Ethnographic Citizenry ~ Able to Observe Diversity and Embrace It

“There are very few crossroads anymore. . .
I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix.”

– Jenji Kohan on NPR’s Fresh Air, in 2013

Watching people is an amazing and intriguing diversion. It is said to be an interesting and fascinating pastime. Most qualitative researchers would mention that there is a difference between watching and observing. Some would posit that watching may be a matter of happenstance while observing requires a more acute intent and focus. As a mentor once astutely mentioned, watching notices – observing perceives.” Disclaimer – neither one has to judge. ‘Ay, there’s the rub!’

Is seeing and observing the same? Do we dare to see beyond our trappings?

While watching and observing, we allow our senses to view stories unfolding – that is – if we dare to look up from our phones. Most often our eyes are glancing at human vignettes, instantly interpreting with degrees of awareness connected to our own diversity and identity. Yes, the lenses we use by which to see, look and observe matter. Those lenses interpret. But I digress.

Not many of us wake up in the morning deciding, “I think I will go some place today and just watch people.” What typically occurs is that we find ourselves in spaces, intentionally or by happenstance, watching and observing. We may be standing in a line or visiting a location with a specific purpose. Nonetheless, spaces for observations are always available and begin to unfold. The spaces are stages with actors playing roles.

For example, I recently made an appointment to have my phone analyzed regarding its battery life. I thought it would be a simple transaction. But one thing led to another and I found myself considering trading the phone for a newer model. What I thought would be a 30 minute process took roughly 3 hours – yes there were many glitches – mostly my fault and the store was wall to wall filled with human beings.

While I waited for different technicians to assist me, I was provided with the opportunity to sit back and observe waves of humanity enter, browse, interact and leave. Individuals and families at first focused on the reasons they were there. But people slowly began to relax and mingle. It seemed as if the enclosed space invited interaction. Diversity began to unfold as technicians, sales personnel and countless customers created a rainbow of humanity.

A plethora of ages, gender, languages and skin pigmentations were present and represented. Some gave chairs to those standing. Innocent infants were peacefully sleeping, some babbling away in strollers – all were recognized and validated with gentle smiles. The youngest seemed to bring out nuances of our shared humanity.

An elderly tall white man, wearing a tee shirt that read across the back “VETERAN – PROUD TO HAVE SERVED!”, was sitting a few feet away from me. He initiated a conversation with a young African American woman gently bouncing her infant child. He smiled and asked, “What’s her name?” She shared the child’s name and age. He countered by sharing a story about his grandchildren. He was so proud they were now in college. He never had the chance to attend after enlisting in the military as a young man. Both began to listen to each other.

She shared that her father, uncle and cousin had also served. A triangle-flag at home on the mantle reminded her family of the latest sacrifice. Both seemed to find common ground and solace. America needed to hear their shared stories – now more than ever.

I observed daughters teaching mothers, sons teaching fathers about their cyber tech world – all being mentored by tech gurus as diversified as their tattoos. What was evident were the comfort zones of Diversity with Diversity – the allowance – the surrender – the self-permission to let go.

I wanted to scream . . . America! Please STOP! Stop right now and please observe – take a deep – deep breath and let’s exhale together – one primal exhalation  in harmony” . . . so much needed – so much hoped for – now more than ever.

Was this America in 2023?
Was this the America we often hear about on CNN, Fox News Rumors, MSNBC and NPR?
Or was this the America that most of us long for?

Were my observations real? Were my qualitative research lenses deceiving me? Wow, where did these people come from? Surely not from one rural, urban, suburban zip code. So, does this mean that Diversity has arrived – that we don’t have to wait for 2030?

The human vignettes were real because I had observed such realities before. This was not an aberration but an affirmation. The display of human diversity was real and right in front of my eyes, reminding me of my grandchildren and their world.

Day in, day out, our children provide Diversity’s light and hope. It’s not based on one observation, but countless occasions over many years as my wife and I chaperoned and witnessed, from kindergarten through high school – field trips, class parties, play-dates, book readings, overnights, concerts/plays, science fairs, forensics festivals, debate club, math competitions, music ensembles, robotics camps, Art Fairs, music camps and a slew of ALL-DAY sporting events. Those metal bleacher seats never get any cushier.

As parents, grandparents and family, we were there for them, weren’t we? We put our capricious social-cultural-political constructs aside and we acknowledged their presence because each mattered to the fullest essence of our shared humanity.

I could not stop thinking of other examples where Diversity was obvious – airports, tech stores, athletic events, college campuses, Costco-IKEA type venues, buses, trains, subways, graduations, parks, hospitals, malls, movie theaters, summer camps, voting precincts.

How about those 21st Century TV commercials! Notice the bisocio-cultural-ethnic-racial-lingual couples and their bi-socio-cultural-ethnic-racial-lingual children and their bi-socio-cultural-ethnic-racial-lingual friends and their bi-socio-cultural-ethnic-racial-lingual neighbors?

Our grandchildren are now 23, 21, 11 and 7 – not just one generation! They all grew up with diversity and inclusivity as part and parcel of their social-cultural reality – their truth.

Our children and grandchildren are living in a diverse world and the most critical observation and finding is – THEY ARE COMFORTABLE WITH DIVERSITY! The ignorance, fear and predispositions are left to adults to deal with and own. The children are moving on.

The choice is no longer a choice, but a matter of living within the reality that America is and will always be diverse – now more than ever – with inclusivity and equity left to each of us to embrace as we observe each other – recognizing and validating each other’s humanity.

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