Cultural Diversity:
Towards A Whole Society

adapted from an article by Mara Hurwitt

"In Germany they first came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me - and by that time no one was left to speak up."

- Rev. Martin Niemoller

Celebrating Diversity

Look around and you will see that our society is very diverse. Diversity enriches our lives. Much as the biological diversity of an ecosystem increases its stability and productivity, cultural diversity brings together the resources and talents of many people for the shared benefit of all. Sadly, the differences among us have historically formed the basis of fear, bigotry, and even violence. Yet consider how dull life would be if we all looked alike, thought alike, and acted alike! By learning to recognize our similarities and appreciate our differences, together we can overcome prejudice and intolerance and work towards a more peaceful and productive world.

People may fear diversity simply because they are accustomed to the way things used to be and change makes them uncomfortable. Others may somehow feel threatened because they perceive increased participation by traditionally underrepresented groups in the workplace and the political process as a challenge to their own power. If left unaddressed, these fears can lead to resentment and bigotry. However, these fears can often be countered through education. Dr. Samuel Betances, professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and noted author and lecturer offers this observation:

"Education universalizes the human spirit. You cannot be universalized if you are only in one world, the world of your ethnic group, the world of your neighborhood, the world of your religion, or the world of your family. The word ‘university’ is related to this idea. Our lives are enhanced when we understand and appreciate many worlds. It has been said that if you gain a new language, you gain a new world. I believe that the reverse is also true: if you lose a language, you lose a world. When our spirit is universalized, we can cross boundaries and feel comfortable in other worlds. We can teach and learn from others in a mutually supportive effort to acquire a profound respect for the human condition."

Unlike assimilation - where everyone's differences are lost in a giant melting pot - multiculturalism advocates the idea that maintaining our different cultural identities can enrich us and our communities. Multiculturalism does not promote ethnocentrism or seek to elevate one cultural identity above another. Instead, it celebrates diversity by allowing us to value our individual heritages and beliefs while respecting those of others. Respect for each others' cultural values and belief systems is an intrinsic part of cultural diversity. Lack of respect is often based on ignorance or misinformation. If you do not understand another's values, lifestyle, or beliefs, it is much easier to belittle them. And so the seeds of prejudice and intolerance are sown.


The Roots of Intolerance

"Tolerance and human rights require each other"

- Simon Wiesenthal

People can be categorized in many ways, such as by gender, race, religion, ethnicity, language, income, age, or sexual orientation. Unfortunately, these categories are sometimes used to label people unfairly or to saddle them with stereotypes.

Stereotypes are generalized assumptions concerning the traits or characteristics of all members of a particular group. They are frequently (although not always) negative and generally incorrect. Ironically, negative stereotypes discourage closer contact, preventing the perpetrator from discovering what the individual victims of these stereotypes are really like.

Stereotypes often form the basis of prejudice, a premature judgment about a group or a member of that group made without sufficient knowledge or thought. We can also develop prejudices towards a whole group based on a single emotional experience with one person. Prejudice demonstrates an unfair bias that does not allow for individual differences, good or bad. It violates the standards of reason, justice, and tolerance.

Many of today's prejudices have their roots in thousands of years of human history, such as the institution of slavery in America, the slaughter of European Jews by Christians en route the Holy Land during the Crusades, and numerous religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Other biases are based on personal experiences and influences.

A number of sociologists attribute prejudice to modern social problems, including urban decay and overcrowding, unemployment, and competition between groups. Research suggests that people of lower (but not the lowest) socio-economic status or who have lost status are more prejudiced because they seek scapegoats to blame for their misfortune. Backlashes against minority groups are therefore more likely during periods of severe economic downturn and increased unemployment.

Many of us recognize our own irrational prejudices (they may concern places, foods, ideas, etc., as well as people) and work to overcome them. In contrast, bigots are those persons who obstinately cling to their prejudices, displaying a degrading attitude towards others to whom they feel superior. Various groups have been and continue to be the victims of bigotry, including racial, ethnic and religious groups, women, persons with disabilities, and gays and lesbians.

