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How Diverse is Diverse?

Two L.A. natives trying to get to know Miami and West Palm Beach.

Two L.A. natives trying to get to know Miami and West Palm Beach.

I got into a very uncomfortable conversation within my first month in Florida when my “racial dating background” was put into question. First of all, it’s none of your business how many black men I’ve dated. “I bet they were either mixed or Latin,” was the response. Excuse you. Is black or white all that matters? But this did get me wondering why my whiteness was now such a big deal (I later realized how embarrassing it was that I even had to ask myself this).

Then, last Sunday at at Improv Comedy Club in West Palm Beach, D.L. Hughley joked that there are no black people in Palm Beach, the town just over the water from where he was performing.

I’ve been in South Florida for three months now and don’t feel like I’ve gotten to know it very well.  That said, I’ve perceived some differences between California and Florida that may not be representative of everyone’s experience in the area but I believe are worth discussing because they are part of adapting to a new place. The demographic differences between Palm Beach and West Palm Beach are striking. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97.4% of Palm Beach residents are white while 0.6% are black. Also, 55.8% are 65 years old or over and the per capita income in 2009 was $124,462.

As Mr. Hughley pointed out, the demographics change as you cross the bridge to West Palm Beach. The population increases from 8,348 to 99,919.  Here, 56.7% of the population is white, 32.5% black, 2.3% Asian. Only 16% is 65 and over and the per capita income in 2009 was $29,667. Hughley took a poll of the audience in front of him. He called out for the “Latins,” “white people,” “black people,” and “Jewish people.”  There were Cubans, but no Mexicans, only one Jewish person and Hughley didn’t even call out for Asian people in the audience. There didn’t seem to be any.

This change in population isn’t unique to Florida. Within my native L.A. county, neighboring towns have striking income differences. Even within West Palm Beach, there is an unequal distribution of both income and race, though, of course, that’s not necessarily one and the same. There are the new buildings of downtown and City Place, then you cross the railroad tracks and are in a significantly poorer area. Yes, the railroad tracks actually mark a stark change in neighborhoods. I noticed it only when taking a different route to a frequented location. I could very easily have gone about my time in South Florida driving the same routes and never seeing this whole separate side of the area.

But that the line was actually “the other side of the tracks” brought about a whole wave of nausea. I felt sick in realizing that the saying was still a valid description of the poverty line in many parts of America. And I felt even sicker when I realized I had been ignorant to that existence. But this post isn’t about my ignorance. It’s about appreciating the change in demographics, even when (and especially when) it’s not the change you expected.

Of course, one can’t possibly explain the culture of a place by spouting statistics. So is it just my own blind impression of South Florida that it’s not as diverse as California? I met another woman heading out of Florida to New York for Thanksgiving. She, too, was a transplant from a big city (THE big city, actually). “I don’t know about you,” she said, “but some people think Florida is diverse.” I thought I had been a hypocrite for agreeing with her, having spent most of my Florida time so far working in the bubble of my concierge-managed building and for a family on “the island” of Palm Beach.

“There is diversity,” she continued. “It’s just different [than in New York]. Here, there’s diversity, you know, between Haitians and Caribbeans.” Of course it’s different; it’s a different city. But what “diversity” is “enough” diversity? Is color the only factor that matters? Or is an ethnic differentiation within races its own type of diversity? Well part of the fun of getting to know a new place is getting to know its languages, holidays, and food, like Mexican versus Cuban cuisine. So if we judge an area’s diversity by its restaurants, what does that say about West Palm Beach?

When we say “Florida is/isn’t diverse,” what are we really comparing? Are we saying “it’s less homogenous than where I grew up?” Or maybe, “West Palm is less homogenous than Palm Beach” or even “I really just want some different cuisine?”

I need to emphasize again that my experience of West Palm Beach/Palm Beach is isolated, one-sided, and privileged. It’s also tinted by my being a 25-year-old white female in a nice new job and in a nice new area. There are likely other better-integrated ways to experience the area that don’t include working with a wealthy family in one of the nicest parts of town. Also important to note is the changing ethnic demographics between S. Florida cities as one moves south from West Palm to Miami. A girlfriend from high school who is now living in Miami is having a very different experience navigating the Spanish-speaking communities, but that’s for her to tell, not me.

There are historical, academic, and industry-specific reasons why certain populations end up in L.A. or New York and not Florida, and they help make each area valuable, unique, and fun to explore. They make the French Quarter of New Orleans and Little Italy of New York as infamous as they are. And who doesn’t look forward to trying the local foods of each new city? So being aware of the differences is valuable, but it also means that I can’t paint an entire town’s image based on one conversation about my dating habits.

Please share your experience, especially if it differs from mine.

Samantha Marangell
Blogger As a former Peace Corps Volunteer (Moldova ‘07-’09) Samantha appreciates seeing a new country through the host community and, when traveling, she looks forward to learning key phrases in the respective languages. She has just moved to the Australia after a year in the Czech Republic. She will reflect on making friends abroad and figuring out whether she'll finally stay in one place.

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