I grew up in a medium-sized suburb about 20 miles from Seattle. I lived there from age 5 until I left for college in Oregon, so my experiences there had a huge impact on shaping my views of the world. My parents taught me to be accepting, kind, curious and inclusive. But when it came to real diversity, these concepts seemed almost completely theoretical. During my years of elementary school, junior high and high school, I had very few encounters with students who were not white and (outwardly, at least) heterosexual. I can remember some friends and fellow students of color, and a small number of individuals who came out as being gay, but their diverse perspectives seemed novel to me. I never gained a clear understanding of what their experiences meant or how they were different from my own.
I attended a small, private liberal arts college in Oregon, and still did not grow very much in my understanding of diverse life experiences. It wasn’t until my first professional job — in college student services administration — that I began to painfully understand my internalized homophobia, prejudice and privilege. My ignorant words hurt others, and I was fortunate to work with incredible individuals who patiently helped me learn and understand more clearly how different the world could be through someone else’s eyes. Even 15 years later, I cringe and hurt inside when I think of insensitive words I said, especially since I considered myself to be a person of integrity and kindness. I hope that my efforts to learn and change during that time were enough to heal the harm I caused, but I can never really know that for sure.
When I was newly married and living in Oregon, my young blonde-haired niece expressed confusion while watching a play at the community theater. She wondered why everyone on the stage had white skin. Even as a young child, her school and community in Texas were so diverse that her light skin actually stood out from most of her classmates. She has grown from a thoughtful and observant child into an intelligent and accomplished young woman, who feels very strongly about causes which promote inclusion and respect for marginalized groups. As the communities in our country become more diverse, our children may become less and less surprised by people who look or feel differently than they do.
I am not so naïve as to think that anyone growing up in a diverse community will automatically welcome and understand everyone they meet. However, the less of a novelty these experiences of diversity are, the less discomfort and mistrust we may feel. That doesn’t mean we just wait for the years to go by. We can be intentional about teaching and setting the example of care and inclusion. However, even with the best of parental intentions, our children in more homogenous communities may gain — as I did — a mostly theoretical concept of accepting others who are different.
As we observe or experience conflict of thought within our relationships, community and nation, it is worth considering what those we disagree with have lived through. How many friends or family members of color do they feel close to and care about? How many people of different sexualities and gender identities do they trust or love? Sometimes our earliest interactions and first words can be extremely damaging. But in my experience, it is possible to learn and to do better.
Not everyone wants to. Even in my early 20s, it felt excruciating to start accepting and working through my own biases, prejudices and privilege. It does not happen immediately. Early steps we can take are to reach out with genuine care to those who are different from us or learn to use pronouns that might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. Engaging in service together or pursuing a shared cause can often bring people closer and create genuine relationships. Even small acts of kindness can begin to build bridges over rivers we once thought were uncrossable. When we stand on our bridge together, in friendship, and observe how the rushing water smooths the rocks over time, it becomes clear how worthwhile this building process truly is.
Palmer is a mother of four and doctoral student at the University of Idaho. She has been building relationships and developing her worldview on the Palouse since 2012. Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.