Transforming Diversity: Seeing the Similarities Rather than the Differences

Most of us have been very concerned about the attacks on Arab Americans across the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda. Many Arab Americans have been targets of hate crimes, some have received death threats, and some have even been killed. We feel it is essential to not only speak out about this misplaced anger and backlash, but also to look for new answers to old questions, to go beyond assumptions and stereotypes, and for many to move from complacency into action.

A seemingly common human reaction in any crisis is the desire to blame someone, to want to get “even”, to want to find an “enemy”. It was very easy for the US to galvanize during the Cold War against the former Soviet Union as its “enemy”, until Americans went there by the thousands and met the Russian people and broke down this image of an enemy. After the Cold War, that sense of national unity against communism had many wondering who or what the next enemy would be that might unite and ignite national passions. Unfortunately in some ways Arabs have become the new target.

However what we must remember is the absolute danger of stereotyping and grouping people. Just as each American citizen is unique, so obviously is every Arab, every Muslim, every Hindu, every Christian. If I am an American, white, Christian woman, I can't be blamed for heinous acts of any of the extreme individuals of the groups to which I belong. When Timothy McVey blew up the Oklahoma City building, there was no systematic backlash against other white American men. Then why is there such an uproar against other Arab Americans?

Part of this answer has been the portrayal of Arab Americans in the media. They have commonly been the culprits of terrorism in movies and TV shows, partly because Osama bin Laden and his colleagues have been systematically blowing up buildings over the past number of years in many parts of the world, and partly we would add because the different Arab cultures and the religion of Islam are not well understood in this country. 

Unfortunately there are a growing number of extremist elements in many sectors today, including Christian fundamentalists that have bombed abortion clinics, the neo-Nazis in Germany, and the extremist faction of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. We have also seen an increase in different sects that have radical actions, such as the Branch Dividians. We must remember that these extremist groups in no way are representative of their religion, culture, race, ethnicity or nationality.

What is needed is a greater understanding and even valuing of differences, a willingness to be empathetic and open. We have been touched hearing stories of friends who have walked up to an Arab American in the market to ask if they are OK, as well as many Americans who have gone to a Mosque or taken an interest in studying Islam. What is also needed is an ability to step out of our cultural mindset in which we judge others according to our set of values or cultural lifestyle, and be open to the fact there are many different but equally valid ways of doing things. As long as we assume that doing things differently is “wrong”, as many people do, we limit ourselves from the richness of the diversity of life.

And rather than only noticing how someone is different from us, why don't we start by looking at how we are similar? Rather than trying to analyze other religions in terms of differences from our own, why not see the many ways in which they are similar? We would probably find more similarities than differences. And how about if we could see the differences as gifts, as something from which we could learn?

We all have similarities and differences on a daily basis - some of us are linear, others think and speak more circularly, some people are very expressive, others are shy, some are assertive, others are quiet, some value openness and candor, others are more guarded, some value efficiency, others spend more time building relationship. Yet we are often quick to judge others by our own standards of what is right or best, as if we are the judge. What one person sees as an advantage “he's very efficient”, another sees as a problem “he focuses on getting things done quickly, but often misses the bigger picture and skims the surface”. Who is right?

More than ever, we need to listen more fully, not judge others too quickly, learn to really trust others, be honest with our feelings, express our anger appropriately, not misplace our blame, be understanding, take responsibility for our own actions, and most importantly, not judge others based on stereotypes.

Every system works only because its parts are different. Our bodies function because each of our organs has its own part to play, and when one breaks down, our bodies function less well. The same with biology and our earth - each species has an essential role in our ecosystem. And the same is true with our different cultures and religions - we all have a vital role to play in creating the diverse tapestry of this planet. Let's each do what we can to ensure that it stays this way. Let's each do a better job of being closer to all we are uniquely able to be, and create a safe space for others to do the same.


Lewis Brown Griggs is co-author of two books (Going International and Valuing Diversity) and executive producer (www.griggs.com) of training videos, guides, cd-roms, intranet courses, and workshops on global and domestic issues of culture, diversity and relationship.

Kimberly Weichel is president of Weichel & Associates, an international consulting firm dedicated to bridging cultures and empowering people to improve their own lives through training and education. She is the author of several books and numerous articles on cross cultural issues.

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