An Unexpected Reality

It took me most of the two days I was there to figure out what about the place was troubling me.

“The place” is a historic resort in Virginia, one that is more than 200 years old. I was there speaking at an association conference in early August. The resort itself is magnificent, exactly what you might expect: perfectly manicured lawns, brilliantly blooming plants, an endless number of rocking chairs along a deck that wraps much of the main property.

What I did not expect—and what I ultimately identified as the source of my unease—was the near complete absence of anyone except white men and women.

It did not surprise me that the association audience I was speaking to was fairly homogeneous and Caucasian. That reflects the industry from which the membership is drawn. But that stark reality was compounded by the fact that in my two days at this very large resort, every guest I encountered was white and most likely from the middle or upper socioeconomic class.

Once this realization hit me, I began to take greater notice of my surroundings and to look for people of color. Though the resort magazine in my room contained more than 60 photographs, none included people of color. Neither the front desk staff nor any of the staff at the resort shops were of color. The only place I could find anyone non-white was among the ranks of the restaurant servers.

Now you might be asking yourself why this situation seems to have commanded my interests so much. I can only respond that it is because of how unique (I hope) it seems to be. In my travels across the U.S., I almost never find myself in an environment that is so oppressingly white. It just does not reflect what America is … and certainly not what America is becoming.

So it has me wondering how many such places exist. Do people of color even think of this resort as a desirable place to visit? Is the resort aware of the unintentional (again I hope) messages its environment and guests send? Are there other properties that would be almost the exact reverse … where people of color would represent the norm among guests and staff?

I hope what I experienced was an aberration, both for this particular property and for facilities like it overall. I hope that the absence of diverse individuals in the resort magazine was a mere oversight. I hope that the seeming lack of diversity among the staff of the facility represented recruitment challenges and not subtle or overt discrimination. I hope that the sponsoring association is vigorously working to diversify the membership in its industry and the leadership attending its conferences.

But is hoping enough? In a provocative article available on her web site (http://www.margaretwheatley.com), Margaret Wheatley writes:

“I do not always speak up for all the issues and problems that disturb me. I give voice to some and not for others. I can't pretend that I make rational choices, where I ‘choose my battles.’ Sometimes I am just too tired to care, sometimes I lack courage, sometimes I notice that others have picked up that cause and I don't have to. But at least I now notice when I remain silent, and am more conscious that silence is a choice I make. I'm learning that silence is not the absence of action, but another form of action. And I hold myself accountable for that.”

As a white male I am fully aware that in many situations, I am a person of privilege. What role do I play as a supporter or enabler when I stay at a resort like the one I just visited, speak at such a conference? How can I use my privilege to bring about meaningful change? These are the questions occupying my mind on a more regular basis these days in my quest to hold myself accountable.