Diversity isn’t the goal; we must do better

I have a confession to make. Raising non-white children in the whitest state in America is draining. I spent my first 13 years in Maine living in a town so utterly white that my dearly departed mother, who had a chance to visit Maine before her untimely death, referred to it as “Pleasantville” in reference to the film of the same name.

Two years ago when my marriage ended, I relocated to our bustling metropolis (granted, not a metropolis by the standards of most other states, but our most populous and vibrant city nonetheless, and a pretty cool one). Portland is touted as Maine’s most diverse city. Portland public schools are held up for their diversity and the many languages spoken in their schools. On the surface, it does look different from most of Maine. But the truth is that it is an illusion. It’s not real. It’s not real at all and the truth is I am tired of it.

I typically steer clear of discussing my children in this space but today I am going to break my rule because what we are facing is larger than being Black in Maine. It’s what life is like in any racially homogeneous space that is dominated by whiteness. It’s how we can lose our sense of self if we are not vigilant.

Last year, my daughter started middle school. Her school is known nationally for their style of teaching, and it is considered by some to be a good school. However, from the time mini-me entered middle school, our experience has been nothing but lackluster. Not even a week into middle school, my daughter pointed out that all her teachers are white and that the Black kids are Black immigrants from various countries who rarely interact with others groups…including Black kids like her. (My kids are biracial but identify as Black and, honestly, even if they didn’t most of the rest of society would).

A visit to any of the school-related events confirmed what my daughter was seeing: white people running the show and even at the parent level, parents tended to stay grouped together based on race/skin color. Most interaction along racial lines is superficial at best with the occasional interracial friends. Yet this school and most of the parents whose children attend it insist that the school is diverse.

Let me be upfront and just admit that I hate the word diversity; over the years, it has become the catch-all statement used to tokenize people of color. In predominantly white spaces, if we have a few flies in the buttermilk, we call it diverse but we don’t do the deeper work of dismantling whiteness or creating an anti-racist lens (or a truly inclusive and interactive space) because those efforts would require the deeper work of unearthing and restructuring. A commitment to “diversity” however allows us to do the work of adding color without really doing the work of changing anything.

Despite the reality of the “diversity” issue at the school, the co-parent and I were willing to keep the girl child in this school. However, as time went on, her enthusiasm for school waned and by this current school year, it reached code-red status. This isn’t typical tween ambivalence about school. This has become tears and angst in the weekday mornings, at night, fading Friday night and Saturday but beginning again by Sunday afternoon. Pretty much any mention of school was treated like a pending trip to the clink. Regardless of what was going on or which parent she was with, her feelings about school were loud and clear.

We reached our breaking point and brought the situation to the attention of the school, they were flabbergasted. The tween is a stellar student, never gets in trouble and is polite. I won’t bore you with the details but I hit the wall after meeting with all of the kiddo’s teachers and the principal and the tired diversity line being trotted out. As I said in that meeting, I am a Black mother sitting in a room full of white people in charge. I don’t see diversity, I see white people in charge. I am paraphrasing but you get the point.

The thing is, this isn’t just my daughter’s school. This is about how organizations and institutions in Maine and most white spaces approach people of color. POC are recruited or brought in and, in most instances, they won’t be there in a few years. At  one point, Portland had a Black police chief and a Black school superintendent. Neither one stayed longer than three or four years if memory serves correct. In my 15 years in Maine, I have known more than a few talented POC who moved to Maine, only to pull up stakes after a few years. Are people using Maine as a stepping stone to greener pastures? Possibly, but my gut says that it is tiring being one of the only ones. It is tiring never fully relaxing, it is tiring always being on guard. I can mostly say that feeling is what led me to take a job out-of-state.

The goal should never be diversity and tolerance, that is simply not good enough. Just having a mix of people (diversity) doesn’t mean anything fundamentally changes. And tolerance is terrible; I tolerate my annual mammogram but I certain don’t like or look forward to it. Organizations should be dedicated to creating a vision of wellness and an understanding that systemic racism is a barrier to that wellness. This barrier cannot be addressed or eliminated until a critical mass in any given system understands the systemic nature of racism and addresses it as a threat to the health of all members of the system. Any systemic barrier must be addressed within four dimensions:

  • internal: within the individual
  • interpersonal: within relationships individuals have with each other
  • institutional: within the organizations created to structure society
  • cultural: within the values, norms, belief systems, behavioral patterns, etc. of groups of people

In other words, we need to be willing to examine our systems and make sure that we are creating spaces that are not upholding the status quo and thus perpetuating the type of harm that too often is a part of being the diversity.

No doubt my words are  harsh but this space and my work puts me in contact with many POC throughout Maine and in other predominantly white spaces and the stories I am privy to are at times heartbreaking. They are also a reminder of how often white people don’t truly see POC as actual people. White people don’t see the real harm that is perpetuated onto POC—sometimes intentionally but sometimes out of sheer ignorance. Regardless, it’s not okay and organizations and schools need to do better.

As for my daughter, the odds are high that she may end up at a private school that, while not diverse, can at least meet her academic needs and is upfront about their diversity or lack thereof. At this point, honesty and intentionality are better than the superficial.

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48 thoughts on “Diversity isn’t the goal; we must do better”

  1. It’s not so different in the U.K if you’re not in a big city – I was bullied for being the only non-white person in my year and the teachers did very little to stop it. It was so bad for my younger brother that he moved schools. I remember teachers making obviously insensitive and prejudiced comments singling us out (everyone should wear sun-tan lotion but Symone doesn’t need to wear it…!), how does teacher training not address this? It’s horrible feeling like the odd one out, especially when the (all-white) staff exacerbate it.

