Prior to the last 29 years in which I have been a high school Latin teacher, I served 8 years as an ordained clergyman. My entrance into Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1981 introduced me to many things, but it signaled for me my entrance into a life long call to engage social justice issues. Put as simply as I can, these “issues” are all those things about human life together that divide, hinder, prevent and obstruct every member of society from getting what they need to survive and thrive. So, for this white man, that has meant being schooled in issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty and wealth, education, religion, language and culture. I continue to be schooled and to look for schooling–that is, for ways to understand better and embrace more deeply the wild and wonderful variety of life on this earth.
A few years ago, I was spending a Saturday morning involved in a training focused on racial and cultural issues created primarily for a white community grappling with its own experience of privilege and ignorance about other communities and how or whether we could envision something larger, something more genuine.
Other communities. Something more genuine.
One of the facilitators at that training was a woman whom I’ve come to think of as one of my elders and mentors, Dr. Debra Greenwood. She is an African American woman, a PhD in nursing, a business owner, a community leader, and wise woman whose voice of wisdom helps me see beyond my privilege and ignorance. I remember little of the rest of the training that day, but at one point she asked us to stop using the word “diversity.”
What? What is wrong with the word diversity? Before I could even begin to parse the Latin roots in my head (diversitas = contradiction, difference; divertere = to part, to go different ways, to separate) she said this: diversity focuses on differences, and while no one will deny that any group of people have differences, when in this culture built on white privilege we talk about diversity, we are invariably talking about–whether you are aware of it or not–the people who are different from the white starting place. Diversity becomes a conversation about those people who are different by those who consider themselves “normal.” That hit me like a kick in the stomach. While I wanted to object, I knew in a deeper place that she was right. It was not just about what the word and its Latin roots mean. It had as much if not more to do with our experience in this American culture that presumes the experience of white people, mostly white male people, mostly white, heterosexual, male people as the norm and everyone else as different and “less.”
I immediately wanted something to replace the word “diversity” as I continued to grapple with what she had just said to us (I continue to grapple with what that means). “What’s a better word when we want to talk about all this work we are doing,” I remember asking her. She didn’t blink. “Multi-cultural.” That word begins in a different place. It’s beginning place is the acknowledgment that we all belong to human communities that are made up of many cultures, perspectives, orientations, formations and life experiences. Multiculturalism also implies a future, maybe even a future hope–that what is “normal,” what is expected in human community is a wild and wonderful set of differences all of which can be celebrated by everyone even when they don’t belong to everyone, differences that don’t begin as cast off of some monolithic group. Ultimately, diversity may be a thing we can talk about, but it can’t be our starting place, not while white supremacy is still at the core of every one of our institutions and organizations.
I found this expression of the two terms from the blog Hybrid Parenting:
Diversity is defined as the differences between people. Diversity can be real or perceived differences between people. These differences include but are not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socioeconomic status. In a diverse world, people acknowledge the differences that exist among individuals.
Multiculturalism is more complex than simply noticing the diversity or differences that exist in society. Multiculturalism focuses on being inclusiveness, understanding, respecting, and acknowledging unequal power in society. Furthermore, people are aware of the advantages or disadvantages of being a particular, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or socioeconomic status is society. In a multicultural world, people accept and embrace the differences of others into their lives.
My hope for myself is to replace the white privilege perspective that I have been formed in all my life with this ability to embrace the differences of others into my life. Until that becomes my default, it is work, hard work which I owe to the world while I live in it.