I was lucky to attend one of the most diverse public high schools in the country. On paper, anyway. But the actual experience was not what I expected. I was shocked to see the way the students segregated themselves. Passing through the entrance to my school was like stepping into a completely different decade. If you asked me to, I could actually compose a map of all the different ethnic territories on our campus. Ironically, the hallways of my high school were adorned with words like ‘Empathy,’ ‘Compassion,’ ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Respect,’ although these were the very qualities our school was desperately lacking. Witnessing such an extreme degree of self-inflicted segregation always made me wonder what drives us apart. Why do we separate ourselves from people just because we’re different? Why are we so set on sustaining these divides? We need to find effective ways of embracing and accepting each other’s differences instead of distancing ourselves because of them.
Not all students adhere to this unspoken segregation, which makes me wonder even more what makes it easier for some students to deviate from their own ethnic and social groups, and more difficult for others. It was always easy for me to integrate with other groups, and I have a hypothesis as to why. I attended a predominantly Caucasian middle school. Being white and relatively wealthy, I fit the profile just fine, but for whatever reason, I never “fit in.” I was a loser and an outcast, and honestly I’m glad I was because it opened me up to seek acceptance in other places, from all different types of people. I wasn’t bound to any single social group.
Likewise, the students that were popular in middle school remained largely cut off from other social groups in high school. They were already accepted in their own social circle, so why risk unnecessary rejection from other groups? These students had already earned their status. They had no reason to tarnish it by deviating from the students that they already knew. In this sense, they trapped themselves within a single social group from which they may never diverge.
It isn’t necessarily racism that distances these students—it’s fear of social rejection. There is enormous pressure to fit in in any school or institution. This puts students who confine themselves to a single social group at an enormous disadvantage after they leave school and enter the real world—the workforce—the global economy, an intercultural amalgam of every ethnicity and social class and subculture known to humankind. Likewise, this puts the middle school rejects, like myself, at an advantage. We know how to relate and get along with all kinds of different people. Social rejection, as crappy as it may have been in middle school, prepared me for the bigger picture—the real world.
We have everything to gain from integrating with people from different backgrounds than ours. Embracing diversity expands our understanding of our own lives as well as those of others. Opening ourselves up to different perspectives and ideas can only benefit us. Limiting ourselves to what we know just cuts us off and hinders us from understanding or appreciating other people’s perspectives, experiences and opinions, and, likewise, our own.