Posted in Inclusive Language, social justice

Writing and Talking About Non-Binary People in Latin

I was asked recently what to do about those who identify themselves to us as non-binary people as we work with them both speaking and writing in Latin. Whether it’s our aim or not, I find increasingly that students want to talk and write about themselves both in class and outside of class. I am delighted at how often students tell me that they text each other in Latin, routinely.  I’ve seen some conversations in various places about this aspect of inclusive language in Latin.  I don’t recall any sort of firm conclusion about what to do in a language where nouns and adjectives are all grammatically labelled “masculine, feminine, or neuter.”

I see some immediate considerations to ponder about the language and about what we do with all this in a classroom.

  1. Grammar. Most of us have learned our grammar, even our Latin grammar, in English, and the English meaning of things has warped our sense of it all. For example. What do we all think id means in Latin?  It, right? Except that’s the English equivalent we give to it, and in English, it is specifically an unknown thing and almost always a non-human thing. It seems insulting to reference a human being as “it.”  And it is.  But does id really mean exactly what it does? Id, like illud, hoc, and istud all reference a noun that is neither masculine nor feminine. A flumen is not an unknown thing but is neither masculine nor feminine by category. A human corpus and cor and cerebrum are all facets of being human, but none of them are masculine or feminine by category.
  2. Gender. Of words. We’ve probably all made some sort of statement (or heard it made which means we carry it around with us) that when we talk about the gender of a noun, we are not talking about human sexuality. It’s just a grammar category. And that’s true, when it is, but at times it is directly referencing human sexual identification. The issue of the gender of words in Latin is that it DOES reference human sexuality when those words are human identifiers and the rest of the time it most often does not reference human sexuality. There is nothing particularly manly about a flos or womanly about virtus but flower is by category masculine and courage by category is feminine. However, a mulier is feminine and references human sexuality as is vir masculine doing the same. There are many Latin words that reference human beings who are men and boys and those words are categorized as masculine and many more that reference women and girls which are categorized as feminine. Every once in a while a word referencing human beings comes along like infans and it is categorized as being either masculine or feminine because the world view of the people speaking this language included that babies could be either masculine or feminine. In addition to that cultural expectation are words (often adjectives) that are meant to describe all human beings or a group of human beings of different genders. The grammarians taught us that those are always masculine. That’s called patriarchy, and that’s another blog post.
  3. Neuter. This is really a wonderful word which often makes me wonder if the cultural experience of those speaking Latin historically didn’t somehow anticipate what human beings already knew about themselves on some level: that we are way more complex than any attempt to categorize us into just two options. Again, problematically, we reduce neuter to “neuter” in English which means no reference to sex–as in neutered, having sexual organs removed. But, that’s not what neuter means.  It means neither, as in neither masculine or feminine. That strikes me as a powerful idea to bring to the forefront if we want to talk about non-binary human beings.

I teach with Comprehensible Input as my framework, so I have absolutely no problem giving students English (or other L1) equivalents when I am introducing new words to them in Latin.  I do think, though, that we can do a better job of fleshing out the possibilities when we give them L1 equivalents. Take, for example, the word carmen. It’s easy to say that this word means song and move on with our story or reading. But, carmen is a much richer and more mysterious word than “song.” It can mean song.  And poem.  And incantation (yes, Hermione, as in a magical spell). And prayer. It’s worth the time, in my opinion, when we introduce a word so rich in meaning that we take some time to help our students sit with the possibilities.  How is it that the same word can mean song, poem, magical spell, and prayer? Are those things related?  Would they have been for Romans?  Could they be now? Then, a little more musing about what kinds of contexts might evoke any one of those meanings and then we can go back to our story or reading.

So, Sam is in your Latin class, and at some point early on, Sam let’s you know that they identify as non-binary. Sam let’s you know that their pronouns are they/them. Sam also wants to know how that works in Latin. I can imagine several responses which, for me, teaching in 2020, would be unacceptable.

Possible Responses:

  1. Sorry. Latin just doesn’t have any pronouns that will work like that.  I mean, there are words used for “they” but they require a plural verb and you would just be confusing people all the time.
  2. I see on my roster that your given name is Samantha (or Samuel), and so we will just use feminine (or masculine) pronouns for you in Latin.
  3. Most of the time in class when I’m speaking Latin, I refer to you all as a group of discipuli and that’s always going to be masculine, so no worries.

