Multiculturalism, Much More Than Political Correctness
This month’s topic is one near and dear to my heart, multiculturalism. Another term some people use is diversity. Some people use these words interchangeably, but to others the words mean different things. For this article, let me tell you what I mean.
To me, diversity involves a situation in which difference is present, and multiculturalism is when that difference is noted and treated in a positive and respectful way. I imagine that some of you may be reading this and thinking this topic is simply one of political correctness. If you’re someone who has that opinion, then I’d like to ask you a favor. Read this article so you can have a different experience, an experience in which you can be absolutely sure it’s not about political correctness but rather a conversation from the heart.
Before I talk about multiculturalism, I want to share with you why I chose to speak to you about this issue. When you and your student chose to attend college, perhaps unbeknownst to you, you both agreed to enter into a unique cultural experience. In college, your student has opportunities to interact with a wide variety of people with similar as well as vastly different experiences. Some of you live in homogeneous towns where everyone looks, acts, and believes similar things, while others of you live in diverse areas where a myriad of looks, behaviors, and beliefs exist. Wherever your student grew up, college is an opportunity to broaden and deepen life experience by interacting in a more meaningful way with others.
One of the greatest gifts of a college education is that your student is encouraged to develop into adulthood with a fine balance of structure and freedom that helps prepare your student for life beyond school. To be successful in this world, your student has to know how to interact positively with others, those both similar and different from him/herself. Learning more about multiculturalism is truly learning more about how to be successful in an increasingly diverse work environment and community.
Too often multiculturalism is misconstrued as a social or political agenda when at its core, it’s really about one of the most basic tenets of life, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” It sounds simplistic, but that’s the foundation of multiculturalism. As proof, reflect upon these situations. A student feels judged by someone the first time they meet the person, before any words are spoken. A student questions whether she was just spoken to in a derogatory manner based on how she looks. And finally, a student feels like he has to work twice as hard to earn the same amount of respect and income as someone else? How awful and isolating do you imagine all of these experiences to be?
And now imagine that it’s your student having these difficult experiences. This probably makes you sad, frustrated, and angry because you know how great your student is if others would just give your student a chance.
You see, multiculturalism is all around us all the time from being stereotyped about the shape of our bodies, the color of our skin, the people we’re attracted to, or the way we dress. Being judged in those four areas is only a tip of the iceberg. Think about all the stereotypes we’ve been exposed to, and then pause to take note that those are only the ones we’re aware of; there are even more that lie beneath the surface. Scary, huh?! And now an even scarier piece of the puzzle, every single one of us can be reduced to a stereotype on some level.
Let’s take what many would consider a “mild” example: geography. I’m a Southerner, born and raised in Mississippi, then living the other most significant part of my life in Memphis, Tennessee. Based on where I’m from, I’ve been asked if I’m familiar with paved roads, running water, and wearing shoes on a regular basis. The questions are ridiculous on some level, yet I think the people who asked them were serious because they associated those stereotypes with the South. While I was frustrated by the questions, I knew the people had been exposed to a stereotype that had never been challenged. Stereotypes are a way we simplify a very complex world. Yet, when they keep us from genuinely seeing one another as we are, they can be hurtful and damaging.
I am highlighting this topic because I believe your student has an important growth opportunity while here at U.O. As your student continues to take steps towards his/her own individuality, I encourage you to help your student continue to question his/her beliefs and to support your student when he/she challenges a stereotype. Change in society occurs one person at a time. Yes, it’s slow that way, but that’s all it takes, one person at a time. You can help your student remember to treat others the way he/she wants to be treated and to challenge the fairness of judging someone before ever getting to see behind the exterior façade. Imagine a world in which no one looked past their stereotypes, where no one questioned why they believe an entire group of people has exactly the same qualities. Now imagine a world in which the opposite was true. In which world would you prefer your student to spend the rest of his or her life?
Brandy Smith, M.S.( former Intern at the Counseling and Testing Center)