I heard my friends Katie and Dave come in from their night out. We share a co-op babysitting arrangement with them; saves a bundle on sitters. “Steven, we were talking over dinner about something, and I want your thoughts,” Katie said. She paused, a little flushed and agitated. “It is about diversity. Of course we are committed to diversity. We believe it is good for our kids. But… sometimes we’re not clear about why, exactly, it is inherently such a great thing. Don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important,” she added carefully, “I just want to be clear about why. True, our kids know many people of different races, but even small children seem to segregate themselves – even kindergartners! Don’t city kids saturated in diversity experience first-hand the danger and crime and ugly behavior that can bolster racial stereotypes? If my daughter actually sees young black men who are gangbangers, couldn’t that cause her to fear them all the more?”
I pondered her concerns and questions. These were not the rantings of a fearful person, a closet racist, or someone searching for an excuse to escape to a safer place. This is an intelligent couple committed to living and raising their family in the city, committed to thinking, and some of our best friends. Diversity. I appreciated their conscious examination of such a pervasive buzzword – blindly accepted as a universal good, unnecessary of scrutiny or examination. How brave and honest, I thought, for them to challenge this unchallengeable concept. Who would ever dare ask if diversity is a really a virtue? As I tried to address her questions, in the stew of concerns and fears, jargon and critical thinking, one word rose to the surface of my mind.
One reason why diversity is valuable, I believe, is that it is what I would call “authentic.” I want my children to be in the city because they are surrounded by that which is authentic, real, and complete. Ugly? Sometimes. Unpredictable? Always. In upscale suburbia – where I spent my childhood – diversity meant that some of my friends were Catholic. In most of suburbia – and some upscale city neighborhoods – predictability and stability are the goals. Almost everywhere, though always touted as a virtue, diversity is discouraged in practice because it brings with it less stability. Most upscale suburban whites, I suspect, would not object to greater ethnic variety in their communities if they could be confident that these newcomers would be in line with their cultural values and economic level, that crime would not increase or property values decrease. These communities place high value on controlling their environment, in fashioning their communities into a stable, homogenous settings where people feel safe. One of the problems with this approach, I would argue, is that it is not authentic. I should add here that my interest is not to bash the suburbs, which has been done so often it has ceased to be very interesting to me. The city is not the only place where diversity can be found and my intention is not to make anyone feel guilty about where they live. For us, it is simply the place nearest at hand where diversity is most welcomed and celebrated.
So what do I mean by authenticity? Why is diversity more authentic that homogeny? Since people tend to naturally segregate themselves, isn’t this actually the more “authentic” pattern? True, self-segregation often comes naturally to us, but this doesn’t mean it is more authentic. Humans do many things that “come naturally” that are destructive and artificial. As I think of it, authenticity has to do with seeing and understanding things as they truly are, or, perhaps more to the point, as God sees the world. It is seeing through God’s eyes that is the real challenge. So this is why diversity is more authentic: because the human family, among the other species with which we share the planet, contains almost limitless variation. An environment that discourages this variation is artificial, dishonest in its expression of the world. It is well known that in nature and agriculture, the more diversity a place contains, the healthier and more in-balance it remains. Monoculture is always unhealthy to a place. It is unhealthy to children living in housing projects and unhealthy to those living in suburban opulence. To raise children in a monoculture gives them an impression of the world that is false. It is simply too narrow a picture. And in America at least, this diversity will increasingly become the norm, the world they will inherit.
Despite its advantages, one of the biggest pitfalls of the suburban childhood – or adulthood, for that matter – is that this lack of authenticity encourages abstraction in our understanding of those different from us. People of other races or economic brackets are only understood in generalized, artificial, or stereotypical ways. How could it be otherwise? Since I never had even one black friend, what were my ways of understanding African-Americans? Arnold and Willis Jackson; the hometown sports demi-god, Michael Jordon; movies and news reports of drive-by-shooting gangbangers in the foreboding inner city? Were these images in any sense complete or real? Where my brother’s jokes and flamboyant impersonations of a gay hairstylist an adequate portrayal of homosexuals? Did they prepare me to befriend my neighbor John, to welcome him into my home and, without hesitation, enter his?
