Four, Possibly Five, Stages toward Embracing Diversity

Posted on June 28, 2010


“All those ethnics should just go back to their own homeland.” I’ve heard this statement several times. Yet, each time I hear it I chuckle because the person making the statement doesn’t realize that they, themselves, are an “ethnic.” Each of us has an ethnicity. Each of us is a part of some culture or race that provides some type of ethnic identity. Therefore, what is this person trying to say?

diversityWe could rephrase their statement like this, “All those people who are different from me should go back to their own home and people.” The bizarre thing about the people I hear making these statements is that they must have forgotten their American history. If they listened in school they would have learned that their ancestors are not from around here either. Yet, here lies the underlying problem. Some people simply do not like others just because they are different–the “different” referring to a different race, culture or ethnicity. The differences may be dress, food, language or dialect, skin color, communication nuances or any one of a million other things that make us dissimilar.

In this brief article my aim is not to validate the whys of embracing ethnic diversity. Rather, I begin with an underlying conviction that we should embrace ethnic diversity. Like an orchestra with the symphonic harmony of the percussion section, the brass and woodwinds, a healthy society entails an unabashed unity in diversity. Below are four, and perhaps five, stages toward embracing diversity.

Stage 1: Recognition

This first stage is simply the recognition that some people are ethnically different from “me.” The color of the skin—perhaps coupled with a different language, physical features, dress, or eating habits—cause us to acknowledge that someone is different.

At this early stage someone may choose one, or more, of several different paths in responding to the recognition of varying ethnicities. There are four responses that do not lead to embracing diversity:

  • Xenophobia. This can be defined as “the fear of another culture.” Left to simmer, xenophobia can lead to racism, hate groups and crimes.
  • Ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a common gut reaction that views anything different as being inferior. As Patty Lane so well describes, the ethnocentric believe that one’s own culture, race or ethnicity is the best.  Ethnocentrism may display itself in patronizing or stereotyping other cultures and in seeing others as tokens. As tokens, people are invited to be a part of the dominant culture, but not in a meaningful way.
  • Forced Assimilation. This response, with clear links to ethnocentrism, can be summarized in this statement: “Everyone should be like me.” Common indicators of this view are declarations like “If you are going to live here you must speak my language and dress like me.”
  • Segregation. Segregationist believe that different races and culture groups should remain separate from each other. Americans who remember the pre-civil rights movement will be well acquainted with this response. Proponents of segregation believe that a person can be free to express their ethnicity as long as they remain in the appropriate venue.

Any person choosing any of these four responses is choosing a path that does not lead to the joy of embracing ethnic diversity. The next stages, however, are steps in the right direction.

Stage 2: Toleration

This stage is far from embracing diversity, but does represent progress. Someone at this stage may still be xenophobic or ethnocentric; however, they have resolved to endure their discomfort. The individual who is tolerant is not likely to engage in hate crimes or activities that seek to bring harm to others. Those who simply tolerate ethnic diversity, however, will not pursue relationships with someone of a different culture or ethnic background. If required, they will work with them, but they won’t savor the opportunity.

Stage 3: Acceptance

Acceptance is a step further down the path to embracing diversity. Those at this stage are willing to do more than simply coexist; they are also willing to accommodate and develop relationships with people of a different culture or ethnicity. At this stage someone may even be willing to learn from, and value the perspective of, others from a different ethnicity. Acceptance is also the stage at which meaningful attempts at reconciliation can take place.

In many organizations, acceptance is what is required—this is the goal. However, while acceptance is good, a full embrace of ethnic diversity is not experienced until there is…

Stage 4: Celebration

Celebration of ethnic diversity extends well beyond toleration and acceptance. Celebration passionately enjoys the diversity. Celebration not only includes valuing the differences, but seeks out opportunities to discover our differences. Celebration intentionally welcomes the chance to learn from those with varying perspectives and practices. Celebration opens the door for more friendships and love.

Those who celebrate diversity have the capacity to know that different is not only different, but sometimes better. Those who celebrate diversity find pleasure in discovering new tastes, expressions, and melodies. Furthermore, those who celebrate diversity often find expression in worshipping God who created diversity among humanity.

Is there a fifth stage?

Several years ago I was sitting in an Indian restaurant in Norcross, Georgia, discussing these thoughts with a friend. I grew up as a good ole, white Southern boy in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up black in England. As I shared these stages of embracing diversity he suggested one more final stage. He felt the ultimate arrival of embracing diversity would be evidenced by a blindness to ethnicity and race. In his mind, as long as we still recognize our ethnicities and race, then we have not truly arrived at diversity maturity.

His statement caused me to remember the time I was corrected for a church marquee I had written. I was responsible for the messages that were placed on the church sign along a busy highway in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Gwinnett has an ethnically diverse population where whites are now the minority. In an attempt to display our love for all people regardless of race, I put a message up that simply read, “God is colorblind.” Not everyone appreciated the sign.

The pastor of our church soon heard from the pastor of a black congregation down the street. They didn’t agree with the message. “God isn’t colorblind,” they insisted, “he created the diversity.” They were proud of their cultural heritage and did not believe it was appropriate to ignore it. So who is right, my friend or this pastor?

There is a sense in which my friend is correct. There needs to be a blindness to ethnic diversity, especially if that blindness is evidenced by an unquestioned welcome to all people regardless of race, culture or ethnicity. Yet, the pastor of the black church is also correct. There is a beauty in our differences. David Anderson, who I met several years ago at a multicultural conference, states this well in his book Multicultural Ministry. While his comments are directed toward churches, his words are applicable to all walks of life:

Why would we ever want to dull a sense that we’ve been given by our Creator? We don’t need color-blind stages, staffs, and structures. We need communities who know how to see beauty and celebrate diversity. Who among us would ever desire to walk through a garden to behold only one color and one kind of flower?

I can’t argue with David Anderson. Nor, do I want to. Rather I choose to celebrate. Therefore, Let’s have a party.


With appreciation to:

Patty Lane, whose book, A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures, was instrumental in my understanding of embracing cultural diversity.

David A. Anderson, Multicultural Ministry

One of my previous posts, The Day a Black Man Came to Our Church, provides an illustration of when, and how, being color-blinded to race is a good thing.