Why “Diversity” Isn’t Enough in Humanist Storytelling

Why “Diversity” Isn’t Enough in Humanist Storytelling February 16, 2020

Don Ross III, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. Back when I was precocious twit–a kid in grade three who’d already been skipped a grade, went to one-day-a-week gifted a year earlier than the programmes usually began, and took math class with the grade sixes (who then beat and bullied said kid at recess: not that the older kids in gifted were any better)–I read a story in Jack & Jill magazine about a teacher illustrating prejudice by creating an arbitrary divide in the classroom. I didn’t know this story was based on Jane Elliott’s classic “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” experiment: a two-day classroom experience in 1968 that illustrated how quickly prejudice forms with just a little institutional encouragement. I also didn’t fully understand the ethical considerations that experiment hadn’t taken into account.

I just thought it would be a brilliant idea for our class.

I remember this moment so well because I had excitedly asked our teacher, Mr. Lieberman, if I could propose a lesson plan. (Did I mention precocious twit? I was seven or eight.) But even as I explained the story and suggested how we could implement similar, a detail snagged at me. In the story, the children had been given white or black stars to wear. When I spoke to Mr. Lieberman, I noticed that he wore a star already. And even though Holocaust discourse wouldn’t enter the curriculum until the next year, when my gifted class put Hitler on trial, It immediately hit me that the story I had been so excited about, the idea that was mere theory in my head… might not be so theoretical to others. Other people were actually living what I was treating as an “educational moment.”

Today, on my second-year anniversary of emigrating from Canada to Colombia, I’m reflecting on how much Western cultural discourse still treats as white as a baseline and everything else as… “diversity.” But if we really want to enact a humanism that can meet the challenges of the 21st-century–a century of huge displacement pressures, declining empires, and persistent genocides–we’re really going to have to do better than that.

So–where better to start than from within?

White Child in a… Wonderful World

I grew up in a region of Toronto (City of York, York South-Weston) that for a time had the second-highest immigrant population and the second-lowest household income. It was Keele & EglinGton (later Eglinton), not far from the more notorious world of Jane & Finch, and especially as a teen I developed a certain way of “walking” the streets where candles and flowers would often mysteriously appear near police tape on various street corners. It was good training for Colombia, to be honest!

When I was younger there, I often considered myself the “zero culture” kid next to the West Indies children, who had distinct music and food and patois and pentecostal church; and the Middle-Eastern Muslim children; and the children from Portuguese, Italian, or Spanish backgrounds. I wasn’t the only “white” child in my neighbourhood, but the children I played with most had backgrounds different from the one I was still too ignorant to realize was the backdrop to everything in our milieu.

(Funnily enough, one of my best friends was a girl named Ramona, West Indies, so when I read the Ramona Quimby books I just grafted her into them. I was stunned years later to see a white girl on one of the editions’ covers. Brains are funny.)

Race was something I grew up with intrinsically, even if I had a misguided sense of my place within the concept. I ran screaming as a kindergartener from a black child missing a hand, and later was stricken with the fear that he’d thought I was running because he was black (I desperately wanted to tell him it was just the hand, as if that would have been any better!). Conversely, when I was 12 and taking my little brother to baseball, I was cornered by a black man around 19-20 in the playground, who kept asking if I was just uncomfortable around him because he was black. Another parent intervened, but I chewed over some very confused feelings about that situation for years.

Mostly, though? Mostly I understood race in relation to this notion I kept hearing applied to myself, as the “smart” person. Walking encyclopedia, walking dictionary… My classmates–my black classmates from the neighbourhood especially–would tell me, “You’re so smart. You’re going to get out of here.” Out of here? Out of here? What was here?

I hated that label, “smart,” because I quickly realized how incorrect it was. I had had the good fortune of a day-time stay-at-home dad who made early education in literacy and numeracy a top priority. That was an external factor most of the kids I played with did not have–but boy howdy, were they ever “smart” in other ways. Why didn’t anyone see that? Why didn’t they get told that they were “smart,” too?

I volunteered one year in a summer-school programme for kids behind in their studies, and there I helped black Canadians in grades 3 and 4 who could not yet read. Couldn’t read?! At 8 or 9? I was stunned to learn that they’d just been passed along, without proper resources, without support. That’s when I realized, too, how privileged and unjust the entire gifted system was: a system of further advantages given to children who already had the advantage of parents who could (and did) loudly advocate for them.

