If the two of us are always in agreement, then one of us doesn’t need to be here.
I was attending a dinner at a colleague’s house many years ago. I headed up the walkway, stepped through the front door and looked around. I hesitated as I surveyed the photos of my colleague’s family placed around the living room. I suddenly realized that this was the first time I had ever been in the home of someone who was African-American. I was 24 years old.
Wait. Could that be? How could I have lived this long but never actually been in the home of someone of another race? Bizarre.
I grew up in a family comprised of five people from four different countries. There were four different languages spoken in my household and two religions. When I meet people from a different culture than my own, I’m curious about their background. I’ve always actively sought out learning about and traveling to different cultures, people and places.
Standing in that living room at the age of 24 I realized that there were many ways in which my life was not at all diverse. The people around me in childhood were overwhelmingly white, of European descent, educated, healthy, upper middle class and suburban. At age 24, not much had changed. My world was becoming more diverse in terms of race but it had not become more diverse in terms of socio-economic status. My colleague was also healthy, educated, upper middle class and suburban. Our lifestyles and general life track were the same.
In my mid-thirties I finally managed to move to the city because I was tired of the lack of diversity in my life and wanted to get out into the “real world”. I regularly hear different languages spoken on my morning elevator ride and my neighbors are varied in their orientation, religions, races and ethnic groups. Finally, I’m in touch with the “real world”.
Or, am I?
In a scene from the 2009 movie, The Other Woman, a group of parents gather at a children’s birthday party in a large Manhattan townhouse. The children are racially diverse and all go to the same expensive private school. One parent leans over and whispers to another, “A group of wealthy children of all races is not diversity.”
When I first moved to the center of the city I became immediately aware of the difference between transplants such as myself and native city dwellers. Transplants were largely either young childless people or older empty-nesters who had moved downtown among the excitement of restaurants, museums and cultural events. For those negative aspects of city life, such as the substandard public education system, transplants had the financial means to access alternatives in the suburbs.
By contrast, many native city dwellers tended to view their city negatively and as a place they were still trying to escape after many generations of poverty. They, and their extended support system, had few, if any, connections outside of the city. Many schoolchildren in the city have never traveled outside of their own zip code. In other words, despite living a matter of one city block apart, my life could be radically different from another’s and it was largely attributed to level of education and socio-economic status.
Until I heard that line in the movie, I was unaware that I was unconsciously defining “diversity” in fairly shallow terms. As long as there was a mix of race and gender we had achieved true diversity , right? Not at all. Diversity is an endless list of differences that I continue to notice as I learn about other people and places. The more my horizons are broadened, the longer those horizons become. The more I learn, the more I realize I need to know.
In reality, there is no one attribute that divides us – or connects us. For instance, two people can be of different races but because of a commonality in their religion beliefs they consider themselves members of the same “tribe”.
I have a fear of the unfamiliar like most people do, but the more I familiarize myself with diverse people and places, the less hesitation I have about incorporating them into my daily life.
Take a closer look at the tribes of which you are a member. Then, make a conscious effort to learn about those kinds of people who are not members. Watch a movie targeted to an audience of which you are not a member. Go listen to music you’ve never heard before. Try a food of another ethnic group. Plan a trip to a place you – and no one you know – has ever been. Consider other religious teachings and ask yourself if they resonate with you.
Personally, I love to read memoirs and biographies because they allow me to walk around in another person’s life for a while and gain greater insight into other people’s experiences. I love to learn about social issues, civil rights and history because it gives me a glimpse into social patterns that have resulted from the lack of understanding among different segments of our society.
Then, reach across the divide – that can be only one city block apart – and begin to interact with those who are living completely different lives than you are living. Show up to a group that is made up of people that aren’t anything like you. In the early 1990s I joined a volunteer organization committed to addressing the AIDS crisis. I got to know members of the LGBTQ community and our interaction broke down any misconceptions I may have been carrying around in my subconscious about them.
Learn about diversity on a global level as well. I love to travel to different places because it allows me to walk around in other people’s cultures for awhile. Observing how other cultures do things differently shows me how other people have responded to the needs of their own society in a different way than my own. It also teaches me about how we are all similar in some way.
Michael Moore created a documentary titled, “Where To Invade Next?” He took a sample of certain countries and showed how they handle everything from healthcare to school lunches in a more effective way than we do here in the U.S. In the same way we consider different perspectives to solve our problems, considering another country’s approach to social issues can shed some light on making our own country a better place.
What type of person are you unfamiliar with? What group of people do you make assumptions about – because you’ve never really interacted with them? What geographic area of the world you think of in a negative manner? What is your source for information about these people and places? What type of people or places have been characterized in a certain way – over and over again – by the people around you?
Resolve to seek out these people and places and form your own opinion instead. Read, observe, listen and learn about these places and people. Then, seek out a new connection. Go out of your way to integrate one area of your life. If this becomes a normal practice, your world will become a truly diverse place in which to live.