Diversity matters to me.
It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
When imagining the lifestyle of a “conservative Christian housewife,” the mind isn’t usually drawn to pictures of diversity. Instead, we usually picture privacy fences, kids who “don’t talk to strangers,” and family conversations about Us vs. Them. But one of my deepest commitments in the way I parent and educate my children is to their early and intentional exposure to diversity.
This is one of the things I love most about our life in the city.
In the most basic terms, the defining characteristics of an urban environment are density and diversity. Conversely, sub-urban areas are characterized by sprawl and homogeneity. One of the most common misconceptions about sub-urban places is that they are better for families. And, more often than not, what people mean by “better for families” is that the social, economic, and ethnic homogeneity makes it easier for parents to navigate.
When most of your neighbors look like you, make about the same amount of money as you, and vote like you, their culture is familiar. There are fewer conversations with children about why the neighbor “looks like that” or “eats that kind of food.” And there are fewer difficult conversations about why that other neighbor does that thing that you absolutely do not do.
But, does that really make it “better?”
Better by what definition?
Do parents consider the long-term effects and implications of a childhood with little to no experience with anyone different than themselves?
Now, some sub-urban areas are more dense and diverse than others, especially as many suburbs are being retro-fitted with more characteristically “urban” developments. And every childhood is formed under the direction of parents, so every suburban child’s experience will be different. But, I suggest that parents–especially those who identify as Conservative–should consider the benefit of building a family life in which their children are regularly and positively exposed to diversity, regardless of where they live.
Let me offer two reasons why diversity matters to me.
First, early and intentional exposure to diversity could help release my children from bias and bigotry as they grow older. This is obviously not a guarantee. I believe that bias is a natural (fallen) reaction to cultural differences. But parents can direct a child toward experiences that help them navigate diversity with wisdom, not fear or misunderstanding.
I was a suburban kid. And most of the people I knew as a child came from families very much like mine. But, I went to a public high school that was about a million times more diverse than the neighborhood I was from. So, even if my early childhood was not characterized by diversity, my adolescence was a bit more. I didn’t understand the impact this diversity had on me until many years later when my husband took me to a high school football game in his hometown. It took me a few moments to realize why the crowd was so strange to me.
“Wait,” I asked him, “where are all the black people?”
My husband attended a high school where the student body was nearly 100% white. But I, though I lived in a predominately white suburban neighborhood, attended a high school that was remarkably diverse, both ethnically and economically. So, my early experiences with my minority peers–particularly African American and Middle Eastern–were as diverse as these cultures themselves are.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the homogeneity of my husband’s almamater. Public schools simply reflect the lines drawn by school districts. But I do believe there was an inherent strength to the diversity of my school.
It’s impossible to be completely bias-free, but I credit my diverse high school with helping me have a bit more realistic view of people who are different from me. You see, black people and Muslims and gay kids and poor kids and unwed mothers were not “those people” who lived in the other part of town or went to the other school. They were my classmates. They were football heroes, the student council President, and my co-star in the school play. They were people. Actual people. People with names and talents and fears and dreams–just like me.
The diversity that my children experience in the city on a day-to-day basis can be difficult at times. There are still questions that I haven’t figured out how to answer about the differences between our family and some of our neighbors. The questions we do answer, we sometimes only answer in part while our children are young and are satisfied with simply, honest answers. We are still different, after all. And our children get that, even if they don’t understand to what extent.
I can’t guarantee that my children won’t carry bias into their adulthood, but what I’ve tried to provide is a more broad experience in their childhood so that “those people”–the people who are different from us in any given way–are not strangers or numbers or ideas. They are people. Actual people. They own businesses and restaurants; they have ailing parents and they have rowdy children; some have good jobs and some ask for change; some are lazy and some work really, really hard.
They are our neighbors and friends.
They have names. And talents. And fears. And dreams.
Just like us.
I believe that our experiences with diversity as a child influence our interaction with diversity as an adult. When people who are different are kept at an arm’s length, they have no identity other than the thing that makes them different. They have no humanity. No dignity. And their complete other-ness makes them easily misunderstood. Teaching my children to acknowledge them as more than “different from us” teaches them to acknowledge their God-given dignity. And that is the foundation I would like to build for my children as they approach adulthood so that they don’t need to spend their young adult lives undo-ing the bias they were given as children. Instead, I want them to spend their young adult lives determining how they will engage with the world as adults.
And this relates to the second reason diversity matters to me:
I believe that the Christian faith lends itself to an active relationship with a diverse society, a relationship that is mutually efficacious.
Now, I would be foolish to claim that I am even near to perfecting this subtle dance between remaining apart from the world while establishing relationships and engaging those who are different from me. (Especially when my young children are involved.) But I know that this dance can’t be learned without first jumping in.
In the same way that Christians have to learn to human-ize people who are different from us, I want to help make Christians more human to those for whom we are “those people.” You see, when Christians disengage and remove ourselves from diverse populations, we become nothing more than a foreign idea. We appear irrelevant to the world. And we have no identity apart from our other-ness. But when we engage, when we make ourselves present in the lives of people are are different, they can begin to understand us as real, actual people. And that will, perhaps, give them a better understanding of what, exactly, this peculiar people who call themselves “Christians” are actually all about. And I believe that what Christians are actually (supposed to be) all about is good for the whole world.
We may be kind of weird to some of our neighbors. And they may not understand why we vote the way we vote or why we homeschool or why on earth we head to church every Sunday while they head down the street for waffles. But they will, hopefully, know us in other ways. They will know the names of our children and they will sit at our table or chat on our front stoop and they will (hopefully, someday, when I figure this all out) know that we love them.
I want my neighbors to know that we see them as more than “those people” who live in a different part of town.
Because they don’t live in a different part of town.
They live here.
And that actually makes a difference.