When friends come over for dinner, does everyone look like you? In an exploration of what it means to make room at the table, I recall the years in the late 90s when one of the most popular shows on television was Friends. From 1994-2004, as many of my coworkers rushed home to see Friends, I had to give the popular program a pass, wondering why none of the pals on Friends looked like me. I was never invited to the party. I didn’t find that not-so-subtle notion amusing. There’s nothing funny about exclusion. My circle of friends didn’t look like the cast, and I wanted more than tunnel vision from my entertainment. Fast-forward a decade and the country is contorted with the searing pain of misunderstanding, mistrust and fear. This shows me the real, everyday value of diversity. If we pick our friends, then the friends we pick matter.
Fifty years after Jim Crow officially and legally ended, there is widespread discomfort and stereotypes about people with dark and non-European phenotypes. It’s possibly a self-perpetuating cycle, wherein racism, discrimination and injustice against people leads to a deep fear of retaliation of the same brutal isolation, disenfranchisement and alienation. It’s still common to hear good people claim color-blindness, a banal lie that undermines honest communication. The commonly held theory is that by the age of 3 or 4, children can already discern racial and ethnic differences. Well, honestly, I can see why some folks continue to rely upon the failed trope of “colorblindness”: The truth requires an awareness regarding individual power, position and the ability to communicate. Only by relinquishing the myth of colorblindness can we breathe new life into our extraordinary society.
The first step is to embrace the nuances of the complex collective history of our dear nation.
Let me say that this is not academic. People are community-minded creatures. We literally need each other to survive and thrive. True, there are the odd cases of those who go it alone, but most of us are looking for our clan—it’s why people easily gravitate to people who look like them. Here’s the challenge. A clan need not solely be based on skin color, socioeconomic class or religion. In a sense, there is a false sense of safety there, when in reality, those groupings merely ensure a baseline of respect. There is the expectation that everyone in that group knows how to behave and can read the covert social cues, allowing them to understand implicit rules that outsiders may miss. But those rules shouldn’t be enough for one group to relegate another group to the margins of acceptability as if they were numbers in some neat binary system.
Moving toward the middle requires opening to not knowing. Shifting our perspectives into curiosity mode may be the very salvation our society needs.
The answer to some of woes is to make diversity a priority. Visible, discernable differences are part of the natural world. The human species’ varied spectrum of shapes, hues and sizes are spread thinly over virtually identical biological matter, with only small variations of genetic coding to give us our unique external appearance. We are all mammals, capable of sophisticated language and superior intelligence; it’s up to us to end the artifices of separation.
If you want to make a difference, start by acknowledging the realities of whatever is in front of you. Instead of holding on to prefabricated fantasies about people, ask questions. Make a new friend. See the beauty in someone, anyone, who isn’t just like you. So maybe a little discomfort is required, a little awkwardness and just enough vulnerability to invite humility and authenticity, but not so much as to create anxiety. From this opening there can be a dialogue, the invitation to not know and to welcome the time investment needed for the knowledge and friendship to grow. Be willing to possibly feel a little silly to get to know a colleague. Ask about hobbies and favorite foods, and listen. Start small and build on the currency of your good will. Empathy and connection bring people together in friendship. We can solve the crisis of fear by laughing or crying together. Firing off mirror neurons in the company of new acquaintances will humanize both parties. Take the risk. You could just find yourself with a whole new group of friends.