I tried recently to focus my thoughts on diversity and the effect this concept has had upon higher education in recent years. I lingered upon personal thoughts of how I have been affected by it throughout my life.
Recently, having not communicated for more than 40 years, a high school classmate wrote a letter to me, addressing me as “carrot-top.” It brought back memories of the heckling that my brother and I endured throughout elementary and high school as a result of our freckles and red hair. We stood out in a crowd as children of African-American parents — neither of whom had red hair. My mother’s hair was jet black and straight, reaching her waist; my father’s was short, curly and prematurely gray. Their offspring — my brother and I — were considered somewhat of an oddity in our hometown of Charleston, SC.
As similar in appearance as my younger brother and I were, we were, in fact, two very different persons. We had different viewpoints, different friends and different educational and cultural interests. While my brother kept up with the newest fashions in dress, I dressed more traditionally. He was interested in and participated in sports; I did not.
Within our family — my mother had two brothers and four sisters; my father had two brothers — there were skin complexions ranging from very dark to very light. There were brown, black, gray, blue and green eyes. Although there were no other redheads that I knew of in my family when I was growing up, there had been some “carrot-tops” among my maternal grandfather’s sisters. My maternal great-grandfather was a blue-eyed, blond Caucasian Jew — a German farmer who immigrated to South Carolina. My maternal great-grandmother was of a very dark complexion and wore her hair in “cornrows.” There are family pictures also of my paternal grandparents and their parents — some of whom were African American, some Caucasian and others who had keen Native-American features.
In spite of all of the laws in the South prohibiting mixed marriages in the days of my childhood and in prior generations, there appear to have been ample opportunities for persons of a wide range of race, ethnicity and color to meet and mingle. My family, however, certainly had no corner on the market in diversity. Throughout the United States and in the South, especially and ironically, there developed a diversity that was never recognized officially. This diversity fitted legally, socially, culturally, economically and politically under the single designation of African American (formerly, “Colored,” “Negro,” “Afro-American,” “Black”).
The focus was upon the African or Black background, to the exclusion of the recognition of any other racial/ethnic background. The result, over the years, has been a denial by many African Americans of their richly diverse backgrounds and the creation of a narrow focus upon only one, albeit key, segment of their heritage. Another contributing factor to the focusing in recent years upon the African — rather than the Caucasian or European — heritage has been the effort to concentrate scholarly research on the neglected African and African-American contributions in practically every field of study. The contributions of Africans and African Americans to Western civilization, generally, have been neglected in textbooks at every level of education; therefore, the focus for a number of years has been upon remedying the neglects of the past.
When one considers that life is the result of the precise timing of so many factors and circumstances unique to existence, one must be grateful to God for whatever one’s background may be. African Americans, like persons of every other variety of racial/ethnic/national/religious background, must explore and get to know the even larger world culture which is the result of their very own broad heritage, of which their ancestors were a part.
The laws of the Old South, ironically, had the effect of uniting through oppression — under the single designation of “African American” — persons of otherwise diverse backgrounds. If the multicultural racial designation, currently being introduced, had been applied to these same persons in past years, how differently would the history of America been recorded?
We are unique human beings, with unique histories — whatever our backgrounds. Besides our ties to one or more racial/ethnic/national/religious group, each of us is a special individual, with special qualities derived from our diverse heritage and environment. I was taught by my parents that I was no better than anyone else. At the same time, I was made to understand that no one was better than I. I am proud to be an African American. I would not change one split second of the circumstances that created my birth and affected my development.
Let us use our educational opportunities to advance and share our knowledge about diversity with our students, colleagues and others so mat our world is an even better place for everyone — especially for our heirs.
RICHARD M. TURNER, III, Provost, Northwest Campus, Wayne Country Community College, Detroit, MI
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