The Unbearable Whiteness of Being in Public

When we lived in Des Moines, my husband and I began telling our friends in the other places we had lived that “white people should not be left unattended.” Without genuine influence from other ethnic groups and immigrant communities, white people will do some very inappropriate things with mayonnaise and create shockingly bland cuisine. Some summer travel to visit family and friends has not only confirmed the wisdom in this half-joking theory, but clarified how and why I am so often disappointed by diversity initiatives in the U.S.

Here’s what I’ve realized:

There’s a difference between a white space in which nonwhite* people are allowed and a space that just isn’t white.

Most diversity efforts hinge on inclusion as an important mechanism of changing the culture, power dynamics, and racial makeup of an organization. Inclusion is, obviously, a good idea. It’s a way to bring a wider variety of voices into a conversation and, hopefully, improve the quality of life at work for people from historically-excluded groups. An organization with an inclusive culture values its people as people and, ideally, feels safe enough that people feel like they can participate fully, as their full selves. But, a white space does not stop being white just because there are some nonwhite people allowed in, even if they are made comfortable and welcomed.

No matter how inclusive it tries to be, a white space will always demand and expect assimilation. A white space is designed with the expectations of whiteness in mind, which effects norms around communication style, dress code, hairstyles, and all of the “soft skill” type interactions you can imagine. Maybe there are Black people in the organization, but do they have to fight to change the dress code to allow their natural hair? Do their reviews mention an “unprofessional” tone when someone fails to code switch effectively and accidentally speaks in the dialect they speak at home? Maybe there are Latino families in the park in the mostly white suburb. But, are they being told they can’t play their music so loud? Maybe there is an Indian family in that neighborhood – do people gossip about how many relatives come to visit?

No implicit bias training can stop people from enforcing the rules which seem to them to be common decency, but are really the norms of white propriety.

Inclusive practices can mitigate those some of these issues, but cannot really fix them because the wrong expectations are simply built into the place. When a space is designed (even unconsciously) with white, cis-het Christianity as the default, that will structure a shocking array of policies and expectations. For a company or organization, that could affect be which holidays the org closes for, bereavement policies, parental leave policies, and more. For a neighborhood, an expectation of whiteness can affect things like HOA rules excluding certain types of flags or local ordinances prohibiting certain kinds of dogs. While exceptions might be granted at work for someone who is non -white, non-cis-het, or non-Christian, because their cultural needs are different than the policy expects, the fact of having to ask for an exception only reinforces and makes more personal the underlying expectation of assimilation.

So, what does a space that isn’t white actually look like? Obviously, there are a lot of examples from a Black barbershop to a Mexican-American cultural center to the right Indian restaurant. But, in this case, I’m not referring to spaces that have a specific, but nonwhite* racial or cultural focus. Those are obviously important, but they aren’t the kind of environment that a currently white space can or should aspire to. So, I am more interested in what I’m going to call a multiethnic space.

What is a multiethnic space and how to we get there?

A multiethnic space is a bit like art – you know it when you see it, but it is notoriously hard to define. I believe its critical feature is that, having not been constructed to uphold the proprieties of whiteness, it does not demand the kind of conformity/assimilation that white spaces do. In a multiethnic space, you’ll see people from multiple cultures and ethnic groups being in public authentically. No one is telling people that they’re “too loud” or that there are too many people at their bbq or that their music is “annoying.” In multiethnic neighborhoods, unpretentiously fusion foods abound as different food ways bump into and interact with each other. (Behold, the glory that is Desi Pizza in Hamtramck, MI, which is a city inside of Detroit and has a fascinatingly complex racial makeup and history of immigrant communities.) You might see clothing stores aimed at different immigrant populations happily existing next to each other in such a neighborhood. You will almost certainly hear multiple languages and/or dialects as people speak in public as they do at home, without the pressure to code switch for someone else’s comfort.

In a truly multiethnic company or org (i.e. one that is not designed around white, Christian, cis-het as default) policies are broader and expectations assume a diversity of cultures. Federal holidays are what they are, of course, but a multiethnic company might have additional floating holidays for people to use for religious holidays that aren’t federal. In a multiethnic organization, the bereavement leave duration and applicability (i.e. required relationship to the employee) might be officially open-ended and determined on a case-by-case basis to allow for each employee’s cultural/religious needs. (That only works with compassionate and reasonable managers, of course.) The parental leave policy might be similarly vague in terms of who and when it applies, to allow for a multiplicity of understandings of parenthood and the wide variety of ways that people become parents. A multiethnic company will likely either not have a dress code or have one that is purposefully vague, explicitly asking employees to use their best judgement.

Ok, so flexible policies make a company multiethnic?

Shockingly enough, it isn’t quite that easy. As I mentioned earlier, when a company or organization or any kind of space is created as purposefully white or a space where white, Christian, cis-het people are assumed to be default will have a wide range of manifestations of those assumptions and the requirement for assimilation will run deep. Even with the best of intentions and the best professional direction, ferreting out all of those assumptions and manifestations may or may not actually be possible.

So, I’m not really suggesting that there’s some magical program for white spaces to use in order to become multiethnic. I don’t even know if a multiethnic space can be created on purpose.

Instead, I argue that multiethnic spaces should be the goal of diversity schemes and inclusive practices. 

We can and must do better than simply trying to make white sauces more accessible to nonwhite* people. Let’s create spaces that are flexible and humane enough to allow people to be their full, culturally-specific selves. Let’s create spaces where people don’t have to ask themselves if they are acting in sufficient accordance with some vague notion of propriety that claims to be universal, but is actually very specifically white. Does that mean we don’t create any cross-cultural norms of public behavior? Of course not.

But, it does mean practicing the kind of radical acceptance of difference that can allow all of us to appreciate the beauty of and learn from the ways of other cultures. It’s that kind of celebration of variety would allow us all to enjoy the rich tapestry of human cultures in all their combinations.



* I realize that “nonwhite” as a turn of phrase still centers white people and whiteness, which is not ideal in a discussion about inclusion. But, I have no better way to describe such a wide variety of groups of and types of people. “Racialized,” for example, leaves out people like the Pashtun, who have a skin color that usually puts them in the “white” category, but only sometimes. In this case, I also think it’s specifically not being white that people are asked to assimilate away from by white spaces.

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