Precocious twit that I still was, I came up with a better scheme for the school system: an enrichment class added on to the end of the day, which any child could attend who wanted to extend their learning; and a system of increased mixed-grade classes so that advanced learners could develop added skills by learning how to tutor others in the class.

(Precious cynical twit that I was also becoming, I also quickly realized why that system would never come to pass: too many parents who believe that their child is special and deserving of better treatment; and not enough state funding for the staff needed for such an afterschool programme. This was my early education, too, into a mentality we often see with liberal white parents creating new sites for segregation in U.S. schools: claiming to want racial equality but also getting nervous about their own children going to schools in “difficult” milieus. Racial equality requires a willingness to work to raise up a whole educational paradigm, and to trust that the lessons your child learns from seeing you make communal betterment a priority will be the best education of them all.)

A Turning Point for Personal Storytelling

When I started high school, I also started volunteer-tutoring a girl in my neighbourhood, Latoya. It was in her household that I learned proper patois (and as I was in high school two years ahead of Drake–yes, literally, Drake, fellow Vaughan Road Academy student, in a region with strong West Indies, Tamil, and Somali presence to one side, Jewish to another–I should also clear up a local myth about the impact of his celebrity: I promise you, patois was locally understood before he became famous; we even had notorious plays for Black History Month, wherein the white teachers had no idea what was being said so the school would howl with laughter at all the swears slipped in).

It was in Latoya’s presence, too, though, that I realized some hard limits to my experiences, and the limits of the stories I was trying to tell about our shared world.

After all, I had always known better than to say “I have a black step-grandmother, uncle, and aunt,” as if merely belonging to a blended family gave me any damned justification for whatever entitlement I enacted in a white-normative culture. If and when I screwed up, I screwed up as an individual, and there was no cause to bring other individuals into play as some sort of buffer from the social consequences of my screw-up.

As an atheist, too, I had also never been quite sure how to respond to the strong Anglicanism among black family members; to me, religion was something other white people had brutally forced upon regions rich with distinct cultural and religious traditions. Wasn’t Christianity a tool of oppression, even if it had also been reclaimed as a comfort and a salve in ever so many communities caught up in slavery and related forms of dehumanization? So, I gave their spirituality a wide, if confused berth.

But still, much as I thought I had a lock on what stories I could and could not tell, Latoya gave me a tremendous shock one day. She was a reluctant reader at eight, so I brought her a book one day that I had loved very much at eight. It was the story of Harriet Tubman, who had been very much a hero to me when I was her age (along with Joan of Arc; thankfully I went as Joan, not Harriet, for a school presentation in grade four… because I’m not sure if my parents would’ve been savvy enough to keep me from doing the unconscionable if I’d said I’d wanted to go as Harriet instead!). But when I gave her the book, Latoya gave me a blank face. She didn’t know who Harriet Tubman was.

And in that moment I felt the world shift a little–just as it had at seven, when seeing that glint of a Star of David around my grade-three teacher’s neck when I had proposed putting white and black stars on different halves of our class. In that moment, I felt my subject position, and I felt the way it changed the act of storytelling.

A story wasn’t just a story.

It was also who told it, and to whom.

And who the hell was I to be the first to tell Latoya about slavery, about what people who looked like me had done to people who looked like her in the past? Also–she was a West Indies child, her family part of a mass migration in the 1950s-70s to Canada. Did I even have the historical chops to tell the story properly, with all the nuance that white racism in the West Indies required?

(Reader, I did not. I hardly understood that there was a nuanced political history to Bob Marley, I hadn’t yet learned about British depravity in Jamaica in the 19th century, and I had no idea about the specific African origins of persons from Trinidad and Tobago, even though with my extended family’s make-up I should have.)

I knew enough, then, to know that I didn’t know enough. And I spent many years on extremely wobbly ground because of that.

The Consequences of Divided Cultural Narratives

In Toronto, I was surrounded in my formative years by people from different backgrounds, different contexts. But even in that rich multicultural landscape, some very weird coding abided. For instance, if I read Greco-Roman mythology, that was… just mythology. But if I read Anansi stories (as I did around the same time), that was “ethnic.” In later years, the term would soften to “diverse.”

