Friday, January 26, 2007

Modeling the Same Old Look

Several months ago my wife & I applied to our area NeighborWorks program for assistance in purchasing a home. In conversations with our housing counselor -- a salty woman of color -- we learned about a fledgling Diversity Task Force that had been formed in the Harbor to tackle the issues of prejudice and bigotry. She invited us to get involved.

After several stops and starts, the group finally held a meeting last night of which my wife & I attended. It was a strange, though not surprising, experience.

As we entered the meeting room, we surveyed the faces of the gathering. Aside from one person of color (our housing counselor) and two members of the Quinault Nation, every other face was lily white. While we did have a relatively equal balance between the genders, there was only 1 person involved under the age of 40.

Consequently, this task force predominantly was made up of progressive, middle class, older, white people.

It reminded me of a typical problem I have witnessed with many such groups in other communities. A bunch of progressive, middle class, older whites decide there is a diversity problem that needs to be addressed. Realizing their group is lily white, they go out and recruit a few minority members (what has come to be known as "token" members) so they can feel they are diverse. Yet, their lack of true diversity thwarts their chosen objective because they can't really speak the language nor from the experiences of the oppressed.

It is my view that for a group such as this to be successful, the dynamics of group leadership needs to be turned on its head. We white progressives need to be in SUPPORTING roles and members of the oppressed races, ethnicities and classes need to be the leaders. These leaders need to address the prejudices rampant in our community and the barriers they encounter in daily life. From this starting point, the leaders of oppressed groups need to formulate strategies to overcome these prejudices and barriers with input from white progressives.

Again, in my view, this is the only way such a group can begin to serve as the catalyst for genuine change. In other words, the Diversity Task Force needs to model within its leadership core the very changes we believe society as a whole must make. If not, then we end up mirroring the central problem that already exists.

Another way to express this notion is that it is very paternalistic. It's as if we white progressives know best about an oppression that we don't experience and how to overcome barriers that don't block our way. How can we hope to effect positive change if our starting point misses the mark entirely?


  1. You didn't say how many people attended the event, but it sounds close to the demographics of the area. The 2005 census estimate for Grays Harbor County is 90.9% white persons.

    What changes are you looking to make?

  2. I believe there were 18 of us. While there are 90.9% whites here, that percentage falls to 85.4% for white, non-Hispanic (same source). Of course, minority representation is almost always under counted.

    Anytime you have one predominant race in a locale, you're far more apt to experience bigotry and prejudice of other races and ethnicities.

    For example, the woman of color told meeting participants that her grandson told her recently that he wished he was white because he's so tired of being called a nigger. We're in the frick'n 21st century and a black youth still has to put up with this kind of daily crap!

    This screams of a need for change.

    I've personally witnessed a loathing by far too many of my Latino neighbors and I've heard stories from Korean friends of the same kind of bigoted attitudes toward them.

    This too screams of a need for change. We must move beyond stereotypes and labels to see people as people, to see our connections, not the separations.


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