• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

Diversity: A Confrontation

Art, difference and the new American conversation.

January 23, 2020
 
 

Art hurts. Art urges voyages --

One of my favorite lines by one of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks.

Note the dash at the end. I’ll get to the phrase that follows at the end of this piece.

But first, let’s consider the wisdom of what’s above in relation to the recent public art project undertaken by the small town of Newnan, Ga. The community, 40 miles from Atlanta, has more than tripled in size in the last few decades and has grown dramatically more diverse in the process. When the neo-Nazis announced a march against immigrants, the community had an inspired response: it would hang banner-style portraits of the diverse citizenry of Newnan around town. The neo-Nazis drew only a few dozen fellow racists to their rally, and the portraits of Newnan residents, which included people who were white and black, Mexican and Muslim, were a big hit.

I love the big idea here: let’s not just oppose the ugly racists, let’s embrace our beautiful diversity.

The power of those portraits caused a sort of voyage in certain Newnan residents and created a world of hurt for others. One of the pieces depicted two young Pakistani American women wearing the Muslim head scarf, and Newnan-area Facebook groups lit up with comments like, “I feel like Islam is a threat to the American way of life. There should be no positive portrayals of it.”

(It should be noted, many Newnan residents pushed back against this racism -- a positive sign.)

Something about the highly public display of very beautiful art caused a realization in Newnan, a confrontation of sorts. Perhaps passing those two Muslim women on the street could be bracketed in the mind and downplayed as insignificant, but seeing them take their place as equal citizens of Newnan in a dignified public portrait, well, it cracked something open in some people.

I wonder what it would look like for a college campus to do a similar project. Except I would add a little twist.

What if in addition to portraying the racial, gender, ethnic, religious and sexual diversity, we could portray the worldview diversity as well?

A recent New York Times op-ed told of a Twitter project (a kind of art of its own, I suppose) that highlighted in a creative form how internally complex people are politically. Among the “portraits” on display:

  • A 59-year-old white woman from Massachusetts who describes herself as a conservative and favors limits on abortion and voted for Hillary in 2016.
  • A 36-year-old working-class mixed-race man who calls himself a moderate Democrat, supports abortion and the Clean Air Act, and voted for Gary Johnson in 2016.

What kind of interesting thoughts might banner-size portrayals of these worldview diversities provoke, especially if we could overlay them across high-quality visuals of demographic diversity?

What conversations might emerge when we confront, in the form of life-size art, the growing diversities across multiple dimensions -- racial, ethnic, religious, political -- and discover that simplistic stereotypes are almost always wrong?

And yet, two-dimensional thinking abounds even as diversity grows all around us. Why?

My friend Robby Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has a theory: it’s because our friendship groups and social silos are so homogenous.

Newnan might be more diverse, but if your friends are still all white and Christian, then portraits of Muslims shake you up a bit. You might think your campus is full of social liberals, but that’s because you only run with people who agree with you. That’s why the buses of students (many of them racial minorities) heading to the pro-life rally came as such a shock.

Here’s the complete thought from that Gwendolyn Brooks poem:

Art hurts. Art urges voyages --

And it is easier to stay at home.

But a public life, a civil society, a diverse democracy requires us to go outside and get to know who we really are, in all of our diversity, the differences we like and the differences we don’t.

Let art show us who we are, in all our complexity, and let the new American conversation begin.

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