“It didn’t even seem like they noticed,” she said to me.
My wife, Trudy, and I had just finished putting our apartment back in order after some friends had spent the late afternoon with us. Our children had put up much less of a struggle going to bed than I had anticipated, given that it was much later than usual and that the hyperactivity of entertaining company had not yet worn off. Our daughter, Shayna, had no doubt exhausted herself by trying to defend her territory against the other young girl who had come over (never mind the fact that the other girl was six months Shayna’s junior and had very little interest in fighting). Our son, Eitan, meanwhile, had pushed through the initial focus on the two girls and used up his energy convincing all four adult males to play board games with him.
“I mean, I’m glad they didn’t notice,” Trudy added, referring again to our children. “It’s just interesting. I don’t think we’ve ever had any black friends over to our apartment before.”
I hadn’t even considered that they might react differently to people with darker skin but my wife’s point was well taken.
Eitan had been scared of people with dark skin – men, in particular – when he was very young. Trudy had taken him for swimming lessons before he turned 2, for instance, and he was terrified of the instructor, a large and very dark African man. He was also frightened of the tall, Caribbean security guard at our local synagogue when he first began attending preschool there. The continued daily contact with the guard, though – not to mention his warm and welcoming smile – helped my son get over his fear.
He and his sister had no such hesitations when my friends came over. My kids took to them as they would have to any other adult: slightly shy at first and begging them for attention by the end. Still, it didn’t take me long to realize my wife was correct in her assessment. My friend and her boyfriend were the first people of color who had ever come to our apartment.
Diversity: Being “woke” about being clueless
It was a somewhat jarring conclusion for me. As someone who claims to celebrate diversity, it felt odd to acknowledge that the only people with skin than darker mine who had ever come to my apartment had been hired to clean or to fix appliances or to spray insect repellent.
I make an effort to pay attention to opinions about politics and society from a variety of personalities. I follow people of color on Twitter. I listen to podcasts that feature guests from diverse backgrounds. I try to be as open-minded about cultural differences as I can with the families I work with. And yet, at the end of the day, I return home to my white family, in my generally white neighborhood, with my almost entirely white synagogue. The only people of color I meet on a regular basis in my neighborhood are street vendors, store employees and the livery cab drivers who line up near the subway station.
Am I “doing diversity wrong?”
Do I need to find more black and Latino friends? Should I associate more with people with disabilities or from different age groups? What about LGBTQ people?
More importantly, do I need to invite them all over at some point so my children don’t grow up thinking they should only be associating with people who look like them?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. For that matter, I don’t know exactly what it means to “do diversity right.” Also, I don’t know how to make that previous paragraph about trying to be “woke” sound less like the “I’m not racist because I have a black friend” argument. How does a person find the answers without putting people on the spot and forcing them to be my teachers. I don’t know exactly how to teach my kids about diversity when we live in a community that often feels homogeneous.
What I do know is that I have to to listen. I have to do research, ask questions and pay attention to the answers. I have to look for viewpoints that I wouldn’t ordinarily hear and speak to people who don’t look like me.
I have to find ways to expose my children to other experiences. I have to read them books that portray people from other backgrounds and encourage them to meet and play with other children, especially the ones who don’t look like them. I have to teach them that embracing diversity isn’t just about being politically correct; it’s about being respectful other people.
Then I have to hope that they get the message.