girdwood alaska

On Diversity: A Snapshot of My America

My main job is taking pictures of homes for real estate agents.  While most of the homes I photograph are in the upper-middle to high-end price range, I do take pictures in what can be described as blue-collar, working class areas.  One of my shoots yesterday was in one of these neighborhoods.  A neighborhood where the average home price is below the local median average.  A neighborhood where people take pride in their homes even when they don’t always have the time or money to make them look as nicely as they want.  It was in just such a neighborhood that I was reminded not only what has always made America great but just how wrong and dangerous modern-day conservatives are to what really makes America great.

As I pulled up to the house, it looked like a thousand others in the area, a nicely landscaped Cape Cod with an American flag softly waving in the breeze from a pole in the front yard and a black Ford F-250 parked in the driveway.  I fully expected the owners to be the typical white, blue-collar working class people who heavily dominate this particular part of town.  When they opened the door, all I could think of was, “Never judge a book by its cover.”  Instead of the white, blue-collar worker I’d expected to see, I was kindly greeted by a Muslim woman in her early 40s wearing a hijab.   She introduced me to her equally kind husband and the two of them proceeded to be more friendly and helpful than any home sellers I’ve interacted with in months.  They offered me water.  They offered me coffee.  They offered me cake.  They moved with me from room-to-room making sure bedspreads were straight, pillows were fluffed, blinds were pulled, lights were on…  Usually, I cannot stand sellers even in the house when I take pictures, let alone bird dogging me.  If other sellers were as nice and helpful as this couple, I’d completely change this attitude.  

While how they treated and helped me stood out, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the contrast of the “book” and the “cover.”  While the outside of their home said, “All-American,” the artwork, paint colors, Qurans, and back addition with Arabic seating area of the the inside said, “All-Muslim.”  As I was going from room-to-room taking pictures, I kept thinking about the contrast of the home’s external to internal characteristics.  I’ve shot many a home where the outside was very traditional but the inside was very contemporary.   The outside not jibing with the inside is nothing new.  However, this was very different.  This wasn’t a contrast between architectural/design styles.  The more I thought about this particular contrast, the more I loved it.  I loved the blending of cultures because this is exactly what America is supposed to represent.  From China Town in San Francisco to the Polish part of Detroit to the Irish parts of Boston to the Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles, America stands for people coming from other lands, becoming part of the whole but still maintaining a love and appreciation of their heritage.  

If all I had experienced was the contrast of the exterior to the interior of the home, that would have been more than enough to reaffirm my faith in what America is supposed to represent.  What happened as I was taking the exterior shots took these feelings of diversity, what America really represents, and just how dangerous and evil the rightwing hate machine are to the entire system.

While I was outside taking pictures, the owners came out to make sure things were picked up.  While they were in the front of the house straitening out a couple of chairs on the front porch, a couple of their neighbors who were out in their yards doing work came over to chat.  By the time I worked my way around to the front of the house, standing on the front sidewalk were the Muslim owners, an African-American man in his early 30s, and an older white man in his late 60s having a conversation that ranged from landscaping to auto repair to kids/grandkids to restaurant suggestions.  If I described the scene and read you the text of the entire conversation with a Texas accent, it would read like a “King of The Hill” script.

What really struck me wasn’t the nature of their conversation, it was very similar to ones I heard growing up in rural Idaho.  It was very similar to ones I’ve heard in the neighborhoods of Chicago.  It was very similar to conversations that take place every day across the country from Girdwood Alaska to Mobile Alabama.  In spite of the diversity of the participants-their ages, their religions, their cultures, their backgrounds…, they had fundamental experiences, wants, needs, desires… in common.  What struck me was this scene being played out in an average-sized town in the Rust Belt is the direct opposite of what the right-wing and white nationalist hate machines spew out non-stop every day.

The scene I witnessed is what America really is all about and what modern-day conservatives and their very overlapping Venn Diagram counterparts, white supremacists fear the most.  They fear this kind of neighborly camaraderie.  They fear that diversity really isn’t a problem because they are beholden to their ignorant beliefs and hate that have been passed down to them by their ancestors and meticulously cultivated by fear mongers and grifters.  White flight didn’t happen because minorities moving into predominately white areas caused problems.  White flight happened because whites were afraid of people that didn’t look like them, didn’t have familiar sounding names, had different points of view.  When white flight wasn’t an option, whites hemmed minorities into very specific areas through redlining policies and practices.  

