Difference, Diversity, and Division: First Impressions on a Fulbright

April 4, 1967. In the soaring gothic cathedral of Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before those fatal shots rang out in the Memphis sky, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a fiery sermon on the state of humankind. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole”, King preached, “in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” 51 years later, and King’s words carry as much weight as they did in the spring of 1967, and his message needs to be heard now more than ever.

In a world where increasingly complex identity politics are rife, we seem to have an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with diversity, to the point that instead of creating a society of unity and inclusion, we are creating one where difference and division prevail. An ‘Us vs Them’ mentality is ubiquitous: ‘Right vs Left’, ‘White vs POC’, ‘Indigenous vs Coloniser’, ‘Bourgeois vs Proletariat’, ‘Religious vs Secular’, ‘Liberal vs Conservative’, ‘Oppressor vs Oppressed’, ‘Cisgender vs Transgender’, ‘West vs well, pretty much everyone else’, to name but a few. The list seems endless.

In these binary, over-simplified, and lacking-in-nuance notions of human identity, connection, and belonging, we are generally not seeing the “appreciation of diversity” that the popular discourse encourages. Rather, it seems we have created a recipe for division and discontent.

Stirring this ‘Us vs Them’ pot to boiling point are a few additional ingredients, including social media trolls from all political, social, cultural, gendered, and ethnic viewpoints; huge assumptions and sweeping generalisations about people, which are often based on gender and ethnicity; and moves towards a culture of censorship that increasingly prevents any dialogue whatsoever between groups, let alone robust and informed debate on key issues affecting humankind.

In 1967, King called for a “world-wide fellowship” – one that goes “beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation”. This, he believed, was an “absolute necessity to the survival of (hu)mankind”.

This past week, I witnessed King’s vision played out in reality. After arriving in the USA to take up a Fulbright scholarship, I spent five days with 51 other recipients from 35 different countries – from Lesotho to Lebanon, Indonesia to Iraq, Brazil to Belgium, and everywhere in between. We met one another over a Basque meal in the Nevada desert – jet-lagged, but bright-eyed, open-minded, and hopeful for the adventures that lay ahead.

We formed fast and firm bonds; we were inquisitive about each other’s country of origin, and curious about our cultural differences. However, what was overwhelmingly evident was how much we all had in common. Fundamentally, we were far more alike than we were different. Examples of our commonalities are abundant, and the following illustration of this is but one of many.

At breakfast one morning, I was sat at a table with seven newfound friends from Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Bolivia, Iraq, Belgium, and Jordan. We were discussing breakfast cuisine in our respective countries, before the conversation turned to which one of us had the ‘worst’ food (we voted unanimously for Egypt, and their dish called lahmet ras, meaning ‘head meat’ – a dish which contains the brain, eyes, and tongue of an animal, plus the cartilage for good measure).

Our conversation was cut short by a call to start a session on goal-setting and planning for our time in the USA. It was during this session that our similarities became abundantly clear. Essentially, we all hoped for the same things, we were all fearful of the same things, we all identified the same challenges, and we all wanted to make the same contributions to our countries – and most importantly, to the global community to which we all saw ourselves as belonging.

Image may contain: 23 people, including Tom Vos, Fady Alphons and Ahmed Elhossiny, people smiling, people standing, ocean, sky and outdoor
Friends for life, Lake Tahoe, California

Later in the day, as a team-building exercise, we were presented with 20 values – lofty ideals ranging from human dignity to preservation of cultural heritage, and from religious freedom to rule of law. We were asked to discard 17 of the 20 values, and to retain three values we could all agree would create the ‘best’ society. Considering the range of political, cultural, religious, and social beliefs in our group, this seemed like an impossible task. However, after rigorous debate, we were left with three values – all of which spoke to our collective commitment to each other as global citizens. We saw past religion, past politics, and past culture, to our own inherent humanness, and our right to be treated with dignity by virtue of that fact.

Now, it is important to stress that I am not advocating for cultural, political, social, or religious homogeneity. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about our differences this past week, but what I loved even more than marvelling at the diversity in our group was experiencing our unity.

And it got me thinking that embracing diversity on its own isn’t enough. We must be able to unite people of diverse backgrounds, where the shared vision is, as King called for, “an overwhelming commitment to (hu)mankind as a whole”. We must figure out a way to bridge the ever-increasing divide between polarising aspects of identity politics. We must find a way to talk to one another. We must work to find our common ground, and we must open our eyes so we may see our shared humanity. Perhaps then, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream will be realised at last.

Image may contain: 10 people, people smiling
Fulbright Gateway Orientation, Reno, Nevada, August 2018

Melissa Derby is a Fulbright – Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Graduate Award recipient. 

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