Last weekend I attended a school performance of little kids. I tried really hard to enjoy it.
Except I couldn’t help noticing that almost all of the featured children were white. And one blonde white girl who was given a solo was one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard. It reminded me of that old joke about how we’ll know we have achieved equality when we’re allowed to be mediocre.
The show was nominally about multiculturalism. Isn’t it grand? Although as Restructure! has pointed out, multiculturalism is not the same as anti-racism. In fact, the white conception of “multiculturalism” often promotes and furthers racism by denying its existence.
But here the kids of color were used as a backdrop for the people of importance. Who are white. And who are learning their own importance, which is reinforced on a regular and systemic basis. (So why does the “Compton Cookout” cause us any surprise? This is how we have trained the younger generation.) It’s both overt and covert.
I’m sure if you talked about the omission of kids of color to whoever was in charge of the production, they’d insist that there are equal opportunities for everybody. And maybe even that they’ve encouraged the kids of color to participate, but that none of them want to. That there are cultural differences and that those kids just don’t want to be in the spotlight.
And no matter how carefully or tactfully you raised this discussion, you might meet with one of two potential responses: Being brushed off, because we are a multicultural institution! It’s one of our core values! Or shock and horror or anger, because we are not racist!
I’m guessing that the white audience members did not notice any sort of omission. But I’m guessing the folks of color might have. Or maybe they’re used to the complexion of their environment.
What if all the featured kids were kids of color? What then? I believe that white people would notice. In fact, I’m sure of it. Because despite assertions of colorblindness, white people are hypervigilant about color. They might allow a little color here and there so that they can point out their good-hearted, well-intentioned liberalness. As if they personally are responsible for our successes. But get a room full of color and watch the reaction.
I was thinking about this recently when a professor friend was talking about the university’s attempt to diversify its faculty. And I thought about how white faculty members, even the “progressive” ones, would probably never attempt to make all of the hires people of color.* If there are five openings, maybe one would be targeted towards people of color. But never five.
Five would be too threatening, even if there were no other faculty members of color. Five would be too many. One is enough to show you care.
So we learn that we are fine in limited doses. And we put ourselves forward in limited doses as well. We learn not to rock the boat. We learn not to make white people uncomfortable. We don’t put forth radical strategies. Hey, if we’re trying to diversify the faculty, why don’t we set the goal to hire five professors of color?**
And we learn distorted views of ourselves. We learn that we couldn’t be that smart, that talented, that capable. We learn that we have a view distorted by race. We learn that our feelings and experiences mean nothing. We learn that we ought to be grateful that white people gave us a chance.
The local newspaper featured an article on the kids’ show. Photographs of three white boys. Interviews and quotes from white children. This is how we learn.
*Yeah, yeah, I know that white people are diverse too.
** Yeah, yeah, I know people are going to argue that they just can’t find the qualified applicants.