For my whole life, I’ve identified myself as a military brat. My dad graduated from the Naval Academy, and served as a Marine for 29 years. I was 17 when he “retired” and went to work for Amazon, but after a few months he joined the State Department. He now lives in Khartoum, Sudan and works at the embassy. Sometimes it’s surprising that my dad’s career has been such a defining factor in my identity, but I am appreciative of the values my 19 year adventure has instilled in me.
One of the most difficult questions someone can ask me is one that everyone asks: Where are you from? I usually just say Pennsylvania, even though I have only lived there since 9th grade. On other occasions, I’ll say that I’m from Pennsylvania, but I moved around a lot. The real story is that I was born in Georgia, but never actually lived there. I lived in South Carolina and North Carolina for my first five years, then went to Florida, back to South Carolina, up to Virginia, then to Norway and then Belgium, and then finally to Pennsylvania. But who really wants to know all of that, right? When I say I’m from Pennsylvania, people think of me as a North-Easterner, but I actually spent the first ten years of my life in the South, and the next four in Europe. I wish I could tell the whole story to everyone I meet, but there just isn’t enough time (or air) in the world to say all of that every single time I introduce myself.
By the end of eighth grade, I had moved 8 times, so moving again for high school just seemed like the next step in my life. Packing things up, saying good-bye to friends, and feeling like the new kid had become familiar to me. I’d often been surrounded by other military families, so I was used to people understanding the whole complexity of “Where are you from?” In my Pennsylvania high school, not very many of my friends had moved more than once, and I had to explain to them what I meant when I said I moved from Belgium. At first, many people thought I meant I was “from Belgium,” a native of the country. One person even told me, “You speak really good English!” Seeing as English is the only language I know, I wasn’t sure how to reply other than to chuckle to myself and thank them. After the initial excitement was over, I’d tell them I moved to Europe from the U.S., sometimes skipping over living in Norway to make myself seem less complicated. They all calmed down when they realized I was really “from here.”
Duke has been a much different experience for me. Here, people are used to meeting friends from different backgrounds, so it seems like a more normal lifestyle to have moved so many times. I still tell most people I’m from Pennsylvania, but when the occasion arises to speak about diverse backgrounds, I always think about the ways moving has increased by knowledge of different cultures around the world.
However, I think that diversity at Duke has come to be defined in a very specific way, and I don’t feel that my experiences in other countries are counted as diverse here. The “diversity” workshop activities I’ve participated in usually consist of self-report questionnaires with topics relating to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and income level. I’ve come to call these “boxed diversity questions.” If you can’t write anything that varies from the norm, the questionnaire makes you feel like a boring person. It seems like there is a set list of qualities that can make us diverse, and that just isn’t true. These questions make it seem as though diversity can only be attained through certain and specific qualities defined by Duke. Most students I’ve talked to say they don’t really like the diversity exercises because it makes them uncomfortable. It seems paradoxical that there would be a set list questions to identify diversity, right? Isn’t diversity supposed to be something that makes us unique? I’m not saying that the questions about gender, race, religion, or income can’t identify diversity; I’m just saying that if there is a list of questions about diversity, it must be infinite.
One of the most uncomfortable exercises I’ve participated in was one that every other member of the group also disliked. We had to all stand shoulder to shoulder in a straight line across the room. The instructor then read a series of questions, and depending on our experiences we had to take a step forward or backward. The questions were about privilege; if we had been to private school we took a step forward, while if we had been made fun of because of our race we took a step back. Two of the questions from this activity over a month ago still stick out to me. These were “Have you ever had to move because a parent lost a job?” and “Do you live with a single parent at home?” I’ve moved 9 times in my life, not because my dad lost his job, but because that WAS his job. I went to five different elementary schools, including one Title I school and one private school. Does that mean I answer yes to going to private school? I was in fifth grade, and we had recess twice a day. It’s not like I was getting any early SAT prep there. It was an international school in Oslo, Norway, and I only went because the government paid for it, as it was the only English speaking school in the area. I only stayed for a year before I had to move again. But does it really matter to an eleven year old WHY she has to move? As far as I was concerned, moving just meant I had to leave my friends and make new ones. However, I couldn’t answer “yes” to the question about moving because of how specific it was. Moving is a hardship almost everyone faces, but the question wasn’t inclusive of any other reasons for having to relocate a family. The second question also bothered me because I couldn’t really answer yes or no definitively.
Currently only my mom is at “home,” wherever home is for a military kid. My dad has been in Sudan for a year, and he is staying for one more. He comes home twice a year, and when he finishes his work there, he’s coming back to work in Washington D.C. for a year. After that, my whole family (except me) will be moving to Germany for two years. I’ll be going into my senior year then. In the past, my dad hasn’t always been around either. He was deployed seven times when I was growing up, so he’d be gone for six weeks to nine months at a time. He’s been to Japan, Guam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and more, sometimes dangerous and sometimes safer places. It never occurred to me that this could put me at a disadvantage because that’s what seemed “normal,” until I got to middle school and I realized that other kids got to have their dad home all year-round. So how do I answer the question of living in a single parent home? Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but I think this question was addressing divorce, not a long-distance marriage.
If someone would just ask me, “What diverse experiences do you have,” I could tell a pretty lengthy story about constantly traveling, meeting new people, visiting global historic sites, and learning about different cultures. However, with such short, specific questions in most of these diversity workshops, I don’t feel I can truly explain myself. And I think the same goes for even the people who can show adversity and hardship through the given questions. Just because someone lives in a single parent home doesn’t mean they’ve had a terrible life, but many times that is what the workshop implies. It reinforces the idea that kids who’ve been to private school have had easy, care-free lives, which isn’t always true either. Diversity workshops should be about each of us telling our own stories so that we can learn from each other in a secure and comfortable environment. These activities shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves for being underprivileged or over-privileged. Instead, they should acknowledge the fact that everyone has ups and downs in life and each advantage or disadvantage we’ve faced has given each of us a unique perspective on the world and the way we live in it.