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A case for unity, not uniformity

This article was originally posted by the Council of Michigan Foundations.

By 2045, or sooner, its projected that people of color will make up the majority of the U.S. population.

It’s an often-used statistic. Sometimes, it’s used admirably to advocate for equitable policies that uplift communities of color by speaking to our collective fate. Other times, it is used for the opposite affect—to stoke fear and reinforce a divide between whites and people of color.

Pitting racial and ethnic groups against one another is a common, historied political ploy used to divide people who may otherwise build power together and demand justice from national and global leaders.

Thugs. Illegal aliens. Welfare queens. Terrorists. Words like these and the narratives that surround them are intentionally used to pit groups of people against each other.

Racialized narratives not only diffuse public power but squash it by effectively suggesting that a group among us—or us ourselves— people with little political power—are to blame for our social ills. We’re given scapegoats for our sorrows so we don’t question the rules of the game and who sets them.

There is an important story behind the rising number of people of color in the United States that isn’t often told: The fastest growing demographic within this category are people of more than one race. We are not only becoming more multiracial as a country, but as a people.  

This is a story not of bifurcation between races, but of union. We ought to be telling this story and others like it that speak to our interconnectedness.

However, there is a delicate dance to be done. Sometimes, when we talk about unity, we conflate it with uniformity or sameness. We are not all the same. We don’t all share the same culture, experiences, or values. That’s true not only across racial and ethnic groups, but within them as well.

How identities show up, or not, in coalition building 

In the well-meaning work of policy and social change initiatives, I see the falsity of “sameing” happen sometimes in coalition building. Bringing diverse people and interests together is challenging and beautiful work. But the magic of diversity can be forgotten in the process. After an initial period where members offer their unique and nuanced perspectives, they may then be asked to leave their identity at the door and ascribe to the group identity (or more nearly, the brand) of the coalition. Values and vocabularies are carefully crafted. It’s not enough to want the same goals, members must also share a singular perspective. Stick to the script. Being part of a coalition or movement can feel like you’re expected to step into character rather than play your own role.

It’s counter intuitive. The power of a coalition is in its diversity. It’s that a Black business owner in Florida, a White school teacher in Minnesota, an Arab youth in Michigan, and a retiree in Alaska can agree on what is needed for the collective good, inform a variety of approaches of how to get there that are compatible with their communities, and speak to an array of experiences about why change is needed.

You may have been around a table with broad representation and the question is asked: “What is our why?” Why not instead ask, “What is YOUR why?” Don’t go narrow, go broad. Different people have different reasons and values that motivate them. Invite more people to get behind the vision and goals of your coalition by communicating to them in ways that are meaningful and important to them. Lean on the diversity of your coalition members to speak to a range of perspectives about why this movement matters.

Who’s voice, when?  

A critical element is weight of voice. Those who are most negatively impacted by the issue should be centered from start to finish. They should have a stronger voice in designing solutions, defining the narrative, and representing the issues at hand. Those who stand as allies and stakeholders should play supporting roles behind the scenes as well as publicly. These are people who are engaged as participants in the issue but who are not as directly, unwillingly impacted.

I see allies and stakeholders too often setting agendas and messaging and serving as the spokespeople. I also see movements that eschew ally and stakeholder participation, which is good for holding control but not great for advancing change.

Allies and stakeholders have important roles to play in shifting understanding and opinions within their groups. To do that effectively takes explaining an issue using the language and values that group is familiar with. Stating things in ways that resonate with the person you’re talking to and making them feel seen is how you get heard. It’s the “changing hearts and minds” part of social change that allies and stakeholders are in an easier position to take on, lifting the burden of explanation from the people being most harmed by the way things are.

The wrap up

We are not all the same, but we share a fate. We impact one another. We belong to one another. This is the true story of us. We hold meaningful differences, but we are interconnected.

This needed narrative of being unified without being uniform could be, should be, the bastion of coalition and social movement building.

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