Likewise, as I noted above, I was the person my neighbourhood friends expected to “get out” while they got pregnant young and became hair dressers and nail technicians (not bad work unto itself! just, also the only things that many thought they were capable of). Latoya was a perfect example of this, because she confided in me all the horrible things her teacher told her–that she was slow, and stupid, and not likely to achieve much. I was furious to hear this, but her mum worked two jobs while raising two children solo. Who was going to advocate for her? How much more pain would I add to her overburdened mother if I told her that her child was being bullied by her teacher?

I was only 13 to 14 myself, and struggling with a lot of pain in my own home at the time. I could have dug into that pain; I could have told myself that the pain I was experiencing was equivalent: that life was just tough all around and everyone just needed to suck it up as best they could without “bringing” other factors into the hardships they faced.

But no. I am so fortunate that I had learned somehow, somewhere, from some incredibly kind people in my life, that I had a choice to entrench myself in my pain, my hardship… or to deepen my empathy. And so I knew, when I heard stories like Latoya’s, that as hard as my life was for other reasons, I was nevertheless struggling in a system still designed to favour the success of people like me in general. I knew that the gifted system and people calling me “smart” because of an external advantage existed alongside this bullshit.

How on Earth could such a system ever be just for all?

Even with these early examples in a divided approach to community narrative, though, I was still blown away when I moved from Toronto’s overt multiculturalism to Kitchener-Waterloo for university. KW is a region with third- or fourth-highest “diverse” population in Canada (depending on how you measure multiculturalism!) that nevertheless often sidelined BIPOC communities from a clear white “core” in local narratives. Oh, sure, there were ethnic “events” and “restaurants,” but little in the way of centres of non-anglo-Canadian activity noted in the media and dominant culture.

Likewise, in the university itself, my skin colour leapt out in ways I found as surprising as my atheism. In Toronto, being secular hadn’t been a problem; in my residence, among people from quite a few rural communities, I’d routinely hear Evangelical discussions that centred me as “The Atheist.” At the same time, I was also having baffling encounters with white people who assumed that because I was white I came from a mainly white community, too, and so felt comfortable being incredibly racist around me.

Ah ha!

At last, “zero culture”-me had found their “people”! And many of them were… not great about their prejudices. And even worse about handling criticism of them.

(Relatedly: In dorm, I also met multiple persons from India who loudly declared that they “hated” brown people, a “dirty” people, and I was so stunned by these first encounters with that form of internalized racism that I hardly knew what to do or say. Was I supposed to call out an Indian for being racist against Indians? Huge learning curve!)

The Lie of “Diversity” in Western Discourse

Here, then, is the lie that I swam in while living in white-normative Western communities: namely, that a just world is attainable so long as we “let” diversity into our narratives. If we teach Black History one month every year. If we read widely. If we resist homogeneity in our workplaces and schools.

The tribalism yet remains, though, doesn’t it? I had a fairly “diverse” childhood “for a white person”… and I still kept running into moments when I could feel that talking about different backgrounds and living histories wasn’t enough. Places where “being informed” and “seeking knowledge of other lives” didn’t change the underlying power structure.

Here in Colombia, I’m part of a new social contract, and I can feel that different social contract when I share in cultural narratives. Colombia is a place in which race is a far more overt part of society: where people identify people as “oi, mona! monera! negra!” on the street like it’s nothing, and many cheerfully call themselves “genetic mutts” because of the mixed ancestry for most people going back centuries. And there is still tribalism, of course–plenty in Medellín, for instance, who see Venezuelans as a scary monolith the same way that Syrian refugees in Canada and Central American refugees in the U.S. are treated as “faceless brown [criminal] masses” by some.

But when I walk the streets here as a gendered-female white person, and someone harasses me… I don’t feel scared for them the way I used to when a black man would harass me in Toronto, where the police were always far more likely to intervene than if a white man harassed me, and where black men face far more violent ends in consequence of police intervention. Can you imagine how strange that is, to be both victimized and also fully aware that a greater victimization, a greater punishment than is due for any given transgression, could easily also transpire around the site of your body?

