What is diversity?
I am 25 years old, fairly young, probably still very naive, and I have lived my entire life in northern Ohio. Anyone from the area can tell you that Ohio is not exactly the capital of diversity in any sense, and if anyone tries to tell you that it is they are either very sheltered or they are fooling themselves. Having grown up in an area where everyone is essentially ‘like’ you, recognizing the value of diversity can be a very, very challenging task.
Upon starting my first ‘corporate’ job (working for a fortune 100 company) a couple of years ago, I was quickly put through a week-long ‘diversity training program’ that was supposed to be designed to help all employees recognize and appreciate the ‘value’ of a diverse workforce. After the first day of the training, I was pretty disappointed to find out that the ‘diversity training program’ was actually nothing more than a ‘try to tolerate your neighbors and don’t make fun of anyone at work’ training program.
I have to admit that prior to beginning my graduate degree last year I thought that I knew what diversity was and why it was important. While growing up, I had friends from other races and ethnic backgrounds… so I knew what diversity was, right? When I began my graduate program I saw that diversity is something entirely different…
Do we need to take another look at how we view diversity?
The standard method of teaching diversity in the U.S. has remained unchanged for quite some time, and I think that it may be time that we re-examine our methods.
In most elementary schools, children are first introduced to the concept of diversity by teaching them through various ‘holiday traditions exercises’… in other words, the first exposure to learning about the value of diversity that many American children receive is learning that diversity means ‘jewish kids celebrate Hanukkah’, or that ‘some african cultures celebrate Kwanzaa’, etc… as children continue into middle and high school, this approach changes to more of a ‘tolerance-based’ approach, essentially focusing on the idea that we all inhabit this earth together, and that we need to accept each other’s differences in order to get along… is this what diversity is? Does learning about diversity and cultural differences have no value other than tolerance? We seem to be telling our children (from a very young age) “Sure, we are all different, and it makes things tough… Get over it.”
More disturbingly, there is a strong movement in schools to eliminate these ‘holiday celebrations’ altogether. Although they are going about teaching diversity the wrong way, some mention of it is better than none. Numerous lawsuits have been brought forth in the past few years aimed at removing from classrooms any acknowledgment of the cultural differences that makes us all unique. Evidently, teaching children that their friends may celebrate other holidays because they belong to another religion is infringing upon their rights… Would they truly be better off by ignoring the fact that not everyone believes the same things they do? Evidently some socially conservative whack-jobs think so (and I must admit, I am fairly socially conservative when it comes to religion).
The Right Way to Teach Diversity
When I began my graduate studies, I was for the first time in my life surrounded by (and forced to work in close proximity with) people from numerous other cultures. In a matter of days, I went from having no concept of what diversity truly is to working face-to-face on a daily basis with people from India, Nepal, Croatia, Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, etc…
The experience of working with (and learning from) people from so many different cultures and backgrounds has been truly priceless. I have developed numerous technical and analytical skills and have had many experiences in my studies that will benefit me as my career progresses, but none of them compare to the insight I have gained from working and studying with the international students. It has become very apparent to me that the true value of understanding diversity is not the ability to be tolerant of those around you… the true value lies in the diversity itself and is a result of the various life experiences, outlooks, beliefs, and cultural differences that each member of society brings to the table. If we can learn to appreciate the value of each individual’s unique set of knowledge and beliefs, then tolerance will be a simple consequence of respecting and valuing the ideas and thoughts of others. Rather than teaching tolerance in our schools and workplaces, we should teach the concept that when we may not have the right answer to whatever problem we are facing, someone from a different background may have a unique and valuable perspective.