There is a game many a young person has played over the years that requires you to choose between telling the truth in response to a question or completing a dare. Which you chose often depended on what you felt would be the least uncomfortable. Sometimes it gave you the opportunity to do something you really wanted to do, but needed permission. You had to kiss that boy you liked — it was the dare.
There are some who continue this practice into adulthood; seeking group permission, or at least confirmation, that what they have chosen to think or do is right. But what I find most interesting is the belief that those who have a different position are adversarial or creating conflict. I frequently find myself in this position on local social media since it’s inevitable when you’re in the minority.
It is often seen as subversive to mention that my experience may be different. Now you might have assumed that by “minority” I merely mean racial minority. Not necessarily. I’m not always able to detangle the multiple identities that put me at odds with some local culture. Is it because I’m Black, a woman, not a Midwesterner, not traditional, or just my mother’s child?
Oak Parkers tend to see ourselves as more evolved. We value diversity and do not embrace the material and social homogeneity so often associated with the suburbs. Or do we? I recently participated in a couple of social media discussion threads about choosing a diverse place to live and Oak Park’s inclusion in one of the “best places to live” lists. In the former, I asked if diversity was a need or a want. In the latter, I mentioned that I found these lists rather pointless since this decision to include is so subjective.
You would have thought I had called someone’s baby “ugly.” Why was I making everything about race? Couldn’t we just agree that all of these places were good? The subtext: stop disrupting our ignorant bliss. I wonder if different perspectives make it harder to secure that permission or confirmation that one’s thoughts are the “right” ones. But how can there be a “right” answer to a question of personal experience or opinion?
By asking whether diversity was a want or need, I was trying to ascertain its level of importance to the home seeker. Most discussions about desirability center on the wants of white families, which often include desires to raise children a certain way, the opportunity to live out certain values, or the opportunity to expand social circles — all “wants.” A person or family of color, not Christian, multiracial or with LGBTQ+ family members may be looking for a safe place to live and practice their culture and/or religion. These are issues that get to the core of one’s identity and are more serious “needs.”
It is also the difference between seeming diverse and actually being diverse, answering the question: “Does the community actually include the people who help to make up its diversity?”
When I looked at schools, starting with preschool, I was concerned whether my daughter would be the only or one of only a couple of Black children in her class. This would lead to major issues of identity, culture and self-worth that we were looking to avoid. It would be valuable to have exposure to kids and adults of other races and cultures, but it was paramount that she see herself reflected in significant numbers of the people around her. It was helpful to have real examples of classmates with two dads or two moms to reinforce the inclusiveness we wanted our daughter to embrace. But it was probably immeasurable for those parents to have a place where they knew their children would not be teased or made to feel less than, and could see other similar families.
Wants v. Needs. I know that whenever I see a “best of” list, they were not thinking about me. So often the communities listed are actually dangerous for Black males or would require I drive into the nearest big city just to get my hair done. But most folks are uncomfortable truthfully stating they are “great places for traditional white families.” People who have historically been marginalized should not be seen as community adornments or merely folks who add to a community’s progressive creds. Recognizing their needs doesn’t erase the existing community benefits.
To truly be an inclusive place to live, Oak Park also needs to be a place where residents with different needs can express them, have them addressed, and not be made to feel that those needs are outside of what any other resident should expect. Remaining ignorant about the breadth and depth of our great community is only blissful in the short term. Although consistent with our country’s approach toward diversity, it too results in an eventual reckoning that is often more painful than just addressing things up front.
It’s important to recognize how our experiences may be different instead of pretending that we are all the same. It’s the truth. And the dare to take this on may actually get us what we claim to want — a truly inclusive community.