Diversity is not the same as open dialogue

Charles Simmons

For the last sixteen years, I never understood how central my race is to who I am. This past weekend it took center stage as I attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. This year’s theme was “Finding Harmony Amid Cacophony.”

After listening to stories from students across the country and grappling with how they relate to our school community, I have drawn two conclusions. One, Horace Mann is becoming more diverse which is, of course, a good thing. Two, we still have a lot of work to do. The problem at our school is not necessarily the absence of diversity in our student body but rather a lack of discussion and attention to the issues that divide our community. Just because our school is inclusive and welcoming does not mean that people feel like they can talk freely about their identity and the things that make us different.

In my time at HM, I have seen strides of improvement. In sixth grade, I remember being one of two African-American boys. Now, as a junior in high school, I have eight other African-American boys in my graduating class. For comparison, in last year’s senior class, there were 13 African-American and Latino students in total. In this year’s senior class, there are 21 African American and Latino students, almost double the previous class. In my grade, there are 22. Of the 22 in my grade, only four are Latino, which shows that our diversity is still literally a “black and white” mindset. Nevertheless, the numbers show how Horace Mann is moving in the right direction.

At SDLC, I was presented with alarming testimonials and anecdotes from students of color across the country. One of the most striking stories that I heard was from someone who told me that he had been asked at his school if he knew how to tie a noose. At Horace Mann, we’ve done a great job of limiting this type of harmful language so much so that I was taken aback by the discrimination that is common for students outside of our zero-tolerance community.

One of the powers of the HM bubble is its ability to shield us from recognizing how privileged we are. At Horace Mann, we are given the opportunity to participate in an illusion that the things that differentiate us, like race or gender or socioeconomic status don’t afford us different opportunities.

When HM students talk about diversity, I have witnessed mainly two strands of thought. The first is that diversity is a forced reality; that it is the righting of slavery and how white people assuage their ancestral guilt while persons of color must delicately balance cultural authenticity with cultural conformity. This mindset is harmful because the conversation is centered around the removal of white guilt rather than a genuine goal to create a society in which all voices are heard. Moreover, this creates racial nuances by constructing a dynamic in which the same people who benefit from diversity feel uncomfortable admitting so under the spotlight and students of color almost must validate themselves to their white counterparts. They feel almost as if they should be “grateful” just to be a part of the conversation. This reluctance to speak up effectively silences people of color. One of the ways we tackled the awkwardness around uncomfortable topics was using something called “Anti-Fragility” in which we agreed that by pacifying our opinions, we were simply making it tougher to actually have the conversations that needed to be had.

The second, diversity is an all-inclusive reality in which all cultural groups are represented and voices are heard.  This is what our environment often seems to lack. The ability to allow people to feel comfortable enough to openly talk about the issues that affect us all as a community. Diversity only works however when everyone has a voice at the table. People of all different races, genders, religions, political affiliations and socioeconomic statuses bring a diverse range of opinions and allow for equal representation as well as the elimination of an “other.”

The recent Affirmative Action Forum held by East Wind West Wind and the Union is an example of this mentality. The forum focused on the Harvard diversity lawsuit with regards to Affirmative Action which is a controversial policy which favors those who tend to suffer from discrimination, African Americans and Hispanics in particular, and how this affects Asian Americans in the college admission process. It’s a controversial topic which affects many in our college-obsessed community. On paper, it seems as all this would do is further drive a wedge between two minority groups and only reaffirm either side’s belief in their respective opinions. Causing African American students to believe that the policy is an effective equalizer to obtaining institutional equity and Asian American students to believe that the policy is effectively discriminating against them and robbing them of spots they feel they have earned.

In actuality, both sides came to the table to have an effective conversation and rather than condemning each other, an honest and open dialogue flourished. The country we live in is becoming more and more diverse. Derek Kitchen became the first openly gay governor in Utah, Rashida Tlaib (Illinois) and Ilhan Omar (Illinois) are the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress and New York’s very own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the youngest woman to be elected to Congress. These are all examples of progress.

But there are also too many recent examples of relapse. Gov. Ron DeSantis winning the gubernatorial election in Florida despite using racist dog whistle language and advising his supporters to not “monkey this up,” a clear reference to his African American opponent Andrew Gillum. Gov. Cindy Hyde-Smith winning a Senate seat in Mississippi despite photos emerging of her at Jefferson Davis’ (The vice president of the Confederacy) home, wearing a Confederate cap and carrying a rifle, with the caption “Mississippi history at its best!” Brian Kemp’s voter suppression tomfoolery in Georgia to prevent Stacey Abrams from taking his seat as governor and preventing her from being the first African American female governor of Georgia.

Horace Mann has the opportunity to become a microcosm of an ever-changing world, a diverse community where intellectual thought is allowed to grow and where we can openly discuss the issues that affect all of us. In order for us to achieve this goal, we need to rewire the way in which we think about each other through open and honest discussion. We need to acknowledge our privilege and bias and make a commitment to evaluate and better ourselves as individuals and a community.

Only by recognizing the faults in our diversity will we find harmony amid cacophony.