by Kathleen Damewood Korb


Many years ago I moved from St. Louis County in Missouri to Massachusetts= =2E We bought an extremely charming and affordable house in a little town called Sharon, about twenty-five miles from Boston. We were told (illegally) that the town was becoming racially integrated, and also that= it was primarily Jewish. It certainly was that. In a town of 15,000 there= were five temples ranging from the ultra-orthodox of the Hassids to the Jewish Family Group which met in the Unitarian Universalist church. That = it was becoming integrated was certainly a plus, but that it was Jewish seem= ed neutral information to us. I had never understood anti-Semitism at all. M= y parents had had many Jewish friends and so had I, and none of them, not even Manny, a Conservative from New York City, seemed in any way to fit a= ny negative stereotypes. I didn't know where those ideas came from, or even for sure what they were, although I had heard that they existed. They certainly had never surfaced in any of my relationships. However, after living in Sharon for a year or two, I began to find myself with strange negative feelings about Jewishness - not about individuals whom I knew, b= ut Jewishness in general. I had a good friend in the neighborhood who was Jewish that I decided to talk to about it, and she said, "Don't worry. Living in Sharon, I'm anti-Semitic." That somewhat relieved my sense of guilt, but it gave me furiously to think about the consequences even of voluntary ghettos. Their attraction, of course, is that living there you don't need to worry about being disliked or mistrusted because of negativ= e stereotypes about your ethnic background or creed or economic status, so there is an obvious comfort to it. However, they not only limit your understanding of those who are different from you, impoverishing your environment by keeping you from such contacts, but they reinforce any negative stereotype that may exist. After all, no matter how unfair or ho= w particular such stereotypes are, there is usually some basis for them, or= they would not exist. I had never believed in a basis for Jewish stereotypes, and now that I'm no longer living in Sharon I never see them= or have to become aware of them, but any that had any small reality becam= e magnified and hurtful both to those who fit them and those who did not.

With our contemporary worship of diversity, oddly, we are relegating more= and more people, and often even ourselves, to ghettos, both voluntary and= involuntary.

There are ethnic ghettos, generational ghettos, gender ghettos, economic ghettos, and each one reinforces negative stereotypes not only among outsiders but within the group, often even encouraging people to take on stereotypes that they would otherwise eschew. The big thing now is the "gated community." There is a new apartment complex on the street where I= live that is advertising itself that way. To build it they tore down the only building on the street with any individual character. I'll admit it was old, run-down, and with little or no architectural interest, but it w= as a relief to the eye after block after block of apartment buildings.

However, there it is, and it was only to be expected, but this one is a "gated community." Apartment complexes with various security devices are nothing new. I often in visiting various people have to telephone and hav= e them unlock a gate for me, but on my street, I have never felt the smalle= st need for such a thing. I realize that to say that something doesn't happe= n is a sure guarantee that it will happen next week, but I have lived there= for twelve years in a ground-floor apartment, and I think that a burglar considered entering it once. The screen was off the window and it was ope= n, but nothing was disturbed. It's a little humiliating to realize that someone would break into your apartment and find nothing worth stealing a= nd leave again, but if it were that kind of neighborhood it could have happened again and again. It hasn't. But we love our gated communities - secure enclaves of the well-to-do and the law-abiding - excluding anyone not-like-us, so our new little apartment complex will advertise not that = it has a security system in place, which for the nervous is not a bad idea, but that it is a "gated community". =

It seems like a peculiar consequence of an appreciation of the value of diversity that instead of making us more understanding and accepting of o= ne another it should be driving us apart, but I think we can figure out how = it has happened. If we're going to celebrate differences we need to have differences to celebrate, and if they don't exist naturally we have to create them. They do exist naturally, of course, as differences in temperament and environment, but instead of being individual we have decided that they need to be cultural, stereotypical, almost lock-step within a defined group. Diversity is wonderful, but everyone in a particular group has to be representative of everyone else. =

I have friends who adopted a child of another race. It's not quite so problematic yet for those who go to Asian countries for a baby, but this was a white couple who wanted to adopt a black child. They were only give= n permission to adopt him if they promised to bring him up as much as possible in his own culture. Well, they wanted this baby, and they weren'= t about to argue the philosophy of the thing, but let me tell you something= :

Babies ain't got no culchuh! I mean, that's the whole point of child-rearing: to instill the culture of the family. One's culture is not= part of the genetic code. Asian babies brought up in western families don= 't speak Chinese or Japanese just because they were born of Chinese or Japanese parents. They don't have an inborn penchant for Buddhism, and th= ey have no trouble whatsoever pronouncing R's and l's. Nor is a black child automatically going to want to sing gospel music. Let me admit right up front that in our society at this particular time it could be very difficult for a person with physical characteristics from African ancesto= rs to be accepted, or even to accept him or herself, as an individual with a= n individual upbringing rather than as a representative of that particular ethnic group. However, just because something is real doesn't make it right, and to insist on continuing it and calling it good will simply reinforce our separateness. =

Well-intentioned organizations, schools, boards, churches, have diversity= as a goal. To be really a proper group you have to have representatives from all the groups that you can think of and define - blacks and whites,= women and men, old and young, handicapped (or is it disabled? No, I think= it's challenged), American Indians, Asians, people from Spanish-speaking countries for whom they have invented the term Hispanics to include everyone from Mexico to Argentina and all the Caribbean islands. Oh, and = if you're really into it you need to have Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and maybe even a Unitarian Universalist, though that might be any of the above. The thing is, that it doesn't matter what kind of peopl= e they are, what there interests and talents or training are, because all women think alike, all men think alike, all senior citizens, all baby-boomers or generation x-ers, all American Indians, all Hispanics, al= l Jews, all, all only think like the group they're representing. Don't they= ?

