Supporting Diversity in Times of Hate

What is the role of multicultural community right now?

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Perhaps it is only natural.

When we feel unsafe, we tend to look for security among those who share our experiences. Whether it is a question of religion or race or geography or history, or a composite of these, we find comfort in the voices and empathy of people who have “been there” too. And for us, “community” in general often becomes based on these shared stories.

Nowadays, we have good cause to talk about safety and community — the indispensability of each, and the ways in which they are connected. As prejudice and hate become national policy, and bigotry wins an official endorsement, more and more people are socializing, collaborating, and healing within specific subcultures.

By many accounts, these communities are nurturing peace and courage.

Surely there is nothing more empowering than hearing that someone else has experienced the exact same sorts of hate and fear that you have. It is a precious and priceless privilege to connect with such people.

Like the communities I’ve just described, The Sanctuaries aims to promote safety, solidarity, and spirituality. However, unlike these communities, The Sanctuaries is premised on multicultural and multi-faith dialogue, on the idea that we are strongest when we engage with our cultural and social differences and create art that is made stronger by its diversity. And for many, being part of the Sanctuaries is a precious and priceless privilege, too.

For those of us who work in the field of multicultural community organizing, and/or who have deep personal experience with balancing local and global attachments, this question lingers:

How do you promote safety in community, in a country that is both a mosaic and a melting pot, both highly diverse and highly fragmented?

These days, we are facing a combination of phenomena, each of which has a long history and which can therefore shed light on how to support diversity in times of hate:

  1. We are contending with the consequences of the fact that people have been kept deliberately separate throughout US history, through a combination of bizarre immigration laws and flat-out segregation.
  2. We are seeing that such separation has produced shared experiences, based on common ties (i.e. language, religion, dress, customs) — and that, therefore, these ties continue to provide real comfort and courage.
  3. But we also know that we live in times in which “community” is, and must, widen beyond the boundaries laid out by this country’s history with race, ethnicity, and religion. We realize that greater and deeper dialogue must take place in order to combat the forces of hate that are at work now.

So, what do we do?

How do we promote dialogue in a country where “community” has developed along specific cultural, ethnic, racial and religious lines?

Every multicultural place on Earth deals with its diversity on its own terms. In the US, and DC in particular, people from all over the world coexist, though often in their own respective enclaves. Some of these people have been in the US for hundreds of years, some for two or three generations, and some have recently arrived. Amidst this diversity, amidst these varying levels of attachment to what it means to be an “American,” amidst this hate for some (if not all) of these people, how do you build community?

On the one hand, we must address specific experiences, and, on the other hand, we must affirm the new sort of community that needs to emerge — one that is expressly border-crossing, defying the divisions that have defined collectives in this country for decades, if not centuries.

It’s a delicate but oh-so- worth-it balance.

Celebration, which has become my rallying cry in the field of coexistence, is one way in which the Sanctuaries aspires to contribute to this balance. Bonding over joyful diversity, and defying hatred through that celebration, is something special that only a consciously diverse community can do.

It does not negate, by any means, the security provided by spaces that offer people support amidst specific forms of bigotry. On the contrary, it merely generates new cause for joy, and provides just one more form of comfort in profoundly uncomfortable times.

To joy.


Priya Parrotta Natarajan is a Founding Leader with The Sanctuaries, author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World (Cambridge Scholars, 2016), and Editor-in- Chief of Music & the Earth. Scheduled to launch this spring, Music & the Earth is a multimedia arts magazine which celebrates the role of music in the global climate movement. She can be reached at priya.parrotta@gmail.com. Visit her personal site: priyaparrotta.com.