Riding happily on the London Underground’s crowded Piccadilly Line, I was headed for the famous Harrods’s Department Store. My fellow passengers were a diverse group. They included two young Asian women, several people from India or Pakistan, a Sikh man with the signature maroon turban, several black people whose accents indicated Caribbean or African origins, several white Brits with various British accents, a few white American tourists, and next to me were two young men, one black, one white talking about their families in South Africa. I sat, taking it all in, and thinking “This is what I love about London. Such diversity and all living together, mostly peacefully, going about their lives. What an interesting and exciting place! So unlike east Tennessee!”
Fast forward two months. Recently returned to Tennessee, my home for over 35 years, I was standing in a long, slow-moving line in the Cleveland, Tennessee post office. Gradually, I realized I was surrounded by a rich diversity of fellow post office customers whose appearance and accents indicated they were not originally from Tennessee. There were several Asian women, a family of Indian descent, several Hispanic families, and young people whose accents indicated eastern European and German origins, along with a number whites and blacks, whose families may have been in the area for many years. All of us standing in line on a Saturday morning, more or less patiently, but peacefully going about our lives, occasionally complaining to one another about the wait.
My minor epiphany came with the realization that even in conservative, previously somewhat isolated east Tennessee, the world, all of it, has changed. Diversity is everywhere and there is no place to hide and no going back. We either adapt and learn to enjoy and value diversity or we are going to be at odds with our surroundings and very unhappy.
That is not to say that the intermingling of different cultures is without discomfort and problems. The welcoming “melting pot” is, as it always was, a myth. When different cultures come together there have always been and always will be clashes and tension. Interacting with people unlike ourselves may be fun at the food and cultural festival level, but at the neighborhood, economic, and political levels, such interactions challenge our prejudices and abilities to adapt and treat others with respect, while granting them the same economic and political opportunities historically enjoyed by the dominant white culture.
We often forget how much our attitudes toward immigrant groups have changed. For example, when the largely Roman Catholic Irish arrived here in considerable numbers in the 1800’s, they encountered substantial economic and religious prejudice, such prejudice existed well into the twentieth century. Today it is cool to be Irish, even when it is not St. Patrick’s Day.
When I was a child in industrial northern Ohio, prejudice against those who were different from the original northern European Protestant settlers was common, accepted, and vocal. I heard my family and other members of the community utter hateful and offensive comments about Poles, Italians, Roman Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans, and even people from West Virginia whose ancestors were largely Scottish, but they came into Ohio to find work and were thus taking jobs from native Ohioans.
The tone may have changed, “political correctness” does temper our speech, but perhaps not our thoughts and beliefs when confronted with those origins are different from our own. Dealing with diversity is not easy, not on the national, community, or even personal level – the Vietnamese owner of the local nail salon and the manicurists and I have a difference of opinion about what constitutes polite customer service, not to mention a substantial language issue.
Even with a history of relationships with people from over the world during the days of the British empire, the British are experiencing difficulty integrating immigrants not only from throughout the European Union with its liberal foreign worker policies, but also those who are coming from eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, some legally, but many illegally. Not only are immigrants seen as threatening the fragile British economy with its high unemployment rate and generous social services, such immigrants are perceived as undermining the “British way of life.” Like the burka-clad women shopping in Harrods’s, the number of Muslim immigrants to England is perceived as threatening to many Anglo- Saxon Brits.
There is constant discussion in the media and Parliament concerning immigration and its attendant problems. Indeed, while I was there, the British government precipitated a huge controversy by putting large banners on mail trucks stating, “If you are here illegally, go home!”
Contending with a rapidly changing world that forces us to deal with those who are culturally, racially, and religiously different from ourselves is challenging, and, at times, difficult. Encountering diversity is often interesting and fun, but when we move beyond food and the arts to experience economic, religious, and values differences, living with diversity becomes hard work. It has always been that way, and always will be.
The welcoming, peaceful melting pot is a cultural myth. While Americans probably do a better job of incorporating those who are different from ourselves into our economic and social life than less heterogeneous countries, we still find it difficult. However, the challenges are here and they will continue. The ball is in motion, no one can stop it, and we either learn to adapt, integrate, and respect one another or suffer the consequences of painful resource-wasting conflict.