The problem with these responses is that while they feature something that grammars support, they are the kinds of responses that place grammar rules over people. That’s always a problem, as I see it, since grammar rules are meant to aid in communication and understanding of language. These sorts of responses turn what are nothing more than observations about patterns of language into restrictions about how human beings can communicate or need to communicate in order to be well heard, well understood and well received.

What can we come up with?

I will share here my thoughts about how we might respond to Sam and what patterns of language we might use when speaking or writing about non-binary human beings. I am not setting up rules but rather sharing an idea about how to respond to real people who do show up in my (and our) Latin classes. Because of a modern culture that is becoming increasingly more accepting of the complexity and variety of human genders and gender identities, students are also going to be more likely to tell us these things about themselves. They have always been in our classrooms, but they have not always been free to think aloud about themselves, much less willing or able to share such information with their teachers and classmates.  We are there now, and Sam wants to know how to refer to themself in Latin.

I am looking to the idea of nouns and adjectives being neither masculine or feminine, i.e. neuter as a way of expression in Latin. Here is how I imagine doing it whether I am having a conversation in class (one ONLY in which Sam has been very open with not only me but the class about identifying as non-binary) or with a character in a story that I create as a representation of someone who identifies as non-binary. Turning to the categorization of neuter beautifully comes with the idea of neither this nor that–in other words, neuter exists to defy binary categories. Immediately, in Latin, that means that we might use adjectives in the neuter, neuter pronouns and neuter participles in place of first and second declension nouns where that makes sense. Consider something like this:

Comites, apud nos est Sam, et Sam iam nobis dixit id nec masculinum nec femininum esse, certe? Sam est discens bonum et vult Latine de se dicere. Lingua Latina, vocabula habemus vocata feminina, masculina et neutra. Possumus Sam describere vocabulis neutris.  Exempli gratia Sam est altum statura. Sam est intelligens. Sam picturas pulchras pingit (I chose to write this rather than Sam est pictor/artifex qui . . . ). 

In any language where we are trying to recognize what people tell us about their experience of themselves as people who are non-binary, we have to practice making choices about the language we use. Using neuter adjectives, participles and pronouns in Latin for such people is not standard Latin practice. I know that. It is also an idea that I am beginning to think about and experiment with. I am sure that there are road blocks I have not encountered that my offering here will not solve.  For example, I often use the word discipuli when referring to the class. I want to do better in general terms of not always referring to a mixed group with masculine terms, and it allows me to introduce them to comites which is common gendered and evokes the lovely idea of  travelling companions in the classroom. How, though, do I refer to one student who has made in known that they are non-binary? That’s when it occurred to me to use a present participle: discens, a learner. Smith and Hall’s lexicon acknowledges it as an alternative for discipulus, though it also acknowledges that it is not found in the nominative singular. That’s a line I am willing to cross since discens is a form that anyone reading Latin would recognize at the very least as “learning, one who learns.” I do think that it is a practice of taking advantage of neuter adjectives, pronouns and participles accomplishes two things at once:

  1. It tips its hat toward long standing features of the language (that there are words categorized as NEITHER masculine nor feminine)
  2. It is a way of honoring what students and colleagues who speak and write Latin tell us about themselves.

If you have come up with ways in Latin to represent people who are non-binary, I’d love to hear about them. You can post a comment to this blog (which only I will see), and if it generates enough discussion, I’ll write a follow up.

Bob Patrick

Posted in social justice

It’s After Midnight: Lines and Circles

There should be no doubt that we are living in a time, certainly in the US, but also in the world where human beings are more apt to draw lines as a way of being in the world. We draw lines between political parties and even within political parties. We say directly or indirectly are you with us or them?  Are you with me or against me? We say to those who have rattled us–you’ve stepped across the line. I’m deleting/blocking you.  We walk around with a boundary that we expected everyone to respect but which we never make known until the offense is committed. How dare you step across my line?

