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The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas
By Joan Steinau Lester
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Joan Steinau Lester
All rights reserved.
Who Gets a Seat?
Who Gets a Seat at the Table?
We've been playing a long game of musical chairs in the United States. The music has played on for hundreds of years, stopping for a moment every generation when it seemed that everyone had a shot at a seat.
In reality, few players had permanent seats. Yet we got used to playing the game that way. Every time it looked as though there might be a vacant seat, we all ran for it — or wheeled along in our chairs. We got there however we could. And we did just what we were supposed to do in the game of musical chairs: We pushed each other out of the way.
"It's mine. That seat is mine."
"No, I have waited too long. That seat must be for me."
Sometimes one, sometimes another got the empty seat. Sometimes those who already had the permanent seats simply annexed the empty one — after everyone else had a "fair chance."
Every once in a while a group of people said, "The reason we aren't getting any seats isn't because we aren't running fast enough. Or working hard enough. It's the rules of the game." And finally, massive movements. "The rules need to change."
So for a generation we had one seat on the Supreme Court for an African-American (male). Then for a decade, another seat for a (white) female.
Now the rules have changed again. We don't have just one token seat. Sometimes we have two or three. In more places every year the permanent seats are no longer guaranteed. And the pace is increasing. Every day's newspaper brings a story of a "first" — or a second.
One of our current "seconds" is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In 1956, when she was a student at Harvard Law School, Dean Erwin Griswold asked each of the nine women in the class how they felt about taking places "earmarked for men." His language revealed his understanding of who occupied the permanent seats and who were the guests.
Nonetheless, Ruth Bader graduated with honors — and couldn't get a job interview. Justice Felix Frankfurter himself is reputed to have asked an aide, "Does she wear skirts? I can't stand girls in pants!" before he refused to interview her.
"In the Fifties," Judge Ginsberg later wrote, "the traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. But to be a woman, a Jew and a mother to boot — that combination was a bit too much."
Today there are more seats available. But we have yet to open up all of them, and this gives a sense of scarcity. It isn't only white men who are concerned that they will be pushed aside in the rush to diversity. Each group formerly excluded is also worried that there won't be enough seats to go around.CHAPTER 2
Blacks versus Gays
Each group wonders whether its concerns will be adequately addressed. For example, there has recently been considerable African-American resentment reported of gay (and before that, of women's) appropriation of the language of the civil rights struggle.
Which raises the question: Is it disrespectful of one human rights movement for another to use its imagery?
This issue comes up in other contexts. Jews sometimes bristle when other disasters are called a Holocaust. "We don't want the word, and therefore our pain, to be watered down."
There are marked differences between the particularities of each group's struggle. Yet, to paraphrase Jesse Jackson (in the style of Gertrude Stein), discrimination is discrimination is discrimination. Those who suffer do find historical parallels that provide inspiration. African-Americans, for instance, have frequently used the exile and eventual triumph of the Israelites as a central metaphor in their own long struggle on these shores.
New situations keep coming along that remind us of the past.
The arguments about Black promiscuity that were thrown at the civil rights movement of the 1960s (and before) sound stunningly like the arguments used against gay men and lesbians in the 1990s. It's not a new line. In fact, generating images about an "out" group's sexuality is an old method of stirring up the public.
One of the Gentile complaints against Jews in Europe during the nineteenth and early-twentieth century was their alleged "oversexuality." This provided an excuse for pogroms — violent attacks against Jewish ghettoes. Other groups throughout the world, such as the Eta in Japan, have had similar slurs made as they were excluded from the body politic.
The myth of African-American "oversexuality" continues to be used when convenient, pulled out even in presidential campaigns.
When I was a young (white) woman married to an African-American man, more than one European-American and Latina woman said to me with a wink, "I know why you married him," and made a sexual reference. Strangers said this to me, on the streets of New York, when they saw me pushing my brown babies' stroller and stopped for conversation.
Noticing these historical similarities — as well as the differences — reminds us how often the excuses for bigotry haven't changed. Only the players have.
Publicity about a Black/gay split, which received page one coverage nationally in 1993, is reminiscent of the Black/Jewish split, which first surfaced to media fanfare in 1968. Those two targeted groups had been each other's most frequent allies — and often still are.
The publicity also evokes the recent media focus on Black/Korean conflicts, with the stereotype of Asian-Americans as the "good minority" — a relatively recent image — being used against African-Americans. In both cases, small-store owners restricted by prejudice and tradition from buying elsewhere have caught heat in Latino and Black ghettoes as they absorbed and acted out the wider culture's anti-Black racism. Or, sometimes, simply because they were there.
In each instance antagonisms simmered for years.
