March 06, 2017

Recognizing our differences can strengthen community

Recognizing our differences can strengthen community
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By The West View

By Amy Jordan

As anxious children wait outside the cafeteria doors for breakfast at our neighborhood school I spot Mr. Kjar, a third grade teacher with his camera, snapping portraits. “I’m collecting faces,” he says. He’s working on a painting that will showcase the spectrum of skin tones at our school. “I want to show that we are all shades of brown, from the darkest to the lightest. Aren’t they beautiful?” he says as he scans the portraits.

A poem by Shel Silverstein called “No Difference” ends this way:

Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white,
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to just reach out
And turn off the light!

This strikes me as both absolutely right and yet wrong. Sure, in some ways we are all the same when we turn out the light, but who wants to live in a world without color and variety? I returned to Glendale to raise my children because of the colors here. For the variety in people, not just how they look, but how they see the world through their unique eyes of experience.

In addition, this poem opens up a larger conversation for me. Why would we want to “turn out the lights”? What is it that makes us afraid to see the differences in our community? When we recognize our differences, it affords us the opportunity to recognize our privileges and the innate injustices therein. For instance, an April 2016 article in the Salt Lake Tribune stated that a woman in Utah will only make sixty seven cents on every dollar a man will earn, for equal work. This is a privilege that is easy for me to call out. However, it is hard for me to recognize my own inherited privileges, like white privilege.

In a Washington Post blog Christine Emba explains white privilege as “the idea that just by virtue of being a white person of any kind, you’re part of the dominant group which tends to be respected, assumed the best of, and given the benefit of the doubt. That just isn’t the case for people of other races, no matter how wealthy, smart or hard-working they might be.” That brings up “white fragility,” a term coined by Robin DiAngelo. A currently relevant concept, white fragility is a concept that explains why white people get uncomfortable or upset when we talk about differences and racism.

DiAngelo says “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress…white fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” DiAngelo (2011)

DiAngelo says that we can all recognize some form of racism within ourselves and when we do, we have the opportunity to change our ideas, thought patterns, and practices.

Recently, The West View held a series of community conversations on the topic of diversity. At the first conversation, a group of women pointed out the micro-aggression of asking, “Where are you from?” Through my blue-eyed lens I was genuinely confused how this was an offensive question. I love to learn about people and their stories. How could it hurt to ask something so innocent? My friend Gabby patiently explained that when I ask where she is from I assume that she is not from here, that based on the amount of melanin in her skin she is assumed an outsider. I responded, “no one ever asks me where I’m from.” That’s when it really hit me. No one asks me that question because I’m white. Somehow that means I belong here. The irony made my stomach turn, standing on land stolen from indigenous people. How does my light skin make me the rightful heir to this place, to call it mine?

These “aha” moments are hard but people who live with the negative effects of naive remarks deal with racism every day. When we do the hard work of recognizing our assumptions and privileges, especially when it is uncomfortable, we take a step forward towards a unified community.

It is easy and comfortable to “turn out the light” pretending that we are all the same enjoying the same privileges and opportunities but where does that get us? When we turn on the light we see the beautiful colors of diverse thoughts and ways of being all around us. We gain the benefits of more voices with more solutions to problems. We also gain the ability to see barriers to connections with those who are different from us and we can choose to break down the barriers to make truly meaningful relationships in our lives.

Amy is a devoted mother of four beautiful children, who are fourth generation Glendale residents. She has and continues to serve in various positions in her LDS ward, organizes community and school gardens, and works as an American Sign Language Interpreter.