Beauty? The Appalachian Mountains, waterfalls, rock outcrops and bears. Ugly? Extreme segregation.
We could all become safer, more secure, and more prosperous by cultivating diversity. What this often means is that comfortable people need to deliberately face discomfort. Going out of your comfort zone to meet and get to know people not part of your regular circles might bring on shortness of breath, tension in the jaw and shoulders, and a bit of bewilderment. Fears of the unknown, of embarrassment, awkwardness, or shame can keep people from approaching someone of a different skin color, age, or religious background. What do I say? What if I say something wrong? What if I accidentally offend someone?
Our WNC community has a huge problem and it is called poverty by segregation. We have a history of White Europeans forcing Native peoples off their land, enslaving Africans, and hiring Latinos only for agriculture and kitchen help. People of color are being shut out of jobs, loans, and educational and business opportunities. Poverty, hunger, illness, and incarceration affect the brown skinned people of our region severely. One example: their lives last on average seven years less than white-skinned people.
How do we overcome segregation – in schools, places of worship, banks, networking circles, parks, nature centers, concerts, and positions of power in government and industry?
Look around you in restaurants, grocery stores, places of worship, tourist attractions. How much diversity do you see? Are you mostly surrounded by people who look and dress like you? If you are White, and find yourself in places that are totally or mostly white-skinned people, I challenge you to search out places with more people of color.
White people, befriend people of color. Invite them to your homes. Invite their kids to your kids’ birthday parties. I am speaking directly to White people because I am White.
Have more than one Black friend, as in “one of my closest friends is Black.”
And if a person of color opens up to you, don’t try to talk them out of their experience. If they say that something felt racist, see it from their point of view. If you find yourself trying to discredit them, this is your inner work. We are all going to bump along and crash sometime in mending the racial divide, but if you admit your fears, your awkwardness, your confusion, there will be growth. If they don’t talk about racism with you, please process it with a white friend. A lot of people of color are weighed down from racism and it isn’t their job to be a “race educator.”
One way to get to know more Black folks is through Building Bridges (www.bbavl.org), a local group that gives classes twice a year to address racial issues between Whites and Blacks. That’s where I met my friend Jackie around 2000 and we’ve been friends ever since. I asked her what she would advise.
“Go to someplace where there are Black people doing something you are interested in or curious about. Like going to hear gospel music at a Black church, or going to the YWCA Stand against Racism in April, or go to an NAACP meeting,” said Jackie. “Risk making a mistake and realize that what may be problematic for one black person might not be so for another.”
I also asked her, “What do you suggest White people not do?”
“Don’t say ‘You people.’ Don’t ask what do Black people think about this or that, as though we are all the same. Realize each Black person is an individual. And, don’t act surprised when we do something you think is positive, like ‘You’re so articulate.’”
I mentioned to her the story I read last week about a young Black woman at a University who had written a paper and her Professor accused her of plagiarism for using the word “hence” and had written, “that is not your language.” As though a Black student would not use that sort of word!
Learn what micro-aggressions are. The story above is one example.
“Friendship, integration, exposure, representation – these are engines of empathy. A 2011 study found that 75% of White Americans have no friends of other races at all. A 2012 study found that White people perceive Black people as more resistant to pain. A survey conducted by LinkedIn found that networking and referrals account for as much as 85% of new hires. Diversity and integration are not feelgood buzzwords. “I don’t have very many Black friends” is a direct hindrance to Black upward mobility, Black safety, and White perceptions of Black humanity.” Jonathan Franzen’s Lack Of Black Friends Is Unsettling But It’s Hardly Unusual In White America by Lindy West, The Guardian, Aug 2, 2016.
Just think, White Americans, if you hang out with and get to know more people of color, you will feel safer. Because White America is afraid of people of color… and specifically dark-skinned people and Muslims. Getting to know people will help you understand them and they will get to know you. Our fear towards each other will lessen and then we can grow as a community and as a country.
If you, as a White person surrounded by all or mostly White people, get to know more people of color, your business opportunities will increase. You will have access to a larger customer base, more options for goods and services, more potential business partners, therefore making yourself AND your community more prosperous.
The more there is prosperity, the more stability. The more stability there is, the more safety.
Your heart rate will slow, your breath will deepen, your nerves will quiet, your immune system will be renewed, your digestion will improve, and your sleep will be more restful.
Call yourself a Diversity Ambassador and your superpower is desegregation, and more importantly, integration.
When communities embrace diversity, everyone’s health improves.
Alicia Swaringen, LMBT, was on the board of Building Bridges 2000-2002 and trained in World Work, which uses conflict resolution in large groups to address racism, sexism, and other isms. She created Bodywisdom Therapy in 1995 that helps people tune into and unravel body messages, using Process Oriented Psychology and acupressure. She has a 12-year-old son who makes her heart grow every day. You can reach her at 541-543-5615 or visit bodywisdomtherapy.net.