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Opinion :: A personal introduction to Diversity, 101
· 2:09pm February 18th, 2013
A few years ago, my oldest kid was hanging out with some friends here in Vinton, when one of them pointed out the window to the 1980s Ford LTD she had parked across the street.
“Hey Bethany,” said one. “There’s a Mexican by your car.”
“That’s no Mexican!” my daughter replied. “That’s my DAD!”
Maybe it’s not such a good sign about a community’s diversity when a guy with two white parents is considered the dark-skinned one.
Although nobody has said anything to me about my skin tone or ethnicity for a few years, I grew up in places (Independence and Brandon) that were so lily white that I was the darkest person many people knew.
“This dark brown coat will match your skin,” said one department store salesman when I was about 12.
“I can’t tell if you are tanned or dirty,” said an aunt.
“Aborigine” said one of my least-favorite high school classmates.
While my parents are white, my maternal grandfather, Earl Biram, who for years was a janitor at Brenton Bank (now Farmers) was part-Indian. I inherited that from him, which explains both my skin color and, I guess, my propensity to tap my mouth with my fingers while cheering at athletic events.
“What race is he?” one father – whose skin was exactly like my father’s – asked his blond daughter during a discussion about the reasons she shouldn’t date me.
“What race is the father?” a doctor asked a nurse, when Lydia was born with my skin and hair color in 1997.
I am not saying our part of Iowa is too white. A geographic region’s ethnic make-up is the product of many factors, most of which are the result of innocent societal facts. I am saying, however, our society is so white that it is difficult for some of us to fully understand why immigration and other issues are so important to the rest of the country.
Last spring, I got off a plane with 150 other white Iowans (and one Asian, who had married the grandson of a veteran) for a day in Washington, D.C. The first thing I noticed was that almost every place we went, we were the ethnic minority among others visiting those monuments.
I took a photo of a veteran being pushed in his wheelchair by his daughter. Surrounding this pair was a group of Americans from several different areas, all of whom were various shades of skin color on a scale that began with “way darker than the people on my plane this morning.”
Every place we went that day, we were surrounded by crowds as diverse as that group surrounding the photograph.
Understanding, at last, how living in an all-white area in this century in the U.S. is quite an anomaly, I called a friend – someone more white than I, but someone who has lived in DC and other cities with high minority populations.
“I see it now,” I said. “I realize how unusual it is that we in Iowa are not that diverse. An all-white population in most places is as rare in most of the country as an ethnic minority is in Vinton.”
So, the next time you think about immigration reform, or other issues in which race is any kind of a factor, understand that the perspective – and opinions – of many in our area are shaped by the fact that we do not see things in black and white – our limited experience in dealing with people who do not look or talk like us leaves us thinking on those issues only from an all-white viewpoint.
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