Recently, in working with a group of teenagers in our group sessions, the topic of sensitive conversations was broached. As we explored just what entailed sensitive topics, and how to navigate (or not) these topics, the issue of diversity came up, specifically with regard to race and ethnicity. Immediately, it became clear that multiple group members were uncomfortable with discussing this topic, even as me and the co-leader of this group, who is originally from Kenya, encouraged the teens to talk about the ways in which our cultural and ethnic backgrounds differed. And yet, despite this encouragement, it was as if we had entered into a taboo conversation in which even acknowledging the obvious (e.g., I am white, you are black) was fraught with all sorts of uneasiness and anxiety.
One of the most remarkable things about our world is just how diverse it is, and how it was designed to be this way for no other clear reason other than diversity itself. Consider the following realities. There are estimated to be 6,500 to 7,000 languages used in the world today. There are between 9,000 to 10,000 species of birds, although recent research suggests that there actually may be double this number (given a change in classification). While evidence suggests there are four main races of people, this is often divided into 30 or more subgroups with six different skin types. Over 60,000 species of trees exist, with Brazil alone reportedly having over 8,700 varieties. And an astounding over 900,000 thousand types of insects live today (which represents over 80% of the world’s species).
In all of these examples, a simple reflection emerges. There is no clear evidence that the design of our world required these differences to exist other than to support diversity itself. Could we have not all spoken the same language, or been of the same race, or even experienced the same type of flora and fauna across the world? It sure seems the case. Yet, our world is anything but homogenous, even all the way down to our genetic code. We were created to be diverse, and it is the diversity of human beings and this world that is most striking of all. It is also the diversity of this world that allows healthy growth and development to occur, as it has long been recognized that when all beings reproduce from a limited gene pool, disease, death, and extinction are increasingly likely to follow.
And yet, when it comes to the diversity we share, so often this topic is met with discomfort, disdain, or downright dismissal. Frankly, it is an area that the world has always struggled with so mightily. Whether differences were used to justify maltreatment, segregation, degradation, or any sort of particular sin, it seems that we as human beings fail to recognize that if this world was designed to be anything, it was designed to be diverse.
Some of you reading this wonder where I might be going with this, and just what “agenda” I might be trying to justify. If this is the case, you might be disappointed (or pleased) to find out that the only agenda I have with this article is for all of us consider the obvious, and what this means for our lives each day. We all need a heart and a brain to live, and oxygen to breathe and food to survive, but the ways in which we look, speak, and experience might be very different. Not only is this okay, but it is really what provides a great richness to our world. Yet so often, as was conveyed in the group, a mention of diversity either brings strong opinions or fearful responses instead of curious, compassionate questions and conscientious, collaborative conversations. Whether a person is afraid of being perceived as racist or has strong beliefs they feel compelled to express, what gets lost in all of this is an opportunity to better understand a person’s background, experiences, and identity.
Which is too bad. Because beyond the division that this inevitably creates, it just limits opportunities for our own growth. When we fail to step outside of our “safe space” or take time to consider how one’s unique experiences and identity may inform our own, we really have missed out on the design of this world. I appreciate sameness and routine. But as I have grown older, I really appreciate understanding how my life is both a reflection of the similarities that I share with others and the differences that I don’t. Before I even consider whether I agree or disagree with others, I am compelled to consider their identity within the context of experiences and their culture. If I don’t, then I will likely encounter them in the way that I see them, not in who they truly are. While all of this may not (or should not) alter universal principles by which I operate, it should very well inform how I approach people each day. As Jonathan Haidt once articulated, people often conflate the terms demographic diversity with moral diversity. The former refers to all the ways in which we are intrinsic different and the latter refers to different values or principles we may have. The problem is that when this occurs, differences in values and belief systems may be automatically applied to people who are demographically diverse, and thus be used to further justify maltreatment, derision, and exclusion.
Imagine for a second that the world lacked diversity. The birds all looked the same and the trees carried the same leaves. People spoke just alike and looked just like another. You might think the world would be simpler. But, oh what endless beauty and timeless wonder it would lack, and what a missed opportunity there would be to step outside of our sameness into a world where we need to learn to be different in order to thrive. When we as a people start to know others as they are, and not as we perceive them to be, we find that our diverse world provides an endless source of joy and wonder and an opportunity to “step outside of our own canvas” and consider who the world and we must really be. In the process, we become less afraid of our differences and more attuned to our similarities in a world full of both.