Will Someone Please Tell Me When the Celebration Begins?

Prospective mother (black): So, what do you like most about the school?
Volunteer parent guide (white): I guess it’s that everybody looks like me.

OK, so maybe integration didn’t quite work out as planned. Lord knows some people tried, and some – God bless them – are still trying; but for the most part, integration in both word and deed has disappeared from our collective memory, as if it never happened. A quick look around, and you’ll wonder if it wasn’t all just a bad dream.

Somewhere along the way, though, DIVERSITY was born, and for those who are loathe to be called racist, or anti-this or anti-that, what a wondrous thing it is! Like a fine soloist, diversity can sound good without any back-up – something to mention in a brochure, list as an strategic planning action point, or even to boast about sweetly as in, “We live in a wonderfully diverse community.” Sure, skin color usually springs to mind whenever the term comes up, but the fact of the matter is that diversity is wide open to personal and highly creative interpretation.

To define diversity, dictionaries tend to use the word variety, as in “the spice of life”, which is appropriate, given that how diversity is viewed or promoted is really more a function of how much spice a particular group is willing to take. A similar notion can be applied to the ever-popular-and-now-overused slogan “Celebrate Diversity”: how big a party do you want to throw? Apart from the inclusion of more ethnic and religious holidays on calendars, the appointment of people of color as diversity go-to guys and gals, tedious training videos, and a few pot-luck dinners, I can’t say that there’s been much sizzle to the celebration. A lot of us are still waiting for the fun to begin.

A few years ago, I thought I’d do an online search to explore the evolution of diversity as a social imperative and when exactly the marriage occurred between it and the word “celebrate.” Google presented me with a rather lengthy and broad list of possibilities: many were educational in nature, others provided multicultural support and goods, but then there were also mocking websites brought to us by various white supremacist groups, and surprisingly – well, I suppose for some diversity in itself can be a celebration of sorts – a substantial amount of pornography. For me, however, the most intriguing hit was the one that came up in second place after icelebratediversity.com. It offered a t-shirt, available in a choice of three lovely colors, with “Celebrate Diversity” printed across the front all right, below remarkably realistic pictures of 18 different types of guns. Only $19.99!

Now, never in my wildest dreams could I see my own town of New York as being a big market for this particular fashion statement, but somebody is buying them; and between that and the White Power websites, I’m just not feeling the love.

“Oh, but we’re so lucky to be living in New York, the most diverse place in the world,” a fellow mom enthused when I told her that I was writing about diversity issues in schools like the one attended by both of our daughters. Indeed, many believe that by living north of the Mason-Dixon line they are somehow immune to or absolved of bigotry, and that because of circumstances that make New York City unique in regularly throwing people of all types and backgrounds together on busy sidewalks, crowded public transportation, and high-rise elevators, they are themselves celebrating diversity every single day. Provided, of course, everyone stays in their place: it’s all well and fine to talk baseball with the Dominican doorman, share a few laughs with the West Indian or Filipina woman who takes care of the kids, and be utterly dependent on that lovely brown-skinned secretary with the Spanish accent, wherever she’s from, but God forbid that someone who looks like them should ever be a colleague, friend, or guest in their home. Far too many people grew up with the idea that it isn’t done; they’re simply not comfortable with interacting socially with people of color. “After all,” I’ve heard people say, “what on earth would they have to talk about?”

Not surprisingly, then, rare are the white parents who put diversity at the top of their lists of criteria when looking at schools, public or otherwise. The majority are not seeking educational experiences for their children that reflect the real world, they want the perfect world, and I don’t mean the one envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr., “where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” No, make no mistake: this perfect world is peopled by families who share their values, religion, language, net worth, fashion sense, vacation habits, any combination of the above, and, oh yes, skin color. What I can’t get is that for some, like the guide at the beginning of this chapter, if the skin isn’t white, there’s no point in even considering the other factors.

Sure, in a time when more often than not public schools can be downright abysmal, the quality of the education is and should be the most important factor in school choice, especially for those who can afford to choose. Nobody – white, black or otherwise – really wants their kids to go to a lousy school.

Who children go to school with, then, may not be quite as critical as the ultimate likelihood of their going Ivy League, but in the minds of many, they’re indeed related. The logic goes something like this: If all the “best” people send their children to School X, then by also attending School X, my child too will grow up to be one of “the best”.

You don’t need me to point out the flaws in this argument, but because of it, competition for Kindergarten space can be downright vicious. And what happens, pray tell, to everyone else? Just last week – that would be in April of 2020 – a court in Michigan had to rule that students in Detroit had a constitutional right to an “adequate education.” But that’s a topic for another post. Back to the celebration…

A white woman I know once told me that she very much appreciated her children’s pre-school, because she would never have to explain to them about someone having two mommies. Not only does it not have same-sex couples among the parent body, that school is about as ethnically un-diverse as you can get, what my husband describes as a casting call for The Sound of Music. But it does attract many of the “best”, obviously heterosexual people, and that’s what’s important!

I agree that certain subjects, race and sexual orientation among them, can be stickier than others, especially when discussing them with children, but this concerted effort to avoid lesbians really demonstrates that while they may deny it, parents who can afford to choose really think long and hard about whom they do and don’t want their kids to be exposed to – in other words, how much spice can they as mothers and fathers take.

To an extent, when it comes to fast girls and trouble-making boys, being so discerning seems reasonable for all protective parents; what bothers me are the creepier underlying motives stemming from fear, entitlement, snobbery, and a heavy dose of the primal instinct to mark, protect and, if necessary, defend one’s territory.

As one African-American mother put it, “These schools are all about tradition, and we simply are not a part of their tradition.” (Now where have I heard that before? Ah yes, the white supremacy websites). Sure, it’s easy for anyone who is different to feel that way, but to the great defenders of these traditions, I would argue that it’s all in the spin – diversity is an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, for both the children and the institutions themselves. Traditions can evolve with the times: is it too much to ask that people do too?