  2. Politically, diversity has been given a token definition which has stripped it of all its beauty and power to truly harmonize the process; and tolerance is what tides us over until we finally get the right opportunity to swat that mosquito. It really means we don’t like a situation but we will ignore it until we have the opportunity to do something about it, for better or worse, and that is usually stressful for all involved. It may serve some short-term purposes that support attitude or personality adjustments but it should certainly not be a way of life…or death, as any mosquito will tell you.

  3. Thanks for sharing your views on this topic. I do not live in America and so I cannot fully relate to your personal situation. However, as a British woman living in a central European country, there have been many times when I have been sidelined, treated second rate and dismissed as stupid. Simply because I’m ….. different. Unfortunately, this is a global problem and I plan to return to a more cosmopolitan, multicultural part of the world. The word ‘diversity’ can have negative connotations, but only by accepting diversity as being a normal part of life can we all move forward. Good luck!

  4. I happened upon your site through the “Discover” feature and even though I have only been to Portland, Maine once in my life, I could feel what you described in your post. I am East Asian and I went to the mall and it felt eerie.

    I grew up in an all Dutch town and my family was the only family that wasn’t “white”. I completed all my schooling there, but it wasn’t without struggle. My parents went though a lot keeping me in school and did all they could to keep me sane, informed, and respectful despite how I was being treated.
    You sound like a wonderful mother!

  5. I am a Philippine-born Canadian man living in French Quebec.

    I find the posts on this subject very interesting but I am not surprised.

    I have two sisters living in the US and one of them lived and worked in South Carolina. She used to talk about the white and black divide. This is similar to the French and English divide in Quebec as late as the early 1970’s when I moved to Montreal.

    Human beings become uncomfortable when they are out of their comfort zone that is why people in general stick to their own kind, i e. marry their own kind. They don’t intentionally exclude other groups.

    I am married to a French-Canadian white and my younger sister is married to a white Canadian. I have been with my wife for more than 40 years and almost the same as my sister.

    Being married to a white didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I learned French. In family gatherings I was always the lone non-white, non-French.

    We sent our three sons to private school so I don’t know if the public schools here have the same problems as your public schools. Most probably it is the opposite here because immigrants live in “ghetto s” so the white French would’ be the minority.

    I sympathize with you and your daughter. We do our best to provide the best for our children but sometimes there are things that we cannot control.

    Maybe it was naive for me when i first arrived here but i had this attitude of being different, being “special.”

    Our three sons are never looked at as different. The youngest sometimes is asked if he is part Latino, Italian or Arab but it doesn’t bother him.

    Maybe it is better for you to live in a cosmopolitan city where diversity is the norm and is welcome by the majority.

    Good luck!

  6. I appreciate the honesty when you said we need to “dismantle whiteness.”

    Being white, with 4 white kids, and also having grown up quite poor in Maine, this is refreshing because it actually states what most whites who care to open their eyes have known for years about the ultimate goals of those who advocate “diversity”: white skin, in of itself, is the problem and its culture, whatever that is, must be dismantled.

    Thank you for stating this explicitly. Always better when the light shines. I only wish more would be as truthful.

    Any sense of guilt, shame, etc., I have though for being a white man, that train left the station many, many years ago never to return.

  7. I think the mention of people self-segregating resonated with me the most. It’s something I’ve noticed in every state I’ve lived in, in every community. I grew up a military brat, and a am a military spouse now – things are a little different in this community because you can end up neighbors with anyone, and you need the support of the military community. Things like race and religion just don’t rank as high. Because of that, though, it’s hard to adjust to the way people are…everywhere else. Because it’s obvious.
    My childhood best friend (another military brat) and I always noticed how outside of the military community people of different races and ethnicities would keep to “their own kind” even in neighborhoods or schools that were supposed to be ‘diverse’. I grew up in a multi-ethnic household (Hispanic/white) and she’s black, and this was uncomfortable for us sometimes. Our friend groups wouldn’t naturally mingle or speak to each other. We’d try to throw mixers and people would group off and not talk to each other.
    We still see it as adults. She lives in a “diverse neighborhood” – but white kids and Hispanic kids won’t play with her black son. Some won’t even sit next to him on the bus.
    We wonder why it came so naturally to military kids living on a base to interact naturally, and play, and see each other as human, but doesn’t seem to occur anywhere else.

  8. An excellent blog post, thank you for writing this. I am not a POC but as an educator I felt that in my very white organisation I had to ensure that students were taught that POC do not have the same luxuries as white people. Through no real fault of my students own, many had little understanding of the Black Lives Matter campaign and its significance from emancipation through to the modern day. Many did not think that POC might feel intimidated by the whiteness of an area/organisation or how it might affect their lives when they do not identify with people within the area/organisation. Many white people simply do not understand this and I feel that as an educator it is vital that we do everything to ensure that students do understand it. I challenged the mantra of “I’m colour blind” and showed students the reality of this and how damaging it can be.

    Doing this came from being interested in critical race theory for my doctorate and challenging myself about the term colour blind amongst other things. I was shocked when things that were so blatant were pointed out to me and I felt that it was my duty to address them. This started first with me, then my children, then my students. I did not know it before because I have the luxury of not needing to know it. Thankfully I also have the ability to know that I can in some small help to change this.

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