We live in a world full of differences and similarities. In today’s society, differences can be used as a weapon to divide and destroy. In November 2018, the FBI released hate crime statistics, which revealed a 17% increase in reported hate crimes from the previous year. Bias-motivated crimes based on gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, and gender all increased. In daily living, differences are often highlighted as wrong and out of place. Yet the beauty and strength in life often manifests becauseof differences, not in spite ofthem. Classroom and workplace discussions are more interesting and stimulating when different opinions are shared. Group projects are more powerful when many voices are represented.
But recent events, such as terrorists’ attacks, political rallies, police brutality, and other violent events, remind us that differences are not celebrated and can, in fact, lead to safety concerns. Over time, our view of differences can become tainted by negative messages and experiences. Difference becomes synonymous with deviance. In college environments, where difference abounds, we encounter individuals with different religious beliefs, different ages, different races and ethnicities, different gender identities and expressions, different levels of (dis)abilities, different sexual attractions and preferences, different body shapes and sizes…and we’re expected to adjust and embrace these differences. That can be stressful and overwhelming for many.
The following recommendations may be helpful in the process of embracing differences:
- Challenge negative stereotypes and beliefs
Look for disconfirmatory evidence of negative messages from the past. Be honest with yourself about your values, beliefs, preferences, and prejudices. Challenge the notion of what is normal. Question differences that you interpret as threats. When you find beliefs that are unhelpful (and you will if you’re really looking), take a deep, cleansing, and non-judgmental breath. Reframe your negative belief to something that is more accurate and helpful and that can encourage better thoughts and behaviors in the future.
- Seek connection and understanding
Maximize opportunities to get to know people who are different from you. People deserve to be treated kindly. Say nice words to someone that you ordinarily wouldn’t notice. Simple gestures such as speaking, smiling, and/or showing interest can make a powerful impact and create lifelong bonds. Such experiences can lead to reduced prejudice and increased understanding. Push yourself to move beyond tolerance to genuine acceptance. Capitalize on similarities but don’t ignore or seek to eliminate differences. Studies show that ignoring differences makes discrimination worse. Ask yourself questions like, “In what ways is this person like me? Different from me? Do others treat this person differently? Why don’t people treat them well? What kind things can I do to get to know this person better? What are some things I can do that might make this person more comfortable and make it easier for us to become friends?”
- Make time for personal reflection and mindfulness
Think of a time when you were made fun of or felt rejected. Was it because of the way you looked? Because you weren’t able to do something? How did it feel to be made fun of or left out? Was it because of the food you ate? Your clothing? The way you talked? Did you act differently than they expected? What did you wish someone would have done in that moment to make you feel better? Review your social media and related influences. Find ways to include diversity in your social media and online experiences that oppose cultural stereotypes.
- It’s a process that takes time
It’s not always easy to change previously held beliefs but it’s worth trying. Our country and our university need it. Understand that it’s a continuous process that begins with self-discovery. Start with self-love and compassion. It’s hard to give what you don’t have. In your self-discovery, you may experience guilt or shame because of past behavior. Such feelings are unhelpful. Ask questions when you’re genuinely curious, and don’t be afraid of uncomfortable conversations. It takes each of us living with intention and genuine concern to create a safe environment.
Wayne State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services can help students navigate stressors, challenge thinking, or resolve intrapersonal or interpersonal conflicts, amongst other challenges. Among the options offered to support your academic and personal goals are individual counseling, group therapy, psychoeducational workshops, and case management. CAPS is one of many offices on campus that provides support services to help students address the stressors of college life, such as the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement, Academic Success Center, Student Disability Services, and Career Services. See the CAPS website at www.caps.wayne.edu, and look for CAPS postings on Academica to learn more about programs to help you meet your personal goals.