“What should I put here?” My boyfriend’s pen hesitated above the “race and ethnicity” section of his social security application form and the evenly spaced, empty boxes cementing the government’s parameters of “diversity”.
I glanced through his options. White (not Hispanic); Black/African American (not Hispanic); Hispanic (not white or black?); Asian; Native American; Other: Pacific Islander.
I faltered too.
My boyfriend was born in Central Asia. His skin is white. His passport is Russian.
There’s no box for that.
These sorts of cookie cutter, self-identification boxes are vague enough to be non-specific, yet non-specific enough to be completely limiting. There’s no way to encapsulate human identity within those parameters. Yet these hazy distinctions are the foundation of so much public policy, funding allocation, employment decisions, and workplace clichés.
These same parameters also indicate “demographic trends”. They specify that “diversity” is happening in places like Northern Virginia. The census says so.
But my guess is that, like my boyfriend, many people feel they can check across the boxes, as well as create a slew of new ones in between.
What is diversity anyway?
I’ve spent the last two years traveling outside of the United States, and the two years before that reading my brain out across a range of academic fields, all of which addressed, deconstructed, and scattered the conceptualization of “diversity.”
I came away with one conclusion.
Diversity isn’t about others. Nor is it about a collective “Other”. Diversity is about you and how you perceive yourself in relation to your surroundings.
The most succinct summary I’ve seen thus far is this: “Being diverse is a relationship between yourself and the world.” (1)
Diversity is a relative term. It’s about being open to food you didn’t grow up eating, perspectives you wouldn’t have considered, opinions you wouldn’t have formulated based solely on your own background and experiences, approaches to life you wouldn’t have dreamt of, music you wouldn’t have instinctually felt drawn to.
Maybe the person introducing you to these worlds beyond the one of your familiarity has skin of a lighter or darker tone than yours. Maybe they don’t. My point is that diversity isn’t confined to those check points on any official document. Diversity should be pushed beyond the census box and refocused in relation to the parameters of familiarity.
Northern Virginia is indeed diverse, relative to my own background and experiences. I’ve traveled enough to realize that. This insight tells me it’s probably also diverse relative to the other people who live here and who have moved here from all over the world. But how they define that diversity is up to them. And it probably has no relation to how they filled out their social security application forms.
From that regard, diversity is a very personal endeavor. I seek to build my own definition of diversity, which I see, for example, in both the northern Indian restaurant around the corner from my apartment and in the growing number of 5-generation family farmers who are actively contributing to an alternative food movement by flying in the face of the mainstream food industry.
We all grow our perspectives in different ways, relative to where we are coming from and where we are going.
The universal common denominator is that we all do have the capacity to grow.