Diversity has many meanings

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After teaching diversity-related classes for the past 11 years, my views on the subject have changed. Initially, I sought to change the biased views and opinions of students taking my class. Today, my revelation is that, although I would still like to change homophobic, sexist and racist viewpoints, I am better served to create awareness and foster mutual respect of all people.

Diversity has many meanings and definitions. James Banks, who may be considered the founder of the multicultural education movement, identifies several socially constructed categories of diversity. These categories include race, age, disability, class, sexual orientation and gender. Diversity then, in the broadest sense, can be defined as the many ways that people differ.

The first step in understanding diversity is to acknowledge that all of us have biases; some, more than others. A great deal of intolerance stems from the lack of understanding and outright ignorance. For example, among certain cultures, making direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect. But many Americans of European descent might have heard their parents utter something like, “look at me when I’m talking to you.” Another example is that many Americans believe that materialism and possession of “stuff” is very desirable. Other cultures take an opposite view of materialism. Understanding these differences is a big step toward gaining a greater appreciation of others who differ from us.

In some ways, the history of the United States gives a disturbing picture of intolerance and discrimination. For example, slavery was abolished in 1865, but it was not until 1954 that the policies of explicit discrimination against African-Americans were ended with the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended segregation in schools.

Similarly, our government’s official policy toward American Indians was that of assimilation and, in some instances, genocide. It was not until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed at the federal level.

Another was the struggle for women’s equality. Women did not achieve the right to vote until 1920. Another was the inclusion of special needs students into the classroom. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was finally passed in 1975. Today, we still have legal discrimination against homosexuals, with many states forbidding legal civil marriage. But progress continues and we have come a long way toward ensuring the equal rights for “all” people.

The path to progress is for all of us to really learn, and not just on a superficial level, the lives and cultures of those who differ from us. After all, most of our ancestors came to this country as immigrants, looking for a land of tolerance, free from persecution. And as Abraham Lincoln once pointed out, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Let’s make this country the great place it was meant to be.

Alan L. Neville is an associate professor of education at Northern State University. The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.