We are intolerant if we reject or dislike people because they are different, e.g., of a different religion, different socio-economic status, or have a different set of values. Intolerance harms not only its intended victims, but society at large, as well. Paul Kurtz observes:

"A tolerant society is more likely to engender mutual trust and cooperation. It tends towards a more peaceful society; insofar as we are willing to learn from others, we are more able to negotiate and compromise our differences. In a tolerant society there is thus apt to be less cruelty, hypocrisy, and duplicity, less dogmatism, hatred, and fanaticism. In short, the principle of tolerance contributes to the common good and to a more humane society, and it is justified on pragmatic, consequential, and utilitarian grounds."

Prejudice can be manifested in personal bias, discriminatory practices, and - at its worst - acts of violence. Although we have made significant progress in eliminating discrimination, we still have a long way to go. Taking America's Pulse III, a nationwide survey conducted in 2006 by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), found the following:

  • Gays and Lesbians are the most discriminated against group in America (41%), followed by Muslims (35%... an increase of 24% since 2000), the poor (29%) and Blacks (26%).
  • Discrimination most often occurred in shopping situations followed by incidents occurring at work (which ranked last in 2000), at a restaurant, bar, theater or other entertainment place, place of worship or some other situation.
  • Across six important life domains (education, housing, promotions, access to equal justice, treatment by the police, and fair media attention), opportunity is not seen as equally available to Whites and to other racial and ethnic groups.
  • Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians are seen as about equally disadvantaged with an average of 45% – 47% (up from 40%-41% in 2000) believing that these groups have equal opportunity with Whites.
  • Even though only 8% of Asians believe their race experiences a great deal of discrimination, 31% report suffering unfair treatment and discrimination individually
  • More than a half century after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, more than a third of the nation (36%) still agrees that “It’s OK to have a country where the races are basically separate from one another, as long as they have equal opportunity.”

The survey also revealed that, while interracial and interethnic contact has increased, Americans remain less familiar with religious groups other than their own. This lack of knowledge can contribute to prejudice and discrimination against members of different religions. Religious tolerance means acknowledging and supporting that individuals have the right to their own beliefs and related legitimate practices, without necessarily accepting those beliefs or practices oneself. But ignorance often fosters intolerance. Sadly, religious leaders are sometimes the worst opponents of tolerance, advocating bigotry and even hatred towards the followers of other religions.

Throughout history and continuing to the present, religious bigotry has led to severe acts of persecution around the world, including:

  • Roman persecution of early Christians
  • The Christian persecution and extermination of Jews, from the late 4th century in the Roman Empire
  • The Nazi Holocaust which systematically killed about 6 million Jews, 400,000 Roma (Gypsies), an unknown number of Jehovah's Witnesses and others.
  • The Sudan government's current war of extermination against Christians and Animists
  • In Northern Ireland where Roman Catholics and Protestants have assassinated thousands of followers of each other's faith groups
  • In Tibet where Tibetan Monks are persecuted by the ruling Chinese government
  • In Bosnia where Christians committed genocide against Muslims
  • In East Timor where Muslims committed crimes against humanity against Christians

Certain religious beliefs have also been used to justify bigotry based on sexual orientation, although religion is not the only source of this form of prejudice. As the Taking America's Pulse II survey found, gays and lesbians are perceived as the most likely target of discrimination today.

Young people, in particular, have been victimized by the hostile environment created by anti-gay bigotry. According to a survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1984, nearly 50% of gay men and 20% of lesbians were harassed or assaulted in secondary school. A 1989 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Task Force on Youth Suicide found that 28% of gay and lesbian youth drop out of school because of being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and that gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.


From Hatred To Hate Crimes

"When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference. The reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices."

- Bishop John Shelby Spong

Left unchecked, bigotry and hatred frequently lead to acts of aggression. Powerful, persuasive messages of hate can incite violence against innocent victims. Despite its many positive aspects, the Internet has become a major vehicle for spreading hate. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has found that:

"The hate we see expressed on the Internet today is more pervasive, more virulent, more insidious and more threatening than anything extremists of past decades could have imagined. The Internet allows bigots to reach millions of people at little or no cost. Thousands of pages of hateful propaganda, frequently produced by groups with histories of violence, are now available at the click of a mouse."

