Should the Conversation About Diversity Actually BE a Conversation? (Instead of a Set of Politically Correct Rants?)

So #WeNeedDiverseBooks has incorporated. That’s great. Hopefully they will actually be able to make real change now that they can raise money. And a few posts back I highlighted some of the other great, tangible things that different groups are doing to ensure that the publishing landscape actually becomes more diverse. These all seem to be great steps. But most of the conversation I’ve seen have been tweets in which folks lament the lack of “diverse” writers in the publishing landscape. Not many people seem to be engaging in honest dialogue about what diversity really is, why it’s important, and what our readers really need.

Even the term “diverse” is kind of a disguise. I mean, what are we really talking about here? Are we talking about race? Most of the efforts on the diversity front seem to be about increasing the number of individuals from racial minorities who are represented in the traditional publishing landscape. But I bet many folk engaged in this conversation would say that diversity is more than that. Then perhaps they would mention GLBTQ and religious groups? And then they would say that we need more characters who represent many different groups. Then, perhaps, they would talk about how to make that happen. Maybe I’m dense, but I’m still not quite sure what we’re talking about. And I think that’s because we’re not really talking about it.

We aren’t talking about race. We’re not talking about religion. We aren’t talking about sexuality. We aren’t talking about socio-economic status. We aren’t talking about mental and physical disabilities. In fact, as far as I can tell, we almost never talk about these things. Never ACTUALLY talk about them. It seems to me that we either don’t talk about them because A) we are part of a marginalized group and we don’t want to be treated badly for owning our connection to that group and talking about it or B) we are too darn politically correct to have such a conversation.

Political Correctness might have its uses, but it might also be the biggest scourge of actual dialogue in our country today. So, if you’re still with me, here is a start to an unpopular conversation that maybe we should actually be having:

Last night on facebook, somebody recounted an experience she’d recently had in which a young woman working at a coffee shop had graciously accepted her tip in coins saying, “Change is money. I don’t know, maybe I’m Jewish but I collect and count my change when I find it in my house.” The person who posted this got the predictable 60 outraged politically correct responses for how she should deal with this situation (many of which suggested going to the girl’s boss). I, myself, didn’t respond because I didn’t want to be flamed.

But can we look at this? So, the direct implication of the comment is that Jews count coins. The possible underlying implication is that Jews are tight. The stereotype that this is coming from is that Jews are rich and careful with their money.

Every single facebook response to that comment was about schooling that young woman that her words were wrong so that she would never say something similar again. But instead of shutting down dialogue by being the politically correct police, is there a way that we could actually open it up?

Nearly all of the really rich people I’ve met in my life (I live in America, I’ve spent a decade in New England and I grew up in Florida) were Jewish. None of them had recently acquired that money. Their families had made it some time back and they had been very good about investing it so that the family money has grown. For that matter, I have known a lot of really poor white folk, a lot of really poor black folk, and a lot of really poor latino folk. None of the really poor folk I’ve met have been Jewish.

Now I can’t even begin to speculate on why this is, but am I a bad person for noticing it? Is it an inaccurate observation? Have any of you noticed the opposite? In short, does the stereotype that Jewish folk have money come from somewhere? Is it completely groundless? And if it’s not, then is there a problem with us noticing it? To be clear: I am not advocating that we go around using slurs and stereotypes indiscriminately. But I am wondering if we could actually talk about them instead of shutting conversation down whenever one of these topics come up.

Essentially, we’ve created a society in which all of these tensions–racial and otherwise–actually exist, but we work to change them without ever talking about them. And without having these conversations, how could we ever actually write a culturally sensitive portrayal of a character from a group that is “other” from ourselves?

Here are some other observations we might have a conversation about: I have worked with a lot of latino kids since moving to New Mexico. And out here, at least, I have noticed that the girls are, in general, much brassier and tougher than other “white” girls. In fact, they’re tougher than “other white” boys, too. And they are also alarmingly in control of their sexuality.

And in my high school growing up, about half the kids were black. My friend, Tris, was accused by her black peers of being “too white” because she was in student government and the math club. We lived in the same neighborhood, we were the same amount of poor, we were in the same clubs at school, but that didn’t mean that I liked listening to hip-hop with her. Nor would I ever have put my hair up in corn-rows. Is it bad to notice that the black kids in my school had their own community and identity? Is it bad that they did?

But here’s another question: if we can’t really talk about race, religion, etc. then how do we talk about kids like Tris who were caught across the cultural divide? Can we actually have a conversation about kids shaming each other for not fitting into their racial group if we aren’t willing to admit that there are racial groups? Or how can we talk about the alarmingly high teen pregnancy rates out here without acknowledging the way the latinas in my classroom dress and carry themselves?

