FLOTSAM & JETSAM: What living in a white minority is really like and other thoughts on ethnic diversity
EMAIL: ssmith@igc.org

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What living in a white minority is really like and other thoughts on ethnic diversity

Sam Smith - The projections are that America’s whites will be a minority by 2045. We can expect the media and politicians to treat this as a crisis.

My recommendation: relax. I’m a white guy who lived for five decades as part of the white minority of Washington DC and not only did it not bother me, it was a lot of fun. When gentrification started turning DC into a majority white city again, it actually got more sober, more pompous, and more boring.

In fact, I’m having some difficulty relating to all the ethnic conflict these days elsewhere in the country, because DC constantly showed how complex and interesting ethnic relations really are. You want to talk about “black?” Well, do you mean Upper 16th Street, Adams Morgan, Shaw, Brookland or Anacostia? Are you talking about our mayor, the mayor’s biggest critic, your kid’s teacher or buddy, a taxi driver or the guy doing the evening news?

Nationally, it’s not just racists who oversimplify things. The media and politicians don’t help either. When was the last time the media told you that 15% of today’s marriages are cross-ethnic? Did you ever hear that Barack Obama spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent?

It is participating in, understanding and enjoying ethnic complexity that leads one out of the clichés and into the full diversity of a culture that shares the same skin color.

About a quarter century ago I dealt with the issue in my book, The Great American Repaid Manual:
I'm a native Washingtonian and have lived in DC most of my life. DC is two-thirds black. When someone asks me where I live and I tell them, they sometimes look at my fifty-something white face and say, "You mean in the city?" What they mean is: with all those blacks?

I don't live in DC out of any moral imperative. I'm not doing anybody a favor except myself. I live here because I enjoy it. Beside, I'd rather be in the minority in DC than in the majority in a lot of places. Here are a few reasons why:

I've found black Washingtonians exceptionally friendly, decent, hospitable, and morally rooted. They're nice folks to be around.

Black Washingtonians will talk to strangers without knowing "who are you with?" White Washingtonians, especially in the political city, are often far more formal and distant. -- and more likely to treat you based on your utility to themselves. Not knowing anyone at an all-white event in DC can be pretty lonely; not knowing anyone at an all-black event in DC means you soon will.

Black Washingtonians understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have helped me become better at handling these things.

Black Washingtonians value humor; many white Washingtonians try (as Russell Baker once noted) to be somber under the illusion that it makes them serious. I like to laugh.

Black Washingtonians value achievement as well as power. Teachers, artists, writers and poets are respected in the black community. As a writer, I like that.

Living in close proximity with another culture provides a useful gauge by which to judge one's own.

The imagery, rhythm and style of black speech appeals to me far more than the jargon-ridden circumlocution of the white city.

Many black Washingtonians are actively concerned about social and political change; much of white Washington is seeking to maintain the status quo.

White Washington always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has always accepted me for who I am.

I also wrote how simply being together produces change:
Janet Hampton, a George Washington University professor whose research specialty is Afro-Hispanic studies, grew up black in Kansas. She exudes a cheerful calm suggestive of having lived around a lot of love, so you might not suspect that she has taught ethnic relations to cops at the local police academy as well as having been on the faculty at both mostly white and mostly black universities. Here's how she handles the first day of class: "I ask the students to tell a little about themselves. If some one is from a cultural enclave, I tell them about other students from their school or place who have really done well." She pays particular attention to those who come from "pariah nations" like Iraq. She told a student from Eritrea that he could be very helpful when the class discussed the American Civil War.

I asked her about ethnic slurs. Let's say, Jan said, that a black student uses the word wetback. "I would make him apologize but I would also say that we don't want to lose his point." Corrected but still valued.

Janet informs her students that "As long as you are never disrespectful, you can say anything you want. ~ We will change by just being together."

And then I included some tips:

1. Be friendly and respectful: In a culturally varied society, it is easy to transmit signals that are misunderstood but, fortunately, kindness, friendliness and respect come across clearly. Make good use of them.

2. Learn about other cultures: We typically try to resolve inter-cultural tensions without giving people a solid reason for liking one another. Mutual enjoyment and admiration provide the shortest route between two ethnicities. Education is one thing that we know reduces prejudice. Yet for all our talk about diversity, this isn't so easy to come by.We could well spend less time on abstractions of racism and more on the assets of each other's traditions.

We could be teaching, in high school anthropology classes and college seminars, the variety of the world as something to explore and enjoy, not just as a problem or an issue. You don't have to teach diversity. Diversity is. You don't have to defend it in lofty liberal rhetoric. Studying humanity's medley is not a moral act; it is simply intelligent. Limiting one's understanding to the "western intellectual canon," makes as much sense as teaching leeching to medical students or limiting one's knowledge of the universe to that data available to Copernicus. It's not that it's evil; it's just not very smart,

And you don't have to learn it all in school. France became a haven for black exiles earlier this century in no small part because of French enthusiasm for jazz and African art. Similarly, jazz clubs and concerts were among the few places in segregated America that apartheid was regularly ignored.

Today we are sometimes more hospitable to foreigners than we are to strangers in our own land. One notable exception is the ethnic restaurant. Why? In part because all parties involved get a fair deal out of it. In part because it is enjoyable. In part because it is natural. No one is self-conscious; no one is made to feel uncomfortable. The owner makes a good living; the customers get a good meal.

3. Diversity within cultures counts as well as that between them: Just because jazz is important to black culture doesn't mean all blacks like jazz. Or that colleges shouldn't recruit black cellists as well as black forwards. Or that just because someone's white, they have to be Anglo-Saxon or a Protestant.

