Thinking About Diversity on Memorial Day

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, and its purpose was to remember the fallen of the Civil War. For this Memorial Day, I cast my mind back to that original purpose, and I think especially of all the soldiers who fought and died with abolition in their hearts. It is said that the original day of celebration, May 30, was chosen because it was a time when flowers were sure to be in bloom. In my mind’s eye, I see the bodies of the fallen slowly pass, and with Walt beside me, I give them my sprig of lilac, and wonder, “What have we done with the lives you gave?”

Diversity is on my mind these days, in part because I’m posting Jacqueline E. Lawton’s beautiful Diversity & Inclusion blog interviews for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach. I learn so much reading these posts: about inclusion, about all the complexities inherent in being an artist of color, about the unique perspectives of each interviewee. I learn, and as I learn, I grow more sure that, along with restoring the sustainability of our relationship to the earth, finally achieving a true and equitable diversity is the work of our generation. It is the unfinished business of many generations; it is the flower we owe the fallen, slowly passing with freedom in their hearts. Let us not leave this earth with that debt unpaid.

I write here, on my own site, because I wish to speak freely about what diversity means to me. I feel I must speak about diversity, because as a straight white man of normative abilities I benefit from a privilege so omnipresent it took me a long time to see it clearly (and that seeing is not yet done). I must speak and keep speaking, because until people of my privilege feel an urgency as bone-deep as those who suffer the violence inherent in sustaining that privilege, change will come too slowly, or not at all. We will leave this green ship without catching sight of the promised shore.

Here, then, is a list of some thoughts on diversity, many given to me by patient teachers, and I must acknowledge that my biases will surely make me slip. No one can talk about diversity and get it all right: that is one of its great truths. We need each other to get it all right. So be patient with me as I slip and speak of the searching of my own heart:

  • Diversity isn’t just about race, but gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, religion, geography, language, class, culture and all our intersections of difference.
  • Diversity begins with parity, but it doesn’t end there. When, in theatre, we call out for 50/50 in 2020, the end goal is not merely numerical parity, but something deeper. The numbers of inequity revealed by studies are like taking a patient’s temperature: we know there is an illness, but the numbers are neither the cause nor the cure. And so, diversity can’t end with parity because the illness of privilege will do what it always does unless a full-throated, red-blooded equality–a deeply-felt faith in the fundamental dignity and shared potential of every human life–overtakes power as our governing value.
  • Prejudice is personal, but -isms are institutional, and we need to change both. Too many people believe that just because they themselves aren’t prejudiced the world must’ve stopped being racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. If the tide of privilege carries you, you don’t need to swim along to benefit from the current, and you cannot reach the promised shore headed in that direction.
  • Diversity is not an abstraction. Behind the statistics of inequality are singular lives–our friends, our neighbors, our lovers and beloveds–each suffering from the material and emotional taxation of homophobia, misogyny and every other ideology that allows us to be cruel and indifferent to each other. But a lack of diversity is more than just a lack of equality, because…
  • Diversity is more than just a moral obligation. Yo-Yo Ma made an important analogy in his Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. He compared cultural  to ecological diversity, citing the “edge effect” as a driver of both human and natural creativity. The edge effect shows that the greatest biodiversity is found on the edges of separate ecosystems, and where there is the greatest biodiversity, there is also the greatest sustainability. The idea that our differences make us stronger is therefore not a cliche but an imperative, and the arts must stand against the mono-cultures of big business and the destructive binaries of politics. The arts must help us remember that…
  • There is diversity within diversity, as Katori Hall preached so powerfully in her 2012 Fall Forum on Governance address. The work of diversity is never finished, because it changes a little with each new birth and death. That’s why diversity must remind us that…
  • We’ve been wrestling the wrong angel. We are not Jacob: We cannot wrestle angels in exchange for more life. Trapped in our brief bodies, the only way to grab hold of more life is through each other; by sharing our differences, our discoveries, our promiscuous souls. We must be The Blessing for each other, and that Blessing is the sweeter for its variety.
  • Because the end of diversity is love. Diversity cannot exist without equality, or tokenism and other forms of apartheid will sneak in through the cracks. But equality is not the end goal, because separate is never equal. As parity is to equality, so integration is to love. If there is an end to diversity, it might be the day when we all recognize each human being as an irreplaceable, irreducible perspective on life that must be treasured, for it will never come again. That work is never finished, but the end is love.

It is also the beginning. To achieve this great work of our generation, we must begin with a love that looks unflinchingly at our own biases. We drop that stone of change within ourselves and let it ripple out to our actions, our families, our friends, our communities, our laws, our cultures, our countries, our world.

Now, I believe that change is happening, has been happening for a long time, and people of far greater eloquence and courage than I have lived and died to make that change come. I honor those ancestors, and I honor those of my own generation who have given so much, so that all of us may land on that promised shore.

Nor do I claim any special goodness in committing myself to reaching that shore; it is simply the work of being human. It is simply what we owe the people we remember when we remember Memorial Day.

So, with equal parts humility and joy, I pull my oar against the tide of history, knowing I am not alone, straining to see that shore before I fall, hoping my life may be worth the lilac.

I will write more specifically on this subject in the days to come, moving from principles to action, and when I do, this is what I mean when I say diversity. Happy Memorial Day!

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