Thursday, June 01, 2006

Are Americans Suffering Diversity Fatigue? - Read our essay at

Ashley and I have another new essay at this week. (Go read it off this link, then come back and comment here - Time doesn't have comments enabled yet.)

We had been pulling string on a variety of fascinating anecdotes that had occurred in the news over the last couple weeks, and then last week we saw what connected them all together - they demonstrate the ways Americans are finding new legal means to exclude some people, out of a desire to congregate with "people like us." Not just religious conservatives are doing this, by any means - the trend is true of liberals as well.

This was a tricky essay to write. My fingers kept typing phrases that condemned this practice, and yet in my mind I didn't actually condemn any of it - if anything, I was more confused what I felt, and recognized it as a natural impulse. So the essay walks a fine line.

In it, we mention that an unmarried couple in Manhattan was turned down by a condominium co-op association for being unmarried. What we didn't get to mention there was that yes, this couple is suing.


Anonymous Claire said...

I found this post disturbing to read. It shocks me that it seems an acceptable path to 'seek out our own'. I believe any move in this direction will create broad exclusion and foster intolerance towards people who are different or choose to live in a different way.

It’s not about being politically correct, it is about accepting and respecting that different is not necessarily better or worse – different it just plain different and we evolve as people by learning from each other.

As individuals we grow when we let others influence us, we can take on other perspectives, and learn new or improved ways of acting or thinking. By sticking with their own, people in identified groups such as religion, ethnicity or economic class reinforce their own values and beliefs but do not allow for a wider perspective and knowledge. Living in a diverse environment allows people to interact in a natural way, living day to day life, forming friendships and have interaction with people different from themselves. Yes, it may be more comfortable for some not to have to do this, but should this be encouraged and accepted in this day and age?

Maybe this is a romantic view, but if we could all accept that people choose different paths and they are just as valid as our own I think that the world would be a better place!

I fear that if it becomes acceptable to ‘seek out our own’ whatever form that takes, this would lead to more small mindedness, less tolerance, more prejudice, less respect for individuals and the groups they associate themselves with.

Embracing diversity should not be equated with sacrificing standards and beliefs.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

I'm really glad that this essay provoked that kind of reaction, Claire. We tried to write it in such a way that we simply held a mirror up to the trend and phenomenon. We considered being judgmental in the essay, but we feared that doing so would somewhat tip our hand too soon, and just turn some readers off. Nobody likes to be lectured.

The piece does seem to have hit a nerve. It's been one of the top emailed stories the last few days.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Claire said...

Hi Po, I nearly made the same mistake as when first reading WDILTP - thinking that these were your feelings rather than reporting your observations. I was taken aback there for a moment, but kept an open mind!

I don't think it would have been judgemental to include your own thoughts on the subject. It needs proper airing so that people don't feel as though they are 'walking on eggshells, afraid to offend those with different beliefs, ideas, and lifestyles.' I speak from experience in that it is just as exhausting to assimilate and be accepted by people who have a very small comfort zone and limited knowledge of what happens outside America.

It is an understandable thought that by tolerating diversity, Americans will lose a part of they own identity. This is a problem in the UK also where many people feel that Britain has lost it's own self by allowing other cultures to live in the country but not observe the lifestyle and traditions. It is widely felt that the number of 'ethnic minorities' (as they are called over there) total more than the English, especially in cities. Diversity fatigue is a big problem which I don't see being addressed.

I have hope for the future because in my son's 1st grade class there are at least four nationalities and children with special needs that are able to be in regular school due to support from a wonderful school district. Children just accept what is presented to them, being comfortable with someone different to yourself is empowering to all.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am still thinking about the Time essay. I am puzzled because when I read the magazine, I cannot find the essay by Po Bronson. So perhaps it is only online?

I agree with Claire. Embracing diversity should not equate sacrificing your beliefs and standards. It took me a long time to figure this out in my life. I was told that in this culture, it is OK to act this way when, in fact, if you acted this way in the real world, it would be considered rude. One opinionated person who wanted to push the agenda of this culture said this. But another person in the same culture said NO, verbal abuse is NOT acceptable in any culture. Respect is STILL important in this culture.

I always thought that I benefited from diversity in many ways. Although I am white, I still am deaf. For example, when my school wanted to be diverse, I got wonderful opportunities that otherwise I would not have gotten if it was not for the endeavours on the part of the school to become more diverse.

It is a tough question about diversity. I seem to remember someone asking why are we celebrating Black History Month and not also celebrating White People Day too? I did not know how to respond to that.

I suspect that some people exclude others because they are afraid. I think the best way is education because people can learn from each other.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I think both of us live in incredibly diverse environments, from the cities we live in, to the people we associate with. And we frequently tease each other, back and forth, about who's the more conservative of the two -- because both of us are bleeding heart liberals.

Given that background, of course, Po and I did have different reactions to each event. But in a short piece like we're writing for Time, we don't have the space to really go into that -- our responses were really complex (e.g., the more we talk about Black Jack, the more confused I feel about it) and we didn't want a mere list of drive-by approvals or condemnations. Because then we're just as guilty of exclusion of other points of view as those we wrote about it.

Moreover, we both felt that if we responded to the individual issues, we would have lost the main point -- the discomfort over diversity and a desire to exclude those who are different.

And that is a real issue that we not only see, but struggle with, ourselves.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Further -- (I hit "publish" when I meant to "preview)

On a personal level, I see the value of diversity, but, for me, the important thing that arises out of it is mutual respect. I want to respect other people's traditions, and I do benefit from learning about them, but I also feel that I should be able to maintain my own traditions if I choose to. And that's the hard part that I think we are hitting in society.

