The Importance of Exposure to Multiculturalism and Diversity
This is the second of my three-part series on multiculturalism, diversity, and cross-cultural relationships. In my first article: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/series-on-multiculturalism-cross-cultural-relationships-and-diversity/, I shared with my readers how and when I became impassioned with this topic. In this follow-up posting, I elaborate on the importance of exposure to multiculturalism and diversity. My definition of diversity includes people with all types of differences: race, religion, philosophy, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical health, mental health, socioeconomic, intelligence, genetic attributes, etc.
Exposure to multiculturalism and diversity helps us expand our awareness and knowledge. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can lead to cooperation and collaboration. And how much easier would it be to live on this planet, to work together to solve its problems, if we operated under this premise. But I know this sounds very utopian, and perhaps rather than try to solve the world’s problems, I can focus on my little part of the universe and help influence those around me in a positive way. I behave a certain way, because I know that my children are watching and emulating my every move. I want them to grow up without unfounded prejudices and fears.
It is human nature to gravitate to known and comfortable environments. And it is also human nature to be weary of those and of things that are unknown. In the absence of true knowledge we allow fear and ignorance to form our misguided judgments.
I grew up as a Colombian immigrant in Queens, New York in the 60’s. At the time the Latinos in New York City were made up of mostly Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Even among the existing Latino groups there was dislike and mistrust. My parents and I moved to an apartment building in Woodside, Queens. We were the only Hispanic family in our building. For several months after we moved in, my parents greeted our next-door neighbors, a white Jewish elderly couple, and for months they ignored my parent’s polite salutations. My parents were patient and knew from prior experience that in time the couple would come around, and they did. Somehow their comfort level grew as they got to know us and they became friendly with us. It makes me happy to think that we helped influence their viewpoint in a positive way. My other memory of a neighbor was of the Marshall family, one of the few African-American families in our building. Mrs. Marshall was working a full-time job, was raising a family, had lost a son in the Vietnam War, and on top of all of that, she was the dedicated Girl Scout leader of my troop. I always admired her commitment to the community and am grateful that she served as a role model to me inspiring me to become a Girl Scout leader to my own daughter.
Growing up as a Latina in New York was not a great thing. Not because I was directly mistreated but because there was a prevailing attitude that Hispanics and Hispanic culture was sub par. As a child I looked for ways of blending in and forgetting my ethnicity. I suppose this is what thousands of immigrant children had done before me and continue to do to this day. Immigrant groups that arrived before us staked a claim and defined what they believe is the “right way” of being American, and all of the newly arrived immigrants try desperately to fit in by giving up their uniqueness. It is sadly contradictory that some of the people of this country, a nation founded on freedoms and religious tolerance, punish those for being different. I was incensed recently with the reaction by the general public when Ms. New York, the first Indian-American woman to win the title of Ms. America 2014 received vile feedback in the news and social media. Ugly comments were made accusing her of not being “American” enough, and of not representing “American” values. Wow, that today in 2014 we can still have such biased views and prejudices saddens me.
In 1974, my parents decided to return to Colombia because that was their plan all along. Little did they know that our going back to Colombia would be the greatest gift they would ever give me. I had come to the United States at age two and now at 13 we were returning to my birth country. The USA was my home but I was equally accepting of the idea of moving back to Colombia where I had spent most of my childhood summers. I would become immersed in the culture, learn the history, travel the country, study the language, and develop an appreciation for being Colombian. This experience also heightened my sensitivity to the appreciation of other cultures.
As much as we enjoyed living in Colombia I had my sights on going to university in the states and so we returned in 1978. Living in Colombia had raised my self-confidence and solidified my identity. Upon my return to the USA I no longer felt like a minority. That is until my senior year of college when I went from not feeling like a minority to being labeled a “double minority”. That was a huge surprise and I envisioned a giant rubber stamp coming down on my forehead. I was a soon-to-graduate engineer who was a “woman” and a “Latina”. I became highly coveted by the recruiting companies because I could fill two of their minority recruiting quotas. The reality was that I was back in the United States where labeling seemed and continues to be, unfortunately, a very important part of this culture.
