Yesterday, Heather Knight reported about the latest absurdity perpetrated by the San Francisco Unified School District board:
A gay dad volunteers for one of eight open slots on a parent committee that advises the school board. All of the 10 current members are straight moms. Three are white. Three are Latina. Two are Black. One is Tongan. They all want the dad to join them.
The seven school board members talk for two hours about whether the dad brings enough diversity. Yes, he’d be the only man. And the only LGBTQ representative. But he’d be the fourth white person in a district where 15% of students are white.
The gay dad never utters a single word. The board members do not ask the dad a single question before declining to approve him for the committee. They say they’ll consider allowing him to volunteer if he comes back with a slate of more diverse candidates, ideally including an Arab parent, a Native American parent, a Vietnamese parent and a Chinese parent who doesn’t speak English.
This display of idiocy–complete with two hours of discussing Seth Brenzel’s “lack of diversity” while he sits before them in complete silence–is just the latest antic in the Board’s record of breathtaking performative incompetence, one of the previous episodes of which was the ridiculous quest to rename 44 of San Francisco’s closed schools based on their semiliterate understanding of history through Wikipedia.
Much has been said about these people’s incompetence and recurrence to woke theater in lieu of (what a wacky suggestion) actually helping the district’s children by charting the reopening of schools, but one particular point has caught my eye. The sole commissioner to defend Brenzel–Commissioner Jenny Lam–chose to do so by arguing that, as a gay man, he does bring diversity to the Board:
By denying him the position, we are failing SFUSD’s core values— the promise to value diversity, and to build inclusive school environments for our students and families. Parents and families deserve utmost respect and dignity. We also know the challenges faced by LGBTQ students in our schools from bullying to lack of school connectedness and sense of belonging.
For decades, the LGBTQ community has fought hard for the right to be recognized as parents. As a board we missed an opportunity to reaffirm the humanity of one of our dads. Seth deserves a fair opportunity— I will work to advance his appointment.
While it is critical to have diversity we must not pit communities against one another. We often say we must remain vigilant fighting against discrimination and hate. I will continue that commitment.
It seems like the only rhetorical currency available to San Francisco officials and pundits is diversity; Brenzel’s defense, as well as his humiliation, uses the same linguistic tropes. Indulge me, then, in a little thought experiment: let’s assume, just for a moment, that the Board had declined the application of a <gasp!> cis straight white man for lack of diversity. And let’s also remember, for a brief moment, that this coveted position is volunteer work on behalf of children. It does not grant anyone monetary benefits, fame, or status; all it means is a burden on a parent’s already-scarce free time amidst a pandemic.
Now, think: How often do you see fathers–any fathers–volunteer for educational leadership? How much have you seen fathers (as opposed to mothers) losing productivity to the pandemic? How many men in your immediate surroundings have made the choice (or accepted the lack of choice) to leave their jobs and tend to their children’s needs and education while their wives kept their positions? Can you think why, in order to appeal to people, a humongous effort needs to be put into imbuing school volunteering with any sort of status, and whether this might possibly relate somehow to the fact that parent volunteers tend to be women? Against this backdrop, wouldn’t it be a positive–even, perhaps, progressive–move to say to a man, any man, of any sexuality, ethnicity, or nationality, applying for one of multiple vacant volunteer positions advancing the wellbeing of the community’s children: “Welcome! When can you start?”
Here was an opportunity to understand that a motivated, good-willed person, does not give of his free time to the community to abuse and belittle other people’s children. Here was an opportunity to drive home the crucially important message that we advance as a community when all our kids advance, and that all parents, of all colors and sexualities, should be invested in the advancement of all children, of all colors and sexualities. Instead, judging from the furious comments of the scores of parents of all colors who responded to the decision, what happened here was exactly what happens when people receive mandatory diversity training: resentment, derision, disengagement. When has bullying, humiliating, and excoriating people who want to help ever worked as effective motivation to continue “doing the work,” so to speak? What, exactly, was the goal here, and how was it accomplished?
I don’t think our diversity aspirations should be more modest. Au contraire, I think they should be bolder. So bold, in fact, that diversity itself should not be a goal. Treating it as such is shortsighted. Diversity is a path that takes us toward a brighter future–one in which everyone can enjoy self-fulfillment and thrive. This takes the understanding of two entwined but distinct truths, which have come to obscure each other in our shrill, shallow narratives: the one progressives get–that people of different backgrounds experience the world in unique and unequal ways because of their identities–and the one they don’t get, namely, that empathy is a human superpower that transcends differences because, at the ember of lived experiences, we all know what it’s like to be disregarded, lonely, misunderstood, dehumanized. A quest for diversity is worthy and important when it advances the cause of empathy, and a caricature of performative wokeness when it stands in the way of empathy, which is what happened here.