Do you remember the Sesame Street tune, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…”? There would be some collection of objects displayed on the television screen—say a variety of fruits and a glass of milk—and children would intuit the unnamed category. This is how we learn; we make meaning by understanding difference. When we move from grouping foods or shapes to thinking about human beings, however, the phrase “one of these things does not belong” becomes problematic. Why do our brains see people who are different from us as if they don’t belong?
What if we were asked instead to examine a range of wildly different objects, and discern what binds them together, or imagine how they might be utilized creatively so that their cumulative capacities could accomplish something grand?
None of these things is quite like the other
Yet each of these things surely does belong
Can you figure out how they might work together
By the time I finish my song?
We just swore in the 116th Congress, one of the most diverse ever. The newly elected cohort in the House of Representatives includes four LGBTQ members and twenty-three people of color—among them, two Muslims, the first Native American women, and the first Korean-American in twenty years. Women now hold the highest per-centage of seats in both houses of Congress that the U.S. has ever seen.
The diversity is found mainly in the Democratic caucus, but can it still help our elected officials better represent the diversity of Americans? Can they assist us in developing antibodies for the plagues of white supremacy, cultural imperialism, patriarchy and heterosexism that continue to afflict our body politic? Might they be able to restore civility in our public conversation so that we can constructively navigate our manifold differences?
Colleges and universities offer an interesting lens for thinking about the impact of diversity. For many undergraduates, their years on campus represents their first or most intense encounter with difference. Students may meet people of diverse race, class, spiritual lifestance, sexual orientation and gender identity (beyond the binaries to which many are accustomed). They are also likely to encounter a host of new ideas and critical tools for thinking about them. The experience can be extremely challenging, causing discomfort and interpersonal conflict, diminishing trust and community cohesion. So why do colleges and universities often deliberately cultivate such diversity? What is the upside?
Decades of research demonstrate how diversity makes us more innovative, diligent and successful. In the context of higher education, diversity’s most emphasized value may be how it prepares students to thrive in and contribute to the flourishing of a multicultural world. When General Motors filed an amicus brief on behalf of the University of Michigan to defend the school’s affirmative action admission policies, for example, it argued that
diversity in academic institutions is essential to teaching students the human relations and analytic skills they need to succeed and lead in the work environments of the twenty-first century. These skills include the abilities to work well with colleagues and subordinates from diverse backgrounds; to view issues from multiple perspectives; and to anticipate and respond with sensitivity to the cultural differences of highly diverse customers, colleagues, employees, and global business partners (Grutter v. Bollinger).
Essential well beyond the world of business, constructive relationships across difference are considered fundamental to the functioning of democracy. On an interpersonal level, we learn to appreciate that our experience is not “normative” and that our choices necessarily impact others. On a systemic level, we come to recognize the ways that institutions serve the interests of some people better than others.
These relationships also illuminate our path as we address questions of meaning, direction and purpose. The personal inquiry becomes: How should I live my life, and how does my engagement with diversity help me to answer that question?
The vocational value of encountering difference is underscored by psychosocial studies such as those of Jean Piaget, who demonstrated that a person’s intellectual and moral development depends upon the capacity to understand ideas and feelings of others (“perspective-taking”). Similarly, Rose Coser established that experiences of diversity lead to a stronger sense of individuality and a deeper understanding of one’s place in the world.
If we take these insights and apply them to our new Congress, what might we hope for?
Many representatives not quite like each other
To the face of America they all belong
They’ll reason and talk and work together
Even if they’re sure the others must be wrong.
Rachel S. Mikva is the Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Senior Faculty Fellow for the InterReligious Institute. She works at the intersections of exegesis, culture and ethics. Author of “The Change a Difference Makes: Formation of Self in the Encounter with Diversity,” in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2018), she helps train religious leaders and others to navigate and celebrate the abundant human diversity of our world.