And yes, there is long-standing homophobia among Blacks, and widespread racism among gays. There are also sectors of African-American communities that have always been tolerant of a sexual-orientation/preference difference. Polls on gay civil rights consistently find more support (10 to 20 percent higher) among Blacks than among whites. And there are lesbian groups that have long led the way on anti-racism ally work.
Underneath the friction there are long alliances, however uneasy. We both know what it's like to be permanently marginal; we both know what it is to have nourishing cultures. And, of course, some people are members of both groups — doubly oppressed, doubly blessed.
Competition for scarce seats runs high across the board. Women of all colors, for instance, have found the issue of "race versus sex" frequently used against them when they made demands for sexual equality. The 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill imbroglio was a case in point. There was one group with real power — represented by those who sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Members of two other groups, who didn't have seats, were pitted against each other. There were many plots going on at once, as layers of history overlapped.
As long as we forget that discrimination is discrimination, successive groups will be used to batter each other. One decade many white working and middle-class people believed: All our jobs are being taken by Blacks. The next decade some African-Americans believe that preferential hiring is being widely given to lesbians and gay men, a perception recently voiced to me by a librarian.
One of the arguments now being made against gays — that this is a well-educated, rich, white population with undue influence — was once used, equally erroneously, against Jews. The images persist partly because people with privilege often feel safer to be "out." Thus today wealthy, white gay males are the dominant gay image, a far from accurate one.
In the nineties, as lesbians and gay men begin to gain a smidgen of political power, the fear of getting left behind — again — surfaces. My friend Sam, with a great deal of history on his side, says, "African-Americans started an extraordinary civil rights movement thirty-five years ago, which opened up political and cultural energy the whole country is still feeding from. Now everybody is hopping on the diversity bandwagon. It's just like what happened with the blues, with rock and roll, with jazz, with rap. Every time we start something good white folks benefit from it. And we get zip. If they put a gay curriculum in the schools, we won't have Black history anymore. You can count on it."
In order to keep this fear from becoming reality, we all have to see to it that the diversity bandwagon doesn't just briefly raise one group after another to visibility, only to cast them down after their moment in the media sun. We need to find a table big enough for all of us.
As Dr. William Gibson, national NAACP chair, said in response to a question about why the NAACP was a sponsor of the 1993 March for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights, "I felt it was right for the NAACP to be represented there, because our tradition, objective and constitution is the elimination of segregation and discrimination in all walks of life, for all citizens of this country."
We all need to honor that tradition. It is our national treasure. Every justice movement in the U.S. has as its great taproot the genius and endurance of African-American resistance, with its constancy of struggle and vitality of culture. Let us now praise the generations of African-Americans who created that long resistance, and the little-known women and men — many of them lesbian and gay — from whom we all continue to draw sustenance.CHAPTER 3
What Is the Place of White Men at the Diversity Table?
With all the talk about the diversity table, what is the coming place for heterosexual white men? Are they going to be the "has beens" of our multicultural future? Are white men becoming diversity dinosaurs?
It's a fear many white men have expressed. "What about me?" is the underlying text in many a complaint of "reverse discrimination," the "tyranny of political correctness," or the "chilling effect of sexual harassment law" on workplace camaraderie.
And what indeed will be the fate of this group, this 25 percent of the U.S. population — heterosexual white males — who currently hold more than 90 percent of the political, economic, and cultural directorship seats?
A power shift is taking place, slow though it may be. The transformation we are experiencing is similar to the power shift currently taking place in South Africa, though on a more subtle level here. Those who have "had it all" may some day have just their fair share — about one quarter of the pie. And that could feel like having nothing at all.
We're in a transition time. Still, men aren't supposed to ask for help, even when they need it, and women aren't supposed to be in positions to extend it. The confusion over men's roles today is evidenced in every arena. For instance: the brouhaha that erupted over the Houston Oilers' response to David Williams missing a game to be with his wife during the birth of their first child. The management's threat to dock pay and suspend Williams brought on major public criticism. As a New York Times headline asked, "At Issue: Hold a Baby or Hold That Line?"
Being a man may not be all it's cracked up to be. In addition to facing rapidly changing rules, there's the socialization: being taught not to cry, not to display emotions other than anger or lust for fear of being labeled "sissy."
Men have been so conditioned not to show emotion, even happiness, that they often can't display the warmth they really feel. One of my former clients, a CEO, is a perfect example. He had a gruff exterior. In fact, he was widely known in his company as a negative, even vulgar, person. After I got to know him well, I discovered that he was a sensitive, deeply caring and understanding man, quite sophisticated, in fact, about gender diversity.
One day I said to him, "Jim, you're really a wonderful person. Why do you have this terrible demeanor?"
His reply stunned me. "If I let it out, they'd eat me alive."
Although the harsh cover may have protected him from a certain kind of attack from other men, it ultimately didn't serve him well as a leader. He was unable to provide the positive vision that people in the organization needed when it was downsizing. His leadership style was just too negative and, eventually, he was forced out of the company.