Is our rabidly enforced color-blindness serving us well? And is there a way that we could have honest, non-angry conversations about things like race, religion, money, politics . . .? And what might we gain if we could?

Thoughts?

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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4 Responses to Should the Conversation About Diversity Actually BE a Conversation? (Instead of a Set of Politically Correct Rants?)

  1. I want to make sure I understand the story- is the waitress that got the tip Jewish? making fun of herself? In that case I think everyone overreacted…even if she wasn’t, it was probably still a little overboard. I think people do get caught up in trying to “correct” every imagined slur and forget to have a sense of humor. Sometimes people are just human…not mean.

    And you are right that some issues need to be discussed by sex and/or color. Teen sex is definitely an area that we are failing minority young women in. But I’m not sure how you do it, except the way I am working with my white young ladies – one relationship at a time.

  2. Liz Parrott says:

    Diversity is fascinating to me. Politically correct rants are not. I remember reading “The Chosen” and “The Promise” in high school, both by Chiam Potok. My parents both had seminary degrees. My father, who had been a presbyterian minister, was teaching religious studies at a local university. So, through my family, and through church, I knew something about Christians, but I knew very little about Jews. I learned enough from Chiam Potok to make me wish I had such a strong tradition and identity. In my mind, that’s literature at it’s best (no comment on his writing…I read the books before I was an English Major). I love to read literature that introduces me to a new culture, a new way of looking at the world. And I love the internal dialog about how this new culture is like me and how it’s different from me. I live in New Mexico now, after being a nearly lifelong Californian. How I fit in, and don’t fit in, in New Mexico, is fascinating. It helps me define myself. I believe that’s what good literature can do for kids. But the literature has to be an honest portrayal of another culture, not a politically correct portrayal. We are not all the same, and therein lies the richness of this country. I really don’t fit in here in New Mexico. I really am a Californian. But I’m glad I’ve learned so much about New Mexico, and I’m glad it’s culture (or variety of cultures) exists.

    About rich people: I’ve known plenty of rich Christians and rich agnostics and rich athiests. Some of that is because I lived in Silicon Valley for 27 years. Also, my mother had a family of cousins who were very wealthy. I’ve also known rich Jews. I’ve known plenty of poor Christians. Have I known poor Jews? Good question.

  3. pamwatts says:

    It’s an interesting topic. I have lived in many regions of the country and I have noticed that folks in the southwest tend to be more laid-back, folks in the south tend to be more friendly, and folks in New England tend to want to be left alone more. I think there are a million micro-cultures. Some of them are racial, some are religious. But I don’t know if we can write any honest portrayal without really understanding the micro-cultures that our characters exist within. And they are complicated. For instance, the black kids in my high school, growing up in south Florida, had their own very distinct sub-culture. They listened to hip hop and R & B, they dressed a certain way, they hung out together. But living in VT, where there were only like 5 black folk in the whole county, they didn’t really have a sub-culture as far as I could tell. It was very different.

  4. Liz Parrott says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about the micro-cultures. Now I’m thinking about Silicon Valley. There’s sort of an overall micro-culture, and then each company has it’s own culture. I worked for awhile as a bibliographic programmer at Dialog Information Services (the grandaddy of online search services). About half the staff were librarians. What a pleasant work environment! Then I worked at Netscape. It was exciting, but very different from Dialog. Interestingly, the workforce at both places included Indians, Chinese, Japanese Eastern Europeans, Persians, Turks, Arabs, etc, but in my working life at both places I worked with only one black person and one hispanic person. I always wondered why. Here in Las Cruces, the only blacks I see are doctors. Why is that? When my son started at St. John’s in Annapolis I think there was one non-white person in his class.

    How do we write about the micro-cultures? I agree that one can’t without really understanding the micro-culture. And one can’t understand it without being very aware of it. I would even go a step farther and say that one’s own culture and identity affect the ability to which one is able to understand a different culture. I did not mention the first job I had after library school. I worked as a programmer in a small dental insurance PPO. I worked with several right-wing dentists. I’d just finished a masters at Berkeley. And my BA is from Oberlin. I wasn’t exactly open to understanding the culture of the place. They were openly racist. I said something about The New Yorker one day and one of them said “we don’t read things like that.” One dentist thought I should really be listening to Rush Limbaugh. I observed them, and tried to live with the culture, but I must say I judged as well. In writing, it seems like it’s important to be aware of how your culture is affecting the way you see another culture, and then to try to see the other culture as objectively as possible (or write satire, as I was tempted to do with the dentists).

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