One Reason You Want to Be in Diverse Communities

This past week, a number of us attended a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) event called “Out of Many, One.” The inspiration was the United States founding motto, E Pluribus Unum, which translates as the title of this gathering. The founding fathers wrote this, envisioning a unity of the original 13 colonies, and also a united nation of people from various Western European ancestries. In the pledge introduced at this recent gathering, we had the opportunity to affirm the significance of this aspiration for all peoples of the United States. I gladly signed, as did many clergy and members of faith communities, as well as some prominent civic leaders.

This vision of one people emerging out of difference is core to the hope of the good news of Jesus as well. The first century faith entrepreneur, Paul of Tarsus, was animated by a vision of faith communities that brought previously separate and hostile cultures into a shared community of love. Paul wrote, For he (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14) The two groups Paul is referring to here are Jews and Gentiles, i.e. Roman non-Jews. Paul himself was both ethnic and religious Jew as well as Roman citizen, and so this Jewish/non-Jewish divide that was significant to the first century Roman empire was for him the great separator of human cultures. Throughout his letters, Paul argues for an end to such division, for communities to find common ground and practice mutual acceptance. This appears to be one transformation that will authenticate the good news of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that community building across difference is one of the two big things I want to be part of and think God is doing at Reservoir Church in post-Trump-election America. Today, I’d like to follow-up on that post by introducing one of many tools from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together.

In her book, Cleveland writes that “group separation and prejudice have a bidrectional relationship – that is, prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice.” (33) In other words, diversity isn’t window dressing. Being in diverse relationships and communities, or not, makes us different. When we’re around others more, we are less prejudiced, whereas when we’re around less diversity, we’re more prejudiced. Whether we want to be or not.

One reason for this, Cleveland explains, is a dynamic called the “outgroup homogeneity effect.” We tend to view groups we’re not part of as made up of people who are all similar to one another, while we tend to view members of our own group as unique.

For example, I was raised in an almost entirely White small suburb, with almost entirely White classmates, friends, neighbors, and family. I never thought that White people looked alike. I also knew several White people with various regional or national accents and different speech patterns and levels of education. I noticed these but never defined people by them.  The people in my group were obviously all very different from one another.

When I went to university, I became best friends with a Chinese-American woman and started attending a large Chinese church in Boston. At first, I noticed that Chinese people looked more alike to me. It wasn’t as easy for me to pick someone I knew out of a crowd of hundreds of Chinese-Americans. Everyone, for instance, had black hair. After years of membership in this faith community, though, most of my friends and social acquaintances were Chinese-American, and it seemed ridiculous to think they looked alike. After all, most of the human race has black hair! This outgroup becoming part of my ingroup had changed my perceptions. (I’ve also had the reverse experience now, being part of a Chinese-American’s process of discovery that White people don’t all look and act and think alike!)

This is a relatively small example and wasn’t, in my case, tied to any particular damaging effects. We don’t have to look far, though, to realize how the outgroup homogeneity effect impoverishes the experience of people that hold it and harms those who are subject to its resulting skewed perceptions. When we stereotype others, we don’t benefit from their strengths and experiences and we are potentially suspicious of or hostile to them. And when we combine the outgroup homogeneity effect with imbalances of power and privilege, we get discrimination and injustice.

Clearly this is one reason (not the only reason, but one) that White men maintain such disproportionate power in our society. We (we for a minute being White men) see people like ourselves as unique and different, and we lump all others into the same category of “other”, people we are less likely to hire or mentor or promote or vote for. White men like myself make up less than a third of the United States population. But based on our representation in positions of power, you would never know that. Picking just two data points, over 90% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are White men and that the US Congress is overwhelmingly comprised of White men as well. There’s a hard but important phrase for the racial side of this dominance, which is White supremacy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to unity amidst difference and the outgroup homogeneity effect.

One simple way we can be part of a more just society is to be part of more diverse communities. By being a robustly multi-ethnic community, Reservoir Church gives our members the opportunity to be in relationship with many people who are not like ourselves. In doing so, we benefit from the riches of human culture that we weren’t born into, and we also stop assuming that people who aren’t like us are all the same. “They” become part of “us”, non-uniform, interesting people God loves and that we might as well.