When Diversity is More than Race

This past weekend I’ve had the privilege of attending the Families in Global Transition Conference in Washington DC. I’ve been tasked with writing articles about each of the sessions that I’ve attended. Those articles to come.

However, I’ve also had the immense privilege of attending keynote sessions that I am not writing articles about and have inspired some thought-provoking reflections. I hope no one gets mad at me for writing about sessions that they are also covering. So, here’s the first set of thoughts:

——

“I called Crayola marketing and said I could help,” Teja Arboleda chuckled in his opening keynote address. “The problem is that race has no bearing on culture. There is no such thing as a multicultural crayon!”

Those words resonated with me. As a white TCK raised in Asia, people who look at me make certain assumptions based on the color of my skin:

  • She’s American
  • She like American things (whether music, food, movies, etc.)
  • She knows about America

After seven years in the states, it’s mostly true—I know a lot about America. I tend to like American music and food. If I don’t say something about that time I traveled to the Philippines for a soccer tournament, then no one would know that I spent the majority of my childhood overseas.

But culture is more than the color of my skin. Culture is more than the color of anyone’s skin.

“Just because you eat noodles doesn’t make you Italian,” Teja added a few minutes later, reflecting on his personal experience as a multiracial child growing up across several countries.

I had to laugh a little, thinking about the times when people marveled over my use of chopsticks and knowing that this skill did not make me Chinese.

But his words spoke an immense amount of truth. They spoke to the fact that there is a deeper difference and a deeper diversity than what is visible to the naked eye.

Previously that day I had the privilege of sitting in a small group conversation with Ruth Van Reken (author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds). In discussing communication boundaries across cultures, our group had identified the impact that both race, ethnicity, and humor can have, among other things.

As we reflected on the conversation, Ruth commented, “Diversity here is taught via externals. People are afraid to go deeper because it’s offensive.”

On the first day of FIGT, two people had touched on what I had been trying to build in my classroom through education—the fact that diversity extends beyond the color of skins and into the being of people and who they are.

I thought of the high school social studies classroom I had taught for two years. I remembered how students had certain conceptions of me and their classmates because of the color of their skin, and how challenging it was to undo the engrained stereotypes. And then I remembered how, when we got to the Civil Rights unit or Japanese internment in US history, the room would get quiet and suddenly a little bit more interested.

“But they were people,” one student said, and I had known that in that moment we had cross that barrier of diversity based on race vs. diversity based on value of the human being.

Really, race no longer defines culture…not anymore. It probably used to, when people didn’t move around and lived in relatively the same location their whole life. But with the age of globalization and the way that countries like the United States have become “melting pots” (sorry, the social studies teacher in me still kicks in), race can no longer define culture.

And this is good. Because people are more than the color of skin. Culture is more than the color of skin. Diversity is a celebration of strengths and qualities that a person brings more than skin color.

But it can’t stop there. Because when we look past skin color and see the diversity of cultures that does not correspond with race/ethnicity, we also begin to recognize what makes us all human, and the needs and wants the go with that. As van Reken said, “You’re special, but you’re not that special. Everyone has shared experiences.”

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