In the mid-1970s I taught at the University of New Mexico. It was an ideal campus to showcase both cultural and racial diversity. Interestingly, it was easy to be both color and culture blind when interacting with students. This was in part, due the fact that students were, first and foremost, students. In teaching and counseling with the students, I became committed to each individual. I was committed to helping them gain a worthwhile education.
I was often asked to write letters of recommendation for students seeking post-college employment or pursuing admission to a graduate program. It never dawned on me to mention race or culture in those letters. The letters were focused on their knowledge, skill and interpersonal competencies. In the midst of my time at UNM, I was aware of the concept of multi-cultural education. It seemed that such a move was nourished for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to overcome or dissolve the prejudices abroad in the land toward various ethnic groups.
In the years since then, the multi-cultural push has seemed (generally) to invoke a philosophy of “difference for the sake of difference is valuable.” I wondered what criteria could be used to defend difference for the sake of difference, for without such criteria, one could not distinguish beneficial differences from those that are irrelevant, and from those that are destructive. Moreover, when specific differences are applied to a whole group, it fosters a stereotype of that group and seems to perpetuate a legitimacy of labeling. Johnny Hart, in his comic strip BC, portrays an ant asking his mother, “What’s a label?” Her answer is, “It’s something they put on a person so you can hate them without having to get to know them first.”
I have realized that some seek to foster an appreciation of diversity by insisting that people from one culture appreciate the promoted stereotypes of another. Stereotypes are assumed to be good and universal in the targeted culture. We could revise the BC cartoon so that the mother’s answer to her ant child is, “It’s something they put on a person so you can love them without having to get to know them first.” Either answer is a painful—misleading or ineffective—summary of how not to foster an appreciation of differences. It is trading one brand of prejudice for another, and without having criteria to decide what aspects of a given culture are beneficial or destructive, appreciation of diversity not achievable. No culture engages in patterns of behavior uniformly, nor in approaches to life that do not include some features that are less than ideal.
Surely, there are more important and beneficial grounds for valuing the differences that are meaningful in a given culture than to uniformly insist on difference for the sake of difference. I submit that a better starting point is to first acknowledge—and preferably have first hand experience with, a member of a given culture or ethnicity. What is required for that interaction is for each of us to revere the inestimable value of the individual. If I am willing to give my heart to you (be you a student, a colleague, a neighbor, a teammate, a checker at the grocery store)—then you become real to me, and I am interested in your world. This includes our similarities and differences, what in your culture you find valuable, what your hopes, dreams and fears are, or even what you hold sacred. In addition, I do not begin to assume that everyone from your culture is just like you. For me to do that would be to obliterate your individuality by making you a category instead of a real person.
A decade or so after my UNM experience I became associated with the manager of a company, who described her experience with a diversity appreciation seminar. The first exercise in her seminar was for the participants to get into groups by ethnic identity. The task was to decide (and become unanimous regarding) what name should be used to identify their culture. Staying quiet during the beginning of the exercise, she soon boldly spoke up, saying she did not want to do the exercise at all. Peer pressure was brought to bear, with several utilitarian arguments used to convince her to change her mind. She was so intransigent that the group called for the facilitator of the seminar to come over and intervene. He pushed back against her refusal to do the exercise with numerous arguments, but she would not yield. The facilitator finally said, “Look, if you don’t agree on a name for your group, what are we going to call you?” Her answer?—“How about Maureen?” Maureen knew that once the group had been labeled, individual worth and the value of each member of her group would be secondary to being a “category” for the rest of the seminar.
The first thing we all have in common is “being human,” a powerful starting point for appreciating differences would be to invite each person in a diverse group, to answer—to the group—a question such as, Who am I, and what is meaningful to me in life, in my family, in this corporation?”