By Jorge D. H. Prósperi
It was the 1970s and the concept of Diversity was but an infant. Diversity Literacy was called Multiculturalism. It was a toddler trying to find its citizenship legs running for cover when approaching serious conversations about LGTB, -isms and phobias – especially if preceded by “institutional.” Diversity conferences drew mostly people of color and were so labeled. They were choirs singing to each other meeting in isolated crowded closets filled with anxiety and fear.
As a young college student, Diversity at the time meant to be different, divided and labeled. One simple affirmation was entering the college cafeteria. Suddenly I had to make an uncomfortable choice as to where to sit. I stood with tray in hand scanning my choices noticing tables of only Asian, black, Latina/o and white students.
Fast forward to being on the other side of the desk as a teacher. The cafeteria and food had changed, but the affinity groups had remained the same. It was interesting to notice the opening of school gatherings and teacher workshops how teachers and staff migrated to segregated tables. Each content area had their quarantined table. The football coaches gathered together working on Xs and Os. The administration and management sat apart. Through the years I continued to see the same divisions and wanted to know why.
Research pointed to reasons why people sat at the different tables of life. It was a matter of being accepted by a peer group. It was about sharing common likes and dislikes. It was about being drawn to similar status, class, ethnicity and race. Attracted to familiarity with comrades, feeling safe, not having to be on guard, being able to speak candidly. Using language, accent, code and tone of preference. It was a matter of personal freedom and choice without being judged and on guard. All constituencies living under the same roof and yet divided. We moved into the 1980s and 90s being promised by politicians and educators that we would soon begin to sit at other people’s tables without hesitation, fear and anxiety.
Fast forward to the 21st Century (2019) and America is said to be more divided, separated – gerrymandered socially, culturally and ideologically. Boarders living within borders with titles such as “ruralites, urbanites, and suburbanites.” Each county and district different with its own historical reasons for their current status as to housing, schools, businesses, transportation, digital internet access, jobs, political ideologies, voting trends and cultural differences.
One reason why the segregated tables existed, and still exist, was posited by Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book on race relations in 1997, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” The book became a classic in high school, college classrooms and Diversity Literacy conferences and workshops. The book not only explained the peripheries of racism, but urged discourse among young people about race. The new version of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race was released in 2017.
Of course choosing the town we decide to live in is different from choosing a cafeteria table. What Tatum challenges us to ponder are the reasons behind the choices. In trying to find comfort zones, what uncomfortable zones are we avoiding – running from? Choosing any one of the cafeteria tables does not make any of the students a racist. To live in a rural, urban and suburban town does not make anyone a racist.
But Tatum still asks the same question after 20 years. In her words, “The book asked how people can talk more openly about racial issues, even if they’re uncomfortable. And the book is more relevant than ever. Our population is much more diverse today than it was even 20 years ago. At the same time, there is even more school segregation than we had 20 years ago. Young people born in 1997 were four years old on Sept. 11. They were 11 when the economy crashed and when Barack Obama was elected. They were 15 when Trayvon Martin was killed and 17 when Michael Brown’s death sparked protests in Ferguson. They were 19 when Donald Trump was elected, and 20 when Charlottesville happened. All these events have shaped the world they grew up in, and by extension, have shaped them. Their education experience has also been shaped by Supreme Court decisions made long before they were born.”
The self-segregation Tatum saw across the country is something that emerges as students grow older. 21st Century Students are told that the world has changed, getting smaller and yet the smallness tends to hide its exponential universality. Do we dare to look beyond the peepholes of our rural, urban and suburban homes and communities?
Thorton Wilder (April 17, 1897 – December 7, 1975) drew attention to the peepholes by way of a conversation between Rebecca and George at the end of Act I of Our Town (1938).
Rebecca: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this, It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire, United States of America.
George: What’s funny about that?
Rebecca: But listen, it’s not finished: The United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope.
George: What do you know!
Rebecca: And the postman brought it just the same.
George: What do you know!
Stage Manager: That’s the end of the First Act, friends, You can go and smoke now, those that smoke.
The end of Act I… a good time to get up, stretch a bit mentally, look around, notice difference, sameness, ponder . . . the Mind of God . . . umm . . . wonder what peephole s/he looks through . . . what table s/he would choose to sit at?