Diversity? My Thoughts

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I haven’t written a post on race or anything along those lines for a long time and to be honest, they probably won’t be nearly as frequently as they used to, but this has been a post long in the making and one I was hesitant to discuss for so many reasons, but it keeps coming up. As always, when I discuss such issues, I feel the importance of stating by way of a disclosure that these are my personal thoughts and experiences, and I acknowledge the people who are doing good diversity and intercultural work in the field, and in no way am I demeaning their efforts.

It goes without saying that I no longer see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Being black, a woman, an immigrant twice-over, I cannot afford to do so. My very presence affects how people around me react. It’s difficult to guess whether I’ll be feared, coddled, condescended to, or ignored and discredited.  Rarely am I seen as an equal.  As a result, it’s been a very interesting position for me to be involved in the diversity and intercultural field,   and I’ve made so many observations that have made me consider my stance, and about whether I actually see any good in me continuing to work in the field. From my first semester of grad school, to subsequent diversity events I’ve not only co-facilitated but also attended, my questions have often been :”Why am I doing this? Who is this diversity work for? What IS diversity?”

I do feel somewhat disillusioned by the diversity and interculturalist field. In my field of interculturalism, a field with a large number of  well-travelled and educated people, perhaps I let my guard down a bit and began to believe that my presence in this field would be valued and that I  might possibly be able to influence change. In Vancouver we often lament about the invisibility of black people, and just before Black History Month, organizations are often scrambling for black speakers, performers etc. But it turns out a lot of this interest is very cosmetic.

I feel we are still tiptoeing around issues. And what does that make people like me feel? Tired and completely fed up. Yet we are told to be patient. Nina Simone’s lyrics from “Mississippi Goddam” come to mind:

Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”

My original thoughts that my experiences, and the experiences and thoughts of people like me, would be better-received by open-minded voices who profess to value and honour diversity, was unfortunately not a reality. What I soon realized is that the diversity we often deal with here are sugarcoated and very disingenuous.

At diversity events, microaggressions are rife. An example is at an event on leadership I attended in March, My partner during one of the exercises was a Middle Eastern woman. As the only women of colour at the event, we inevitably discussed the reality of race, and the fact that nobody had brought up this in the whole event. During the sharing time I felt the need to bring up this point, saying it was important to acknowledge this reality. A white Canadian lady spoke up, clearly taking umbrage at the comment that race is an issue. She objected to my usage of the word “marginalized” and proceeded to “remind” me that I have a great cultural heritage to draw on, and that the reason people want to talk to me is that I’m elegant and eloquent, something she didn’t stop commenting on the entire morning. To top it off, she said she’d experienced racism in Japan.

At these events, what usually happens, as did happen in the woman’s response to my comment is silencing (“racism isn’t so bad here”), tone policing (“don’t use that term, it’s not becoming”), equating oppressions (“I’ve experienced racism too”), and operating according to stereotypes (“you’re so eloquent.”).

Luckily I’m now able to anticipate these things and I’ve had to grow tougher due to my experiences. I have an M.O. for these situations: when I realize I’m not going to get through to people the best thing for me to do is to shut up and preserve my valuable energy. No further interactions with these folks are necessary because you already know you’re talking to a brick wall.

The reality is when a person of colour at one of these events attempts to challenge the narrative and the accepted knowledge, these reactions are very common. They’ve happened to me, as I’ve illustrated, and I’ve seen them happen to others. What people often hope for is for a good photo opportunity to showcase the diversity and market it, and a nice personal story that will make them feel sad or good about themselves. It’s rarely about challenging oneself it seems.

So I’ve come to realize the face of diversity is often not diverse at all (if you look at the board members of diversity organizations, this will become very obvious). I’ve realized that things are taken differently depending on who is saying it. I note the difference in how the black and Asian women I meet at these events feel after them. I often talk to them afterwards and the general consensus is often “tokenism”, “sugar-coating”, “the discussion could have gone deeper”, or “this isn’t new; I’ve known this since birth.”

It would be wonderful to be colourblind but it’s too late for me. Sharing my perspectives to show that there are several frames of reference, is important to me. What I’d like for more people in the field to acknowledge is that how they operate isn’t equitable, it isn’t real diversity work. If we are to call ourselves liberal and such, surely it would make sense to allow those who are marginalized the most to speak out and not to attempt to appease them with platitudes? If we’re not willing to hear the point of views of POC, to hire them in our intercultural organizations, then our diversity push is a mere façade.  If we’re not willing to be honest with the nitty-gritty of how race matters etc, I’m definitely not for it. Being involved in anything half-baked was never my plan.

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23 thoughts on “Diversity? My Thoughts

  1. Well said. I grew up in multi-cultural London. People were racist towards Pakistanis in the 1970s, which shocked me. People tend to fear what they don’t understand. For example, people used to tell me l was olive skinned. I never knew what this meant, until l read my history and discovered that people with olive skin were from the lower classes. I am descended from Irish and Spanish. I’m third generation so I’m British. I have a posh accent which was used to colonise. My accent provokes different reactions in people. I spent most of my life confused. It is as if Ireland doesn’t exist here in England. There is some kind of huge guilt about the potato famine. Of course Northern Ireland exists. Keep using your voice Rowena. I enjoy your work. You are making a difference.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Hermione, and for giving me some info on the current state of diversity in the UK. It really seems complex there too. And thanks as always for all your support and encouragement, I truly appreciate you 🙂

  2. This post was refreshing to hear. We need to hear more voices challenging the definition of what diversity really means. It has become an empty phrase (more of a word than meaningful action in most cases) used to appease and silence marginalized people. Diversity needs to go beyond “good photo opportunity to showcase the diversity”

    I also get the “But you’re so eloquent!” microagression a lot too. The phrase irritates me for a number of reasons. It’s almost as if just asking to be a fully realized person, Blackness, gender and foreign identities included, is unflattering and offensive, so I should not talk about it. This really needs to change if diversity is truly a priority.

