Inviting me to the party

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

This past Friday was our school’s annual Fall Picnic. As you may recall, last spring I wrote about being snubbed from a Mom’s Night Out event in which several moms from my kid’s school organized an evening of socializing.

As I’ve alluded to before, out school is fairly diverse and considered an “inner-city” school. It is also a magnet school, which means that it has a specialized curriculum (in this case Montessori). Families who live in the school’s neighborhood zone can automatically get into the school while those outside the zone need to hope that they get picked from the lottery. We have a large mix of African immigrant families and a decent representation of Native American Indian, African American and SE Asian families in the neighborhood and school. We also have a much-larger-than-average representation of gay and lesbian and transracial adoptive families (and several are both).

Over the summer, I’d tried several times to talk to my co-worker, who first informed me of the Mom’s Night Out event. I felt this co-worker was an ally and someone I could trust. However, we don’t work in the same building, so I didn’t get the chance to talk to her in person about what transpired until July.

My colleague was saddened and as upset as me about how “Mary” passed over the moms of color when handing out invitations. She admitted she hadn’t looked around to see how many moms of color were at the party, but she related that she often thought about why more parents of color didn’t participate in the PTO or on other school committees. We had a nice discussion about inclusiveness and how organizations can recruit and retain families of color.

Despite my irritation at being snubbed by “Mary,” just having an invitation alone isn’t enough to entice me to participate or volunteer. I could pretty much predict what it would have been like had I attended. I’ve had enough bad experiences in my lifetime regarding this to make me almost expect being used as a pawn for celebrating “diversity.”

One example: several years ago when I was a stay at home mom with one kid and one on the way and new to my neighborhood, I decided after several lonely months to join a “Mom’s group.” This group has a national affiliation and many local chapters and it was a way for me to hopefully meet others in my neighborhood. Because I lived in a big city with lots of diversity, I was surprised to see I was the only mom of color at the first meeting. And guess what? Only two women in that group of about 30 moms came over to introduce themselves and one of them was a mom to a Korean-adopted boy.

The next several meetings were like the first one. I attended a park play date and when I introduced myself to the other moms, several literally turned their backs to me. Again, only the adoptive parent talked to me.

Back then, I was very shy, and it has always been difficult for me to just go up and talk to someone I don’t know. However, I knew that I couldn’t expect strangers to just welcome me in without some effort on my part. I stepped way, way outside my comfort zone only to be told in clear body language that I was not welcomed.

Taking it one step further, I decided that I wasn’t giving it enough of a chance, so I volunteered to be on a food committee for the mom’s group annual holiday picnic. My rationale is that I would get to know the other women on the committee and hopefully forge some friendships that way. I waited for months and was never called or contacted by the committee leader. That woman later approached me and told me that she never called me because “I already knew everyone else and it was just easier.” No apology.

This group, like many others I’ve attended over the past decade, had increasing their membership diversity as one of their strategic goals.

I thought about this when my colleague and I talked about our kid’s school and the lack of participation of parents of color. I thought about the Silicon Valley blogger who wrote about why Asian American parents don’t participate in the PTA. And I thought about a recent thread on a discussion forum I’m on in which people wondered why “adult adoptee bloggers” were not invited to participate at a big conference.

Schools, churches, parent groups, social networking groups, writing groups – I’ve attended countless “groups” that ask me, as typically the lone or one of the lone people of color – what “they” can do to attract more people like “me.”

So here are just a few suggestions:

  • Don’t just put up a flyer and expect me to come. If I know the group is not diverse, I need a personal invitation and a reason why my participation is requested.
  • Take time to find out what my issues and concerns are. The only way to find that out is to ask.
  • Don’t ask your one token friend of color/community what the issues in their community are and take that as the gospel truth. One person does not a community make.
  • If I volunteer an idea, suggestion, or my time, take me seriously.
  • Don’t expect me to be the spokesperson for my community.
  • Investigate whether there are barriers or obstacles written into the foundation of your organization that prevent a more diverse membership.
  • Don’t expect us to do all the work socially. You need to step outside your comfort zone and build relationships with us. It’s not always about us having to make relationships with you. That means, come on our turf once in a while.
  • We can smell insincerity a mile away. If you’re inviting us just so you can have some “numbers” to report, we won’t stay.
  • If you invite us and we don’t come, don’t just write us off. Take the time to find out why we didn’t come. And if it really matters to you, you’ll address those reasons.
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