In addition to the conditioning not to "let it out," many men have the expectation that they will have to learn to kill. In or out of war. In fact, one middle-aged professional man, the son of a Greek immigrant, told me recently that whenever he sees another man coming toward him on the street, he does an automatic assessment of size, wondering "who can take who," accompanied by a flash thought: Kill or be killed.
No wonder men get frustrated when, after all their hard work at self-control, discipline, and numerous other kinds of strengths, they find themselves attacked for not being sensitive, for not 'getting it'!
"I did it right, and now you're switching the rules on me."
In fact, some of that conditioning men get can be useful to keep, and useful for the rest of us to learn. The expectation that one can be tough and powerful — and that this is positive — can be useful to women, who often have an overabundance of nurturant conditioning: Everyone else before me.
Each of us holds a piece of the puzzle, with the different perspectives our varying experiences have given us. That giant puzzle of how to make this planet work needs all of the pieces to be complete.
Heterosexual white men aren't multicultural "has beens." They're becoming "also be's" instead of "only be's." That's not so bad, really. But it's a change, and a challenge, to have mates in power.CHAPTER 4
Is Coalition Possible?
It isn't always easy working with people from groups with which we are not familiar. In fact, it's often uncomfortable. And old bits of our history get in the way.
There is a lot we don't know about each other. So we often grab at stereotypes. They may provide misinformation, but the human mind needs some information to proceed in thinking about these issues. We take in whatever data is floating around — and then wonder why we can't work together to solve our common problems.
There are real differences: between men and women, between people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and classes. When we work side by side, I may have trouble understanding your accent or your pace. I don't get your metaphors, your sense of timing. I don't understand your silences or your relationship to your extended family. Your food burns my throat. When you tease me, I am wounded — and years later ask you about it, only to find that it was a form of friendship you were expressing.
You have questions about my choice of a same-sex partner. My optimism. Sometimes even my laugh says "white woman" and you shrink away from me, remembering others who have laughed in the same way and then betrayed you at a crucial moment.
My style of conducting the meeting shouts "woman," and you are impatient. I think you — a male — are impossibly abrupt. I despair at your lack of negotiation skills.
We are both momentarily frozen with discomfort before a woman in a wheelchair. And she herself, a woman of German origin, thinks English-only should be mandated throughout the U.S. She's quite hot about it.
So we come full circle. How can we work together, with all of these differences — some subtle, some glaring — in the way we approach a problem, a life?
Yet how can we not?
Without dialogue, and all the effort it sometimes takes, the isolation continues, and the desperation to make sure "my issue" gets addressed.
The wonder of human beings is our seemingly limitless capacity for growth. We can learn about each other much more quickly than we might have imagined, when we take the time to notice each other. We can make "my" issue and "your" issue and "her" issue our issues. In the process we triple our strength.
Excerpted from The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas by Joan Steinau Lester. Copyright © 2000 Joan Steinau Lester. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Who Gets a Seat?,
Who Gets a Seat at the Table?,
Blacks versus Gays,
What Is the Place of White Men at the Diversity Table?,
Is Coalition Possible?,
The People with the B's on Their Foreheads,
Guilty? Not to Worry,
Does Diversity Mean We All Go Our Separate Ways?,
Part Two: The Old Images,
Women and Machinery,
Leona, the Wicked (Jewish) Witch,
Who's Looting Whom?,
Age Spots, Wrinkles, and Laugh Lines,
Who Is Family?,
Women in Politics: Steel Minds or Empty Heads?,
Mother's Day: Hearts, Flowers, and International Politics,
Gays, Where Did They Go? (That's Research),
Passing: One Way of Escape,
Part Three: Now What Do I Say?,
What's in a Word?,
What's in a Name?,
Our Own Names,
Part Four: Now What Do I Do?,
Doing the Right Thing,
Being an Ally: To Others,
Being an Ally: To Ourselves,
Checking Out the Chairs at the Table,
Who Is a "Good Fit"?,
Part Five: Top Ten Plus Two–Questions About Diversity,
What About Jokes?,
When Do I Name Race?,
Why Do Groups Keep Changing Their Names?,
What If We Can't Find Any "Qualified" Minorities and Women?,
What About "Reverse Discrimination?",
Why Are There No "Special Programs" for Whites?,
Aren't Stereotypes Based on Grains of Truth?,
Why Do All the Blacks Sit Together in the Cafeteria?,
Should I Help a Blind Person Cross the Street?,
What About Christmas?,
The Confederate Flag: What Do We Do About History?,
Who Are We Going to Include Next in Diversity?,
Part Six: Diversity, Why Bother?,
Standards: Aren't They Rising?,
Variety is the Spice of Life,
Viva la Diferencia!,