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Reevaluating diversity

It doesn’t take more than two seconds for people to identify others who are—at least externally—very different than them. If you’re anything like me, you stare.  If you look anything like me, you’ve also been stared at quite a few times.

After realizing that staring, and being stared at, is not the best way to approach difference, I told myself that I wanted to become more accepting of diversity. In my mind, I would become accepting if I gained an understanding of others that would allow me to better relate to difference. The goal of acceptance was noble, and the idea behind diversity wasn’t entirely wrong.  I wanted my worldview to expand, and what better place to do that than at Duke?

It’s not that I’d been deprived of heterogeneity prior to Duke. Growing up, my closest friends were from different ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds than my own. Nonetheless, I knew that living, studying, sleeping and breathing on a campus with people who were different than me would uncover issues I was unaware of. 

For a while, the friendships I developed indicated that I was interested in better understanding the idea behind difference. My closest friends included a devout Christian, a practicing Jew and international students from every corner of the earth. 

On a regular basis, I would spark conversations with people who I thought were different.  In my mind, every conversation about culture, religion or upbringing made me more aware of the diversity.

After each conversation I had with people I defined as different, I found that I learned more about myself than about the person with whom I was speaking.  With every such conversation, I acquired different lenses through which to see the world that I originally envisioned to revolve around me.  Conversations about everything from divine rights to eating habits offered me an altered approach to topics I was already accustomed to. As a result, I questioned many of my long-standing habits.

It wasn’t, however, until I disagreed with someone I considered to be similar to myself that I really questioned my understanding of diversity.  A conversation that started as a civil discourse about hijab—the traditional covering of Muslim women—transitioned into a fueled argument about Islamic customs.  I never thought that I could disagree so vehemently with someone I considered to be so similar to me.

As I listened to him speak, it took every ounce of self-control I had to refrain from telling him that he was flat out wrong. I knew that if I told him so, he would become defensive and refuse to listen to me as I tried to prove to him I was right. 

Every time he’d offer an argument, I’d concurrently prepare four or five reasons why I believed him to be fundamentally wrong. Subsequently, he began to refute my argument with insight that I—despite having a similar upbringing and understanding of Islam—had never bothered to consider.

I soon realized there was no way that he and I were going to see eye to eye. I resigned from attempting to defend myself and began to approach him like everyone else who I considered to be different. I struggled to take everything he said and put it in the context of that which I thought to be true. 

It was pointless. I was never going to be able to relate his views to my own. Despite my initial sentiments, I soon realized that he and I were not so similar and attempted once again to unassumingly consider his words. Although I disagreed with him, I desired to reconcile with his understanding of our faith. 

I left that conversation having gained an inimitable understanding of that which I thought I completely understood. In many ways, it is more difficult to accept and reconcile differences among those we consider to be most similar to us. The value of recognizing diversity among those most similar to us is that it obliges us to accept more than one perspective rather than to merely broaden our own.

This is the diversity I should have appreciated from the very beginning. I ought to have anticipated acquiring diverse perspectives rather than try to expand my own.  

Nourhan Elsayed is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.

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