Two days before Thanksgiving, I received a call from the White House inviting the -ISM (N.) National Diversity Project as one of ten "Promising Practices" to attend the President's town-hall meeting in Akron, Ohio. With a few days notice, three students from -ISM (N.) schools across the country and I packed our bags and were on our way.
President Clinton quickly set the tone for the town-hall meeting. "You have to imagine we are in a café downtown sitting around a table drinking coffee together. Forget that people are watching you and you're on television." However, the 75 on-stage participants did not need the caffeine to get their hearts pumping, and there was no decaf.
Imagine that same café downtown, but picture a blind date. Each participant was carefully selected -- but not by you. Each person dressed to impress, planned his or her questions, had a healthy dose of nervous discomfort, and found himself/herself wanting to talk more than listen. Nonetheless, the conversation was better than you expected -- a good balance of laughter, storytelling, disagreement and embarrassing statements that you wish never happened. The date went longer than you planned because it was going well and most - importantly - each person involved seemed interested in doing it again.
Personally, I was less intrigued by the dialogue on stage than by what occurred surrounding this large media event. When discussion came around to Erika Sanders, a local student, she told President Clinton, "... I feel the burden to speak for all of black America. And slowly I'm helping my classmates realize that I'm not all of black America. I'm Erika. ..."
Later that night in my hotel room, I listened to a commentator on the local news twist Erika's statement into an argument for individualism. He cheered that Erika was right on, that we should each be seen as individuals, not as members of a particular race. That, however, is not at all what I heard.
Erika did not discard her race, but rather the burden of speaking for the entire black community. Big difference, but easy to twist. This one commentary is proof of the media's power and how it can be readily manipulated. While media is an important and underutilized tool for building an understanding of our differences, it is also a force in oversimplifying the way we discuss diversity.
I was asked many times in Akron about my own self-interest in race relations and diversity. After all I am white, people would point out so astutely. To be sure, I get tired of having to explain myself out of the boxes that people put me in, and that I also put myself in. I want to tell everyone to see me as an individual instead of as a member of a race or gender group. But that is too simplistic. I am unquestionably the product of my experiences, as are we all. And our experiences are affected by our race, class, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation and culture.
If people different from myself have experiences where they consistently witness people who look like me acting a certain way toward them -- let's say, for example, presuming a certain stance on affirmative action, complimenting them on their excellent English, not knowing the difference between Hispanic and Latino, discounting them because of their stance on the O.J. verdict, or being less involved in race relations -- then, it would be natural to expect the possibility that I could act in a similar way. It is empirical.
I welcome this burden to articulate my interests, break out of the box and prove who I really am beneath my skin color. Minorities are asked to do this everyday. I do not claim, however, that my white skin has had no effect on my experience as an individual -- it undeniably has, in ways I probably still fail to recognize.
I also see this burden, however, as an opportunity to learn -- to improve and even recreate myself. My interactions with people, ideas and beliefs different from my own consistently make me look deeper into myself, challenge my own assumptions and become a much better person. That is my self-interest in diversity.
It is scary, though, to reevaluate myself. I believe this fear is at the heart of what feeds racism, intolerance and ignorance. To truly consider people who are different, we have to reconsider ourselves. To reconsider ourselves we have to uncover the contradictions, the monsters and the ugly parts. We all have them, and they are painful.
So, come join the dialogue, but 'forget that people are watching you and you're on television'. And forget that media-makers deliberately or inadvertently twist and simplify what you say to prove their point of view.
The President's Initiative on Race will certainly bring a considerable amount of attention to one of the most important issues of our time. It will increase the amount of dialogue. It will recognize many promising practices like our project. And it will make some public policy improvements along the way. But the initiative's greatest contribution will be to catalyze individuals' internal revolutions. And that, I am sure, will not be televised.