Incidentally, this lack of authenticity is pervasive and reinforced daily. It extends to what we eat: for example, the false notion that any Taco Bell drive-up menu item has the slightest resemblance to anything genuinely Mexican. It extends to where we travel: Hop a jet to Epcot Center and receive the sense that we have been exposed to the world. What’s the big deal? You might ask. The big deal, I suggest, is that as a nation we are choosing falsehood over authenticity because it is simply more convenient. You can only defend Taco Bell if you have never eaten the real thing. You can only defend flavorless supermarket tomatoes until you’ve eaten one you grew yourself, vine ripe and warmed from the sun. Authenticity. Americans are strongly committed to the notion of the melting pot, as long as we can dip our finger in, get a little taste, and remain in the safety of our home, our neighborhood, our SUV. Or even more convenient, bring a facsimile out to our strip mall and we can have the sense of genuineness at the drive up window, 24-7.
The only black man we ever had in our home – aside from occasional repairmen – was a man who worked in my father’s factory. One winter during a bad snowstorm he was unable to get home to the south side and he stayed with us overnight. How did he feel eating and sleeping in the home of his wealthy white boss? Had he ever had white folks to his home? I don’t say this to condemn my parents. I am proud of the honorable and generous way my father treated and still treats his employees. My parents simply followed societal norms: we spend time and become friends with those we know, those that are like us. The rub comes when we live segregated from one another, because we never get the opportunity to learn that we are more alike than different. Having that man stay in our house was a highly unusual, exciting night for me; as a young boy, it was so completely beyond my world. My hope is that this sort of thing would be normal for my children, that they would grow up accustomed to spending time with all sorts of people.
Why is this so important? Because, in an absence of knowing specific people that are different from ourselves, we settle for generalities and caricatures. Consequently, if as adults we choose to live in a diverse community, we have a lot of reeducation to undergo. My wife and I are just beginning our schooling. There is a running joke we share, which she just relayed in church this week during a service on prejudice. Each time we go to the park, we are surrounded with children of every color, stripe, religion, and language. Knowing that these are the sorts of kids our children will befriend and eventually – gasp – even date, we are confronted head-on with our own racism, like a silent virus moving under the surface of our skin and lives and ideals. We love the idea of diversity; it is the practice that doesn’t come naturally. Though we’ve chosen to live here precisely because we don’t want the white bread experience of the suburbs and small town in which we grew up, God has been gently scraping away the scaly layers of fears and wrong-headed notions which have built up silently over years, like corrosion on the inside of pipes that is never noticed until you try to run clean water through them.
The joke is that, time and again, the park kids have exhibited uncommon kindness, respect, and even affection for our small children. Two older Mexican boys gently helping our toddler up onto the jungle gym, a black boy saying “pardon me” as he passes by, saried Pakistani girls smiling and sharing the swings. The list goes on and on, and it has never failed. Our irrational suspicions are eroding day by day as these kids demonstrate a kindness that I don’t remember from the kids of my youth, including myself. It is Acts 10 all over again – God showing Peter that his ideas of who could be part of the club were far too small and limited.
Of course we know this city is not a wonderland of peace and kindness. I don’t mean to romanticize its rough edges. This has just been our experience so far. Will our ideals remain when someone of a different race does not treat our children or us very well? Perhaps even victimizes us? Will we get to know our Mexican and black and Indian and old and gay neighbors? (Did I mention this is also one of the largest gay neighborhoods in Chicago?) As our kids begin at the neighborhood public school, will our home be open to the friends they make? Will they help our children learn Spanish and ours help them with their English? Will we shudder with fear if one day our teenage daughter tells us of the black boy who has asked her to a school dance? I have no glib answers to any of these questions — only hopes and aspirations. We’ve begun our training. Faith grows when we allow God to stretch our boundaries, like our muscles being torn and built up as we exercise them. Conversely, faith withers and shrinks when we remain in stagnant places devoid of risk and challenge and even pain. All I can say with certainty, and I say it only by faith, is that we will continue to stretch beyond comfort. We have a goal in sight that we believe is worthy of our pursuit. And despite the many risks, we believe that our kids will emerge from their childhoods with greater compassion, an appreciation of that which is authentic, and a genuine color-blindness that we, their parents, are still struggling to embrace.
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