Diversity Enriches Life’s Design

Posted: October 18, 2017 in Life's Design
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group at round table

A representation of group at Kaldi’s.

A few days ago, I was sitting on Kaldi’s patio after my daily visit to the Arch. To my right was a group of four who apparently work out of the same office. It is an interesting ethnic mix: South Asian, East Asian, African-American, and Hispanic. This wouldn’t happen in many small towns across America. I enjoy the complexity and cultural diversity of urban living in downtown Saint Louis, though not as diverse as many other cities. I do not fear nor shun people or their cultures, which may be different from my cultural roots. Rather, I choose to embrace them and learn from them. Cultures are not hierarchical, one more superior or another more inferior than the next. Rather, there is something to be learned by all through interaction in a free, open society.

My African-American friends enrich my life. They help me reflect on various aspects of my own culture that would go unnoticed without them. Recently, I was talking with a Black acquaintance who has an upper management position in the financial sector. He makes far more money than I ever made. In the conversation, we talked very transparently about what it means to be someone with an American heritage and someone with a European heritage. His ancestral roots are in Kenya and mine are in Germany. There was a time in our country when someone from his ancestral home was called a Nigger and someone from my ancestral home was called a Kraut, both derogatory terms. We talked about the visceral response when such labels are used. I admitted that I had not been the recipient of such name-calling.

My heart ached for him when he told me that recently he was pulled over while driving home after picking up his 13-year-old son from school. When asked for his insurance card, he replied that it was in the glovebox. The officer told him to retrieve it “very slowly and keep his both hands so I can see them.” When asked for his driver’s license, he said it was in his wallet, which was in his hip pocket.

The officer then asked him to step out of the vehicle before reaching for his wallet. He was then asked if he had drugs in the car. He replied he didn’t have drugs nor did he use drugs, while the officer’s partner asked the 13-year-old to get out of the car before searching for drugs. Both the man and his son were asked to empty their pockets. With their hands against the car, they were both patted down. The two officers stepped aside, spoke to each other, and then said, “You may go,” without comment or apology.

I told him that in all of my 77 years I have never experienced anything like that. He told me that he wished that had been the only time for him, but it wasn’t. He tells his son, “Always be polite and do what police officers tell you to do. Never argue with them. Never asked them questions. Never tell them more than they ask for.” This is a man whose annual salary is over the half-million dollar mark.

In this interchange, I learned that there are people who are constantly confronted for no reason other than their skin color. I seldom think about the color of my skin, unless it is in the spring and I feel I’m not tan enough to wear shorts. If I were asked what it means to be white, I wouldn’t have a ready answer, would have to think about it. An African-American doesn’t hesitate, always has a ready answer.

We talked about Christianity. He talked about the fact that the way Jesus is portrayed, some Black people have difficulty seeing him as a model for their lives because of his skin color. I replied that some Caucasian’s have a problem with him because he was a Jew, a fact that many White Christians dismiss or simply don’t acknowledge.

The conversation then turned to the universality of human nature; how, regardless of race or nationality, humanity has certain common traits in spite of cultural influences. Yet it is the cultural differences that give color to life. The best way to appreciate the differences is to live together, spend time in each other’s home, and, if possible, become immersed in each other’s context. You begin to understand the other person when you take a few steps in their shoes, which may be uncomfortable at first. Later, though your feet never perfectly fit, you begin to find comfort with them on.

When we talked about how culture at home differs from culture in public, the conversation gravitated toward food. If you want to understand someone of a different culture, eat a meal around their kitchen table and learn about their food—what they eat, how it is prepared, who prepares it, what rituals surround food, how does conversation around the table differ from conversation on the patio, which topics of conversation are common and which are taboo. When someone is invited into an environment centered around food, their lives are wonderfully enriched.

I was talking with a friend who is the child of a Black father and a White mother. His sense of rootedness is challenged. He has to know when to use which linguistic phrases, employ which manerisms—sometimes it’s automatic and sometimes requires a conscious choice. He has both African features and Caucasian features and struggles, at times, with his own identity.

I am reminded of another friend who grew up in Japan the child of American Christian missionaries. He has always felt he that is a citizen of a third world even though he has fluency in both languages. His “native” culture is a mix of both American and Japanese. He looks for a third culture when he doesn’t feel he’s American, though he looks like one, and when he feels Japanese, though he doesn’t look like one.

The best way to understand a culture is to immerse yourself in it. The best way to see the world from an Hispanic point of view is to live with an Hispanic family for a while. Insight into how an African-American feels, what they think, why they respond in certain ways can be enriched by living with an African-American family for a few months. To see life as a Caucasian or an Iranian or Chinese or African-American one needs to live immersed in a household of that culture for a while. Go shopping with them, eat out with them, worship with them, attending sporting events with them, go to the theatre with them—live life with them. The way to true understanding is not academic, it’s experiential.

Living with another family isn’t usually a practical option. However,  two Baptist churches in the Atlanta, Georgia area, one African-American and one Caucasian, took steps in this direction. They matched families in one church with families in the other church. The families decided on activities to do together once a month for six months—eat in each other’s home, attend a Braves baseball game together, enjoy a backyard barbecue together, etc. When the planned six months ended, many of the families continued the friendships that developed from living, even if it was just an hour or two a  month, in each other’s contrext.

Such experiments will be informative, will deepen appreciation for the other culture, and will enrich ones life. The by-product will be harmony in the community, more peaceful negotiations of differences, a heightened sense of respect, and greater commitment to the common good of society.


Kaldi’s patio.

The four sitting at the table next to me on Kaldi’s patio, each of whom are from a different cultural heritage, are getting up and leaving. As they walk away they’re laughing and apparently enjoying their time together. Their different skin color seems to play no role in their relationship. As they near the edge of the patio, a fifth person walks up, clearly a friend of theirs. He’s greeted with a warm hug from each of the four. Now there is white skin among them.


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