On Thanksgiving do we recognize collaboration between diverse peoples or do we inadvertently celebrate the return of Pilgrims from a successful massacre of over 700 Native Americans? Without a unifying narrative to give shape to our national values, most people will shop instead. Diversity has become an exponential issue generating more anxiety than solutions – all the more reason to participate in and continue this unwieldy conversation.
Sometimes it seems as though American culture no longer has an identity. We descend from everywhere: Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia and Antarctica. Pigmentation colors every person’s skin. Our bodies differ in size and ability. Some even live with the assistance of mechanical parts. We learn uniquely. Each person fights disease by way of an individual microbiome. Allergens divide us into neat groups of gluten, nut, egg or dairy free, and some people can’t eat chocolate or apples.
People can be heterosexual, gay, bisexual or trans. Some young people even trend heteroflexible. People marry or don’t, and have kids or don’t. They can produce them biologically of their own gametes, or they can adopt. Some people use egg and sperm donations with or without surrogates. Families these days are interracial, multicultural and intermarried.
Add to this the knotty problem of class. The decline in American upward mobility has many rural and low-income white families vying for attention to their predicament. Some families come from generations of wealth, some from generations of poverty, but most modern families have moved about the class spectrum over the years. Within an extended family system, family members often come from a variety of class backgrounds. Do the terms lower, middle and upper even mean anything?
In an attempt to find coherence, people rush to old categories. African Americans still get arrested for shopping in high-end stores. White parents fear that talented black American students will receive preferential college admissions treatment. Everyone fears that the financial resources of wealthy families will produce super-kids with whom it will be impossible to compete. Some people claim that African Americans don’t react to crimes against white Americans and overreact to crimes by whites against blacks. Differently-abled people complain about being overlooked for opportunities.
Gender discussions often center on the glass ceiling. Women have been underpaid, overlooked and sexually aggressed upon. Men then complain about how gender stereotypes have relegated them to lives strapped into the strait jackets of work. Everyone wants to become CEO because it is the only social role that has any value. Mothers and artists aren’t even part of the conversation.
Dialogues about genocide also haunt our identities. What crimes against humanity rank as the worst? Who has suffered the most? What aspects of discrimination have been societally institutionalized? How can a society best compensate for past wrongs?
The lynching of black people, for one thing, blocks the exit ramps to the much mythologized simpler times. So does the poverty and illness experienced by the workers of many nations. Progress left them behind after their labor powered the industrial revolution. Those were the days: when Gay people killed themselves. And women died in childbirth.
The simpler times hid a great deal of cultural ignorance and violence.
People with lighter shades of skin color and a good bank account came to stand for normality. But did the stereotypical definition of white really exist? Meaning has been attributed to a skin color to which even many white people have not lived up. Often seeing the world through the lens of advantage, if a white person fails to achieve an upper middle class life, they often seek psychological help. Clearly, they think, something must be wrong.
Yet people of color who have not met the arbitrary standard of stability often receive judgment rather than therapy. Doesn’t the lack of success on the part of all people come down to psychological disadvantage?
And isn’t the institutionalization of bias one important cause of psychological difficulties?
So here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, about to celebrate Thanksgiving, still looking to old categories to answer complicated questions about identity and equality. It’s the blacks; no, it’s the whites; no its poverty; no, it’s the men; no, it’s the rich people; no, its technology; no its unemployment; no, its healthcare subsidies; no, it’s the right; no, it’s the left. The only group free from blame would be the Native Americans unless we want to hold them accountable for setting the stage for global warming.
Actually, it’s really only us. Mostly everyone at some time or another has been the object and subject of bias. By choosing the authenticity that liberty spawns, we have chosen the complexity of reality over the simplicity of false categories. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Put down your cell phone! Turn off the TV! Ask these questions around the Thanksgiving table, or any other table, and create the only path forward.
There is no comfort zone, no going back. Home plate has become kaleidoscopic. Meaning no longer derives from a fixed point around which we move the ball. Instead coherence will come from responding to the mixed array of colors and shapes that move around us. In our diversity, we are together.