The drawing of a line has long been done with skin tones. I listened to an African American minister preaching recently (Pastor Voddie Bauchman). He passionately dispelled the notion that there was more than one race. He proclaimed that “there is only one race descended from Adam and Eve, and it is the human race.” He went on to articulate that our DNA is 99.8% the same across all human beings, and that skin color is a product of melanin reacting to environment.  He closed, humorously by saying: “And don’t you dare for one minute think that God loves me more just because I got more melanin than you!”  All of that to try and undo this horrible line that as been drawn around ethnicities and skin tones in order to elevate the lighter skin tone of Europeans as the right side of the line, and historically to draw the line between free and enslaved human beings in the US. The result of that line has created quite literally a nation, if not a world of trauma and trouble. We draw lines between genders and gender identities–the “right ones and the wrong” ones (and sometimes we even say those words!).  We draw red lines around neighborhoods where banks won’t lend money or won’t lend money at a good rate to People of Color. We draw lines around students, those who “can” and those who “can’t.”  We draw lines around our curricula using words for Honors on one side of the line and “regular” or some other designation on the other side of the line.

Line drawing is simple, and it is easy. Line drawing gives the drawer of the line the immediate sense of accomplishment, some sort of emotional safety and often mental superiority. So, it’s easy to see why we fall into this bad habit of creating binary thinking.  It’s easy to do and it has an immediate feel good. Never mind that it is also too often simplistic, not accounting for the complexities that are always associated with being human and living in and creating and maintaining communities. Too often (always?) line drawing results in disastrous, deadly and what we can call evil outcomes. That is because drawing a line too often reduces the complex to something it is not.

What, then, to do? Stop drawing lines? I would like to stop drawing lines, and I get suckered into line drawing like everyone else (remember, easy with feel good outcomes). I need an alternative. The more I reflect on it, the more I am convinced that we also have another kind of drawing that we use and have experience with.  The circle. Drawing circles in human relations is, I think, also a natural thing. We sit around tables to eat. We gather around campfires to stay warm, to roast good things to eat, to tell stories. We create reading circles both with little ones just learning to read and among ourselves which we call “book clubs.” Many of us set up our classrooms in some form of a circle because we know that it just changes the dynamics of the room. And that’s a good place to observe: when a classroom is set up with line drawing (straight rows in perfect angles) it’s largely about keeping control over those in the room and ease of things for the teacher. When a classroom is set up as a circle, it puts every student equidistant (mostly) from the action and gives them immediate access to what’s going on.  It also is messier to maintain and invites more noise than the straight line classroom.

Imagine this, if you will. (I wish I were capable of the graphics that I am asking you to imagine). You’ve drawn a line over some issue. Along comes someone who is with you on most things, but differs about one thing. After some consideration, you decided to bend the line just enough to include this person because largely they agree with you, and, over time, their differing idea becomes helpful. So, your line has a curve in it at one point. This happens several more times. Individuals come along, largely seeing things your way, but with some differences. Each time, even with a struggle, you relent and redraw the line to include them. After a while, you no longer have a straight line.  IN fact, if this keeps happening, you will end up with a circle.

My own experience is that inviting people into a circle, which means allowing them in (because I started out as a line drawer who has the power of allowing, right) with their differences, results in finding that all their experiences combined end up being far more like mine than not.  What goes around comes around. I thought you were so different, but you and I really are alike.

Both line drawing and circle drawing are things that we human beings do. I think that line drawing is really about emergencies, when we feel danger, fear, terror, when traumas are revisited. They work for the line drawer in creating a temporary experience of safety. Line drawing, however, over the long haul becomes a new form of trauma making. Circle drawing is the basis of creating community. It is challenged in the midst of a threat and may fall apart, but long term the circle is essential for human relations that are just, that respect the dignity of every person.

I belong to a community that likes the motto: No one is outside the circle of love. I have to tell you that some days I’m not so sure.  I “want” that to be true, but is it, really? I end up with something like this: We have created this circle over here. We’ve just opened it up and made a place for you.  Do you want to be in our circle?  If you do, we welcome you, and we are all willing to move and shift around so that you belong in the circle, too. Someone might say:  hell, no! I don’t want to be in your circle! And, I would have to respect their wishes. Unless, of course, I take that person’s choice as a threat somehow and I jump up out of my circle and draw a line and say–you can’t talk that way to us!  You aren’t welcome here! New, unnecessary line, new trauma, more troubles.

