On Fostering Inclusivity in a Divided Nation

By Bianca Mikahn, in response to Tilt West Roundtable: Fostering Inclusivity in a Divided Nation

In October, 2017, Tilt West members gathered at the Museo de las Americas in Denver to discuss Fostering Inclusivity in a Divided Nation. The roundtable was prompted by Suzi Q. Smith.

Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity.

Robert Kennedy

I remember the first time I noticed someone like me included in a mass market advertisement. The springy curls jumped out at me from the Target clothing ad on the side of a shopping cart, spurring me to literally gasp in surprise and excitement at the bouncy hair, coiled and untamed. My hair, usually the butt of sitcom jokes and “before” pictures on miracle conditioners, was being presented as intentional and welcome! Occurrences like this led me to understand that one of the most important requirements for a sense of inclusivity is representation. We need to see ourselves with seats at the various tables serving community. We have a hard time imagining that which we cannot readily observe. Every imagination utilizes the status quo as an inception point, and when our own image is not represented, we are left void of personal inspiration. This level of isolation in a society deeply scars those who experience it.

I know when to change my hair to something more socially acceptable to increase my chances of inclusion. I’ve oddly eschewed braces my entire life to avoid inclusion on some aesthetic goal that society has set for me. It’s easy to identify which vocal tone might get me included in a date/meeting/social invitation, which readily-digestible artistic representations might garner me invitations to stages and microphones. As a mixed black woman, born of the working/middle class, I have yet to decipher which code or collection of characteristics might more properly attain my equity in this society.

Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.

bell hooks

Although the media and the public as a whole are currently engaged in a national conversation around racial politics, we each can’t help but see it all through our own unique lens. Our personal experience gives texture to, and finds context within, the larger national narrative. We are all reflecting on that which we feel we’ve been offered or allowed access to, and that which we’ve not.

Despite the boundary-crossing love of my parents, my family is not exactly a melting pot. Being mixed black, the shape of my extended family has been completely defined by each person’s ability, or lack thereof, to embrace racial inclusion. Years and holidays and memories have been missed because of an idea born before I or my siblings came along — an idea that was supposedly rectified by the “Loving vs. Virginia” case of 1967. Many of us are stunned by the reactionary attitudes of some of our fellow Americans. Didn’t we already have these conversations, march these marches, and fight these fights? No court case could ever change a heart, though, and now we’re learning how rigidly a mind can cling to dangerous relics of the past.

One snapshot of the challenges around inclusivity in our divided nation is my small-town, Iowa-bred aunt cooing over pictures of my very brown and very liberally-raised daughter, while simultaneously posting pro-Trump memes about the horrors of single motherhood and sensationalist stories about black-on-black violence. What a Thanksgiving this would make (if we ever spent one together, of course)! Can there be room in an inclusive national dialogue for a mindset that literally denies the humanity and agency of others? We can include you so long as you remove some of those limbs, take up less space and require less consideration.

We are less when we don’t include everyone.

— Stuart Milk

This month, on November 9th, Apple released its first diversity report under a new VP of Diversity and Inclusion. The same day, Forbes ran an article discussing the measurement of diversity and inclusion, touching on some of the common quandaries one comes across when contemplating the subject. Even if we can define the basic metrics of diversity, how do we measure the more subjective experience of inclusion? And how do we assess the impact of broader representation as it relates to social cohesion and a deeper understanding of others?

It’s interesting how these words — diversity and inclusion/inclusivity — so often travel together. In the recent Tilt West roundtable, prompter Suzi Q. Smith defined Diversity as the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, and Inclusivity as an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized. Whether America is viewed as a melting pot or a mosaic, the contact points at which we lean into or pull away from our differences with others define our national culture and our trajectory as a people.

Each of us must decide how we will interact with others whose political, spiritual, or economic beliefs differ from our own. We all know how distasteful it can be to ask about a friend’s politics. At this point, however, some find delving into these personal stances less distasteful than breaking bread with someone who (at least in theory) does not believe in a perceived “outsider’s” right to a plate. These are painful and taxing conundrums, tearing families apart in many cases. In this increasingly dire time when so many use fear as a weapon, how uncomfortable are we willing to be for the sake of one another? Find a safe level of discomfort and explore it. Seek and celebrate differences. Question your security. If we are not able to recognize (and literally re-cognize) our personal interactions and attachments, any further conversation about inclusion is futile.

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.

— Mahatma Gandhi

Bianca Mikahn is a power-house emcee, poet, composer, cultural activist, and educator who wears many hats. She is Executive Director of Check Your Head, a non-profit focused on youth mental health, and a Partner Artist with leading creative educators, Youth On Record. Bianca’s writing style is described as experimental and thought-provoking, fearlessly addressing themes of self awareness and community engagement. Whether performing alone or with various musician collectives in Denver, her stage presence and lyrical content have earned her multiple nominations for “Best Emcee” in Denver’s Westword. Mikahn has shared stages locally at Regis University and Denver University and in Stockholm, Sweden at the historic Fylkengin Theatre. Her lyrical work has also been featured in social justice courses at Wyoming University. Currently Mikahn is honing social emotional learning and art based facilitation to encourage trauma informed care and mental health first aid (adult and youth modules) in marginalized communities.

Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.