Like many socially liberal parents in upper-middle-class suburbs, I’ve lost sleep fretting over diversity. Is our hometown diverse enough? Am I scarring my daughter for life by selecting a top-ranked but super-white school district? Why did I move to a neighborhood where speaking a foreign language attracts glares at the grocery store?
Frankly, most college-educated liberal parents like me are total hypocrites when it comes to making sure our kids don’t grow up in homogeneous environments. We noisily sing diversity’s praises…and then work our asses off to eliminate it from our daily lives. On social media and in conversation, we furiously denounce anti-immigrant rhetoric, racist policing, and budget cuts to welfare programs. But how many illegal immigrants, stop-and-frisk victims, or welfare recipients can we count among our own friends, or even our acquaintances?
In seeking out the safest towns and the best schools, we segregate ourselves from huge swaths of Americans who are different from us, making true diversity nearly impossible. The communities we live in and the schools our children attend certainly pay lip service to diversity. It might be a check-the-box, superficial commitment, or an authentic desire to build a diverse environment. But regardless of motivation, it usually remains just that – a desire.
In the wake of the debacle that was the 2016 election, a few moms in my area formed a Multicultural Playgroup. The idea was to expose children to playmates of different races and nationalities – to do our part to build an America we’d be proud to live in. The organizers posted the details on a local parent Facebook page with thousands of members, where I found it and enthusiastically signed up. But when my daughter and I arrived at the first gathering, most of the attendees were white Americans. The well-meaning organizers simply didn’t know enough families who didn’t look like them – and lived in a community where few such families existed.
All of this stands in stark contrast to my own childhood. Financial constraints kept my family out of the great neighborhoods and the top schools. In sprawling apartment buildings or shabby duplexes squeezed together, black and brown and white kids and adults lived all jumbled up. No one gave a second thought to neighbors speaking Spanish, Ukrainian, Korean, Slovak, Vietnamese, or Turkish. My best friend had just immigrated from Nigeria; my little brother’s best friend was Indian.
I didn’t grow up in some sort of post-racial utopia. There were stereotypes and animosities. We grew up hearing dozens of cringe-worthy comments about other races and nationalities. We heard our parents say, “Why do the black and Spanish kids get all the scholarships?” and “All these Russians do is drink and get in fights” and “Most black people are lazy, but don’t repeat that in school because you’re not allowed to be racist in America.”
But every day, all of us, despite our misconceptions and prejudices, went out and engaged with each other. We studied together in our average classrooms, our energy barely contained by our average teachers. Our parents chatted at the playground, working to understand unfamiliar accents.
And ultimately, we figured out that the accents and skin colors didn’t matter as much as we first assumed. We were never taught about institutionalized racism or microaggressions. We didn’t have diversity days in school or sensitivity training in the workplace. We learned about race from interacting with each other. Because when you work and live and study together, day after day after day, you are brought face-to-face with each other’s common humanity, and ignoring it becomes nearly impossible.
And this is precisely what’s missing from my suburb of manicured lawns and enviable test scores. Because no matter how much my daughter reads or talks about diversity, how much can she really learn if she’s never played kickball with a new immigrant or shared a desk with a child of a single mom or played on playgrounds where a symphony of languages mix?
Katerina Manoff lives in New York with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. She is a freelance writer, editor and education consultant. You can also find her on Instagram sharing super-easy activities for parents of toddlers on @5mintoddlerfun.