Monday, October 1, 2012


Thoughts on DIVERSITY 

Recently we took the kids to a different church.  It was a beautiful Catholic church and we had arrived early, so we sat there in the silence gazing around us in awe.  People started arriving and soon the church was fairly full.  Some music began (a piano and 2 flutes) that was uplifting and prayer-inspiring.  I felt very happy to be there because of having time with my kids and because I like visiting different churches.

Soon the Mass began and it was beautiful.  A prayer intention really got me thinking.  It was about letting go of our material treasures in service to God, which tied in to the gospel reading.  Then it hit me as I glanced around that this particular church community was one of great assets.  

Everyone was dressed very nicely with fine jewelry.  There wasn't a pair of jeans to be seen.  I was glad we had worn our "Sunday best" clothing, but suddenly it didn't feel good enough among all the designer brands surrounding us.  Moments earlier I had been proud of how nice my daughters looked in their dresses.  But suddenly I was feeling that my pretty, but well-worn sweater was an embarrassment.  

I felt, rather sadly, that for all the beauty there in that holy place, I could never feel truly comfortable there.  

Then, another thought hit me.  This was an entirely white gathering.  There were 3 (obviously) adopted children of color, but all of the adults were affluent whites.  And suddenly it felt so strange because I work in a school that is very diverse and am used to that variety, even among the teaching staff.  And I realized that for all the superficial "welcoming" there had been in that church, such as greeters and a word of welcome from the priest to begin Mass, it might not be so welcoming in the attitudes of the congregation.

After church as we drove away, I talked with my daughters about my feelings.  They agreed that some people they know choose not to go there because they don't feel they belong.  

Andrea expressed surprise that I even noticed because at the church we used to attend, there also was little diversity.  I had never thought about it, but she was right.  Thinking back to all the churches I attended as a child and young adult I realized they were all the same, except they were all middle class instead of affluent.  (I'm glad the church we have attended for the last 6 years has some diversity and is so welcoming.  And I'm glad my children have experienced diversity in their schools.)

So Andrea wanted to know why it bothered me now?  I guess my viewpoint has changed as a result of working in a school that has so many cultures as well as the effects of poverty (100% of the first-grade class I work with this year qualify for free lunches.)

As a college student I have taken a class specifically about Diversity, and the topic has come up in every other education class that  I have taken as well.   As a school employee I have attended ESL workshops to understand other cultures and what students learning English are experiencing.  So my viewpoint and empathy have shifted in ways I didn't even expect. 

Other Experiences with Diversity: 

  • I remember another church experience when I felt totally out of place.  It was a wedding at an African-American Baptist church.  There were a few other white guests there, but we definitely could feel what "minorities" feel like, and worried a bit for our safety in that part of town.  Our young children must have felt it, too, because they were very subdued in that environment.  

  • I sold Avon for about 11 years and had quite a few Hispanic customers because I am somewhat bilingual.  An elderly white neighbor was a very regular customer of mine.  When I changed my voice mail phone message to include Spanish, she left me a nasty message about how I was encouraging "those people" and she just didn't know if she could still be my customer.  She calmed down and still purchased through me,  but it amused me later when Hispanic families moved into the houses on both sides of her house.
Hispanic and white friends on a hay rack ride in the country.

  • At a recent school workshop our principal shared with me her experiences of being stopped by the police simply for driving a nice car.  I was stunned at that prospect, but she said it's because she is black.  And it has happened numerous times.  Wow!

  • I was talking with a substitute teacher at our school last week who had spent some time in a remote area of Africa on a teaching mission.  She met a family whose daughter (about 4 years old) was horribly upset to meet her because she had never seen a white person before.  She probably thought the teacher was a ghost!

  • I had an "aha" moment years ago when we hosted 3 adults from South Africa who were in town for an international conference and needed housing.  We were contacted by the organization helping to host the conference, to which we belonged.  We thought it would be a culturally enriching experience for our family so we agreed.  To our surprise, the 3 adults were white!  And the pictures of their home showed a lot of amenities, including a pool and a housekeeper.  Not at all what we had expected, but we did learn a lot from them about the class struggles in Africa.

  • Lastly, I want to share one other experience that goes back to 1986 when my husband and I were on a honeymoon cruise.  Back then I had not been exposed to much diversity yet.  I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt that had a light grey background with white fluffy sheep on it.  Close to the shoulder on the left side was one black sheep.  I never gave it much  consideration; I just thought it was cute with black shorts.   As I was going through a cafeteria-style line for lunch on the deck, the server (who was a very dark Jamaican) pointed to my shirt and asked me, "Why only one?"  At first I didn't know what he was talking about, so he had to repeat it.  Then, when I understood his question, I answered without thinking, "You know, the black sheep."  As if that explained it at all!  He looked at me confused and I got embarrassed.  We let it drop as the line moved along.  I've thought about that many times through the years and realize that, since "black sheep" is a derogatory racial reference, I should never have worn it.  And I wonder in what other ways my thoughtlessness has come out and offended people without my realizing it.

In my sheep shirt in 1986.
The sun was so bright; the pattern doesn't show well.

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