Research has shown that diverse environments are the most innovative, and that diversity makes us better thinkers. We are forced to challenge our beliefs and assumptions when we immerse ourselves in an environment filled with people whose experiences and opinions are different. Facing differing opinions forces us to make sound, well-articulated and evidence-based arguments for what we believe in. In the end, we walk away with greater knowledge of ourselves and greater understanding and empathy for others. Put bluntly, diversity makes us better people.
However, diversity also makes us uncomfortable. In fact, it makes us better people by making us uncomfortable – we can’t have one without the other. Facing different perspectives and challenging our own deeply-held beliefs is difficult and tiring. Echo chambers are much more comfortable. It is easier to relate to people who share our experiences and easier to discuss contentious issues with people who share our viewpoints. There is no one to challenge our perspectives and biases in a room full of like-minded people, and therefore it understandably feels very safe – it is a safe space. While the emotional comfort and camaraderie offered by these echo chambers may be a good rationale for them to have some place in society, we should not fool ourselves into thinking they do anything to promote diversity or inclusion. This is true regardless of whether we call these exclusive gatherings “safe spaces”, “fraternities & sororities”, or anything else.
What follows are two examples that perfectly illustrate why, when it comes to diversity, the uncomfortable thing to do is often the right thing to do.
In what may have been the most thoughtful piece on the niqab debate in a major Canadian news outlet, Tristan Hopper at The National Post uses the history of immigrant integration in North America and Europe to argue that, if you don’t like the niqab, the best thing you can do is nothing or – even better – everything you can to make niqab wearers feel welcome in Canada. He argues that banning the niqab and shunning those who wear it is not only wrong, but is actually more likely to make the niqab persist longer in Canadian society. According to Hopper, history suggests that if we focus on welcoming niqab-wearers and their families as much as possible into Canadian society (e.g. in our courtrooms, in our hockey games, etc.) the niqab has exactly one generation to live.
Our country’s history is filled with migrations of people from all over the globe, including those who came from oppressive or deeply conservative cultures. Once these groups were welcomed and treated as Canadians (something that took a long time for us to do with some groups), their integration proceeded in a very predictable way. As Hopper puts it: “This is pretty common to the Canadian immigrant experience. Newcomers show up, and then watch as their kids are quickly absorbed by the glitz, glamour and freedom of Canadian life.” In contrast, many European nations have placed emphasis on preserving their demographics by erecting barriers to integration of immigrants; the result has been quasi-apartheid conditions, with multiple segregated communities and animosity between them instead of one integrated community. Paradoxically, it is these conditions that turn out to be much more effective at preserving the immigrant cultures and customs, like the niqab, that proponents of these anti-immigrant policies claim to abhor.
Now what if we took this logic one radical step further? What would happen if we applied exactly the same kind of approach that Hopper suggests, except replace ‘wearing the niqab’ with ‘holding (or expressing) racist views’? Instead of trying to ban racist speech and shun people we believe to hold racist views, what if we actually went out of our way to reach out to racists, introduce them to people of different backgrounds, and make them feel welcome in diverse communities? In doing so, we would express the desire to neither endorse their views nor outwardly judge them right away, but instead merely express the desire to understand them better. By starting open dialogues between minorities and racists – with the goal of making racists more comfortable around minorities (and forcing them to elaborate their views to a diverse audience) – might racism actually be more short-lived?
A recent report in The Atlantic called “The Audacity of Talking About Race with the Klu Klux Klan” suggests this approach is actually very effective. The report tells the story of Daryl Davis, a black musician who conquered racism in his neighbourhood by making friends with the most racist people he could find: members of the Klu Klux Klan. His determination to understand racism led him to form a friendship with several members of the KKK and attend several KKK rallies. He let them get to know and trust him, and introduced them to other friends of his from diverse backgrounds. In the end, not only did many of them change their views, but the entire Maryland KKK chapter shut down. After quitting the KKK, many members gave him their robes as a token of appreciation of what he had done for them. Interestingly, while doing this he was berated by many within the black community (including the NAACP leadership) for ‘fraternizing with the enemy’ and not condemning racism with sufficient zeal (i.e. hating racists). Davis’s response to these criticisms was this: “But you know what? When all they do is sit around and preach to the choir it does absolutely no good. If you’re not a racist it doesn’t do any good for me to meet with you and sit around and talk about how bad racism is.”
Starbucks recently came out with a campaign called #RaceTogether, encouraging people to start conversations about race at the coffee shop. It received wide criticism, including from many self-described ‘anti-racism’ activists. One of the most common complaints about the campaign was that it made people uncomfortable. I would argue that was the point.