“Our neighborhood doesn’t look like your neighborhood.”
I turned to the girl seated behind me in the van. Her comment caught me off guard. She and her brother had spent the afternoon playing at our house and we were driving them back home.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They call our neighborhood ‘the ghetto,’” she said. “All the houses are old.” She paused. “I would rather live in your neighborhood.”
I looked around at the wide streets and manicured lawns of our suburban town. Our neighborhoods did look different, but I was amazed that a 10-year-old girl could be that perceptive, that she could recognize there was something that set us apart.
“Oh, I love your neighborhood,” I told her. “I like all the tall trees and beautiful old houses.”
Unconvinced, she cocked an eyebrow. She saw the differences that made one better than the other, instead of seeing the unique nature of both areas that made each beautiful.
Diversity has been on my mind lately. The newspaper is filled with stories of tribal warfare. I hear the name-calling that happens in the political sphere, and the angry labels we attach to certain groups of people. We’ve taken some good strides as a nation, but we still have a ways to go. We still need to emphasize diversity. Here’s why:
1. Diversity allows for perspective
I have a son whose best friend, because of his religion, doesn’t celebrate holidays. During school birthday parties, he sits apart from the kids. He can’t eat the cupcakes or sing the birthday song. Christmas and Halloween are just days on the calendar. My son, who anticipates each holiday with unharnessed excitement, finds this tragic.
Yet in our home, we routinely run into the challenge of getting invited to Sunday birthday parties, which we don’t attend for religious reasons. So while my son might have differences from his friend, there are similarities: Because of religious conviction, they sometimes sit on the sideline.
2. Diversity increases understanding
My children have some classmates who don't eat meat. My boys, who might be the most voracious carnivores since the T-rex stormed the planet, find this idea restrictive. No pepperoni (ever!) on pizza. No ham and cheese sandwiches, or hot dogs roasted over a campfire. Yet this difference has elicited some great lunch-table conversations with their peers. After all, we have our own health code in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that comes with restrictions others find baffling. (No mocha ice cream!) These children are learning to respect one another’s differences and understand whether or not you drink coffee or eat sausage doesn’t have to alter friendship.
3. Diversity develops compassion
We have wonderful neighbor friends who get their hair done in beautiful braids and twists. They hate when my boys go after them with water balloons and squirt guns, both of which are summer staples in our house. These neighborhood clashes have been a great springboard for discussion about compassion. My kids don’t understand why it’s a big deal to get your hair wet, but they understand the need to be respectful.
Of course, diversity goes beyond culture and religion. One thing I love about our Mormon faith is the socioeconomic diversity and life experience we have within a single ward. I love the varied stories of conversion, heartache and healing that present themselves in testimony meeting. I love when women speak up in gospel doctrine class and in ward council meeting because gender diversity also helps to strengthen a congregation.
4. Diversity broadens opinion
If we spend most of our time with people of similar background or conviction, we begin to think there is only one way of doing things. Engaging in friendship and conversation with those different from ourselves allows us to appreciate different faiths, family circumstances, ethnicities and life experience, while still trying to connect on common ground. In the process, we might just change our minds about a few things, for the better.
5. Diversity strengthens personal conviction
I am inspired by the religious devotion of the Orthodox Jews who lived all around us in Miami. I appreciate the emphasis on generations I see among Latinos. I love the food and wholesome mealtime culture of Europeans. I admire the respect I see among Asian immigrants in our community. I watch and learn from each one, drawing pieces into my own life, hoping to create a culture that best suits my family.
Desmond Tutu once said, “Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people?”
I want to go back to that sweet girl in my van. There is so much I want to say to her. My neighborhood doesn’t look like her neighborhood, nor does my family or my skin color or the way I wash my hair. I want to tell her that none of those things really matter, that if we look past our differences we just might change the world.
But those are discussions for another time. I think for now I’ll invite her back for another afternoon of Popsicles and sprinklers.
We both like those.