A few months ago, a friend sent me a long list of authors he loves and thinks everyone should read. He’s an artisan business owner, and his job requires little reading, but he likes books.
His list, literary and high-minded, was replete with the kind of work prized by guys who come to get a graduate degree in creative writing. I’d read most of the authors and loved a number of them.
When he asked my opinion, I considered the list for about it for a minute and then said: “You hate women.”
My friend sputtered a little, as you might expect from a good man who has just been told he hates women. It had never occurred to him to think about his reading in terms of gender diversity. I managed to make him feel abashed and a little guilty about it. As often happens when people feel abashed and a little guilty, he first tried to show me I was wrong. “Look, here’s one. And here’s another.”
I replied, “Oh goody for you. You’ve got a handful of women on a list of about 70 authors. You hate women.”
I kept saying “You hate women,” because, well, I thought it was hilarious. I knew he didn’t hate women. Long married to a fierce feminist, this dude knows that girls often kick his butt.
Because I like him and don’t want to be a bad friend, I told him not to worry about the androcentric cast of his literary proclivities. Once you leave school, no one can force you to read anything. The pull of taste is not gravitational.
My friend, however, unsettled by his previously self-shrouded bias, asked me to suggest some women writers for him. I did, and he’s been reading. He recently said he finds that women seem to plumb deeper emotionally: “The really good ones go straight for your heart and rip it out.”
Most of us like what we like – familiar things and people. It takes effort and attention to stray from a well-worn path. I often hear people speak about diversity as if it’s something out there, a set of criteria we need to tick off when we put together events, admit students to college, set up a photo-shoot, hire employees or even compile reading lists. They tend not to think of it as a value in and of itself.
Diversity, in my definition, means gaining access to the lives and experiences of people different from “us”; this kind of exposure and awareness makes our worlds expand, opens our minds and helps us become, almost unfailingly and often unwittingly, more empathetic. We grow into bigger, better versions of ourselves.
Most of the time I blend into the dominant culture like just another middle-class, middle-age, straight, white, cis woman. During the winter holidays, however, every time I go into a store I am reminded that I belong to a minority. Though I still harbor stocking-envy, I tend to recoil from wreaths and lights. I’ve been known to mutter sotto voce curses during Christmas carols. As a Jew among Christians, I’m aware that in some situations my life, not just my feelings, might be at risk; my bland lack of physical manifestations of ethnicity both curses me and at times keeps me safe.
This season, though, I’ve been thinking about my friend and his list. He didn’t see himself as someone who discriminated against women. His preference for male writers was as innocuous as it was unintentional. Would imbibing women’s sentences, which Virginia Woolf argues differ from men’s, foster his personal growth? Does having your heart ripped out by prose help you understand the lives and experiences of others?
Diversity can be easily overlooked. I’ve learned to ask students on the first day of class not only what name, but which pronoun, they prefer; when someone identifies as “they” or “them,” instead of “him” or “her,” it’s my job to respect that. I no longer assume men who wear wedding rings are married to women (though I do assume they’re still off limits). Some tribal members have chosen to reveal their race only after classmates made unenlightened comments about Indians. I cringe when I hear friends ask Asians where they’re from; the answer could be Cheney.
Everyone wants to enjoy the holidays. It’s great to have time off from work. People look forward to seeing their families, mostly because they forget how vexing relatives can be. Some even relish enduring hellish shopping conditions to find the perfect presents. I’m not here to make slush of anyone’s yuletide spirit.
But I do wish that, instead of thinking of diversity as a black and white matter, more people would work to see, recognize, and account for differences. Even if someone looks like you, he, she or they may not be.
I don’t wish friends a Happy Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas or Festivus unless I’m certain which rites they celebrate. I do hope, however, that everyone enjoys happy holidays.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.