Hey, white people: When you find yourself in a room full of people who look like you, be the person to say, “We’re all white here. Don’t you think that’s a little weird?”
As events in Ferguson, Los Angeles, Baltimore, all over this country will show, racism is alive and strong in this country. There is a lack of racial diversity in so many areas: in the arts, in workplaces, in publishing, in government. There are hard questions that need asking, and awareness that needs raising. It is simply a different thing to be a person of color in this country and a lot of white people are having trouble understanding that. Outright racism is an enormous issue, but I think the more insidious danger, among well-meaning white folks, is a simple unconsciousness.
There are a number of articles about “what white people need to know,” but I have a basic and functional question to ask my white friends. Look around you in a room, at work, at a school, at a conference, on the playground and, if you live in a city or town with a diverse population, and if it is the case, ask, “Why are we all white here?”
First off, full disclosure: I’m about as white as it gets in this country. I have ancestors who fought in the revolution and my family history goes back so far in this country there’s not much to call me but white colonialist. My ancestors considered a great, great, great Italian grandmother an aberration. I have a Japanese last name because when I was 27 I married a guy I fell for when I was 17 and we wanted to step forth under a united family banner. I always check the “white” or “Caucasian” box where required, because it’s who I am and how I was born.
Given my upbringing on a college campus and my background, and the fact that I live in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, in a city subsection that is known to be in the top five in the country for racial mixing, I am more comfortable in spaces where there are all kinds of people than in spaces where everyone looks like me. Because that is how the world is. In my day to day life, not everyone looks like me. In my home, not everyone looks like me. And that’s one of the best things about this planet, this country, and this city.
So when those spaces come up in my life, those spaces where everyone looks like me, I find myself asking, “Um, everyone here is white. Isn’t this a little weird?”
If I belonged to a “This is what it’s like to be white” club, it might make sense. But these are places I’ve worked, places I’ve published, subgroups on social media, places where groups of people are called together to discuss something, committees, and panels where I look around and say, “Um. We’re all white here. Isn’t that weird?”
Every once in a while I’ll scroll down a list of people, or a group I belong to, past tons of white faces and say, “Hey, that person’s not white.” And that is also wrong. One should not have to scroll through tons of white faces to find diversity. Diversity is all around us in everyday life in the city, at the supermarket, in the neighborhood, in our schools, and often under one roof.
At a conference, I was putting together a video project for my enormously diverse school and was interviewing people with a simple question. I took a break and handed the task of interviewing over to someone, a white someone, saying, “We want all kinds of people.” I didn’t want to insult her intelligence by saying, “We have so many different kinds of students, and there are so many different kinds of writers, I want to make sure the photographs reflect that.” Perhaps I should have been more specific. When the results came through it was as if she had interviewed a mirror. Not only were those people all white, they were all in a certain age group. I’m certain she is a good person, and it is hard to ask strangers to answer a question, but it was obvious that she gravitated toward white.
So, my white friends, and I have many, not because they look like me, but because awesome humans come in all packages, I have a question: When you find yourself in a room of people, or in a group on social media, or at your place of employment, or at your children’s school and you look around the room, or even the group you’re standing with and you see that everyone looks like you, can you be the person who asks, “We’re all white here. Don’t you think that’s a little weird?”
Ask yourself and those in the room with you what you can do about this. Because I promise you, it’s not that the most excellent and talented people in your field, profession, or interest group all happen to be white. You are missing something somewhere. People naturally tend toward the comfortable, and I know some white friends who aren’t outright racists, but may simply not be thinking as they group, hire, and work within their comfort zones. Maybe that person reminds you of your cousin or your best friend back home, and they are likely good people. You are likely a good person. But look around the room and think a little harder, become conscious. Because hiring or grouping only with people who look like you may be a natural reaction, but, frankly it’s a little weird.
Ask the question: Why are we all white here?
Kate Maruyama’s novel, HARROWGATE was published by 47North in 2013. Her work has appeared in Arcadia, Stoneboat, Controlled Burn and on the Rumpus, Salon and other journals including Role Reboot. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles where she now is affiliate faculty. She writes, teaches, cooks, and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.