The racist and bigoted fears Donald Trump tapped into to win the election are based on lies about minorities and about the natural status of whites.  The scene I witnessed on the sidewalk of a quiet, little neighborhood was perfectly natural.  It was a scene that is played out across the country every day between neighbors.  When it played out between only whites the reason isn’t because minorities don’t know how or want to participate but because they haven’t been welcomed to the neighborhood/town.  The wants, needs, fears, concerns… of people who have similar economic situations don’t vary from one another very much.  This isn’t a revelation.  Many studies have been done showing that people who live in multi-cultural, diverse areas are much more tolerant and have less racist/bigoted views than those who live in less diverse areas.  People exposed to other cultures and heritages are not as overly protective of their own.

As much as I admire and appreciate people celebrating their heritage, it is something I’ve never personally experienced. I’m an Anglo-Saxon mutt.  My heritage is mostly English and Scottish and my ancestors came to America many, many generations ago.  I personally feel no love or bond with this heritage.  I feel closer to the culture and people of Japan from living there for two years than I do to my Western European roots.  This could be because I truly lived and experienced the one and not the other.  The Japanese culture is more ingrained into my psychological matrix than something I only have a distant genetic connection to.  

Like all people and cultures, the Japanese have great traits and serious flaws. Because I’m a pragmatist at heart, the one trait they have that I admired the most is their ability, as a culture, to take an idea or behavior from another culture that is good, incorporate it into their own culture while not losing who they truly are.  I call this Ala Carte Culture.  You pick and choose what you like from other cultures, leave the bad aspects of these cultures behind, and absorb the good into your own culture in a way that doesn’t diminish who you are.  

A good example of this in Japan can be found in the saying, “In Japan, you are born a Shinto, married a Christian, and buried a Buddhist.”  When I first heard this saying, being a typical American, I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.  Imagine someone in America telling you, “My kids will be born Jewish, married Lutheran, and buried Mormon.”  If someone told you this, you’d stare at them wondering what the hell they were talking about. In Japan, their phrase gets no such reaction from other Japanese.  It is accepted as being true.  “In Japan, you are born a Shinto, married a Christian, and buried a Buddhist,” bothered me for months until someone explained it to me. “Shintoism celebrates being born. Christianity celebrates getting married.  Buddhism celebrates death. The best celebrations and parties are what the Japanese adopted into their culture for each of these events.”  

I love this idea. Why not take the best of other cultures and incorporate it into your own?  It’s an idea that should fit perfectly with a country like America which was founded on cultural diversity.  If a homogeneous, often isolated country like Japan can do this, a country that is the “Great Melting Pot of The World” should not only be able to do this easily, it should be aggressively doing it.  Unfortunately, the open, diverse, all people are created equal society is the one resistant to learning from other cultures and the where the dominant group fears and demonizes those outside their group who want to honor, cherish, and incorporate the best parts of their own cultures.

This resistance and fear of other ideas and cultures are at the root of America’s long, unjustifiable history of racism and bigotry.  “If it’s white, it’s right,” is the default mindset for white America. Who is allowed to be called “white” has been arbitrary throughout our history.  Jews were once not considered white.  Neither were Italians.  Neither were Germans.  Neither were the Irish.  Only once a group has been accepted as “white” are their cultural ideas and celebrations accepted.  White suburbia now doesn’t give a second thought to their kids celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at school but if the school decided to celebrate Kwanzaa with as much enthusiasm, they’d lose their damn minds. Irish-Americans love and honor their heritage to the same degree as Mexican-Americans, Muslim-Americans, African-Americans…  The main reason we, as a country, don’t care about or think twice about Irish-Americans or other “white” nationalities celebrating their heritage is because they have been accepted into the “white club.”  Celebrating and honoring one’s heritage isn’t the problem for racists and bigots.  It’s who gets to do it.

In the America that claims to be the “Great Melting Pot,” where for the first time in history a government was formed on the idea that all people are created equal, where diversity is supposed to be our greatest strength, the tableau I witnessed represented everything America can and should be.  It was also stark counter-evidence to one of the main claims of white nationalists and the right wing that multi-culturalism can’t work because non-whites won’t/can’t assimilate.  There are many problems with this claim: 1-it presumes white culture is the dominant one that everyone must assimilate to; 2-the entire notion of “white culture” is riddled with problems; 3-the evidence in diverse areas completely contradicts it.

My America is what I witnessed the other day on a sidewalk in a Rust Belt city.  My America isn’t afraid of others celebrating their heritage.  My America isn’t white-centric.  My America is the real America and no one will ever convince me otherwise.   The youth of my America know and feel this better than my peers.  This gives me hope for my children.  If only my generation gives them the opportunity to live up to what it means to be a real American better than my generation.