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. Being a white woman who attended an all black church I understand how you feel. I was a token white who made the church look diversified when it really wasn’t. We eventually left because, although my skin tone made them look good, my whiteness was inconvenient.

  2. I am not a POC but I empathize with your daughter’s school experience a great deal. I don’t live in Maine either but in Tennessee where I am, they have a very similar attitude towards those with disabilities. I remember crying those same tears every Sunday of my fifth-grade year. It was so bad at the end that I was homeschooled through middle school. When I returned to public school for high school things weren’t much better. Every time I would raise some issue they were shocked and appalled that a disabled student would speak ill of the school many claimed was the most prepared to serve the disabled students. To your daughter, your struggle is real, valid and heard. You are stronger than then the crap they throw at you. I know you’re tired of hearing this but know that school is finite, it’s not even the middle of your story. You will go onto so much more. Adult life sucks too sometimes but you will find your allies I promise and the world will be better because your star is shining.

  3. Oops – I said that “Maine was a nice place to raise children” and I stand by this especially within the Island communities close to Portland. Many families do sacrifice a great deal – especially financially to be able to raise their children in such communities — and as well within the greater Portland area. And as a born Mainer, little perceptive and gifted “Shay” is going to manage well in this environment– particularly in one of the area’s better private schools.

    • Heidi, I think you failed to understand Duncan’s point. We all see in color but to focus on that distinction is the wrong way to address the issue. The only way we get past racial or cultural bias is to get to know people for who they are. Race is only one aspect of that. If all you were to know about me is that I’m an old white man living in the Midwest what would pop into your mind? But if you made the effort to get to know me personally and to understand my experiences you might come away with a very different impression. The author needs to do what she thinks is best for she and her children but if every POC leaves a place because of all the “whiteness” then nothing changes. We should all be thankful that Rosa Parks decided to quietly sit down in the front seat of a public transportation vehicle instead of calling for Uber.

      • See, and here’s the problem with that idea. People of color, (poc) especially black folks do not have that very luxury you are describing of being an individual…you claim that as an old white man in the Midwest, you are perhaps different than what people might think. But black folks are treated as a group and not as individuals. That’s why, in Chicago where I live, black folks are treated differently by the cops than white people. Black people in this country are paid less money to do the same job as white people. There’s a long list here of ways in which we white folks are privileged to be treated as individuals and black folks and other poc are not allowed that privilege. So to say that focusing on race is focusing on the wrong issue is just a demonstration of privilege. POC do NOT have the luxury of not thinking about being black. They are reminded every step of the way. Whether it is through lack of representation on tv, in movies, advertisement, websites, etc. where they just don’t see folks who look like them. Or when they are followed through stores because people assume they are going to steal. Or stopped by cops regularly for “driving while black.” Or even “walking while black.” I work with a bunch of black folks doing anti-racism workshops and so I spend a ton of time on these issues. What you and Duncan have said is not unusual for white folks to say. But it is steeped in privilege and is lacking in any basis in reality. I also think you should be careful when mentioning poc who are icons and civil rights activists to make your case. Because it is kind of gross to use their efforts in order to prove your case as a white guy. I can’t speak for her, but I can say that your perspective is far more representative of what white people think than than any poc I have heard speak. When you do anti-racism work long enough, the tropes that are spoken by white people in conversations about racism are fairly predictable. “I don’t see color” or “You are focusing on the wrong thing–get to know people and racism will get better” are tropes I hear regularly. Well meaning, perhaps, but misguided. And totally unrelated to reality.

      • Actually calling Uber would only have worked in Ms. Park’s case if their was a “white only ” and a “black only” Uber service available to her. The issue by having dark skin in the United States is that you are impacted by it , if, when , where , why and by whom — every time you show up with your darker skin. No white skinned person in the United States is impacted only because of skin color ! The issue here – seen over and over again in these comments -is that white people can neither accept nor acknowledge this reality !

      • Indeed.

        Also, it makes me wonder that the girl was fine in the “whitest” little town before, moved to a bigger city, joined a new school and THEN she started doing worse at school. Because her teachers are white. Uhummm.. ok..

        and the other black students/ immigrants do not talk to others (even her)… What is wrong with that picture? These students are alienating themselves. It’s not the white kids that are ostracizing them.

        And “dismantling whiteness”? Why does it need to be an attack of a different skin color?

  4. When you identify cultural homogeneity, you identify a problem. When you identify racial homogeneity, you identify a racist. My advice to you is stop seeing in color, and rise above your daily challenges. Good luck.

  5. This post resonates with me on so many levels. As a public school teacher, I definitely know what it is to tire of being the only one, to not be seen as a whole person, and worse, to feel (as I used to, but NO longer) that I have to hide parts of myself so that others will accept me. It’s not that the white folks in education specifically asked me to, and in their minds, since they didn’t, they didn’t do anything wrong. The tragedy is that the system and status quo that they uphold normalizes whiteness and others everything else. I am literally the only AP English Literature teacher in my entire region that serves most of the black and brown kids in my district. It follows that I am the only black one. I am also one of the most highly educated in my content area (because that’s how we do it). So, folks have started expecting me to spread my knowledge and expertise (for free) by advising middle management, and facilitating workshops etc. to teach their under qualified people my “recipe for success” with black and brown kids. I put up a fuss and got a little stipend. This was a band-aid, not a solution. My district went through a very public show of recruiting teachers of color a year or so ago in response to an 80-page report outlying all the ways the district is not serving its black students and staff. Almost every single one of the people I know who came from out of state left for exactly the reasons you lined out in your post. The sad part? Nobody tried to stop them from leaving. They had served their very public purpose.

