Value in embracing diversity

Civil-rights activist and Navy sonar technician Lanier Phillips reminded students in Selbyville recently about the struggles of African-Americans to receive equal treatment in this country during its turbulent past and even today. Phillips’ story was so inspiring to the students that they invited him to come visit and talk to them.

Clearly, the students understand the value in overcoming adversity – but, moreover, the inhumanity involved in looking down on our fellow man because of his skin color and the other things that make us different from each other. They recognize that heroes overcome such adversity, though they should never have to and that evil can often be found in the status quo, if only acknowledged in hindsight. And they recognized that we’ve come a long way as a nation, even though, in some ways, we still have progress to make.

The current discussion in the national arena about immigration also touches on this issue, with our local population of immigrants – both legal and illegal – being on the receiving end of some terse words and worse.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, made it a lot easier to begin to divide people into “us” and “them.” Perhaps, in our fear and desire to feel comforted by the things we already know, we’ve begun to find it easier to look at the differences and see danger, rather than richness, and to see those like us as the only true realm of safety.

We are a varied nation, and whether the divide is a racial one, one of national origin, a matter of sexual orientation or the deeply divisive issue of faith, it’s easy for people to aim for neat little cubbyholes in which to place each other and apply labels that then become a source of divisiveness.

He’s an Arab… a Muslim… He must be a terrorist. She’s from Mexico. She must be here illegally, taking a job an American could have. He opposes prayer in the school environment. He must want Christians to hide their beliefs.

These kinds of assumptions have always been dangerous and do a disservice to us as thinking people and Americans, with our history of being the world’s “melting pot.” We have a tremendous opportunity in this nation and this area, to take part of an increasingly rich cauldron full of culture, language, food, beliefs and ways of thought. But, to do so, we have to work to rid ourselves of the fear of those differences in the ways of our fellow man.

While we celebrate who we are, we also need to actively work to embrace those around us and make sure our actions don’t – even in another person’s eyes – serve merely to remind those who are different that they are not “one of us.” To use our differences as barriers is to put others in position where they can’t express themselves without fear of being labeled as different, or even the enemy.

With this nation’s history of minorities’ struggle for equality and respect, most of us recognize that each of us is a thinking, feeling human being. And it’s important that we use our energy to build bridges that better us as individuals and a society, rather than tear down each other – and our better selves.

Lanier Phillips, in describing how he was treated by white Newfoundlanders, showed how opening one’s arms to those who are different can transform lives. “I was overwhelmed with their love,” Phillips said. “It was something new to me. That changed my whole philosophy on life.”

He also gave local students a clear reminder of the value of learning from the past and seeing equal value in those who are different from us. We hope a rapidly changing area can take that lesson to heart and use their collective passion not to divide, but to bring us all together.