I am a big fan of the work of diversity scholars Judith Katz and Frederick Miller. Recently I found an opportunity to vicariously attend one of their workshops by having one of the members of my diversity staff participate and report back to us her findings. One of the concepts that she reported back was captured in their article "Inclusion Begins with Hello." The article defines a very simple yet profound concept that to include others you first have to recognize them.
I have been in my new state and city of residence now for eight months, long enough for the welcome period to be completed but not long enough for the adjustment period to be over. It's a period of constant self-assessment. Was it worth twisting my life and that of my family's into pretzels to take this job? Why didn't I do more homework about the diversity -- or lack thereof -- in the city? How much of my discomfort is simply adjusting to this more mature time of my career and life, and how much of this discomfort stems from the conditions of living in Massachusetts?
Overall, it was a great decision to move here. I have never felt more welcomed to a work environment and more included as part of a leadership team dedicated to achieving the mission of an institution. But there is a "but": it is still not easy to feel included as a minority in a predominately white environment.
Diversity scholars began using the term "people of color" in an effort to be inclusive of all who were not white and to underscore the global reality that diverse racial groups were not statistical minorities. The term people of color also lessened the impact of the use of "minority," which often carried a "less than" connotation. Yet in reality, when one is walking around in an environment as one of a few persons of color, there is no getting around feeling like a minority. I have not felt that way in such a long time that I first tried to suppress the feeling altogether.
Feeling "different" is a terribly uncomfortable energy that is usually experienced during adolescence and the accompanying developmental tasks associated with becoming an adult. But here I was in my AARP-card-carrying body feeling like an adolescent trying to belong. I really needed to hear a few hellos, and outside my work setting there were not very many heard. Even more disappointing was that there were even fewer hellos at church, where people come to seek faith, family and inclusion, and whose existence is designed to achieve that goal.
I do not believe the lack of hellos to be racially motivated, but when you are a minority in a new, predominately white community, getting a hello or a smile sure goes a long way toward achieving a sense of belonging. The cumulative effect of not being recognized, even after initiating a hello, is a slight that can feel like a result of racism, however benign the intentions might be. Conversely, the cumulative effect of exchanging many hellos can really support building inclusive communities.
There are probably many reasons why we don't say hello and recognize each others' presence. Some people are just shy or self-absorbed or believe themselves to be respectful of others' privacy. Yet the effect of not engaging one another in this simple act is profound. Robert Putnam, in "Bowling Alone" and other publications, writes of the declining social capital in the United States and how it undermines civic engagement and our democracy. I also believe it renders us culturally incompetent, something that we cannot afford to be in a global society.
I often get asked what we can do to improve race relations, and my mantra in the past has been that we need to socialize and make friends across racial lines. But it is probably even simpler than that: we can simply say "hello."