What is the best approach for bridging the gap between people of diverse backgrounds?

Do we minimize our differences and focus on what we have in common, or do we focus on our differences in order to understand each other better? Those in the first camp contend that we can best understand each other by realizing that although we look and often act differently, we are all human with the same basic needs. If we can get past the surface differences we will find that we are indeed more alike than different. These commonalities can form the basis of meaningful relationships.

Others say that while we are all human, our cultural differences do make us fundamentally different. How we behave, our worldview, everything about us is deeply rooted in our cultural norms. Until we accept that we are different and truly understand each other's point of reference, we cannot begin to build honest, respectful relationships.

But are these points of view mutually exclusive? Are they not complementary, each representing a part of the truth? Yes, our common humanity does form the basis for shared concerns and interests. And yes, culture and ethnicity have tremendous impact on how we perceive the world and our place in it. However, when we attempt to educate each other about our cultural differences by defining African-American or Asian or Latino culture, we run into some serious problems. There is tremendous diversity within any group, and no brief description can account for all the variables. For example, there are 21 Spanish-speaking countries in North and South America, yet we refer to anyone living in the U.S. who traces to one of these countries as Latino.

Not only do each of these countries have distinct cultures, but how closely individuals adhere to these norms depends on many factors, including how long they have lived here, their level of education and socioeconomic status in both their country of origin and the U.S., language proficiency, and so on. And what about the increasing numbers of people from multi-cultural backgrounds? In what category would you place my friend who has distinctly African-American features, but who has an Irish maternal grandfather and Native American paternal grandmother, and was raised by his birth father and white Jewish stepmother?

Clearly, there are many pitfalls to this approach. Of particular concern to me is the potential to create and perpetuate stereotypes. I suggest instead that we try to understand and accept each individual for what they are: A unique person who is the product of ALL their life influences. Culture and ethnicity are important, but so are personality, behavioral preferences, religion, geographic influences, etc. I believe we make a fundamental mistake when we consider our differences to be the problem.

Our Differences are in Fact the Solution

Max Depree expressed this concept well when he said, “understanding and accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed. It also enables us to begin to thing about being abandoned to the strengths of others, of admitting that we cannot know or do everything”. We do need each other, and the greater the complexity of the problems we are trying to solve, the more dependent we become on one another. Because of our inherent uniqueness, each of us has something valuable to offer that no one else can provide. In addressing the complex issues we face today, we must draw upon all the resources we have including our human resources, to generate new and creative approaches and solutions. Rather than seeing our differences as barriers, we need to use them to our collective advantage. If we can focus on the value that each individual brings to any endeavor, we will not only be more creative problem solvers, but we will have established an environment conducive to increasing our potential as individuals and communities.

Guest post by: Sue Rosman, Susan Rosman & Associates – Moorpark, California
Sue Rosman is an organizational consultant. She has collaborated with John Perry to develop The Diversity Advantage™, a process that utilizes the JPEA™ to address issues of diversity and partnering in the workplace.