The human propensity to compose lofty ideals and then ignore them showed its unbecoming head again this past week. As the Oak Park Village Board debated the language for the renewal of the community’s diversity statement, the disparity between the beautiful vision of the document and the dark behavior in the room was jarring.
Here is how it unfolded on Oct. 7, when the board approved the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Statement. In short, it proclaims that Oak Parkers respect their differences and the village welcomes, respects, and encourages the contributions of all people irrespective of race, color, sex, economic class or any of the other characteristics that are often used to divide people.
But during the board meeting the welcome mat for diverse voices was not evident. Some of the white male trustees were scolded by a peer who was “so tired of hearing two white men tell us what systems of oppression are.” Since they had not experienced oppression, they were told unceremoniously to close their mouths (the actual words are those that ordinarily cause young children to be reprimanded). At the same meeting, one of our most well-recognized local high school teachers reinforced this theme: “To have people [board members] with privilege speak for me and my experiences is unacceptable.”
This confirms my longstanding suspicion that Oak Parkers are often more concerned about the appearance of diversity than the substance of the village’s experiment in integration. Why else the vitriol that amendments to the diversity statement elicited this past week? It was, after all, just about a policy, not a substantive action. But my suspicion is admittedly unchary and maybe unfair. After all, Oak Park stands out for its voluntary racial integration of schools and neighborhoods. Its schools are run by superintendents and board presidents who are black females. The village mayor is Palestinian.
In the past, diversity has been viewed as a movement toward equality. Namely, we want to treat everyone the same. But the new diversity statement acknowledges the village’s growing focus on equity, aiming to give everyone what they “need to thrive,” which may not be the same and equal for everyone.
For some, the equity theme has clearly morphed into a new attitude toward public discussions and debates. Some voices — privileged white males, for example — do not have to be respected. They have had their chance before. They have no needs because they are already thriving.
What we are witnessing is not a threat to free speech but to free listening. We are being told that it is acceptable to turn a deaf ear when certain people speak. The underlying pretense that you can pre-judge an individual’s voice by her race, sex or class is not true. The promoters of a healthy diversity are correct on a very important point. Intelligence, discipline, ingenuity and integrity are not monopolized by people of a given skin color, gender or socio-economic group.
I have no expectation that dissension and intense debate will, or should, go away. But as we face sensitive topics for our village and schools, I do hope that our village and school boards will now try to live up to the new diversity statement and its goals: “full and broad participation of all community members” and “intentional engagement across lines of difference.”
The false start at last week’s board meeting does not mean we cannot reach the finish line.
Dale Sorenson is a longtime resident of Oak Park.