Because at a certain point, respecting someone else's traditions may become accommodation of another tradition that is a direct challenge to your own. To the point that you feel you are being forced into adopting others' cultures. And the reaction then is always going to be -- why do I have to adopt their culture -- why don't they have to adopt mine? On its face, it's a valid question, at least in the vacuum of hypotheticals.

What then?

By the same token, I have to admit, I don't respect all aspects of all traditions. For example, other cultures believe that child abuse is the acceptable form of child rearing. I don't agree, and no, I won't tolerate it if they try that in my neck of the woods.

I don't agree with polygamy. I don't think people should marry a first cousin -- but 1/3 of the world's marriages are, in fact, first cousins.

So then -- am I just a hypocrite? I'll accept someone's new traditions if it means I get to try a new kind of food, but when it really matters -- as in respecting how another family raises its children, decides to create a family -- then I say they have to accept my views?

Where do we draw the line?

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mutual respect is also important. It is important to maintain my own beliefs while showing respect for other cultures. If a family does not believe in eating non-kosher meat because of their religious beliefs, then respect that. I hope that if I want to eat an hamburger, they will respect that.

I agree with what Ashley said about child abuse. Other cultures are starting to speak out against any form of abuse. There is an Iranian woman who is also a lawyer Shiri ? who takes pro bono cases to help abused women and families of young girls who were murdered.

On a slightly different topic,my Jewish grandparents felt they had to "give up" their religion in order to be Americans. But the irony is they wanted their grandchildren to know their Jewish heritage. We got mixed messages about acting more like Americans.

The logical side of me asks why cannot they be Jewish AND Americans too?

When I was little, I saw a Schoolhouse Rock comic on Saturday mornings. It showed many different people as being part of the melting pot that is America. I got the impression that the United States of America meant there were many people whose ancestors came from different countries and many people themselves came to the USA from other countries too.

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one of those 'ethnic minority' people in Britain to whom Claire refers in her posts.

I am interested personally and academically in the differences between the UK and the US, two nations divided by a language and much else. I am studying the same for my PhD and currently in the US conducting research while being immersed in the local culture.

I think there are 2 separate issues here: individual identity and national identity.

As a migrant who has lived in the UK long enough, I must say that there is no concept of an overarching national identity in the UK. Individuals are English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh (or well while we are at it, Bangladeshi, Nigerian etc) first, British as a distant second thought. Being British is a set of tired cliches such as queueing up, 'getting drunk' as a stated aim of an evening out, stiff upper lip (quivering by the day I must say) etc. I do not feel this in the US.

In the absence of a definitive national identity that migrants can aspire to, what do you expect them to do but to stick to the one identity they know?

I agree that the migrant must make efforts to integrate and assimilate (without dwelling on the finer nuances of the words). But as long as we look like we do (i.e. in Britain, not pasty white), the daily experience of life is not a pleasant one.

As for the US, I must end with an anecdote somebody told me. An old white lady gets into the crowded NY metro and a black young man gets up to offer her his seat. She takes the seat, muttering under her breath and finally says loudly to the young man, "Why don't you go back where you came from?". Without batting an eyelid, the young man says, "Ma'am, you came first, you go first."

Perhaps those in the UK would also do well to remember that history makes us what we are. If they had not gone around colonising the world, Britain would still be a homogenous nation of pale people, with no need to seek out their own or exclude others.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not mind thinking English should be the standard language, and I tire of being criticized for that thought by 'liberals' when in fact I am only a 'moderate,' if we must categorize ourselves.

How does a society decide WHICH of the various languages to accept, to publish voter ballets in, to have telephone menus in, to have road signs in, etc? At what point do we stop?

I worked a product-related warnings case, in which workers believed that there should have been a warning on the product in their native language. During that research, I found there were 99 languages spoken within the city limits of Fresno by the mid-90's. Can you imagine a product with 99 warning labels, each in a different language? No one would stop to read any of them, nor would there be room on the product for them all anyway. I do believe it is unsafe to have people amongst us who cannot read our road signs, our safety warnings, etc. It creates a risk for them as well as for all the rest of us.

Further, who pays for this myriad of languages, in terms of business and government costs? We all would, and the costs would be enormous. And do you want to sit through a telephone menu with 20-30 languages, just waiting for your own?

I believe that historically people have congregated with like individuals, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people like diversity; some do not. Everyone is different. In marketing, we know that we are more likely to accept communications as believable from someone more like us. It is just the way the world works. The notion of 'social distance' relates to that as well. We are more likely to want to be with people more like us. We give to them; we care for them; we want to be with them, etc.

If Catholics want to move to the town in Florida, I do not mind that. I do not feel excluded at all.

As a marketer, we create efficiencies and effectiveness in our target marketing by grouping people. On campuses, people group together into sororities and fraternities because they feel some bond. I never wanted to be in one, because I did not want to create that sociel system for myself. But it was my own choice to exclude myself. People moved the America prior to the Revolutionary War because they felt like-minded in some way.

This is not a new thing, and not necessarily a bad thing. Although claire is shocked that it is acceptable to seek out one's own, what are blogs, for example, if not just that--a seeking out of one's own? Perhaps not in beliefs, but in willingness to share Self and our own opinions.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a student in a graduate program in psychology. I am taking a multicultural counseling class. We are being taught that it is insensitive to say things like "We are all human" and "Why can't we get along?" Your article on diversity fatigue hit home because I used to think that my democratic, humanistic beliefs and treating everyone I meet as fairly and equally as possible was the right thing to do. Now, I am scared to say anything at all for fear of offending someone.

2:55 PM  

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