When I was young, there was one Mexican-American family in our neighborhood and there were two Asian kids at my high school. Six years later, when my younger sister entered high school, there was one, very light skinned Black person at the high school. Our primary social life was at church, and we believed that those whom we associated with at church and in or neighborhood were the good people. We lived a segregated life, and those of certain classes believed that this was a good thing. You didnt want to associate with those people. The most you could do were service projects for those who were other and therefore less than or less fortunate.
Times have certainly changed. At least for some of us, in some parts of the country, and in people who have reached certain developmental levels. The changes have required either stepping up to the plate or burying our heads in the sand.
Those of us who have moved out of the segregated neighborhoods, gone to colleges that have great diversity, traveled, entered professions that require multicultural competence, and/or had some other experiences with diverse groups of people have discovered some amazing things.
First, no matter how willing we may be, it is a long process and requires many different experiences with many different people to let go of certain prejudicial ideas. As far as I think I have come, I am sometimes shocked at my own remaining ignorance and damaging assumptions.
For instance, last week on a plane, I was talking with a very attractive woman sitting next to me about my work with people in the medical profession. She mentioned that she had worked in hospitals with physicians. Despite my rather feminist tendencies and tremendous efforts at open-mindedness over many years, I asked her during if she was a nurse!! I could have merely asked her what role she had worked at in the hospital!
After all of my years advocating for women, for the disenfranchised, for inclusive laws; after all my years of pursuing social justice, I have to assume that a beautiful woman will be a nurse not a doctor, not a hospital administrator, not many of the other professions that work in hospitals. I apologized, shamefaced.
Even though perfection is out of our reach, I think that my gaff indicates that all of us need to engage in the ongoing journey of becoming more open, overcoming the prejudices that we grew up with, and valuing all people for who they are, not how old they are, not what the color of their skin is, not how educated or wealthy they might be.
Second, even though the journey toward open-mindedness and tolerance may be long, many of us have discovered that it is worth it. Although at certain times in our lives or days there is a comfort in being with people who are more like us, we may also have discovered that life can get really boring when we only associate with like-minded people.
In contrast, it is fun to hear about the experiences of people who have different academic degrees than we do and who , as a result, have done different things with their lives than we have.
It is fun to travel to different parts of the country and world, fun to meet the people, to see different peoples creations, and to begin to understand the ways that other people live.
And beyond mere fun, diverse talents and interests are necessary if families and organizations and workplaces are to work effectively. We can be thankful that all of the people in the world are not writers or teachers or accountants. Someone has to cut the lawn and maintain the building and take care of the computers and do the taxes and the marketing and decorate the place and lead. We cannot all be equally talented at or interested in the same tasks. Creating top quality products generally requires people with many different talents to work together. And when problems develop at work or anywhere else, the best solutions generally emerge from hearing a range of diverse points of view.
Third, in the workplace, honoring diversity has become more necessary as we have become more of a global economy. If Americans are to do business with South Americans, Africans, and Asians, they must understand these cultureswhat they want and what they need. And it helps to work side by side with people from diverse backgrounds in order to learn how to build bridges with the people we are to do business with.
Even within our own country, great diversity exists. It is those who have been historically disenfranchised that we seem to have the most difficulty fully valuing. And yet, if we do not learn about these others and from these others, they will never move out of that disenfranchised position, and we all suffer from the existence of an underclass.
Even if we can get ourselves to appreciate diversity, the next step is to be open enough to allow it to affect us, to change us. When I went to England one year and talked to counseling professionals, I discovered many differences between English and American ways of preparing and regulating counselors and practicing counseling. As a result, I began to ask myself certain questions: Which was right? Which was better? Were there certain choices in the English system that worked better? Might Americans benefit from openness to changing in the English direction? How might we mutually benefit one another? What might we create, as a result of our conversations, that was better than any of us could create on our own or separately? When I worked in Mexico in an orphanage, I asked similar questions. WhenI worked in a Title I after school program, I asked related questions.
Fourth, perhaps the greatest difficulties with diversity occur in the midst of conflicts. Conflicts, by definition, mean that people with different needs and wants and goals fear losing something important to them if the other wins. And, of course, conflicts occur between people and organizations even when the big diversities of race and country are absent.
How do we stay open to learning and to the hope of positive outcomes when someone wants something different than we want, and when we think we might lose something valuable if they win the conflict? How do we overcome the fear that banishes open-mindedness to the sidelines? How do we learn that we can still take care of ourselves if their needs and wants challenge our own? How do we learn to really hear all wants and needs, valuing both our own and those of others, and in honoring both, communicate that we will act for the we, for the both/and, for the ability to live in an inclusive community, for the honoring of all? How do we know, instead, when to say, Enoughyou are hurting other people, and I will stand against that?
These are questions we all must ask. Answers become more important as the physical and electronic distances between our cultures diminishes, as the walls come down, and as a global economy fully emerges. As we regularly see the other on television, twitter, and the Internet, the distances lessen, questions of fairness move to front and center, our sense of entitlement and rightness diminish. Where will we gain the strength to change, the role models, the lessons? Education helps. Sometimes church helps. Perhaps our first steps are reaching out to those who are different than ourselves in our own neighborhoods. Jot a few ideas below on your thoughts about open-mindedness in the face of diversity and conflict.
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