Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Diversity and Inclusion Important for Tri-Cities

(From the June 14, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Like many Tri-Cities residents, I was disturbed to read about not one but two acts of racism in our community in the past month.

In one, the Asian proprietor of Chan’s Restaurant in Spring Lake was harassed with racist comments on the phone as well as in person at the restaurant. At about the same time, a black worker in an apartment complex in Grand Haven returned to the area where he was working to see a racist comment scrawled on the wall.

At least it was heartening to see the community response. People went to Chan’s Restaurant not just for a meal, but to express their support for the owner. People wrote letters to the editor to express their dismay and outrage at this type of hurtful behavior.

Some might like to think that these were isolated incidents. It is tempting to hope that such overt acts of hatred are indeed uncommon, and that as a community we are by and large much better than that. With the election of our first black president a few years ago, many proclaimed that we are a “post-racist” society. But that ignores some ugly truths.

For one, such incidents obviously do still occur in communities like ours all across the country. Such actions reflect deeply held attitudes. What happened in Grand Haven and Spring Lake recently may be isolated incidents, but it is scary to think of how many others hold attitudes like these that are simply not expressed as publicly.

Then, there is a more subtle form of racism that exists in our society. This happens when even well-meaning people say and do things that nonetheless are hurtful to people of a different skin color or national background. We’re making progress, but we are not yet a post-racist society.

Coincidentally, I learned a lot about this concept just recently, right after these incidents happened in my own community here. I attended an institute on equity and inclusion in higher education at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. I spent three intensive days with about 30 people discussing these issues. While much was discussed, there are two key concepts I think are relevant to share with Tri-Cities residents.

One is the concept of privilege. Everyone has varying degrees of privilege in our society, as well as lack of it in some areas. After discussing lots of academic concepts related to this, we did a simple exercise that drove home the point. There were bowls of paperclips next to papers with a series of questions about the degree to which we felt free or privileged in the routines of daily life, everything from job applications to walking down the street. If you felt free, you took a paperclip for each item. At the end, my chain of paperclips was quite long. It was striking to see how much longer than some others.

Another concept I learned is that of “micro aggressions.” This is the concept in which a person says or does something with the best of intentions, but it nevertheless is an insult to a person of color. An example given was when Joe Biden said of Barack Obama that he was “clean, good looking, and articulate.” He no doubt meant it as a compliment, but it implied that it is unusual for a black man in America to be clean and articulate. Tricky stuff, but important to think about.

So, recent incidents may have drawn our attention to the idea of racism in the Tri-Cities. Certainly most of us are outraged at obvious acts of bias and hatred. But we can all work to examine ourselves to be more than diverse in the sense of accepting the presence of people from all different backgrounds. We need to be conscious and intentional about making all people feel included, a part of, our community as well.

I hold out hope that our society, and this community in particular, will continue to move beyond prejudice, which is a way of pre-judging others before we truly know them. Rather, we should be most concerned with how we ourselves are judged. We will all be judged, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, by “the content of our character.” We will also be judged by how well we keep God’s commandments, one of the greatest of which is to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

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