Editorial / Diversity on and off the menu
Published 6:25 pm, Thursday, March 8, 2012
Few things say "white, upper-middle class" as clearly as a wine and cheese reception.
So when a community group recently announced in all earnestness that it would launch "Fairfield Celebrates Diversity" month with a wine and cheese reception, it was hard not to wince at the painful irony.
But the fact is, when it comes to racial diversity and to religious variety beyond Judeo-Christian traditions, Fairfield has precious little to celebrate.
According to pre-Census data culled in 2009, Fairfield is:
93.6 percent white
2.3 percent Hispanic
2 percent Asian
1 percent black
Less than two percent of us are of mixed race or other races.
Of 23 places of worship listed on the town's website, 21 are Christian churches and two are Jewish synagogues. Period.
Fairfield's household income is 30 percent higher than the state's, 13 percent more than Fairfield County's as a whole.
So when members of the Fairfield Community Conversation Committee chose a wine and cheese reception at the oceanfront Penfield Pavilion to bring together people for a discussion of diversity, they picked a setting where the majority surely would feel comfortable.
But as some in the group would point out later that evening, experiencing diversity isn't about comfort; it's about leaving one's comfort zone.
The committee's idea was for a large group to gather for wine, cheese and an overview, and then disperse in smaller groups to various ethnic restaurants and one private home, where they would be exposed to different cuisines and cultures and have more intimate discussion.
To lead the smaller groups, the committee named 13 town officials.
Eight were men, five were women.
Eleven were elected officials, two were appointed officials.
Every single one of them was white.
Some had significant influence -- First Selectman Mike Tetreau, for example, and School Superintendent David Title. But that not a single "leader" was a minority is unfathomable.
Of the three, the one legislator with the most to offer this group -- Taiwan-born State Rep. Tony Hwang -- was not on the leaders list. Hwang, who learned English as a second language, fortunately attended the reception and was one of the discussion's most insightful participants.
To be sure, there were minorities on the guest list, and they made valuable contributions to the discussion. Some spoke of encountering prejudice in the workplace, others of finding common ground with whites that evening.
At a Thai restaurant, a discussion facilitator said one must leave his or her "comfort zone" to embrace diversity. At an Indian restaurant, a white participant said that people who grow up in a the comfort of a homogenous community like Fairfield likely will feel out of place when they leave for higher education or a job amid diversity in the "real world."
We have little doubt that the Community Conversation Committee had the best intentions, and any discussion about what separates us helps to bring us together.
But the program -- funded by a grant -- could have had greater impact had the white majority been nudged out of its wine-and-cheese comfort zone. The possibilities for field trips to venues where majority-minority roles could be reversed are endless.
Diversity runs far deeper than the menus at ethnic restaurants. And in this exercise, the leaders could have been the people of color and the people with accents rather than the white establishment.
If Fairfield honestly and openly wants to celebrate diversity, it will have to invite diversity in. That would mean creating more opportunities for minority students to attend its schools and embracing affordable housing.
Is that too far out of our comfort zone?