Likewise, when tears spring to my eyes here because I know I’m being mocked for my Spanish accent–when I get frustrated, that is, over some people’s automatic assumptions that I’m a tourist, an oddity, an exotic object, a simpleton, or otherwise easy prey–I feel a deepened appreciation for the struggles faced by ELL immigrants in Canada.

And a powerful awareness of how language is used to gatekeep and divide us, as much as in any blue-eyes/brown-eyes experiment of old.

And… humility.

Yes, humility–because after those situations have ended, when I have a chance to review what happened and how I responded, I always remember that when feel objectified here, it’s still partly by choice. It hurts, sure! It’s awful, yes! But I chose the hardships attendant with long-term integration in another cultural and language context. That makes my experience of momentary powerlessness very different from that experienced by those forcibly displaced by war, violence, environmental catastrophe, and persecution. Even when I suffer, I suffer within the parameters of a highly divided socio-political tale.

The Take-Away

In consequence, my patience with this term, “diversity,” is rapidly dwindling. It’s still so common in literary and political discourse, though. It’s the water in which so many of us swim–and often, with the best of intentions, too! But Toronto is now a city with more first-generation immigrants than native-soil Canadians, so why can’t it escape the rhetorical divide between “white” and “diverse” storytelling? And in Kitchener-Waterloo, where so many BIPOC communities exist with strong internal centres, why does the overarching cultural narrative still so strongly favour white cultural happenstance?

I’m still in process here, as just another white atheist in Colombia.

I still have so much to learn. So many questions I’ve only just started to ask.

But I can tell you this much for sure–fellow white readers especially:

There are other ways to hold power in the stories we tell. And these alternatives will become clearer once you’ve take stock of all the ways in which you currently hold power–in stories about yourselves, about others in your communities, and about the histories of the communities themselves.

Yes, life is hard enough for most of us; we each have our private stores of grief and strife, and hurdles that daily affect how we move through the world. So, yes, it’s a lot to ask to add so much self-reflection to the mix. But being humanist requires that we recognize all the ways that tribalism divides and diminishes us. Religion is often one such tool of division, absolutely… but not always, and not only.

Rather, our greatest struggle, as humanists of all spots and stripes, lies in our ability to keep learning: to keep availing ourselves to new data points (from all corners of the world, as well as all the worlds in our local neighbourhoods), and from those new data points, to keep expanding the reach of our empathy for the struggles of all humankind.

To that end, dear fellow global citizens, both near and far:

Happiest of Sundays and Black History Months–but above all else, happiest of shared time-and-space on this, our pale blue dot.

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  • Anne Fenwick

    That’s all a bit confusing. I mean, do you still think of yourself as ‘zero-culture’ or did you discover you had one after all? The various white cultures of North America stand out pretty clearly and distinctly to those of us in the rsst of the world. I can understand people not liking or finding fulfillment in their own culture for various reasons, but it’s hard to see how they think they don’t have one when they very obviously do.

  • guerillasurgeon

    I know this is off topic, but you might appreciate a laugh. I’ve just had a look at my first assignment for a first year sociology course I’ve been putting off while doing as many third-year courses as I can. It requires me to “Discuss two differences and two similarities between your own life narrative and one of someone at least a generation older than yourself (this will require you to talk with that other person). ” ………….. I’m 71.

  • As I noted in the piece, I was referring to being a child in a neighbourhood where other traditions’ distinctions stood out, and when I hadn’t yet realized that my culture was the backdrop to it all. Ergo, being envious of others for having such striking distinctions when I didn’t realize the wash of background noise that was my own. Later on, I DID see parts of my culture stand out, much as those other cultures had also stood out when I was young… but the parts of my culture that stood out when I went to university and met rural-white folks were unfortunately the racist components.

    The background culture, the white-normative baseline of Western society, *is* my culture. It has an immensity of traditions, historical figures, and events. They’re just all taken for granted–they don’t need to be asserted or fought for–which is why as a child I felt like a comparative absence next to all these communities that DID have to assert themselves.

    Hope that clears that up for you!

  • HAH! Oh, GuerillaSurgeon, I didn’t realize you were in the fray of coursework. Congratulations! I take it you need to find a nonagenarian now?

