Think back to those times that really deepened your awareness, understanding, and appreciation of diversity. When I ask students or participants in workshops to do this, they typically share stories. Usually, these stories do not revolve around academic courses, workshops, books, something they saw on television, or even a trip of some sort. Rather, these stories deal with something much more personal, such as an experience involving a family member, a close relationship with someone at work or school, a friendship, or maybe a life-altering event that affected them in a deeply moving way. What do these experiences have in common? They are very up close and personal.
When we encounter diversity in Carroll County, how do we react? Do we: ignore it, keep our distance, look at it out of the corner of our eyes, study it, or maybe experience it in a more intimate way. Perhaps it depends on the type of diversity we encounter and the situation.
Increasingly, we are immersed in diversity whether we like it or not. In many cases, we have to adapt - even in Carroll County. How we adapt is up to us. A while back, a local resident suggested we adapt by learning about diversity through the Internet, cable television, and multicultural programs in schools. To him, that was sufficient. While these sources of information may expand our awareness and knowledge to some degree, they only change us so much.
I remember a scene from “The Color of Fear,” a powerful film in which Latino, African-American, Asian-American, and white males share their innermost thoughts and feelings about race, culture, and each other. At one point, David, a white male, makes a stereotypical statement about blacks. This leads to a heated exchange between him and an African American named Victor. Victor points out to David that he has never really moved out of his virtually all white environment; he has not tried to step out of his skin because that would be too uncomfortable. From Victor's viewpoint, David has sampled the African-American community as a tourist, but that is it. So his exposure is extremely narrow and shallow.
“Diversity tourism” allows us to negotiate differences on a daily basis. Often, it is easier to sample diversity from a distance. Unfortunately, we pay a price for doing this. We are more prone to stereotype if we only know a few of “them,” and if we don't know them that well.
Sometimes, diversity tourism provides us with the tools we need to tolerate others. We acknowledge the right of “others” to work with us or live with us, but we keep interaction to a minimum. Tolerance is what we often find in the workplace. With tolerance, we can put up with diversity but avoid it whenever possible. A tolerant and an inclusive workplace are two entirely different things.
Diversity tourism makes it difficult to learn those valuable lessons about others and ourselves that cannot be learned in a classroom. Two friends of mine work with individuals with AIDS, a group that most of us avoid. That experience has transformed them and strengthened their faith. People with AIDS have become less one-dimensional and more real to them, with problems, gifts, and concerns like anyone else.
Diversity tourism makes it difficult to develop empathy. When we maintain our physical and social distance, we find it difficult to sense what another person is feeling or going through. Empathy builds bridges of awareness, understanding, and respect. It allows us to connect with others in ways that we never thought possible.
Recently, a close friend of mine shared with me that she has always had problems with lesbians. She was afraid of them, and did not want to be friendly with them lest they think she was coming on to them. Now, two of her closest friends are lesbians. She feels totally comfortable around people who do not share her sexual orientation, only because she was willing to open herself up to the possibility of developing a friendship with these two women.
Another person that comes to mind is a local doctor, a podiatrist. Since I have known him, he has always had this “I care about you” attitude. This attitude was conveyed to all of his patients, regardless of race, age, religion, cultural background, or disability. He perceives every patient as a child of God. For him, every patient is special; every patient is blessed with something. But this attitude was not something that just happened. Rather, it takes time and a commitment on his part. While some doctors are all business, he makes a concerted effort to really get to know his patients. In doing so, he becomes more aware of their blessings. He says, “I feel blessed, and patients nurture that feeling in me.”
Our lives are transformed as we get closer to people who are different. One example is my daughter Katie. When she applied to college, she was asked to write an essay on the person who has changed her life the most. She immediately thought of her brother Jimmy. She wrote, “I have a bond with Jimmy that gives me this sense of closeness with people who are different. I feel that with this compassion, I can have an effect on others' lives. I went through a lot of emotional pain when we were younger. He was a very difficult child, and I was exposed to pain that many never see. Living through that, I know that no matter how tough life seems, you can get through it. Jimmy has made me an incredibly strong, compassionate person and he has truly inspired me to make a difference in the world.”
Katie has been transformed by seeing and experiencing diversity up close. If she had just studied diversity instead of living with diversity, she would not be the person she is today.
My next column will be “White Males and Diversity.”