Teaching diversity in a diversity-free zone

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tami Winfrey Harris

I miss the city sometimes.

It occurs to me that my family and I have traded something important to get a suburban one-acre lot with a fenced in backyard, a quiet, tree-lined street, an aura of safety and a school system that offers education with all the trimmings. We’ve traded the rhythm and texture of urban life, including the kind of multicultural existence that raises racial consciousness and understanding, and makes one feel connected with the world’s citizens.

I have always considered it to be a blessing that I came of age in a “mixed” neighborhood. My black family was among the first to integrate what had been a white community on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. My elementary school photos, taken during the early influx of families of color and before white flight began in earnest, reveal a mix of smiling young faces: black, white, Hispanic, Indian, Filipino.

Since my formative years, I have lived a host of places: From a largely homogenous Iowa college campus to a re-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood that was a mix of races and ethnicities, haves and have nots. I have always felt most comfortable in places that embodied the “melting pot” ideal—the sort of places where you can smell the scent of Indian food on Friday night, hear strains of mariachi music on Saturday morning or maybe a little bass bumping from some dusty R&B.

I love places like that, but I know that they are rare. I’m no social scientist, but I would venture a guess that many, many Americans are not so acquainted with people of other races and cultures. At best, we see our “Asian friend” or “black friend” or “white friend” at work and then retreat to our segregated neighborhoods and social groups and churches. At worst, we make assumptions based on TV news and Hollywood distortion, and rarely see a person who is different from us in real life. For all our talk of diversity in this country, we don’t know each other very well.

So, when public discourse turns to race, as it has in the 2008 presidential election, the mainstream is shocked to find that black people are angry about America’s racist past and present; and black people are shocked that anyone could be shocked, given the very real prejudice we face every day.

No, we don’t know each other at all.

And I think about that as I go about my day-to-day life, often the only face of color wherever I go in the largely white suburb where I now live. My neighbors are lovely and I like it here. I sometimes long for the “melting pot” I left behind, but I can deal. I am 30-something and have developed my world view. But I worry about the children.

You see, I think one answer to racism is familiarity. The better we know each other, the more comfortable we become and the harder it is to view each other as “others.” The kids here won’t naturally gain a lot of familiarity with people of other races. (Nor, I should add, will the kids in some of Chicago’s all-black or all-Hispanic neighborhoods.) So, does that guarantee that some 20 years from now, we’ll be having the same breathless misunderstandings about race?

I like to think not, but I don’t know.

I suppose as a guest contributor, I should have answers. This time I don’t. But I would like to hear from you.

How do you encourage your child to understand and embrace people of other races when interaction with them is rare?

Tami is a writer,and communications and marketing professional living in the Midwest with her husband and stepson. She blogs at What Tami Said and is a contributor to the upcoming anthology, What We Think:Gender Roles, Women’s Issues and Feminism in the 21st Century , coming to bookstores in March 2008.

Photo by Carplips Family

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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