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Living Diversity

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- Kindergarten was the first time I began fielding questions about my racial background.  I had just been sent to live with my black father and his new girlfriend, in their black neighborhood. My olive skin tone and hair with a mind of its own caused me to stand out.

After a few weeks at my new school, I told my dad about the questions I'd faced to which he responded, "Tell the next person who asks you about that to come ask your damn dad".

The next day, feeling as confident as ever, I returned to school where a substitute teacher waited. She made her way around the morning circle in which we sat, and then it happened.

"Your hair is so pretty; what are you mixed with?" she said.

I, matter-of-factly, declared she'd "have to go ask my damn daddy."

As I waited in the principal's office that morning, I wondered with all the might my five-year-old brain had, what could have possibly gone wrong.

Virtually everyone has come to the realization they are different in some way, whether it hit you like a bus or snuck in subliminally. The challenge becomes learning to acknowledge our differences and refraining from negative judgment in that actualization.

Noticing variation between one's self and others is natural; not applying judgment based on those differences must be learned. Respect for diversity is a conscience effort requiring daily practice. However, embracing diversity is an often promoted but ambiguous concept to execute.

Critics of diversity in psychological circles argue that if we emphasize diversity too much, the concept of American culture is degraded. By focusing on our differences, our communities become fragmented, and non-cooperative attitudes result.

In spite of that risk, research shows people are not incapable of finding pride in their unique qualities, while at the same time recognizing their commonalties. One way to accomplish this ability is known as cognitive retraining.

Cognitive retraining simply means to practice a new way of thinking - to unlearn associations we have made subconsciously in the past.

The first step is recognizing a stereotype as soon as it becomes a thought in your mind. Are you are judging someone without having any evidence to do so, besides some physical attribute (like age, race, size, etc.)? If you find yourself having done so, make a deliberate effort to stop. It's really that simple.

According to Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, in Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination & Promoting Diversity, research has shown that repeated efforts to control activation of specific biases can result in the individual's ability to inhibit these biases.

Approaching diversity on an individual level will not only add to your self-worth, it will make this community a better place for those who may have been previously judged.

The easy approach may be to consider yourself a bystander. However, I encourage you to continue to actively promote diversity, as many men and women before you have.