    (Thanks for the laugh. It’s actually been a bit of a rough day, so it was well received. Good luck with the course material!)

  • guerillasurgeon

    I was always taught that a generation is 30 years, so centenarians are even more rare. But I’ve just gotten permission to talk to someone younger. So I think I’ll interview my son. Why not, I interviewed my wife last year and she got me an A+. Yes, I’ve been doing a paper/course per year now for God knows how many years, to get a BA in sociology in order to keep my brain ticking over – I thought sociology was outside my comfort zone but it’s very interesting. God knows what I’m going to do when I graduate next year. I suppose if I could afford it I could do a doctorate. God knows I’ve already got two master’s degrees and I’m not even sure I could get a PhD finished before I pop my clogs.:)

  • Worth a try! Either way, that’s quite an achievement, GuerillaSurgeon, and something I 100% aspire to myself. Lifelong learning is not an easy pursuit to master. Your son’s a lucky fellow to have such an excellent example of it in the flesh. Hope you two have a fascinating interview!

  • Anne Fenwick

    Not quite, no, and probably for, er… cultural reasons. See, as an outsider, I don’t think that the culture of white Americans from places like New York resembles the culture of rural-Americans. Nor, in general, do the cultures of city-dwellers resemble those of country-dwellers. Whereas you see them as different ‘components’ of the same culture? Hmmm… maybe that’s part of the reason?

    I’m also not sure I think there is a ‘white-normative baseline of Western society’. Assuming Western society is a thing, it may be white normative in that (from our point of view) Europe is historically white (America isn’t), but being white isn’t a culture in itself – or perhaps you think it is? But surely, anything resembling a baseline, if we can pick one out (a history of Christian religion, perhaps? wheat-dependent subsistence?) has been more a source of conflict and differentiation than a neutral background? And that ‘immensity of traditions, historical figures and events’ is for the most part only ‘ours’ by some process of cultural appropriation? For instance, I appreciate Shakespeare, to pick what seems to be the usual example, but I certainly realise he’s not part of *my* culture, except in the sense that I’ve become able to appropriate him through some rather complex historical and personal processes – the very same ones that enable me appreciate the Ramayana, for instance.

    I wonder… could this sense of non-culturedness that actually seems quite common among white Americans come, not from the fact that their culture is ubiquitous in their environment, but from the fact that they’re encouraged to feel like they’re the heirs to all the cultures of Europe and the European diaspora – when of course, they can’t be really. Culture comes from lived experience and exists in relation to it. It’s simply impossible to live all that! Deep down, people surely must feel a sense of alienation with respect to this ‘thing’ that’s attributed to them?

  • I suspected there might be an “across the pond” issue afoot! Thanks for clarifying your confusion. There is indeed a discourse in North America quite different from aspects of Europe on this accord. For myself, I’m 13 generations Canadian on my mother’s side, 8 on my father’s… which means that when people press for my ancestry I have to go right back to French, English, Scottish, and Irish colonizers–at which point the other party tends to latch on to one of those: “Ah, yes, you’re Irish! I thought as much!” Which is inane to me. My ancient Irish ancestors, or any of my other specific European colonizing ancestors, bring very little to bear on my direct practice of self in society. What I am is a “white Canadian,” or “Caucasian” on the census, with my culture defined by that which is the backdrop to Canada’s official and social institutions, the framing of its history and art, the structure of our calendar, the use of its Tim Horton’s (a coffee chain). I’m everywhere, naturally.

    “Europe is historically white (America isn’t), but being white isn’t a culture in itself – or perhaps you think it is?”

    It is a culture of power, and as I described in this piece, there were many times in my childhood when I felt that power of cultural positioning shape how I moved in the world. We absolutely have our rural/city divides, but a “white” person can shapeshift into a position of power in a surprising number of spheres. One example I used was with the police, because when a black man is harassing you that stands out to them more than when a white man is harassing you–and the consequences tend to be more severe. Another example I mentioned involved some university students’ assumptions that a white-skinned person would automatically share racist values. Relatedly, I didn’t grow up with the same finances as a lot of the white people I went to university with, but my presence and my skin still lent an automatic presumption of belonging to a similar community of wealth/access/connections, both in undergrad and straight through to my PhD programme, whereas there was absolutely a tacit assumption that many persons with brown/black skin had come from poorer families. This was in Canada. I’ve heard even worse stories about that prejudicial divide from U.S. institutions.

