On organic vs. proactive diversity

written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey Harris
Diversity is important to personal and community development. Diversity is not organic.
 
Kathleen Parker’s article two week’s ago in the Washington Post helped me to crystalize my thoughts on diversity, its importance and how community’s can achieve successful and beneficial diversity. You may remember that Parker wasn’t sold on new radio commercials celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act:
 
Lately, the fine intent of eliminating discrimination seems to have morphed into diversity advocacy.
Before I proceed, let me say that I prefer a world in which not everyone is the same. I like that my neighbors include a gay couple and a single mother and that several languages are spoken on my street.
But happy diversity is an organic process that results when like-minded citizens congregate around shared values and interests. Often those interests and values have evolved from racial and ethnic identities, but not necessarily. Sometimes neighbors of diverse backgrounds share affection for old houses, or window boxes, or pet-friendliness.
That not all people have access to all the same housing opportunities is called life in a free-market society. But the fair-housing folks want life to be more fair, and the ads are warming us up for some really fun social engineering. Read more…
 
One of the ads that so disturb Ms. Parker:
 

The wormiest of three ads posted online features a mother and daughter just home from visiting mom’s workplace. Daughter is breathless with wonder at how diverse Mom’s workplace is, but wants to know why everyone in their neighborhood “looks just like us?” Dum-de-dum-dum.

 
Horrors!
 
I tend to think those who disdain proactive encouragement of diversity are really poor students of human behavior and that they don’t really believe in diversity’s importance. It feels more secure to be surrounded by people who look and think and eat and worship and work and live and parent the way you do. The echo chamber of homogenity is comforting in the way it tacitly approves of your life and choices. Who wouldn’t want this? Like seeks like–it is easiest that way. It is the rare person who likes to be uncomfortable.
 
Diversity done correctly is almost always uncomfortable–at least a little. Living or socializing or working around people who are different–racially, ethnically, politically, religiously, etc.–requires compromise, requires empathy, requires withholding judgement, requires being open to learning. Being confronted with difference can mean having your way of looking, thinking, eating, worshipping, working, parenting and living challenged. It means having your biases and bigotry challenged (and we don’t like to think we have any of those, do we?). But these are good things, yes? The discomfort of diversity yields better people and better communities. Diversity done correctly is also almost always rewarding. But it should be clear why it isn’t and never will be “organic.”
 
Anti-Racist Parent columnist Susan Lyons-Joell also weighed in on the article:
 
What do people want in their neighborhood? How about affordable housing, access to decent hospitals, grocery stores and businesses, a police force on your side, and a good public education and the careers that come with it. It’s no coincidence that neighborhoods where those things are missing are those that overwhelmingly are minority-dominated. That’s not the “free market,” that’s institutional racism held in place by economic disparity. Where one grows up can be a burden or a blessing, and it is not easily negated after the fact. Contrary to what Ms. Parker claims, diverse neighborhoods are not produced deliberately and intentionally – they are more often than not a product of economic and social circumstance. For that matter, so are the non-diverse neighborhoods, like the 1950s white-only enclaves that have only recently begun to have ethnic diversity, as those neighborhoods decline and the white people MOVE OUT.
 
It must be so nice to be able to pretend that a diverse environment is something willfully chosen or unchosen based on your own personal preference and needs. But it’s not. It’s a social justice issue, showing the inequalities, often along color lines, that still exist in America. There’s nothing “free-market” about a social stratum that is stacked against you from day one because of where you live. Ms. Parker, if you’re not committed to fixing it, you’re part of the problem.

 

 
Readers, what do you think?
 
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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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