Recently, at a training I was facilitating, a young white man adamantly shared that he didn’t see differences in people and thought that my talking about our differences only added to our feelings of separation. He then asked me if I hated white people because I continually brought up the issue of racism. For a moment, I was stunned, not just because of his question, but rather what was beneath his inquiry: a questioning of my motives. Ah, how familiar this all seemed. I have had this scenario play out a hundred times in almost every imaginable setting, be it at a university, corporation, government or social agency or place of worship.
I remember once a reporter asked me to speak about inclusion and I replied, “Not unless you are willing to also have me talk about exclusion.” In many ways, the reporter’s question was a microcosm of a much larger argument facing this country – a continual need to move on and a deep desire to always appear “together” and as “one.” The underlying fear is that somehow any discussion of how divided and unequal we are will only serve to divide us. It is my feeling that it is our silence and our indifference that divides us and makes our relationships unsafe. It is our continuous need to avoid the “hard discussions” and “staying in the process” that makes us always searching for quick solutions with once-a-year diversity trainings and celebrations.
It has been my experience of over 20 years as a diversity trainer that we are afraid to talk about our differences because we continually see it as a “negative” experience. That somehow if we were to talk about our differences we would leave wounded and even further divided. The truth be told: We are already divided. Not because of our differences, but because of our indifference to truly "seeing and appreciating each other". We are divided because we blindly see “the other” through our own lens, instead of being curious about another’s experiences and perspectives. Anais Nin once wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
And so, what if we did see “color?” What would that mean? Who taught us that not seeing color was what people of color wanted or needed? And if we “didn’t see color” then why are we so divided by color? Unless, of course, someone is peeking…
So here is an exercise I created, entitled “Differences Exercise.”
“When did you first notice you were ‘different?’ How did that affect you and how does it affect you today?”
As Virginia Wolfe once said, “We are all different. What divides us is the value we place on those differences.”
Lee Mun Wah is an internationally renowned Chinese American documentary filmmaker (“The Color of Fear”), author, poet, Asian folkteller, educator, community therapist and master diversity trainer at Stir Fry Seminars & Consulting, http://www.stirfryseminars.com. Phone (510) 204-8840.