    Being “seen” as white is a strange phenomenon, though, even within North America. Plenty of people with Italian and Irish grandparents, for instance, will tell you their elders do not at all feel white because they remember being persecuted as “other” when growing up. Now they “pass” and get the benefits of such, but those personal histories linger. Suffice it to say, then, entrance into “white” culture, this sort of passkey for social acceptability and centrality, changes. 100 years ago “white” would not have encompassed the same groups it did today… and even today I’m noting that lighter-skinned Mexican, Iranian, and Syrian persons are finding it easier to be presumed white if they don’t have a pronounced accent. So, the shapeshifting continues.

    “Deep down, people surely must feel a sense of alienation with respect to this ‘thing’ that’s attributed to them?”

    Sadly, I think not. “White” is an extremely vague, all-encompassing tribe used to stoke political allegiance against the “other”. That’s pretty much the basis of U.S. rightwing radicalism at present: this fear of a rising brown majority coming to take “white” money, “white” opportunities, “white” land… even if the umbrella term “white” covers far more bases than individual “white” voters would perhaps agree to, if given a line-by-line list of everyone being included in that group.

    Simply put: “White” is not an ethnicity, but it is a cultural lore many people live within–and often happily so, because with “white” culture in North America comes a vague sense of “belonging” to the dominant class, the class of society most naturally entitled to power. I don’t doubt things are quite different across the pond, but as Europe has recently been straining with its own anxieties about the influx of the “other”, what identity label do you see folks using to try to establish a cultural baseline of power against that “rising tide”?

    (And thanks for this! This is a critical deconstruction of a term relentlessly taken as a given even in its vagueness in North American discourse, a little like “rape culture”–which can stand in for so many things it often uses its strength entirely.)

  • (& If anyone ever feels frustrated by Disqus, I promise you the feeling is mutual. I posted this reply, took it OUT of a flagged queue, then this morning found that it had been put back into the flagged queue again. And all for… just the silliest words. So, I promise you, I’m not culling anything save blatant hate speech (which hasn’t happened yet!); the system is just naturally fiddly.)

  • Major Major

    2 things: I always find it ‘interesting’ that Canada sets itself up as the more ‘woke’ culture, at the same time as they continue to brutalize many native populations in the same way that we here in the US continue to do.

    The second thing is the ‘diversity’ of liberals. Like somehow, if a board of some warmaking company like Raytheon has more POC on it, it’s attained diversity. This is not to discourage more diversity in general in places like tech, but we also need to consider how these various corporations continue to brutalize marginalized communities.

  • Agreed. There was a critical piece in Maclean’s a few years back that showed Canada to actually score *worse* for the impact of racism on our indigenous populations, as compared to outcomes in the U.S. for black persons: https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/out-of-sight-out-of-mind-2/ How is that extreme disparity possible? Simply put: the majority of Canadians live near the southern border of a vast nation, so most indigenous communities suffer from “out of sight, out of mind”-ism to a devastating degree. Five years later, as this Feb 4 2020 article illustrates, we’re still clutching pearls in shock over how bad our racism is: https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/desmond-cole-canada-insists-on-being-surprised-by-its-own-racism/

    And I agree–percentage-based equality measures don’t address the core institutional and systemic problems with our culture. But they sure make a lot of folks feel good about having made a difference. We need radical intersectional approaches to these problems–approaches that make class a key component of this conversation, without erasing racialization in the process. I sorely hope we’re moving in that direction, but the signal-to-noise ratio for those sorts of conversations is still quite discouraging.

  • jkcmsal

    Thank you for this article – all of it – and especially this, your concluding words:

    Rather, our greatest struggle, as humanists of all spots and stripes,
    lies in our ability to keep learning: to keep availing ourselves to new
    data points (from all corners of the world, as well as all the worlds
    in our local neighbourhoods), and from those new data points, to keep
    expanding the reach of our empathy for the struggles of all humankind.

    To that end, dear fellow global citizens, both near and far:

    Happiest of Sundays and Black History Months–but above all else, happiest of shared time-and-space on this, our pale blue dot.