Look outside our traditional understanding of diversity

“There’s nothing black and white about black and white,” said my friend Mike Bochantin.

I don’t know if he coined this phrase, but it is certainly relevant and true.

And factoring in ethnic diversity makes it even more complex. With the discussion about immigration constantly in the news and as a part of both presidential candidates’ platforms, a real look at this question involves considering American-born black, white and other; and, non-American born black, white and other.

Earlier this month, I attended the city’s Red, White and Blues Festival for the first time since moving to Federal Way about 11 years ago. What an amazing event! The entertainment and fireworks were top-notch and the event made me proud to be a part of this community.

What made me prouder yet was the racial and ethnic diversity. I saw people of every color and heard so many different languages that I didn’t bother to count them. What I do know is there are more than 105 languages spoken in our public schools, with nearly 52 percent of students considered minorities.

Is this an example of this month’s question?

Probably. Does it bother me that I was possibly in the minority racially and ethnically at the festival? A little. But only because I, like most people, am more comfortable around people who are more like me and with whom I identify more.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t like interacting with people of different backgrounds and cultures.

I actually thought it was wonderful. I saw these people, most of whom I assumed were recent immigrants since they were speaking different languages, come together to celebrate our culture and our country — a place they’d come so they and their children could have better lives.

In this environment and especially at this type of event, I think it’s appropriate they speak their native languages if they want to.

Most people think of diversity as how many people from each race or ethnic group is represented in a given population, in this case Federal Way. I believe that’s because, historically, America is rooted in oppression of people simply because of their skin colors and ethnicities, so we tend to see diversity through that lens.

But I’d like to think diversity isn’t about sheer numbers or physical attributes like skin color or people’s ethnicity. Rather, I’d like to see it as a collective intelligence (a phrase I heard of recently) produced by a whole lot of people who are different and very much the same.

The problem is people tend to act in ways they’ve seen modeled. If we could learn to look beyond physical attributes, we would see diversity is as simple as someone offering a different point of view, a unique talent, or an entrepreneurial spirit.

I’m not talking about physical beauty, which I truly believe is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s about valuing people for what’s on the inside rather than the outside. But believe me, I’m not lecturing, since I’m as caught up in the traditional viewpoint as everyone else. I’m just hopeful we can eventually get there.

I believe when we are able to look outside of our traditional understanding of diversity, we’ll end up with true diversity.

I’ve always welcomed people from different countries who come to America legally and hoped they would continue their cultural mores while in America.

The only things I ask is they assimilate; understand that we, too, want to retain our American culture; and that they learn to speak English.

I was recently told that America doesn’t have a culture, which is very ironic since I’d just had another conversation a few weeks earlier in which several Americans were saying we do have a culture — and that we need to make sure it isn’t lost as we make room in our hearts and our country for others.

But on the language issue, there really has to be some common way for all people of America to understand one another.

I believe a common language is the answer. Yes, it’s hard for older people to learn languages. I’m trying to learn French right now, as a matter of fact, for an upcoming trip. I am going to the trouble of learning the language of the country to which I am visiting.

I don’t think it’s always possible for immigrants to learn English before coming to America, especially in cases where immigrants are refugees in fight-or-flight mode. But once people decide to make America their home, they should endeavor to learn English. There are many free and extremely low-cost English as a Second Language courses offered in Federal Way and beyond. Some even offer free tutoring and child care. They are offered at various times of the day and night to accommodate varying schedules, and information about the courses are regularly advertised to the immigrant population.

Again, this is important for assimilation, inclusion and overall unity.

As a nation, we have to put sensitivity to the cultures, experiences and backgrounds of others first. This includes, for example, Americans understanding why immigrants are moving to our country. Is it religious persecution? Socialist societies? A dream of a better life? Civil warfare? There are many reasons and Americans should attempt to understand them.

Conversely, immigrants should attempt to understand their impact on Americans. This doesn’t mean that legal immigrants should go away or be less than they could otherwise be. It simply means they should try to understand how the lives of Americans are being affected by new people moving here daily.

Yet another example is being sensitive to the plight of African-Americans and understanding that not all black people are of African descent.

So, while I don’t know whether Federal Way will end up with a collective intelligence reflective of a true diverse population, I do know one thing we can’t let go of is compassion. Steven Colbert of “The Colbert Report” chidingly mentions having compassion fatigue.

I don’t think that’s the case for Federal Way residents. I believe we are very compassionate and are constantly striving for the sensitivity I mentioned earlier.

Kelly Maloney is a Federal Way resident. Send comments to editor@fedwaymirror.com

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