to college at Berkeley while I was there… awfully white.
Grad school in Milwaukee? White, except for international grad students. While I was there in the mid 1990s, Milwaukee was named as America’s most segregated city, with 95% of the Black population of THE ENTIRE STATE OF WISCONSIN living in a two-mile-by-two-mile square area of the northwest of Milwaukee.
Research on the Northern California redwood coast? Super-white, except for the Native American community.
Professional work with California county governments while I was living in San Luis Obispo? Flat white.
Teaching at Duke? A white fortress in the middle of a Black city. The Black staff of the university called it The Plantation, for clear and enduring reasons.
Teaching in Boston? The school itself was fairly diverse, but the city and its suburbs remain isolated islands, with the mayorship being traded every few years between an Italian and an Irish Catholic.
And now, here I am in Vermont.
Seems like maybe I have some issues to work through, doesn’t it?
And I consider myself fairly progressive, fairly enlightened, but every so often I recognize how little I know. It didn’t occur to me, for instance, that Asian Americans would be physically targeted by stupid people because of COVID, but an Asian American friend saw it coming far in advance. She was right.
So here’s something I didn’t think about until someone smacked me in the head with it. College loan forgiveness sounds like a reasonable issue to discuss, with two whole generations of kids starting adult life over their heads in debt. That’s just bad social policy. But then someone raised the question: Why are we afraid to talk about reparations for slavery, but willing to calmly consider a trillion-and-a-half-dollar benefit that will flow disproportionately to white people? And then I raised a second question: why didn’t it occur to me to ask that first question myself?
I mean, I’ve written a whole novel about the white business and political structure of Michigan conspiring to steal an African American city. I’m no stranger to what it means to have had assets devalued by redlining and having labor unions that resisted Black workers and a city with an invisible but fully understood line right down the fucking center of it. But I haven’t LIVED it. I don’t know the daily desperation of people who are threatened and excluded and barred from entry, who somehow aren’t “a good fit” for our department. I understand that, but I haven’t felt it. I know what social class feels like, because I have lived that. I know what it’s like to be a working class kid trying to move into a white-collar world, and I know what it’s like to be a white-collar professional feeling resentment about my privileges from my blue-collar friends and family. I own that life, in ways that I can’t own some others.
Our physical segregation and our emotional segregation from one another feed our inability to hear and feel. One event may be the ostensible cause of another, but really, the cause was hundreds of years and millions of related experiences that finally have become too much to bear. Just because I might not have seen them all doesn’t make them less real.