We have been drawing lines in human history and in this country for a long time.  It’s way past midnight on that score. Line drawing doesn’t work for the long haul.

Circles are really the way communities work best.  And they are messy.  They are constantly changing and re-configuring in order to make more room for others. They require work. They must be tended by everyone in them or they cease to be circles. I keep going back to pre-school and early grades circles. I think there are many reasons why teachers of very small children choose to put them in circles but at least one of them is this: it’s hard to lose a child when they are sitting in a circle.

It’s time to stop losing folks.

Bob Patrick

In the search for truth, may we be just; in the search for justice may we be loving; and in loving may we find peace. 

Elizabeth McMaster

Posted in social justice

It’s Way Past Midnight–What Kind of Community Do You Want?

What kind of community do you want? I am coming to think that this may be one of the most important questions that we can ask ourselves and discuss with each other.

As our nation is openly cracking apart on many sides (this has been happening for a while now) and it’s not clear if we will recover, what kind of national community do we want?

Our classics organizations are having to reexamine their very roots and core of meaning. That’s never easy, and doing something that plummets us so deep into the essence of an organization (yes, that’s a fancy word for community) makes it unclear whether we will come out the other side of that process renewed or finished. (One thing is clear to me. If we come out of the process unchanged, we will be finished.)

Our classrooms ought to be open invitation to all kinds of learners, but when that begins to happen to white teachers (the vast majority of us are white) we cannot demand that a cosmopolitan assembly of students in our classroom form an otherwise white community. That’s actually what we have done for generations, and it has created exclusive tiny enclaves of what students and white teachers studying “the classics.” What kind of community do we really want our classrooms to be?

These times are filled with fear, anger, sadness, depression and pains and wounds that we don’t even have words for. What kind of a community do you want?

We belong to many different communities all at once. Some are religious.  Some institutional and subsets of institutions. Some are professional. Some are built out of neighborhoods that we live in. I wouldn’t do the list justice if I tried to be exhaustive. You understand.  Each of us belongs to many different communities. As a teacher and as a professor who teaches teachers, I also want to be very clear that classrooms can be communities. I think they ought to be communities. Too many classrooms at various levels never become communities.  They begin and remain space for information exchange where the power sits in the hands, mind and mouth of one person. Creating community out of a classroom requires work. In fact, all communities that not only survive but thrive require work.

They require work either to create them or to renew them–like classical associations that have been in existence for generations, maybe even centuries. What ties all of this together is this: when we begin to talk about the kind of community we want, we begin to articulate what will become the guiding principles of such communities. Some communities may express their guiding principles with “rules.”  I would suggest that behind the rules are the implicit principles.  This is common in religious communities. For example: in this community we do not eat XYZ food.  Behind that rule is an implied principle: we don’t eat XYZ food in order to honor the sacred as we experience it in our midst. So, the guiding principle is “honoring the sacred as we experience it in our midst.” Once we see the principle behind the rule, we begin to see that communities of many kinds share some common principles. One religious community honors the sacred by not eating a certain food, another by offering prayers at a certain time of day, another by acts of compassion to others, and so on. The same can happen across other kinds of communities, but we have to ask the question, actively, out loud, regularly. What kind of community to do we want to be? However we answer those questions establishes in some way or another, directly or indirectly, a set of principles of community. Here’s the kick. We are answering that question whether we do it actively and out loud or not. We can (and do) gather in our communities silently and implicitly saying at every gathering–this is the kind of community we want. Over the years, I have cultivated in myself the practice of looking at any gathering I join, and I ask myself: is this the kind of community we want?  I see a sea of white faces, older faces, male faces.  Is this the kind of community we want? It’s certainly, right now, at this gathering, the kind of community we are silently proclaiming.

As any of us begin to describe that community we want, the principles will be articulated. Each person with a stake in a particular community who answers the question will add substance or nuance to those principles. If a beginning or renewing community takes careful note in these conversations they can have in hand, very quickly, the guiding principles of their community.

