We hear a lot about diversity these days. There are even groups here in Roanoke to foster our understanding it. Having attended one it seems worthwhile to give a few minutes to think about what it means . . . as well as what it doesn’t mean.
In this context we are talking about the differences that naturally occur between groups of people. Some are obvious: gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, social status, religion, to name just a few. The important feature is that they tend to separate us into groups and from that vantage point we can view life with a particular slant. That’s important because all are important and define who we are, not only as a group, but as a member of that group.
There is a downside to that, as we well know. If we identify too strongly with a group, then it becomes more difficult to understand those who are different from us. If that polarization becomes too strong then meaningful communication across, for example, ethnic lines becomes much more difficult. As we have seen in the recent controversy over how we will treat historical figures whose values now are in opposition to cultural norms of today.
Few of us would think setting aside our uniqueness as a group is a good thing. The qualities of our ethnicity are vital to understanding our role in a civil society. Maintaining of diversity is essential to seeing that our heritage survives.
One of the memorable phrases that surfaced early in our school years was “melting pot.” All the immigrants (that is everyone here except the native Americans; we all know how badly they have been treated) were supposed to become amalgamated Americans. If the melting pot concept really worked, then all that diversity would have been lost and we, as a nation, would be much poorer for it.
Part of that philosophy still lives in American society today. We sometimes speak of diversity as something to be overcome. We want to be inclusive but we also want people to become more like us. If that were to happen then diversity would be the casualty.
When we recognize the importance of diversity and the conflicting idea that we somehow must shed our uniqueness if we are to understand one another, we are in a place where polarization can quickly replace progress. To avoid that paralysis takes a special set of circumstances, and they are in short supply.
The very top of our leadership must set the tone. From the halls of the federal government, to the administration of justice, to education of all the citizenry, to every phase of society we must develop a sense of respect for the views of those who are different from us. That may be next to impossible in some cases where violence has replaced civil discourse, but even then if diversity can still lead to dialogue, then common ground may be found.
Diversity must be maintained. We must learn to respect our differences and still work for the common good. To do that will take a real dedication and compassion that is sadly lacking in places of power. That realization can lead to despair since as individuals we often feel powerless. That isn’t always the case. Someone recently commented that one person’s action can have no real meaning. The reply to that might well be, “Have you heard of Rosa Parks?” History is replete with ordinary people who stood up for a principle and changed the world.
We need to celebrate diversity and to learn from it while maintaining its heritage. If you are interested in how this works, get in touch with Katie Zawacki at [email protected]. She can open a door that will open your eyes as well.