On a beautiful sunny Sunday in Seattle, I joined about 17 other parents of Bright Water School, to participate in a diversity and racial equity awareness workshop led by consultants Lara Davis and Diana Falchuk. Although diversity awareness accompanies more than race, race is often used as a focal point to acknowledge that racial inequity in American society is a foundational understanding that intersects all forms of diversity awareness.
We could have been hiking, gardening, reading novels, relaxing, or otherwise engaged in a diverse menu of life activities, but instead, we had intentionally gathered to address equity within race, class, sex, gender, age and other identities. The most common theme in bringing us together was the recognition that this conversation is important, as participants in our children’s education, in order to be better prepare them on their journey through life. A school survey certainly bore that reasoning out, with 94% of families expressing some form of agreement with it.
Anyone who has ever been to a race and diversity equity workshop knows that these gatherings are not forums for passive accumulation of knowledge, but are sometimes messy, and uncomfortable social operating rooms that require surgical focus, engagement, authenticity, and shared responsibility on the parts of everyone present.
Our global society is changing rapidly with cities like Seattle emerging as multicultural communities, with the proportion of non-white residents increasing dramatically over the last ten years. While most people see this as a positive trend to celebrate – the strength and unity that can be forged through diversity – that does not imply that the racial, sexual and class composition of the power elite (white, male, upper classes) has shifted significantly. Most would agree that it hasn’t – which is a problem if equity is truly the goal.
It is important to understand the difference between equity and equality in order not to mistakenly assume that today’s increasingly multicultural society be seen automatically as a sign of equity. Equality means everyone gets the same thing or treatment. Equity means everyone gets what they need. Consider the following images which illustrate the point well.
Writing about race, diversity, and equity feels risky to me. The subject matter is complex. I am not an expert and even as I rode home with a fellow parent, I caught myself using stereotypical language that impacted a marginalized target group. Oops! Learning is not about falling down. It’s about picking yourself up again. When someone says “you have a booger hanging from your nose” (this has literally happened to me), the skillful thing to do is thank the person and wipe it off immediately, without internalizing any shame. Or do we sink into self-centered distractions like guilt or righteousness as a way of avoiding the difficult task of working for equity for all? If we’ve said something that was hurtful to another, it’s important to acknowledge the impact without shifting the conversation onto ourselves by explaining that “it was just a joke”, or “I didn’t mean it”. We need to listen and be present when the other person says “Ouch, that felt hurtful.”
Another exercise, that I once heard referred to as “(North) American Pie”, affords us the opportunity to investigate where in the social arena of life we hold privilege. In doing so, we reflect wisely that privilege is not something to beat ourselves up over. With awareness, we can use our privilege to be an ally to under-served and oppressed members of society, acting as an agent of justice. Or, we can deny that our membership in privileged groups had anything to do with doors which opened for us in our life, acting as an agent of oppression.
We also can acknowledge on the pie-wheel where we are members of a targeted minority. As a white, male, heterosexual, able bodied-minded, middle-aged, favorably sized, English speaking, naturalized U.S. citizen with colonial ancestry, college-educated, middle class individual – it would be easy to slip into guilt mode. Some of my ancestors were slave holders. Coming to terms with that has motivated me to see the inherent potential in all human life. Doesn’t every child in this world deserve the opportunity to realize that potential? What would the world look like if such opportunity actually existed instead of being relegated to political statements and enshrined documents. In order for that to happen, there needs to be equity, a structural reshaping of the social order which acknowledges the unequal starting points that currently exist, contrary to the ruling class storyline of the American meritocracy. It also underscores the need for people who hold privilege to take responsibility for equalizing the playing field.
As a member of a non-Christian faith (Buddhism), I experience a small taste of what it feels like to not carry a full knapsack of privilege. There are Gods within Buddhism, but the central focus is on the innate potential within the mind of every living being. Explaining to my four year old daughter entering pre-school what God meant (often occurring in the lyrics of various songs my daughter came home with) created a mental quandary for me. Ultimately I decided to wait for her to ask questions, and in the meantime, to trust in the strength and consistency of our home environment to guide her.
Religious or spiritual faith, can be one of the deepest forms of identity for some people. Attending the workshop made me realize that as a member of a minority faith, I am often guarded about sharing my spirituality for fear of persecution, or being seen as proselytizing. It also is worth noting that as a white Buddhist, it is incumbent upon me to adopt a respectful attitude towards authentic Buddhist lineages and not participate in activities which commodify, degrade, offend, or misrepresent tradition. Spiritual appropriation is particularly harmful to an atmosphere of mutual respect and social inclusion.
Buddhism deeply informs my investigation of diversity and equity. In looking at the identity wheel, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life is essentially a road map that shows both how we get locked in suffering and reminds us that there is a path to freedom based upon ethical action and wisdom (represented visually by the Buddha pointing at the moon.)
Furthermore, Buddhism teaches that that any identity – if held too tightly by egoistic thinking – becomes a form of suffering, a hindrance to awakening our full potential as compassionate, engaged beings. By clinging too tightly to an identity, we separate ourselves from the rest of life, and the truth of interdependence. That does not mean we should nihilistically reject identity, but to hold them as vehicles for greater self-understanding and social justice work.
The children of today – in order to be successful, and more importantly, in order to help heal the urgent problems facing our world – will need to be fluent in the language and dynamics of social inclusion – within the employment and academic worlds, and increasingly, within families. My daughter is extremely fortunate to be at a school that has a strong diversity statement: “Bright Water School welcomes, values and supports racial, religious, economic, and cultural diversity. Our school seeks a diverse faculty and student body and is committed to having our school reflect the abundant and changing diversity of the United States. We welcome, value and support single, dual or multiple parent households and LGBT parents, faculty and/or students.”
However, eloquent statements do not change the world by themselves. Racial equity and diversity work is complex and challenging, demanding a high degree of willingness to face difficult truths.
During one of our exercises we were asked to go to one of four corners of the room depending upon which statement we resonated the most with. “Diversity work is like running a marathon”. “Diversity work is like drinking a glass of water.” “Diversity work is like standing at the edge of a cliff”. “Diversity work is like entering a hornet’s nest”. There are no right answers and depending upon where one stands, all of them hold pieces of the truth. Where do you stand?