Picture this: I’m a young WAF assigned to clerical duties in an office on Scott Air Force Base, near East St. Louis, Ill. On this particular morning I overhear an Air Force major and a colonel, both Caucasian, discuss the qualifications of a civil service employee under consideration for promotion; the colonel apparently likes her resume. Then he asks, “Is she Caucasian?”
“Negative,” the major replies.
Here's the deal: I’m a Caucasian who grew up in lily-white, rural northwestern Ohio, and this was the first time I’d seen up close the ugliness of racial discrimination. Stunned, I sat there at my typewriter, trying to focus on my work.
(In the weeks that follow, I notice the employee in question is not promoted.)
On the upside, my stint in the military provided my first opportunity to make friends with members of other races and ethnic backgrounds.
I’ve not forgotten Hispanic Maria Venegas; African-Americans Katie Harmon, Annie Terry, and Adeline Lincoln; Parisian French Caucasian Monique Horlaville; and New Orleans French Caucasian Priscilla Bertrand.
Years passed before I encountered a comparable diversity in civilian life ― diversity fostered intentionally in the regional office of a large corporation located in a thriving upscale suburb.
Admittedly, the company’s motives were more practical than altruistic. At a department meeting, Tony, our African-American assistant manager, asked if any of us knew what was behind the diversity initiative. He rolled his eyes when I suggested that our company supported diversity because it was the right thing to do.
Tony then explained the business case for diversity: “If we want to sell our products to the Hmong community, African-Americans, Hispanics, Gays, women, or other minority group, we’d best include their members in our workforce.”
Altruistic or not, it’s amazing how quickly people can adapt to an inclusive environment when their livelihoods are at stake and before long, the 2000 plus employees in that huge office building formed a genuine community featuring many of the amenities and rituals of a small town.
Sad to say, our community ― by then a model of diversity ― became a casualty of corporate downsizing when, thanks to technology, our work was moved elsewhere. But for quite a few years each of us had good cause for celebrating Labor Day.
Perhaps the time will come when a majority of Americans will have matured sufficiently to create similar communities, whatever their context, purely because it’s the right thing to do.