We who belong to the various communities of classicists can ask the question as a means of renewal. To be such an educated bunch, we have subscribed to and perpetuated some really ignorant and harmful stuff in our past around racism, gender and gender identity issues, ableism and socio-economics. After we own that past and offer sorrow for that past, what sort of community do we want to be? That strikes me as a most exciting, most important, most soul-supporting conversation that we could possibly have.

I invite you to ponder this question.  I invite the leaders of SCS, CAMWS, ACL, CAAS, and CANE as well as local and state associations to find a way to set up this conversation among your members. What kind of community do you want to be? Invite all the voices with interest to answer the question. Take copious and careful notes. Write a charter–a renewing charter for a new day in your organization.

For now, let’s be clear: it’s way past midnight on these issues. What sort of community do you want? I would love to hear how you answer the question, so I invite two kinds of responses here in the comment section of the blog. What kind of classroom community do you want?  What kind of classics organization community do you want?  You can answer either or both, just make it clear what you are answering. None of the comments will actually show up, but  I’ll gather all of them and offer a follow up post based on what you say while keeping your names anonymous. What kind of community do you want?

Bob Patrick

In the search for truth, may we be just; in the search for justice may we be loving; and in loving may we find peace.  Elizabeth McMaster

Posted in social justice

It’s Way Past Midnight

The original post that appeared here was a call for better community among classicists and in particular, a call to the American Classical League to take certain measures that would help us all be better community.

As of today, the ACL has issued it’s Follow Up to its Call to Solidarity. This is a strong statement that will, if followed, satisfy what I was hoping for. Therefore, I have removed the original post, and I am grateful to all those who contributed to the end result in this statement.

Bob Patrick



Posted in social justice

Latin and “Western Civilization”

In one way or another, various organizations and associations of Classicists (teachers and researchers of Latin and Ancient Greek languages, literatures, cultures, and histories) are beginning to deal with issues of exclusion and elitism as they are expressed in a number of ways: racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism to name a top three. Some of this struggle has been brought on through unexpected eruptions at organizational meetings or by eruptions taking place after organizations attempt to make statements of inclusivity. Eruptions can be useful!

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that one of my working assumptions is that–like it or not (most of us don’t)–all organizations and systems in this American culture are infected and affected by white supremacy.  By white supremacy, I do not mean an avowed position claiming that so-called white people are superior to all others.  I am talking about an inherent institution in all of the social, political and economic systems of this country from its foundation which were for and by people of northern European origins. That institution of things for and by so called white people has been in place so long that we can now say without question that everyone here, of whatever skin tone or ancestry has been infected and affected by that privilege so established by and for so called white people.

While this includes all organizations and systems, I want to talk about Classical associations to which most of us who teach Latin belong.  They, too, were founded by and for so called white people–even if no one said it out loud or claimed it.  That’s how the insidious system of white privilege works. It’s been in place from such a beginning and for so long that it works in the silent background as the default setting of this thing called America (by which I mean this one spot in North America, the USA).

As I read and ponder the conversations that are erupting around all of this, there is a troubling phrase that I think we need to visit often so that we can begin to excavate what’s worth saving and what is not.  Western Civilization.  This epithet can go two different directions very easily, and they do not arrive at the same place.

Here is one version of western civilization: western civilization refers to the development of human people and societies that make up much of what was once the Roman Empire. This includes much of what is known today as Europe, northern parts of Africa, and parts of the Near East. This include the languages, literatures–Romance and otherwise, cultures, histories, political systems, geographies and the many ethnic groups that make up this region.  This western civilization includes the many religions, indigenous, monolithic, monotheistic, polytheistic, ancient and modernizing alike.  This “western civilization” is one civilization among many that were all developing human communities, histories, languages, literatures, religions,  and politics out of many ethnicities as well. It is not by any stretch the oldest of human civilizations. This version also acknowledges that this area once associated with the Roman empire continues to have influence through history by means of migration of peoples to other regions of the world, and that such migrations brought with them the good and the bad of the original areas. So, for example, the ancient Res Romana, thanks to Britain stretches out to places like Australia, the US, Canada and India, to name a few.