Isn't that the point? We're not people any more, we're representative samples. That means, of course, that we need to be part of a group with a= well-defined and well-understood culture so we'll be able to represent it= properly. The only way to guarantee that is with ghettoization, because t= he only way to be sure that people are true examples of their own culture is= not to rub up against another. Then they may become traitors to their rac= e, their gender, their age-group, by adopting another's customs and values. Oh, the horror of it! Multi-culturalism, this celebration of diversity, i= s just a way to put a pretty face on segregation, but the ugliness of it can't help but show through.

I was listening to a colleague, whom I admire and respect, talk about the= importance of understanding and celebrating your own culture. He defined himself as African-American, and suggested that European-Americans are culturally impoverished. They don't have their special culture to become imbued with. It was an interesting notion that majority culture becomes completely invisible in this world-view. I thought also as I looked at hi= m, that he was denying at least three-fourths of his own genetic background.=

For him to be black was a matter of faith, not color. I realize that that= has been forced on many people whether or not it is their preference. I also think it is great to be proud of your ancestry, to celebrate it, to honor it and to maintain its traditions, but it is too often used in ways= that separate us from one another and relegate us to our ghettos. It can = be used to oppress others and often has been, but it is now being used, I think quite innocently, in the name of self-esteem and racial pride to maintain our distrust of one another. Unitarian Universalists used to be on the cutting edge of social change.

Nowadays, it seems to me, we are in the forefront of trendiness. That bei= ng the case we are focusing on diversity as our primary religious mission. T= he natural consequence of the freedom of conscience that is our pride and th= e uniqueness of our heritage is a diversity of belief within our congregations. The respect that we must exhibit (and truly feel) for differing opinions if we are to maintain our integrity as honest searcher= s after truth, and our absolute understanding that race or religious belief= or color can have no bearing on the value of a thought or deed, must naturally produce an affirmation of difference. The problem comes when we= forget that this is the consequence of our freedom rather than the goal o= f our existence. This is happening more and more. =

A couple of years ago we had the minister from North Carolina speak to us= on what was being called a "diverse" church to be established near Raleig= h. It has been established, although not as an official policy of the extension committee. In fact, the church itself was to be anything but diverse. Like the diversity we celebrate in other places, it was to be consciously homogeneous in race and theology. What made it diverse was th= at neither the race nor the theology was very prevalent in our association. =

We have few black members and comparatively few self-described Christians. This church is to be both. Its intentional homogeneity seems to me to go against our commitment to the freedom of conscience which transcends theological or ethnic differences, but I sometimes fear that in our idolatry of diversity we have forgotten our tradition of freedom, and we have forgotten as well the damage to understanding and to wholeness that ghettos do.

We are ghettoizing ourselves in many ways. There has been a terrible outbreak of hyphens among us, and our loyalty seems to be more to the fir= st half of the hyphen than to the part that says Unitarian Universalist. I w= as recently sent a survey for a program on the effect the large number of women entering our ministry has had on our association, and one of the demographic questions was on my theological identity. There were eleven choices, some of which I didn't even understand (I guess I'm none of thos= e) and no choice just of Unitarian Universalist. We are supposed to put ourselves into boxes and identify with those boxes rather than with the shared values which transcend - or used to transcend - our differences.

Perhaps they are right. Perhaps we have preached diversity as the center and end of our religious faith and our social conscience that the only wa= y to be a Unitarian Universalist in the wider movement is to have that as your highest value. We must identify ourselves as certain accepted kinds = of Unitarian Universalists so that we can maintain an identity in our tiny theological ghettos. I have asked the preachers of diversity what our transcendent values are, what holds us together as a religious movement, what our mission is, and the answer too often is simply, without addition= or limitation, the affirmation of diversity. True diversity which enables= us to learn from one another, that allows and encourages the search for truth in freedom and the speaking of truth in love, is a wonderful and necessary thing, but as a single mission it has neither center nor purpos= e.

It divides us rather than uniting us, and we find ourselves less rather than more able to trust and understand one another. We are relegating ourselves to voluntary ghettos and seeing the consequences in division an= d suspicion.

We need to look at ourselves in the forefront of the trendiness both in religion and in society and see what the consequences really are to our rejection of common bonds in the interest of not just celebrating but creating diversity. Throughout our history, whatever our differences, bot= h in our free faith and in our society, although we have used our differenc= es to enrich us, we have known that what we share is more important still. W= e have shared an ideal of freedom and a commitment to love and trust one another. In our free faith the search for truth was informed by our differences but transcended them. It seems that we have of late been so i= n love with difference we have rejected the understanding that we are first= of all citizens of one nation indivisible, first of all part of the ventu= re to seek and practice truth and meaning in our free faith, first of all members of one community of faith and freedom. Let us instead cherish tha= t understanding and share it with others.

And while I'm at it, this one probably got more urgent requests for immediate copies than any other I've ever preached.