It’s happened to me several times in my adult life that I’ve come into contact with people who are obviously not familiar with the likes of me. I was born and raised in the South; one of the greatest offenses you can commit is not speaking to people, and worse, not returning a greeting—at least that’s what I was taught. But it seems like the golden rule of Southern hospitality has either died out or doesn’t apply to people like me.
On more occasions than I’d care to count, I’ve spoken to people in passing and gotten icy stares and even hostile looks in return. Why? Because I’m different. I’m a Muslim. I wear a headscarf and long sleeves in the summer. Now, the hostile looks I can actually accept more than the stunned faces, the looks of fear and discomfort, the un-sureness of how to handle this situation. Walking up to a friend’s apartment once a few years ago, I came upon a group of kids playing on the sidewalk. I did what was natural to me: smiled and said hello. The children stopped their play and stared at me with not exactly fear but unease.
Now I know a headscarf is different but is it that different? Such reactions are foreign to me and the way I grew up. My neighborhood was mostly African American but my elementary school was not. My friends were Asian, Latino, black, white, African, and bi and multiracial. I don’t remember ever having a conversation about race. We understood our differences and accepted them as just that. It didn’t affect our ability to play together.
I was raised to appreciate diversity, but in an abstract way. We went to cultural events, we listened to music from around the world, and we tried different foods. In our home we had a large map of the world pinned to a wall in the kitchen. I grew up with that map. We didn’t talk explicitly about diversity; we just lived it in the sense of being open. We participated in activities and events that forced us to interact with children and adults from backgrounds and lifestyles that were very different from our own. I was raised to understand that the way the world looked outside my window was only a tiny fragment of the greater dynamic picture.
What got me thinking about diversity was a book I read as part of the “American Stories, Muslim Journeys” program I signed up for at my local library. In Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, writer and activist Eboo Patel, tells his story of growing up an Indian American Muslim and how he became involved in interfaith social work and eventually started his own interfaith youth movement, the Interfaith Youth Core. One of the strongest points Patel makes is that diversity is a “spiritual principle,” that human beings are supposed to be diverse. Indeed the Quran says:
O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (49:13).
It’s in our nature to appreciate diversity: in visual art, music, and, of course, food. (I’ve heard people say awful things about “Mexicans”—a term used indiscriminately for anyone from any country in South America—but I bet they eat burritos). But when it comes to diversity of people, we get caught up in the differences instead of the similarities.
As Patel argues in Acts of Faith, the consequences of rejecting diversity can be dire. Most people see others who are different from them and view them as strange and therefor inferior. That level is disturbing enough. But some who grow up in isolated communities take it a step further and grow hostile and then angry over encountering people who are different from them. That anger can lead to hate, and that hate can and does lead to violence. Given all the violent crimes against “others,” I’m grateful that all I’ve ever received is a few mean looks.
One of the criticisms I often hear of efforts to encourage appreciation of diversity, like interfaith work or other programs and organizations that try to bring people from different backgrounds together, is that it’s “shallow.” That’s valid. These efforts usually offer short term “feel good” moments that dissolve once people return to their respective communities. But I believe that even shallow diversity is a step in the right direction. If we can sit in the same room together we’ve already made more progress than many others. Of course the biggest drawback to this type of diversity work is that it “preaches to the choir.” Bigots and extremists don’t usually attend those types of events.
So how do we foster an appreciation for true diversity? Live it. Make the connections between the foods you eat and the music and art you consume with the places and people where those things came from. Buy a world map and study it. Talk to people. Ask questions. Have respect for the person speaking a language foreign to them in a land foreign to them. Look at the differences in people’s skin colors like you look at the different colors in a painting. And teach it to your kids or any children you have a relationship with.
The mistake often made by well-meaning people is to say that we’re all the same. We are all the same, in the sense that we’re human beings, but we’re all also different. The objective isn’t to erase the differences nor always highlight them, just to acknowledge they exist and not pass judgment based on them. We are as God created us to be. As my four-year-old son lovingly proclaimed one day while we were out walking, “God made us all from clay, and then He painted us different colors!” Or like a friend who said, observing a newborn baby, “God never runs out of designs.”
As for me, I just keep smiling and saying hello, because that’s what comes naturally to me. I take a deep breath and brush it off when people are rude to me. Because I feel like that smile or hello from the weird lady with the scarf still makes an impact. For the rest of their lives they’ll have a memory of a Muslim woman who smiled at them.