In my first article, I mentioned how I have three distinct roles. I am a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and a US citizen. In the first role, I did not and do not need to prove anything to anyone. However, in my role as a Colombian immigrant and naturalized US citizen I have always felt it necessary to show other Americans a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos, while dispelling some of the misconceptions they have of our ethnic group. I will take this opportunity to say that there is a subset of American society that is open-minded and have an appreciation for diversity. I also have to point out that prejudices can also exist within a minority group.
My husband, a white American of European decent, and I have raised our children in a multicultural environment. Together we made the decision that I would speak Spanish and he would speak English to the children. As a family we have lived in Belgium, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and England. Every location has offered us varying experiences. Moving has taught us resilience and adaptability. Living abroad has taught us to see things from a different point of view. We have lived in small towns and in big cities. We have lived in very diverse and in very homogenous locations.
I have come to the conclusion that people from very homogenous towns or groups are at risk of becoming insular and close-minded. These folks have had limited exposure to people who are different perhaps by their own choosing or just by chance. When suddenly faced with a person or group who may not conform to their value system, they allow fear and ignorance to form their misguided judgments. Some can exhibit behaviors such as apathy, unfriendliness, anger, discrimination, segregation, bullying, mistreatment, or even violence. These behaviors are then passed on to their children and the negative behaviors and misconceptions are perpetuated. However, not all people from a homogenous group will react negatively. Some will allow themselves the opportunity to get to know the “stranger” much like the elderly couple did towards us, and eventually welcome them into the community. It is nice to know that human decency and goodness can prevail.
In 2011 we had the opportunity to move to London with our teen-aged children. We spent two years living in one of the most diverse cities of the world. I am so grateful that we were able to expose our family to so many ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups. When you live among people of different backgrounds or attributes you develop a comfort level with them that allows you to be open-minded. This better prepares you to interact with each other and offers a basis for cooperation and collaboration. It prepares you to live in the global community and to work in a diverse environment. I also feel that living in London gave my children an appreciation for their own multi-cultural background.
We are now in suburban USA. There is still so much to improve and accomplish in the arena of diversity. In the fall, I was at an orientation at my children’s school and I could not help but notice that there were three distinct groups of people. There was a large group of mostly white families with a smattering of some ethnic families mingling with them, there was a small group of African-American families, and then there were the assorted loners. I wondered to myself why each group was keeping to themselves fully knowing the answer to my own question. Everyone was choosing to stay in his or her own comfort zone. This self-selected segregation bothered me so I chose to walk over to the group of African American parents to introduce myself. Some of you may argue that self-selected segregation is acceptable, but I will counter that with, self-selected segregation is a defense mechanism, that although shields us temporarily, it prevents us from pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone to reach our fullest potential.
The United States is not the only country dealing with diversity issues. The challenges exist worldwide. Italy appointed its first black female cabinet member, Cecile Kyenge in April of this year. What was seen as a positive step in racial integration has publicly highlighted the ugly face of the prejudices that exist in Italy as Mrs. Kyenge endures countless racial abuse. Many other countries have experience similar challenges with assimilation of ethnic groups such as France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. Colombia and many other Latin American countries are guilty of marginalizing their own native and black minority groups. Other nations struggle with uniting internal religious and ethnic groups. No location is immune to this problem.
I have been through my own journey. I too am guilty of passing incorrect judgment. I have come to the realization that prejudices come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes can be almost imperceptible. We all have a value system that we learned at home. There are moments in our lives that we come to crossroads where our existing value system is challenged. If we recognize these junctures as learning opportunities then we can begin to make changes that allow us to become better human beings.
In the end, the hallmark of a good relationship is when all parties involved are made to feel good in that relationship. And how do we do this? By taking the steps necessary to learn about the other person. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can ultimately lead to cooperation and collaboration.
I do a reality check and bring myself back to my little corner of the universe, back to my original goal, to behave in a way that teaches my children to be open-minded and not develop unfounded prejudices and fears.
In my last and third article I share my call to action with you, steps you can take to further your exposure to multiculturalism and diversity.
For now I leave you with the following:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou