Part of my title at work is Director of an aspect of diversity. At one point in my life I had great hopes that diversity work would change the way that Americans treated each other. I have always thought that social justice was a simple thing, that surely everyone believed in it and all that we needed were ways to help foster understanding of each other, appreciation of our differences and respect for our disagreements.
As I have gotten to be what the French call ” a woman of a certain age” I have come to understand that my vision is hardly shared by the majority of people in America. Social justice is not even mentioned very often anymore and quite frankly belief in Social Darwinism, a theory once scorned by most intelligent people, now seems to be on the rise.
“Diversity” is a word that was until fairly recently mostly associated with biological communities. Biological diversity is essential for the perpetuation of species. If you lose it and have too much inbreeding your population will eventually become extinct. At least that is what Dr. Howe taught me in Biology all those years ago. In human societies however, while we still need bio-diversity it seems that many of us think we can live quite nicely by not having anything approaching social diversity or intellectual diversity.
Diversity has come to mean many things to many people. To some it means different races, to some it means different economic classes, to some it means different sexual orientations. It is very difficult to come up with a shared definition of diversity. Far too often we end up engaged in what I call the Oppression Olympics. This is when one tries to convince someone from another group that their own group has had at least as hard a time as the other group, if not a harder time.
My question is simple. Why can’t everyone just decide that nobody should be oppressed, disrespected, called names, discriminated against?
Of course, that gives us another problem. What constitutes oppression? Is being called a racist name oppression? It depends on which side of the racial divide you fall on. If you have had white privilege all your life then you might find being outraged at being called a nigger, petty, silly, and overly sensitive. If you were born in this country and have the privilege of citizenship by native birth you might find being offended by being called a “wetback” or having your child dubbed an ” anchor baby” overly sensitive. If you have the privilege of being a part of the heterosexual, majority, you might not understand why being called a fag is more than just hurtful. If you are a male, and we do still live in a male dominated society, you might not understand why words like bitch and whore and ho have power.
But that is the problem with social justice. It requires that you are able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You have to listen to the people in the respective group when they tell you things and not pooh pooh their point of view or their reactions. I have never been poor–although I have felt poor sometimes since that beach house or BMW has been out of my reach–so I cannot say what poor people should find offensive, or what one should do not to be poor.
I was born to people who made enough money to put food on the table, clothes on my back and a roof over my head. They did not do it lavishly, but I did not want for much. I was able with the help of my husband, in-laws, mother and a bunch of other folks to complete my education early in life, at least to get a BS and a teacher’s certificate.
I know, however, that I cannot look at poor people and tell them they too should have been born in circumstances that would permit them the luxury of not one but three degrees, of not ever having been hungry or cold or homeless. I am pretty sure they did not choose their lot. I am also certain it is not my superior morality or decision making or intellect that spared me their lot, a lot of it is plain luck.
But, there are those among us, and too many in my opinion who mistake their own luck and privilege for merit that should be rewarded. They think they have financial stability, social standing, education, respect, etc. because they deserve it. And, in most if not all cases, perhaps they do deserve it. What I am certain of, however, is that there are other people who deserve it who will never achieve it because we are embracing Social Darwinism and declaring like Cotton Mather and his minions that if they are poor it is their fault, if they are uneducated it is their fault, if they are oppressed it is their fault.Nothing for us to do about it, after all , it is not our fault, even if we are part of the society that supports the institutions and processes and habits that helps keep them poor and powerless.
As we close in on a new year I want to invite all of you to stop and think about how you are treating other people. And I am further challenging you to realize that simply not being the purposeful perpetrator of oppression is not good enough. You have to fight oppression whenever you see it. Speak up, demand justice for people who may be powerless to demand it for themselves and never, ever, forget that there but for the grace of God you could be in their same situation.
Horace Mann, first president of Antioch College said it best “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind.”
There is no better time than the dawning of a New Year to determine that you will be one of the people who helps put me out of a job. That you will help hasten the day when the idea that we need offices to deal with diversity will be an anachronism in the future. That people will laugh at the very idea that racism, homophobia, sexism, elitism and other forms of oppression ever existed.
Instead of resolutions to lose weight, save money, exercise more or other self-improvement pseudo goals, let’s all make a resolution to listen to other people, try to hone our empathetic skills and see if we can win some victory for mankind.