We are a diverse nation. As the last presidential election illustrated, the need to include people from diverse cultural backgrounds is a hot topic. Valuing diversity means we have the potential to get the best from many cultures. But it’s difficult. We tend to stick with those who are most like us. How do we remember to reap the benefits of diversity while acknowledging our differences? I got a chance to look at this issue again during a conference I attended last weekend.
Some have considered the idea of creating a “colorblind” society, that is, a society that simply doesn’t see the variation in skin colors and cultural styles. The idea was that if we didn’t see the differences, we couldn’t attack each other based on them. That seemed as good an answer as any, and it was worth a try. But recent research has shown that we identify whether or not someone is of the same race or culture or sex within milliseconds of seeing them. That’s long before we could consciously think “That person is different from me”.
So we automatically see differences. We can’t become “colorblind”. That doesn’t mean, however, that our decisions and behavior must be ruled by our differences, or that we must let them define us. We still have to take them into account, because if we’re unaware of our assumptions, stereotypes, and biases, they can block our ability to see value in others. But we don’t need to let them be the only things we act on. How do we reconcile these ideas?
Here is a simple and powerful tool to use for getting along with others: After the initial perception of differences, choose to recall that each person is a human being, with qualifiers coming after that. So, there is a human who is female, tall, and rich. There is a human who is Latino, male, and older. Yet another is a human who is young, white, and poor. And so on for all the people on our street, in our town, and in our world.
There is dignity and honor in our shared humanity. We are all human under everything else. Keeping in mind such commonality as a foundation, we can better appreciate the value of our differences. It takes practice to unlearn our tendency to focus on our differences. Once we remember our commonality, we can be more open about and celebrate our differences with respect, ask questions instead of making assumptions, and develop friendships across cultural divides. Our communities will be stronger for it.