Here is another version of western civilization: this western civilization is the one we have in mind when we want to lift up some piece of the first sense of western civilization and make it superior. This happens when western civilization becomes the equivalent of northern Europe.  This happens when western civilization becomes Christianity.  This happens when western civilization becomes so called white people.  This happens when western civilization becomes the capitalism that emerges out of a Puritanical and then Victorian sense of hard work without the acknowledgement of social status that privileges that hard work. This happens when western civilization means Romance languages and Latin as somehow superior and eternal to others, Slavic, Germanic, Arabic, Celtic, et al. This happens when western civilization becomes the argument for and justification of human enslavement. This happens when western civilization presumes the second class status of women and, hence, the superiority of men to women. This happens whenever western civilization is spoken of with a sense, literal or otherwise, of divine destiny the latest of which is Make America Great Again.  This is just a starter list, and it’s what I’m good for right now.  I am sure there are other examples of this second version of western civilization, but since I, too, have been infected and affected by white supremacy, I can’t see the things that I cannot see. These are the things that I can see.

Why does this matter?  Latin teachers in general are constantly looking for ways to help others who are not Latin teachers understand why anyone would want or need or benefit from studying Latin. The connection of Latin to western civilization is a strong one, and it is one that I dare say most of us go to often.  I do.  I tell students and parents, colleagues and neighbors, total strangers at the grocery story–anyone who shows a slight interest–that Latin can be a benefit to any student who wants to learn it. Here’s my elevator speech:

I don’t care what your child wants to do in life beyond school–whether they want to do surgery or do hair, defend clients in court or repair car engines–all of their professional language, tools, and organizational language will be Latin based in an English speaking world. The more educated you become in English, the more Latin-based your English is.  A college graduate deals with an English that is about 75% Latin based. So, Latin is a good thing to have in your educational and work world. More philosophically, Latin connects so many dots in western civilization. 

That’s my elevator speech for “why study Latin.” I can break that down into another hour’s conversation if you persist with me. It’s much more than vocabulary, but it’s at least vocabulary, and its the vocabulary of western civilization.  But what we mean when we say western civilization is, in my opinion, a matter of life and death. I am intentional that what I mean by western civilization is that first version above–but I have been slow to realize that.  I live in a country and among cultures that sprang from and which are a part of western civilization in all its multi-cultural mix. But I also know that too many in my country think in terms of the second version of western civilization. Too many people try to finish my elevator speech for me:  oh, you must teach the young doctors and lawyers of tomorrow! Oh, you must teach all the “good kids.”  Oh, you get all “the smart ones” if you teach Latin. Oh, it must be nice teaching small classes of the super smart.  A sadder form of this second version shows up, too: why should my kid take Latin? That’s useless.  He’s not going to college (or not going to become an egg head, or a doctor, or a lawyer, etc).

The sad reality of our classical associations’ histories is that they began in and are rooted in a time when the second version of western civilization was often written into the documents. If you look around at these gatherings today, the whiteness is overwhelming. The false and unproven claims that Latin is superior, eternal and somehow if young children are forced to memorize grammatical paradigms they will become critical thinkers pervade even today. Latin teachers too often are heard or read claiming that teaching certification programs are a waste of their time–implication being that Latin is so different and teaching students Latin so removed from the “trenches of public schools” that they cannot, could not, would not be bothered to join the club of learning how to teach better. Still some classics departments and departments of education practice cold war with one another. When we claim that Latin is different in any venue, we are sliding down into this second version of western civilization.  When we want to hail “the best of western civilization” we are promoting the second version since western civilization has had a minute or two of some really bad stercus.

Honestly, I don’t want to give up using the phrase “western civilization,” but if using it is going to leave those hearing and reading me to think that I am promoting a claim to superiority in the world, then I will stop using it.  That would be a shame. That could be one more nail driven into the coffin of Latin in our educational landscape. After all, billions of human beings live today in countries and cultures with ties to the ancient Res Romana. Finding ways to understand those ties can be meaningful and helpful in life. Latin helps to do that. The other nails, though, were driven there by our unwillingness or even just our sluggishness about addressing what white supremacy is doing in us, around us, and through the unexamined things we do.

Bob Patrick

Posted in social justice

Diversity vs. Multiculturalism

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.

Bob Patrick