Diversity. It’s become a hot button topic at our school heard so often it’s almost as redundant as sustainability. It’s something we need, something that people realize is important, but actually incorporating it into our classrooms, our meetings, our day-to-day lives—that’s a different story. And the big problem, as Emily Drew pointed out in her lecture “White Out? The Future of Oregon’s Racial Diversity” is that our definition of diversity is largely unclear.
As Professor Drew pointed out, we love our celebrations of diversity: our food festivals and luaus and (insert culture here) days. But when it comes down to discussing the real struggles that we face, when it comes time to listen to the real stories of people who struggle with culture shock and adversity—the very topics she addressed in her lecture—a whopping seven students show up to listen.
I’m not here to chastise anyone; rather, I’d just like to clarify what we talk about when we talk about diversity. And in all reality, diversity should be a celebration—but it should never be just that.
Here’s where I differ in opinion from Professor Drew. She used the blanket term “potluck” to refer to a reduction of culture to something we bring to the table without the context of the difficulties of the past and present that still lurk beneath the surface.
I actually think of the way we view diversity as a buffet instead. We pick and choose which elements of which cultures we want to incorporate into our own lives. We sample the goods and richness of others, piling them onto our plate with no regard for origins or relevance. We see this in casual assumptions and stereotypes of “Hawaiians,” in our mimicry of accents, in the colloquial use of the n-word. We take what we want and leave the rest.
But at a potluck, things can be different. At a Christmas party years back, my Aunty Y made this broken glass Jell-o—pieces of colored fruity gelatin suspended in creamy white Jell-o. It was so good. But after she offered me some she sat down, and I had to listen to an entire story about how difficult it was to make, and did it turn out right? She hoped so. It was a lot of work but she thought she’d try even though she was getting old, she said. Of course, my 14-year old self was more concerned with eating, and I just wanted to be left alone.
I look back on that night, though, as a turning point in my life, a night where I learned to appreciate the effort and care of others that we so often forget. It was a piece of Jell-o, yet it’s stuck with me for what, seven years now? And it’s because when we typically attend potlucks, a lot of times we’re not concerned with how hard everyone worked to bring food to the table, the story behind the food, or even who brought it.
But when we do sit through that telling, however awkward and uncomfortable, we emerge with something so much more valuable than a piece of Jell-o. We emerge with a deeper understanding of the world around us, of the strength and goodness of others, of our own lack of perspective.
So what does diversity mean to me? It’s broken glass Jell-o. It’s a bunch of different flavors mixed together to make something even sweeter. It’s enjoying and celebrating what we have to offer each other, but also learning about the struggles that went into that mix, how other people perceive the world, and how they’ve worked to overcome the prejudices that challenge us all. Diversity shouldn’t be a voiceless buffet, but a potluck of sharing and listening and learning. Celebrations are great, but let’s not forget the reasons we have to celebrate and all the factors that play into how the food that tastes so good ends up on that table.