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! It took me months to decide whether I should even publish this but I’m glad I did. I agree that diversity has become an empty phrase, and I really wish the conversation would be led by people of colour who have not subscribed to white supremacy. Oh yes, the “eloquent” comment is truly horrible and it reminds me that I’ve spent the majority of my life outside of my place of birth and have thus lost a great chunk of my culture.

      Thanks again for your encouraging comment:)

  3. AMEN to all of this!!! What get me is when there’s one or two people of color in the room nobody seems to think there is some lack in diverse representation. Here in France there are hardly any people of color on tv nor in movies. That doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Normal. However, they are quick to say there is no racism. That’s America’s problem. The problem in Europe is that racism is very subtle and in turn that is brutal for me. It’s as if people of color don’t exist even though they are walking the streets, holding sown jobs, etc. When I went into the public schools as a replacement teacher in France. I noticed very quickly that I was the only teacher of color. The kids noticed very quickly and they looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet – the kid of color included. The looks I got were – you don’t belong here, we’re going to test you until you break. In one school, a teacher came to me in the teacher’s lounge, sat down in front of me and asked me how I got there. As if I’d flown in on a broom or something. All of these subtle, low key (they think) aggressions have given me an impenetrable thick skin to this back handed, off the cuff comments. I clap back and keep it moving. I then get quickly passed off as the American who doesn’t know the codes. I don’t give a rat’s ass anymore. I don’t tiptoe. They do. However, I’m not going to go out of my way wasting my energy schooling people who are deaf and dumb to the situation, so I agree with you totally. Excellent post as always Rowena!!!

    1. Thanks, Didi! Wow, based on your comment and the conversations we have had on life in France, i can tell that France has a loooong way to go. That’s so sad and I can only imagine how stressful it can get for you. Having to prove yourself, and not being able to make a mistake, because others will put that on your skin colour, that is awful. I experienced it too as a teacher here, having to prove myself to students. One student asked me at least three times whether I had a Canadian degree, this was while I was also in grad school (I was the only one in my workplace with an MA). We know what they are thinking though, even if they think they’ve fooled us. It gets so tiring though

      1. Yes it is. That’s why I don’t play anymore. The French have an expression: If you come for me you’re going to find me. That’s how I play it. 😉 And keep it moving’…..

  4. YUP! I can so relate to your feelings and thoughts on this issue! Usually I know to expect these stupid comments and micro-aggression, I steel myself. But then entering spaces that are suppesdly safe spaces and welcoming to us turn out to be racist and it always hurts me more because I didn’t bring my “armor” 😦 I prefer going to woc and poc events but always get asked by colleagues in my field why I don’t go to more gender studies events. Their faces when I tell them I am sick and tired of their theoretical intersectionality.
    I also have my beef with the term diversity and the ways this concept has been used by neoliberalism like with multiculturalism, but I’ve also found that many poc and woc rally behind this term and so I never know what to expect when it says diversity on the tin.

  5. Thanks,Bina! That donning of the armour is so tiring and it’s so unfair that we have to go through this at every event we attend. You’re right, it’s hard to tell how an event is going to turn out and often I experience cringeworthy scenes that make me wonder how on earth some people can’t see the impact of their actions and words on others. The term diversity is a troubling one to me too because it is rarely done correctly and the views and thoughts of POC are rarely listened to properly, at least in my circles. I still haven’t decided whether I want to keep working in this field, I think only time will tell!

  6. Rowena, I am so glad you made the decision to post this rather than silence your own thoughts. I can relate to all that you’ve written and so agree with your comments about the superficial or “cosmetic” attention to handling racially sensitive concerns. People have to get real, go deep inside and be honest about how [we] think and feel and commit to the inner and interpersonal work of healing and eradicating racism. No more “tip-toeing around the issues;” acting like after a black history month program meets a checklist (- probably so your organization can secure more funding!-) then you’re enlightened and your work is done…..don’t get me started! Thanks again for a thoughtful, pointed, post.

    1. Hi Leslie,

      Thank you so much! I’m really tired with this superficiality and it seems like it’s a huge step backwards from the civil rights era when things were actually getting done. Hopefully things start getting better:)

  7. Damn, it makes me angry and sad. Our world is and has always been one fucked up place. But, it does make progress…oh yeah…slowly. I got a degree in geology and went into the environmental field. I thought I’d make a difference in protecting our drinking water. The field was a joke. I had to move on. For me, I do small things for others now, not the big dreams I had, but they satisfy me enough. If you’ve already seen behind the curtain, it’s still possible to make a difference, just maybe not the way you envisioned.

    I know I’m talking about the academics of diversity. Diversity huh? When you walk into a room, there is no hiding. I don’t know what that feels like. The only thing I know is what it feels like to walk into a room and hide who I am. I don’t belong in any of the conversations. I split myself in two. I just watched a minister who spoke alongside Ted Cruz wanting to kill the gays. Is being able to hide better? Naw, this is not the same as the color of ones skin, but I can only speak from my experience. I read everything I can about yours yet will never fully understand without the experience.

    I hope you don’t give up, it’s a long journey and it may never end. But…

    I love you.

    1. Hi Debbie, I’d love to chat more with you about the geology field. As I think I told you a couple of years ago, I started out as a geology major but decided to leave the field. I think diversity in all areas is very important, academia too. There are so many areas that need to be decolonized and I think we are making strides towards doing so. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, I really love to hear different points of view. Lots of love to you!

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