Putting ’embracing diversity’ into action

According to this New York Times article, more than a dozen universities have installed footbaths in recognition of Muslim religious requirements.  The Kansas City International Airport has also added footbaths in many of its restrooms for this reason.

I think this is a great step towards “embracing diversity” and “valuing multiculturalism.”  Because, like anti-racism, “embracing diversity” has to mean action and not merely pretty words.  It’s easy to say “We value diversity.”  I once interviewed for a job and had the interviewer say this.  I responded, “Where?”  Because if you value something, you need to show it in your actions.  Just saying “we value diversity” does not make it so. If you have an all-white staff, I don’t think you value diversity.  (Can you tell I’d already decided I didn’t want that job?)

And “multiculturalism” sounds so nice when people associate it with festivals that celebrate “other” cultures.  People eat food from “other cultures” and they have a nice party and then they go home, suffused with pride at their “multicultural environment.”  It’s easy to have a feel-good conception of multiculturalism.  It’s harder to have an embrace of multiculturalism as a concept. 

Because interacting in a multicultural or multiracial environment is not always easy.  And what it means to truly value multiculturalism means that we have to do things that are difficult, that make us uncomfortable, that challenge the very way we think.  Embracing diversity means that we have to truly try to place a value on all aspects of “other” cultures, not just the aspects that we would like to co-opt or that we think are pretty. 

In the Michigan case, it’s interesting to see that many people have framed the footbaths as an issue of “safety” and “hygiene” rather than accommodation of a religion.  And maybe that’s because “safety” is easier for the average person to understand.  Whatever works.  But in a few years, when footbaths become commonplace, perhaps that will signal that we are a multicultural society.  Much in the same way that we now accept the idea that African Americans can drink from the same water fountains. 

As Tim Wise says, “Perceptions follow institutional realities, not the other way around.” 

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