Monday, January 08, 2007

Appreciating diversity: part one

In a previous post, I mentioned how well I get along with the union employees where I work. It bears exploration and explanation, but as I got rolling, I realized this was bigger than one post.

When I was a kid, my family moved a lot. Like every two years, on average, and I'm not talking about moving houses. I'm talking about moving states, even entire regions, and more than once, countries. Living in all those different places (the mid-south, the middle Atlantic, the northwest, the west, the midwest, the Carribbean) left no option: figure out how to adapt and get to know the locals. When your childhood schooling begins in a Jamaican Montessori school, switches to the Little Rock Public Schools (remember Crisis at Central High?), then switches again to a small town in Wyoming (with the exception of a few kids of Crow descent, everyone was white and very provincial), and completes in a suburban Detroit high school which is roughly 25% Jewish, 25% African American, 25% Iraqi Christian (Chaldean) and 25% "everything else" (which included Asian, other Middle Eastern, Armenian, Greek, various Catholic and Orthodox strains, and a very few WASPs), you get used to being in the minority if you're a Protestant of Irish/German/Welsh descent who has traveled and lived abroad.

Imagine my bafflement, then, upon entering college. A small liberal arts college in the South. Where almost everyone was white and Protestant. In a city that (at the time) seemed to have black and white but almost nothing else. All the foods I had grown to love in Detroit's diverse suburbia, the shades of brown skin I had grown able to identify (especially if I could hear an accent) by region, the variety of names ending in vowels or -stein or -berg or -ian. It was a weird shift that I didn't anticipate and didn't appreciate.

So I did what any white girl from the 'burbs who missed her diverse home of two years would do. I joined the Black Student Association. And joined a committee. And wrote the proposal that would convince the administration of my college to observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Fast forward past college, into a first career in art museums. Let's just leave it at this: my world was very white, very educated, and very moneyed. And it felt, well, fake. I was missing something. And I knew I had to make a change.

I've already blogged about my career changes. But what I didn't mention was that I was the only white person in the room in almost all my other jobs. And it was sometimes strange (as a teacher, the kids were quite open about how they felt about white people, and given the history of their county, I couldn't really blame them) and sometimes I didn't notice (at least not immediately). What have I learned from ten years of working in majority-black workplaces?

That greens taste better if you cook them with a little Italian dressing.
That spaghetti is sometimes a side dish.
That people are more similar than different.
That most of the differences attributed to race should be attributed to economic status.
That Southern manners matter. (Ma'am and Sir are useful words when used at the right time.)
That being real and respectful gets you a lot farther than education.

To be continued.....

1 comment:

Amber said...

Hi there! I saw your post on RSM and thought I'd take a look at your blog. You can imagine my surprise when I saw that you are in Memphis...I was born and raised there and my family still lives there. I saw that you are into brother just put out a CD (he lives in Germantown) and is a little bit (and by a little, I mean a few) known around town. His name is Dave Nicar ( At any rate, if you'd like to chat I'm at I haven't had time to read through your whole blog, but it looks like you are a teacher...I'd be interested to see what school. Also a funny ex-boyfriend (who was salutatorian of his class) was kicked out of Rhodes for plagiarism. Tee-hee. Small world.