Diversity is About More Than Numbers and Elections

 Adjusting to life in the most diverse generation in American history will require us to change the way we think about race.

The last U.S. Census tells us that 46.5 percent of people under 18 are nonwhite, and America is on track to become a majority-minority country within a few decades. With this kind of dramatic cultural shift taking place, political conversations about diversity that focus on numbers and what they might mean for the next election are only scratching the surface.

These conversations feel similar to those that I had while studying at Wellesley, where students argued that the administration needed more than just a rainbow of faces on our brochures — that we had to actually do something with our diversity. (While I was there between 1995 and 1999, the college boasted 51 percent of its study body was of color.) I’ve also worked with organizations over the years that focused on filling desks with people of color because it was the “right thing to do,” without any meaning or action beyond that.

These past experiences reflect a larger conundrum with which the country has been grappling. We are becoming an increasingly nonwhite country. (I’m tempted to write that we are becoming more “diverse,” but the more accurate statement is that we are becoming less white). What does this mean for us? What do we do with this fact?

Inherent in this shift are questions about power and privilege. And when the rise of “minorities” comes up, I sometimes note a tinge of anxiety — not surprising given our very fraught history as a nation in which the amount of power, resources, and rights you had were based on your race. White meant power and privilege; anything else meant disadvantage and discrimination if not outright oppression.

We have made progress since the days of Jim Crow, but we still struggle to create a society in which everyone has the same opportunities regardless of race and socio-economic class. Looking at recent data on incarceration rates by race is just one example of how inequity plays out in our society. We need to take inventory and be willing to confront the hard questions: Where do we continue to create inequity in our structures, institutions, and communities? How are we raising our children? How do we as individuals deal with our own biases?

My vision of a culturally competent citizenship means that each of us is taking the time to reflect on our own beliefs, values, and biases. Cultural competence is definedas the “ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures.” Even when working on cross-cultural interpersonal skills, the self is the starting point. How do our beliefs play out in the ways we interact with others in our personal lives and in the workplace? Do we engage in the practice of reflection and challenge ourselves when we uncover problematic thinking or behavior? We can talk about institutional racism (and we should), but if you boil it down, institutions are built and maintained by individuals. If the individuals involved shift their thinking, the institutions will change along with them.

The question then becomes, “How?” How do we make this shift in thinking happen? What are our first steps? The problem of racism sometimes feels overwhelming; it has loomed over us for generations. We wonder if we will ever see a country where race is not a determining factor of success. But there are ways to take small steps that turn into larger actions.

Beyond engaging in continuous self-reflection and questioning our own biases, we must realize how those biases affect others and determine where we can make positive changes in our words and actions. We have to find opportunities to reach across cultural, ethnic, and racial lines to expand our understanding of others and practice having difficult conversations about race. If we see injustice anywhere, we must speak out. This means taking a critical look at our institutions. What do they do to create opportunities for all? How does they knowingly or unknowingly create inequities? Once we start asking these questions, we can develop strategies to interrupt the negative impacts of racism. And then we should do it all over again, and again, and again until we get it right.

The ongoing work to create communities, institutions, and, on the broadest level,  a country that is fair and equitable starts with the individual. Let’s acknowledge the numbers, sure. And then let’s make more meaning out of it for all of us. Once we figure out what race means to the most diverse generation in American history, we might be able to truly tackle some of our country’s largest problems around inequality.

Jen Chau is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and founder and executive director of Swirl, Inc.

New Deal 2.0 / By Jen Chau

Posted at December 5, 2011, 3:51am

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