4. Share power fairly. One of the clearest manifestations of decency is equitable power. In a society wedded to winner-take-all solutions, sharing power can be difficult to achieve. But it's worth trying. One way is to learn from children. Notice how much time they spend on whether the game is "fair." They're on to something.

5. Find something in common that's more important than what's not: It can be a political goal, a sport, an avocation or a business. I've seen it work in situations as diverse as a project to train church archivists or a kid's team headed for a playoff. The importance of ethnicity is often inversely proportional to what else we have on our minds

6. Stop being shocked by prejudice. We have attempted to exorcise racism much as Nancy Reagan tried to get rid of drugs, by just saying no. It has worked about as well. Once we recognize the unpleasant persistence of human discrimination, once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance controllable by sanctions, we will be guided away from puritanical corrective approaches towards ones that emphasize techniques of mitigating harm, and towards activities and attitudes that become antibiotics against prejudice.

7. Get real; When not on the podium or in front of a mike, people in politics talk real talk about real things. Like how you're going win the black vote or carry a Polish ward or not piss off the gays. Elsewhere, when the subject of ethnicity or sex comes up, the discussion often turns disingenuously circuitous or maddeningly abstract. This is one time when the politicians are on the right track. Lay problems and feelings honestly on the table and then deal with them.

8. Talk about it but not too much: At a meeting called to discuss racial problems, a black activist said, "I don't want to talk about race unless we are going to do something specific about it." It's not a bad rule for every public discussion of race. Unproductive talk can leave people feeling more helpless and frustrated than when it began.

9. Diversity includes people you don't like. Even liberals don't talk about this but a truly multi-cultural community will include born-again Christians opposed to abortion, Muslims with highly restrictive views on the role of women, prayer sayers and atheists, Playboy readers as well as Seventh Day Adventists. Remember that you're not required to express -- or even have -- an opinion about everyone else in the world.

10. Don't sweat the small stuff. Common sense is a great civil rights tool. Even in a multi-cultural society, loutish sophomores are going to use tasteless language, fundamentalists will sneak in private prayers on public occasions, and eight-year-old boys will grab girls when they shouldn't. Hyper-reaction to such minor phenomena hurt and trivialize the cause of human justice.

11. Go for the important stuff. One of the reasons the little stuff gets such big play is because of the lack of a clear and meaningful agenda of social justice. People wouldn't be talking so much about who said what to whom and in what tone of voice if there was a serious effort underway, for example, against discrimination in such long-neglected areas such as housing and public transportation.

12. Try to avoid putting virtues in competition: School bussing placed the virtue of integration in direct conflict with the virtue of neighborhood schools. Often such conflicts can be avoided or mitigated by choosing other tactics. For example, why was there so much attention to bussing and so little to residential integration?

13. Lighten up on the lawyers. While of great assistance in securing basic rights, lawyers are not well equipped to deal with complex human relationships. We need to train large numbers of people who can serve as peace-keepers, mediators, and referees.

14. Timely courage helps: When anti-Semitic attacks began in Billings MT, the town responded quickly -- getting rid of Nazi symbols and posting paper menorahs in the windows of homes. A little early courage at such times works better than a lot of belated hand wringing.

15. Attack economic discrimination, too: After every group gets its rights, the powerful among them will discriminate against the weak and the wealthy against the poor. As Saul Alinsky said, "When the poor get power they'll be shits like everyone else." Opposition to affirmative action might have been much less had the programs been based on zip code as well as on race and sex. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in 1964 that "the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education."

 16. Stop worrying so much about language. It provides a warning sign and serves as an inter-cultural safety valve. Paul Kuritz, in an article on ethnic humor in the Maine Progressive, pointed out that "as early as 1907, the English-speaking rabbis and priests of Cleveland united to protest the Irish and Jewish stage comedians. ~ The suppression of crude ethnic humor both accompanied the economic exploitation of the lower-class work force and paralleled the dismissal of the lower classes' tastes as 'offensive' to the newly refined sensibilities of upwardly-mobile second and third generation Americans."

Kuritz, a third-generation Slovak, was arguing that the real problem with a recently fired French-Canadian radio host was not that he had made fun of his own culture but that the full panoply of ethnicity was not also represented on the air. This would have allowed all these groups to experience what anthropologists call a "joking relationship," helping to reduce tensions between potentially antagonistic clans. Said Kuritz, "As a general rule of thumb, an attempt to suppress speech as 'offensive' or 'disempowering' is not a signal to lessen the amount of talk, but to increase the amount.”

Today, inter-ethnic joking is mainly found in rough-and-tumble environments such as the modern vaudeville of comedy clubs or in sports and politics, but is frowned upon by those whose social status leads them to presume that manners create reality. The problem is that under the latter ground rules, words often disguise feelings, sidetrack action, and no longer serve to keep tension and hate apart.

17. Be tough on leaders, not on followers: Those with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make little distinction between people who merely accept the values of their culture and those who market and manipulate them. It helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and often speak with their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic but it certainly is a human one. After all, if it weren't for Rush, dittoheads would have nothing to ditto.

18. Make justice pay off: The modern civil rights movement started with a bus boycott -- and many more economic actions soon followed. Its leaders understood that one of the easiest ways to get people to give up a prejudice is to discover that it's costing them money. That's why you may find more racial mixing at a shopping mall than you will in a nearby church, club or neighborhood.

19. Recognize that we are all part of something else. By dint of exposure to TV alone, it is virtually impossible to live in America and not have absorbed aspects of other cultures. We all, in effect, belong to a part-culture, which is to say that our ethnicity is somewhat defined by its relationship to, and borrowing from, other cultures. There are almost no pure anythings in America anymore. The sooner we accept and enjoy this, the better off we'll be.

20. Remember that everyone is an ethnic something. There are no unethnic Americans.