    What you see as “fake diversity” is rampant. It has existed in every district I’ve worked in, and I’ve worked in 3. The real danger is that it allows those who think they are truly fighting for educational equity (if not revolution) to become complacent. My daughter is going to an IB school in a “Whitopia” and she’s managed to find acceptance and comfort with her group of diverse friends. She has many LGBTQ, bi-racial, Native, and Latinx friends, but she tells me that a lot of the other black kids don’t want to stand out, so they don’t go out of their way to befriend her. This is the consequence of a system that promotes that type of dysfunctional social interaction and contorts the minds, and spirits of our young people. This is what I experience as the #onlyblackalways in most professional settings. This is the way we fail at disrupting the system. This is the way we oppress each other: with subtle social queues, the “types” of people we include or reject, uplift, or oppresses, listen to, or force to remain silent.

  6. Great post. I too believe we can do better than “tolerate”: how about “accept” or even, gasp, celebrate? Let’s celebrate difference.

  7. Thank you for your article. I am a White woman with White daughters. As an educator, I love to develop world citizens, help students become more aware of the world. In the low-income environments where I typically work, this is especially needed. I love helping students see that the whole world is not like them, no matter who they are.

    What has this got to do with your article? My daughters ended up at an Independent boarding and day school (they were day students) – the students were from all over the world. Imagine the accents, the languages spoken, the varieties of skin tones, the different perspectives, traditions, etc., they became exposed to – especially interesting in HIstory classes, discussing, for example, the Viet Nam War with their Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese classmates . This particular school sought to find the gift in each student, which also helped nurture a respect for differences.

    If this sounds like something you are looking for, you may want to look at Independent schools with particularly diverse student populations. They often have scholarship money if financial aid is needed. Otherwise, living in a diverse community, such as San Jose, CA, is another option.

  8. If you decide to pursue the private, aiming to be progressive, school in Portland, I am here now as a parent, as I have been for the past nearly four years now. The education is thoughtful, some of the teachers are wonderful. However. And its a pretty big however, and I’m surely not telling you anything you don’t already know. You will be dealing with a white neoliberal population here, and there is a particular kind of insidiousness this will bring to your and your families life as well. I have often thought that the self destructiveness of white folks here in Maine, that lately manifests in addiction and early death, is particularly about Whiteness, but thats a whole other discussion. What I mean to share with you is that many of the very well educated white people here are very much, as in most all other places in liberal America, still of course walking around thinking they are White. If there is to be a dismantling of Whiteness here, it hasn’t truly started. And, the white neoliberalism that is in direct alignment with capitalism and survival of the ‘fittest’ has also yet to be dismantled. So this is the particular kind of work that needs to be done here, work I am in no way suggesting you take on, but letting you know its here. And again, I’m here, and it would be amazing to have you join if you decide to enroll your child. The school would be lucky.

  9. Diversity isn’t the goal; we must do better

    Your article “Diversity isn’t the Goal: we must do better” resonated with me as it mirrors my 32 plus years of living and raising young black men in this oh so white state. I moved here over 32 years ago because I married a man whose job was here. I have always been an educated independent black woman so I thought, of course, I can handle living in a place that has so few people of color. At first, I even joked about how when we left the state there would be no black people left. But over time the joke became no joke at all. The simplest things; getting my hair done or finding black hair care products became a big production that intailed ether traveling to somewhere out of state and stocking up on hair supplies when I found them. Finally just cutting my hair so short that I didn’t have to deal with the issues became the answer to my hair problem. I had grown up in a middle-class black community and my father was active in the civil rights movement so I am used to interacting with those of a different race. What I was not prepared for was the fact that so many “white Mainer” did not know how to dealing with educated independent me. They questioned my hair, dress, career and the fact that when they ask to speak to the person in change that person was me. When we had kids all the issues we faced multiplied. It is one thing to constantly have my culture, self, questioned it is another to see it happen to my children. We worked to exposes our sons to the arts. We value education and monitored their schools. But at every turn, we faced a public system that did not understand or value our sons. When there were problems at school, they questioned why we expected so much, after all, they were well behaved what more did we want. When they grew older and began to try on different ways to express their black identity, their mear presence was seen as threating. They changed from happy, caring, self-assured young children to depressed and angry young men. One of my sons said to me one day that we had no right, bringing up black boys in Maine. It was not until that moment that I took stock of the tole this society has taken on my sons. They had to grow up in a place that did not understand or value their history, culture, or identity. They had to spend their childhood explaining and defending who they are. Whenever there was an issue of race or black history they had the burden of explaining and often defending their race and identity, much too heavy a burden for any child. When they dreamed big and want to try new things (dance, theater, music, art, or creative writing) there were those who didn’t think that young black boys could do that. Sure, it was alright to bounce a ball, be a track and soccer star but not alright to dance ballet or write poetry. This state robbed my children of the right to be comfortable with their own identity. My failure to see how the absence of a supportive community of color would have helped to insolate them from these social pressures and help buffer them from the feeling of being so devalued and alone hunts me to this day. Each of my sons struggles to make his way in this society that devalues them. My husband and I try our best to offer what support we can. But if I am honest, it is an uphill battle. I am tired and if I could turn back the clock I don’t think I would have raided my sons here in Maine. The toll it has taken on them and us is just too great.

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