Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Diversity experience

Talking about seminars, as I did yesterday, reminds me of a workshop on "diversity" that I attended several years ago. The first thing the facilitators did when the workshop started was to ask each of us to introduce ourselves and say something about "our first diversity experience." My first thought, when they asked this, was, "What on Earth is a 'diversity experience'?"

My second thought was that I was exposed to diversity, in this sense, all my life, and don't consider it something that one has a particular "first experience" with, any more than one considers that one has a first experience with air, or with water.

My third thought hit it. My father always taught me that people are more the same than different, and that we must enjoy the differences while we understand that we're all the same — that is, that we're all people and that no one has more or less value because of the shade of his skin or which side of the river she comes from.

And yet that valuable message, which I carry in the centermost part of myself today, was accompanied by an interesting thing: When he told us about someone, he always attached a cultural attribute. "I met a fellow today, nice fellow, Italian fellow." Or, "There's this coloured man at work, who [...]." No one was just a guy, a fellow, a man; he was always a Jewish guy, a Polish fellow, a Cuban man. To my father, that adjective conveyed a world of information, more than just about the part of the world the subject or his ancestors came from. To me, it was a mystery, since apart from associating Italian with ravioli, Polish with pierogi, and Chinese with wonton, I had no sense of what any of that meant.

What I now understand is that my father was teaching me to avoid the stereotypes that he was brought up with, and that he was so used to that he couldn't drop them completely. So they remained, for him, in that little adjective that he attached to everyone. But he was determined that I grow up with the message that we're all people, above all, and that everyone should be valued as an individual.

And that brings to mind some words by Oscar Hammerstein, from the musical South Pacific, sung cynically by Lieutenant Cable:

You've got to be taught, before it's too late,
Before you are six, or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught.
We can, each of us, end that cycle. Dad did.

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