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Respecting Diversity And Difference

Written by fatherfrank  |  06. April 2007

"Don't judge a book by its' cover." In this day and age, what does that statement really mean? Most of us would like to believe that we are not prejudiced or biased in any way. However, if the truth be told, we are all prejudiced and biased in some way. We may not be blatantly prejudiced based on color, nationality, religion or social economics, because that's not politically correct.
The prejudice we embrace is much more subtle and infectious. It contaminates and destroys people forever. The way we look at the world is shaped by how we were raised, where we were raised and by whom we were raised. So much of who we are has been colored by the texture of the world we grew up in.
If we grew up in a diverse community and had a bad experience with someone different from us, oftentimes we would generalize and judge an entire race and/or religious group based on that one isolated experience. That one negative experience would become a defining moment and ultimately block us from embracing other people from that community.
Unfortunately, we would allow that narrow view of humanity to block us from building bridges within our human community. Too often, prejudice blocks us from opening our minds and hearts to social differences. These social differences more often than not, paralyze us from reaching beyond ourselves to help others and to get to know others who are different.
What is the major block to reaching out to people who are different from us? We create four million excuses for why we cannot extend ourselves and/or get to know others who might be different. Probably, our greatest obstacle is fear. No one likes to be vulnerable to another, especially in the tumultuous times we are living in.
Fear rips at every human beings heart. It causes people to remain silent, when they should speak up. It shackles people with inaction, when they should step up and step out. It causes people to turn their backs on people in need or to walk the other way when faced with conflict or confrontation.
As much as we would like to believe we are too sophisticated to judge by externals, we all still do that. If you're a teacher, think back to the first class of each semester. Think about that first class, when you walk in, look around and see students of different ages, different generations, different hairstyles and different clothing styles. We mentally categorize students based on their looks.
How often have I heard colleagues in education talk about a student's appearance. We live in the age of baseball cap mania. Everybody loves wearing a baseball cap on his or her head backwards. How many teachers get flustered on every level of education, if students do not take their caps off before class begins? Other teachers will classify students based on their style of clothing and the way they wear their hair.
Still other educators will judge students because of body piercings and tattoos. Some teachers and other professionals have been bold enough to make very demeaning statements about persons who choose to express themselves in that way. People will judge others because of addiction. Some adults will go as far as to forbid their children from interacting with other young people who have an addiction problem.
If your son or daughter has had the misfortune of being arrested, in some circles, leprosy would be less threatening. We punish people because they battle with mental illness, because we disagree with their sexual orientation or possibly their politics, philosophy and/or ideology.
Prejudice is a learned behavior. It's one of those few behaviors that we are very effective in teaching by example. Children are not born with prejudice. They learn it from the adults who raise them.
Look around us. Prejudicial behavior is escalating everywhere; from the ball field to the classroom, from the sanctuary to the workplace. In the halls of Congress, as well as in our local courtrooms, subtle forms of prejudice are everywhere.
As a nation founded on diversity, we have become very intolerant of social differences. More and more, we tend to create nice, neat boxes that we would like to place everyone in. If they don't fit, we squeeze them to make them fit, even if it hurts.
Take a moment to think about the polarizing issue of the undocumented. For argument's sake, let's all agree that breaking national immigration regulations is wrong. Clearly, on this issue, our federal government has failed us.
However, does our government's incompetence give us the right to treat the undocumented without dignity and respect? Is it fair for communities to be polarized because Washington does not have a clear and enforceable policy on immigration?
It's troubling that with all of our brilliance and with all of our generosity and compassion, we cannot sit around the table and create a fair and just resolution to this very volatile and sensitive national social issue.
Our present approach in most communities only fuels confrontation, hate and discrimination. What message are we giving our elementary school children regarding respecting diversity and difference?
Even if we believe incarceration, punishment and deportation are appropriate consequences for illegal immigration, those guilty should still be treated with dignity and respect. Two wrongs don't make a right!
JR has shoulder length hair, tattoos all over his arms and four or five body piercings. He clearly does not reflect the so-called "clean cut, all American boy." However, although his externals have caused many to be cautious or to even avoid interacting with him, he is probably among the most compassionate and generous human beings I know. He would give you the shirt off his back, if you needed it.
Awhile back, I was looking for volunteers to do a variety of things. After hearing about the need, JR stepped forward and offered his services. He was willing to do everything and anything. Initially, I used him as a transporter. At first, people were uneasy. They were afraid to speak to him because of his look.
However, he disarmed them by initiating the conversation first. Most were shocked at how versatile and knowledgeable he was on so many different topics. He could speak intelligently about almost anything. But even more disarming than his intelligence was his compassion and sensitive heart. Everyone who interacted with JR left the connection feeling enriched and also feeling embarrassed that they judged him by his externals.
Twenty years ago, a sixteen year old who sang in the choir of a local church, came to live at Hope House. He came to the house because he lived in a very physically abusive household. His father was mentally ill and out of control. This young man was literally dying in that chaos.
He came into the house as a junior in high school. He wasn't involved in anything at school and was doing poorly in all of his subjects. Shortly after getting out of his abusive environment, his life started to change. His grades improved dramatically. He joined the football and wrestling teams. He was involved in the drama program and played a musical instrument. Anyone who met him saw the change in him.
By November of his senior year, he was an honor student. He received early acceptance to every college he applied to, ultimately accepting a four-year scholarship to a private university in Washington, D.C. Right before graduation, he was sitting with a group of friends outside his high school, playing music. A teacher came up to him to chat and saw he had on a t-shirt that said, "Hope House Ministries." The teacher asked where he had gotten the t-shirt. The young man said he got it from Hope House, where he lives. The teacher was shocked and said to the young man, "you don't seem the type." Needless to say, the young man was very hurt by that comment.
Pain, abuse and dysfunction wear many different faces and are often hidden among the least expected. "Don't judge a book by its' cover," it oftentimes hides the real treasure.

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