Diversity and Inclusion Conversations Center White Experiences — It’s Time to Change That

If my White classmate had a deeper understanding of critical race theory, he could’ve saved our childhood friendship

Photo: Flashpop/Getty Images

I remember the first time I saw the N-word written; someone I considered my best friend wrote it.

His name was Nick. We lived in the same neighborhood. While we were different in most respects, we both had a love for video games in common. It bonded us in the way small things tend to do for kids, White or Black.

Nick’s parents didn’t usually extend their home to his friends, but they treated me like family. I frequently slept over, playing Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64 games until the wee hours of the morning.

I moved away from the neighborhood just before eighth grade but came back a couple of years later. During the first week of my junior year, I bumped into Nick in the hallway. Shared childhood memories made it easy to reconnect; it wasn’t long before I was back to sleeping over at his house.

During one of our sleepovers, Nick played Final Fantasy VII (FFVII), a role-playing game. I watched over his shoulder the same way I did all those years before. FFVII features three main characters initially, but the focus is on Barret Wallace, an absurdly large Black male character with a gun for a right hand.

Before players start the game, they can change the main characters’ names, presumably to make it feel more personal. Players will see these names in little blue bubbles of text when characters talk to each other.

I watched Nick play and noticed he changed Barret’s name.

Right there, inside of the room of a friend I’d spent so many years building a bond with, I saw that he changed the character’s name to “Big G** N****r.”

It’s a memory I think about when calls for diversity and inclusion reach a fever pitch and realize some prefer sticking to the status quo. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis is one of those people.

There’s no real downside to acknowledging how the concept of race affects our lives. And such a class might have benefitted someone like my old friend Nick and helped him understand why our friendship ended that night.

DeSantis recently made headlines for a $106 million education plan improving civics education in Florida. He’d give teachers a $3,000 bonus if they completed the additional training. Except he doesn’t want that training to include critical race theory. “Let me be clear, there is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory; teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money,” DeSantis said.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone he didn’t elaborate on what that meant.

Critical race theory (CRT) is defined as the practice of integrating race and racism in society. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term CRT, said it isn’t a static definition but an “evolving and malleable practice.” CRT design critiques institutionalized racism and examines how race intersects with sexuality and gender identity.

There’s no real downside to acknowledging how the concept of race affects our lives. And such a class might have benefitted someone like my old friend Nick and helped him understand why our friendship ended that night. An expert in CRT could’ve taught him something I couldn’t fathom putting into words as a teen.

While CRT and movements for diversity and inclusion aren’t interchangeable, understanding of the former may assist with the latter’s implementation. CRT’s focus on intersections could create a more understanding society that doesn’t teach people to hate their country, as DeSantis suggested, but exposes them to ideas of how America can be a more equitable place for everyone.

The fight for a more inclusive society is typically marketed as a boost for everyone. It’s better for Hollywood, which loses $10 billion a year over lack of Black representation. Businesses with diverse staffing are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. College campuses that focus on diversity believe students can learn from peers with broad perspectives shaped by various experiences.

Still, framing diversity as a net positive for White people in a “rising tide raises all ships” sort of ideology is an unnecessary requirement for adding CRT to the grade-school curriculum. Diversity and inclusion conversations too often center Whiteness and relegate everyone else to bargain for their humanity. America is diverse, and that awareness should make it obvious that catering exclusively to one group isn’t in the country’s best interest. CRT is a gateway to making that possible.

DeSantis said he opposed CRT because it makes people “view each other based on race.” He wants to “treat people as individuals” and believes it will “end up creating more divisions.”

The Florida governor should sign up for a few lessons. It’d assuredly teach him America is a country built on viewing people based on race. And far too often, White people are the only ones gifted with the privilege of being treated as individuals.

As for Nick, there’s no happy ending for us. I haven’t spoken to one of my closest childhood friends in nearly 20 years; I have no idea whether he knows why. If there’s an arc of redemption it’d likely lie in the same lessons DeSantis could learn about the value of considering a perspective that doesn’t center Whiteness.

But to have that kind of hope? I’m not taking any bets.

Award-winning TV news journalist. Freelance writer. Mad question asker.

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