Building a Multicultural Community
by Joyce Dowling

"Racism doesn't exist any more around here."
"Just treating everyone like individuals is all we need to end racism."
"Talking about race and racism just perpetuates it."
"I haven't seen an act of racism for 40 years."
"Only whites can believe racism is over, because they're the default race and can't see it."
"I'm so tired of talking about racism; I just want to work to end it and not talk about it."
"It's not about race; it's about class."
"The only 'racism' I've seen is that of blacks accusing me of racism."
"Most white people haven't a clue what African American culture is."
"It's hard to talk about this, because it brings up a lot of bad memories."
"I have learned that I might be racist."

Did any of those statements make you feel uncomfortable? They're all things I've heard over the past couple of years, during an ongoing dialog on "anti-racism" (working to end racism) within an organization that's becoming increasingly more racially and ethnically diverse. Building a multicultural community is hard work, when we're trying to be open and honest and create deep relationships with each other. It's easier to stop participating in an uncomfortable discussion or group, than to stay with it. I remember the first time I was faced with the discomfort of integrating an organization.

A couple of decades ago I ran a child care business. Mothers would beg me to care for their precious little ones, even when there was no room for more. They told me of horrors they had experienced in other child care environments. So I joined a child care association to see if something could be done to improve things. When I first started attending meetings, it was a very racially diverse group, much like the racially diverse children in the area we served.

After several months of trying to promote an advocacy program to improve conditions for children, with no luck, I decided to contact a former child care advocate to ask what I was doing wrong. When I called her, I was in tears, frustrated at not being able to provide what the children need. She told me it wasn't me, it was my race. She said the others were acting racist and asked if I didn't notice that I was the only one like me still attending meetings. I really hadn't noticed. She told me I should leave the organization and join her new one. I thanked her, but decided to stay where I was. I couldn't believe that these women didn't care about the welfare of the children. I assumed we were all there because we worked with children and cared about them.

The next time I attended a meeting, I looked into the eyes of the women there. I didn't see any hate. Maybe there was distrust. I understood that they might have come from experiences that made it hard to trust white people. I decided to continue to pitch my ideas to them while doing what they would allow me to do - working on an education committee to provide workshops, which was somewhat useful though the ones who really needed it would never attend. It was difficult being patient and persistent. I often felt alone in believing that we needed to do more and push for better regulations. I was having a hard time making friends and often wondered if I could really accomplish much in this group. I also believed that if I left because I was the only one of my race there and gave in to the belief that I was powerless because of it, that I would be acting racist.

My patience was worthwhile once someone stood up and said she also believed that we should work to improve the conditions for children in child care settings. With a supportive partner, I finally believed that we could accomplish something that could make a difference. We found out we had a lot in common and became good friends. She told me the negative attitudes about my ideas were due to my race. All I needed was one strong ally and the group became much more trusting of my intentions. Support for our effort to make needed changes grew quickly and we were able to accomplish a lot together. The organization grew and became racially diverse again.

Photo of news clipping
Photo of news clipping

Fear and distrust are part of human nature, but I think we need to make an effort to be with people who are different from us. Tolerate the discomfort for a while, even if we feel alone. If we leave to go somewhere better, we can deny that we're being racist, we can say we're leaving for other reasons, or that someone was treating us with racial hatred, but that won't begin to solve the problems of our society. We need to be together and work together. We need to get to know each other and talk about things that we might not want to discuss.

Comments I've heard more recently in our anti-racism dialog:
"I've never received this kind of support from a white male."  
"I can't believe I found a community that I can trust who will work to end racism!"
"I was about to give up and now I have hope for the future."

Open dialog is increasing our trust in each other. The experience of discomfort is not as great as the ultimate feeling of success in creating a multicultural community where we can be enriched by each other and strive to end racism.

Copyright (c) 2006 Joyce Dowling. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document so long as correct attribution and a link back to the originating web page is given.

 

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