Venus and Serena Williams have been the face of tennis since maybe, 1999, when they both won their first Grand Slams. In 1999, I was being shipped off to a foreign place called boarding school, to play tennis there, and it was a great time to be a black female tennis player. My mother was convinced that it was the best place for me to parlay my talent into college opportunities – months later, I begrudgingly agreed that she was right. But this was an entirely new world for me.
I grew up in a predominantly black, middle-class community on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. I had exposure to every major people group, socio-economic status, and gender identity, but I knew then that not all were celebrated. I attended my local public school, but there were still many areas for me to slip through the cracks. Fortunately for me, my mother did not entertain that option. After months of complaining that everyone would be different than me, not knowing musical and cultural references, and I’d miss my friends, I was finally shipped off. In time, I transformed into the poster child of my new school. This began my journey of walking back and forth between many worlds, of privilege and opportunities, and of voiceless-ness and social-risks. But what I learned then is that all of us treasured ramen noodles (also known as Oodles of Noodles), Usher, and The Bachelor. While there were many differences, we often found common ground.
Similarly, I had a conversation the other day on the Terrace with my Middle School Advisory. The conversation was with two Middle School students, one who identifies as black and one who identifies as white; they were finding common ground in realizing that Top Ramen and Oodles of Noodles are all the same food, better than a Cup O’Noodles, but not as good as actual ramen or pho. They learned that it was simply identified differently by their families and cultures. We were then able to transition that conversation into what is served at their families’ Thanksgiving or holiday tables. One student taught another what collard greens are and how they’re prepared, while the other shared about green bean casserole.
As a school, this is where we want to be, or start rather – that difference is not something to be afraid of, but to be explored. Sure, food can be an easy starting place, but what about faith, gender identity, skin color, and ethnicity? If we can start with green bean casserole and collard greens, can we then talk about family traditions and biases beyond food? Can we learn that difference is not always scary or bad? And can we become better people and more empathetic in that process, as we explore our roles in this big blue Earth?
Like many organization and schools nationwide, Steward is trying to work through our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is not an easy task, and one of the first steps is to start recognizing our inherent biases. Large companies such as Apple and Nike are currently working to make their products more accessible to those with diverse abilities, but this is considered innovative and not the standard. Even Google has recognized that its search engine suffers from algorithmic bias. In 2016, right here in Richmond, a Clover Hill High School student posted a video of a Google Images search of the words “three black teenagers.” The search engine responded with pictures of African-American teen mug shots. Yet when he changed the phrase from “three black teenagers” to “three white teenagers” the outcome was “groups of smiling teens” (Baig, 2016). If Google, which is managed by some of the brightest minds in this country, is still working to avoid bias, we know that we have our work cut out for us.
Being biased is not always a bad thing. A bias can be for or against anything. I can be biased towards the New England Patriots because they’ve shown a history of winning, or I can be biased against cats because of a personal experience or belief. However, when we are not aware of our biases it can often give negative consequences – as we are not learning from facts, but instead from a slanted view, which is the etymology of the word bias. Therefore, for us as a community to be diverse, inclusive, and equitable, we have to be intentional in recognizing our inner and institutional biases, as well as find ways to increase knowledge and exposure. We have to look at the things we say we’re committed to, knock down the barriers, and intentionally seek to reform our understanding and views of certain areas. An example would be that a person with a ‘learning disability’ is not disabled, they simply learn differently than I do – one is a negative connotation, one is neutral and open to both diversity and possibility – yet this process does not happen overnight or without effort.
Addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a process, a puzzle, and a dance all in one. There are times when we’ll be confident in our choices and times when we will be unsure. Some questions have clear answers and solutions and some questions leave space for disagreement and innovation. We do not need to all have the same beliefs or answers, but the goal is that we can not only respect these differences but find ways to honor them as central to who we are as a diverse community. For some people it will be new and uncomfortable, for some people they have always been the ‘diversity’ and are now able to feel like a valued community member; yet it has been proven over and over again, that diversity is beneficial for all. Understanding differences, empathetic practice, and broadened world views will enhance the students’ experiences while here, and provide a foundation upon which they can look back as they explore their futures with greater respect and understanding.
Being at Steward sometimes reminds me of the times I spent at my beloved boarding school, and it prompts me to connect with friends from then. This week I called an old friend of mine. We are the same age and in similar life stages. We have very different backgrounds – racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically – but the beauty is that I was able to be there for her, because no matter our differences, we both are in the midst of figuring out the tough parts of ‘adulting.’ I’m grateful for her, she is grateful for me, and through our relationship we better understand each other and our cultures. This is the goal: chopping down the road blocks that keep us separated, and opening up opportunities to learn and grow. It seems that Top Ramen and Oodles of Noodles are universal, no matter what you may call them, and may open the door for us to find common ground in other areas.
Baig, E. C. (2016, June 28). Microsoft's Nadella says 'A.I. must guard against bias'. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/baig/2016/06/28/microsofts-nadella-says-must-guard-against-bias/86485098/.