A globe-trotting friend of mine recently shared an unsettling experience she had in Malaysia about being different. Though being on the other side of the planet makes this feeling more likely, being far from home is not required. Here’s her story:
“Today, I felt diversity. I’m used to being one of the few or the only woman in the room, but I’m not always aware of the difference. Today I had to walk through a courtyard of men at Muslim prayers. There was no route around. With my white skin, uncovered blonde hair, and western style dress, I clearly didn’t fit in. I felt the perceived burn of all eyes on me, and for the first time in a long while, I felt uncomfortable being different. In fact, I felt unfounded fear…breathe deep, eyes down, shrink into myself, and maybe no one will notice me. As uncomfortable as I was, I treasure the experience to walk in the shoes of others who fall into the category of ‘minority’. I am deeply thankful to have the opportunity to be a citizen of the world and to grow from these experiences.”
I suspect most of us know the feeling my friend experienced; I have several similar memories myself. Even if the geography and visible differences aren’t as stark as this Malaysia experience, we all know what it feels like to be the odd one out: to be the only one of our gender or race in the room, or the most poorly dressed, or the only one who doesn’t know anyone. At a minimum, it’s an awkward, unpleasant feeling. Sometimes, however, the discomfort crosses over into fear. It’s an uncontrollable, biological reaction. I have felt it and been ashamed, knowing that it was irrational, as the only visible “threat” to me at that moment was that I was different. The real threat, however, is when these natural feelings go unrecognized and unchecked in our society.
Too many of today’s news stories have their roots in this human phenomenon. If its biological basis is part of our hard wiring, what are we to do? As with my friend in calling out her experience, awareness is a good place to start. Human beings the world over have the same hopes and fears. Of course, there always have been, and always will be, those who inexplicably go bad. But they are the exception. My choice–and upon reflection, easy decision–is to fight my fear of differences. I will not allow the destructive minority to color my perspective. I resolve to treat all humanity as I know in my heart the majority are.
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” –Martin Luther King Jr.