Friday, September 30, 2016

We need to invite people to diversity, not try to impose it on them

There’s a tendency for people fighting one extreme to swing over to another, rather than to find a middle ground between the two by taking the historical and cultural context of the other side into consideration. There’s a huge difference between using anger as motivation and energy for positive change, and coming across simply as angry.

I’ve heard people speaking out against the gentrification of Detroit go to the extreme of distrusting and condemning any suburbanites they see who are taking an interest in Detroit because of tourist and art attractions, rather than because they want to connect with Detroit residents and support social justice in the city.

I myself have sometimes been mistakenly pre-judged as such a suburbanite, not because of things I’ve said or done while in Detroit, but simply because I look almost 100% German and cities are not my preferred habitat. I’m also incredibly shy and easily disoriented in unfamiliar environments, and that too has been mistaken as prejudice against the locals in a few instances.

Instead of automatically assuming that all people who seem out of place or who don’t easily open up in unfamiliar surroundings are snobs or bigots, it would be more helpful to look first at where they are coming from and why they are so afraid to “mix.”

Comfort with human diversity has always come naturally to me, due to my good fortune of having attended ethnically-diverse schools in Dearborn, MI and San Diego, CA, up through fourth grade. I realize that not all people in the Metro Detroit area have been as fortunate as I have in their early conditioning. Many people I know were raised in cultural, religious, and / or family traditions with long histories of “sticking to your own kind” because of conservative beliefs, believing the violent stereotypes they see in the mainstream news about people of certain colors or religions apply to all people of those types, or because of their fear of being ostracized and ridiculed by their communities if they mix with people who are foreign to them.

As I pointed out last week, some people allow themselves to be ruled by their weaknesses instead of their strengths, by making the conscious decision to see themselves as victims under the constant threat of externally-imposed evil. I discussed this concept in terms of refuting the idea of evil being imposed upon us by an exterior devil; this concept also applies to seeing “those people”—blacks, Muslims, women, city people, immigrants, Mexicans, whomever—as the root of our social problems, instead of taking any of that responsibility ourselves.

Since the point of wanting people to embrace diversity and unite across religious, cultural, and racial lines is that we’re all in this together, the thing to do when we encounter people who appear to be resistant to this idea is to find out what it will take to win them over to our side—not push them further away by pre-judging them as racists or elitists just because they weren’t taught to have the mindset that we have.

The only way they can develop this mindset is if we teach it to them, through defying whatever stereotypes they hold about people outside their type. We defy these stereotypes by inviting them to dialogue.

As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says, “Dialogue is not some simplistic assertion of one’s own position, nor is it necessarily about persuading others to one’s point of view. Dialogue is about demonstrating respect for another’s life, and being determined to learn when confronted with differences in personality and perspective.”

A few questions for starting the dialogue with someone who is currently reluctant—for whatever reason—to embrace diversity are: What would it take to get you to mix? Where did you get the idea that these people are not to be trusted, and why do you give all your power to that idea instead of going and finding out for yourself what they’re really like? Would you like to find out now?

Then offer to show them how.

Image: "Woodburn Window," by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

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