These hate sites include:

  • Stormfront, established in 1995 by Don Black, an ardent racist, anti-Semite, and ex-leader of the Ku Klux Klan;
  • The website of the National Alliance, the largest and most active neo-Nazi organization in the United States;
  • Dozens of sites attributed to the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), whose self-proclaimed goal is "making this an all-white nation and ultimately an all-white world";
  • Various "gay bashing" websites.

HateWatch is another organization that actively monitors hate groups on the internet. Incorporated in 1996, it provides a web-based educational resource to combat the growing threat of on-line bigotry. HateWatch claims to maintain the most up-to-date catalog of hate groups using the web to recruit and organize followers.

Although, the opinions expressed on these groups' web sites are protected by the First Amendment, a writer who posts explicit threats against a specific person may be subject to criminal prosecution as well as civil penalties. Nonetheless, the link between hatred and violence is well documented, and these extremist groups can play a significant and dangerous role in influencing some people to commit acts of violence.

Hate-motivated incidents and hate crimes are now receiving greater attention, and the latter are, in many instances, classified as a special category of criminal behavior.

Hate-motivated incidents are expressions of hostility motivated by bias against the victim's race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation. They are generally defined as behaviors that do not constitute criminal acts and may include non-threatening name-calling, racial/ethnic slurs, hateful speech, or disseminating racist leaflets. These activities become crimes only when they put a potential victim in reasonable fear of physical harm or directly incite perpetrators to commit violence against persons or property.

A hate crime is a criminal offense committed against persons or property that is motivated, in whole or in part, by bias against an individual's or a group's race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation. These include threatening phone calls, hate mail, physical assaults, fire bombings, and cross burning, as well as property crimes such as arson or vandalism, particularly those targeting community centers or houses of worship.

According the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), as of 1999, 41 states and the District of Columbia had adopted hate crime statutes providing enhanced penalties for crimes in which victims are selected because of a perpetrator's bias against

a victim's perceived race, religion or ethnicity. Some of these laws also cover those crimes in which a victim is selected based on a perception of his/her sexual orientation.

Embracing Diversity

"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Psychologists and educators agree that we have a strong influence on our children's views about diversity. If we remain silent, they will likely take their cue from other sources, not necessarily positive or healthy ones. You can help children develop their own attitudes towards cultural diversity by giving them accurate information about their own heritage and about other cultures and by helping them to understand that bigotry and intolerance are hurtful.

It is important to promote a strong, positive self-image from the first years of life. Building and maintaining a healthy self-identity is a life-long process and includes learning to get along with people different from ourselves. While it is fine to be proud of your own cultural identity or heritage, it doesn't mean that yours is superior to someone else's.

Children need to be taught to respect others and not to pre-judge them. We can help them see that there is much to learn from people who are different from ourselves, including those who live far away or lived long ago. We must teach them to behave respectfully towards other people and make it clear that it is wrong to tease or reject a person because of his or her appearance or heritage. We must also make them understand that some people behave in harmful ways towards others, and that their behavior should not be tolerated.

Bias based on gender, race, disability, or social class creates serious obstacles to all young children's healthy development. Children can begin to learn at an early age to resist bias and to value the differences between people as much as the similarities.

Teach them how to challenge biases and let them know that unjust things can be changed - and that they can help change them. Remember that children will model your behavior towards others. You set a good example when you:

  • Treat others with respect;
  • Avoid using stereotypes (even seemingly positive ones, such as generalizing a whole ethnic group as exceptionally good at math or musically talented);
  • Make it clear that prejudice is wrong;
  • Don't allow bigoted comments by others, even friends or family members, to go unchallenged.

If we endow our children with both healthy self-esteem and respect for those who are different from themselves, we help them grow into adults who will celebrate diversity.

exercises and assignments to accompany the reading

back to lessons and materials
back to home page