We live in Los Angeles. Until it breaks off into the ocean or we run out of water and we’re living in scorched wasteland overrun with rabid coyotes and rattlesnakes curled up in the car pool lanes, we live in Los Angeles.
And since it’s not a scorched wasteland yet, Los Angeles has the reputation as one of the most diverse cities on the planet. Cultural diversity. Biodiversity. Unidiversity. Every kind of diversity there is, LA has it. It’s an amazing place. I hate the traffic. I hate the trendiness. I hate the house prices. But this place really is one of the most unique and vibrant places on planet Earth.
Still, diversity is a word that get’s cheaply thrown around there, as if somehow because we live in a diverse place we are naturally diverse, like diversity is something that’s in the air.
Nope. That’s car exhaust.
Living with diversity isn’t just about living around people who come from a different culture than you. Ethnic diversity can look like diversity most of the times, but it gets kind of watered down when everyone gets the same kind of education at the same kind of colleges and makes the same kind of money working the same kinds of jobs.
True diversity comes with diversity of opinion, and one of the most impactful experiences I had with this was not in Los Angeles, but in Washington, D.C.
So let’s go there.
It was 1998. I went with a group of students from our AP US History class as part of this program called Close-Up. The intent of the whole trip was to get a firsthand look at the way government works. We met senators, toured the capital and did all the other things you do on a class trip to Washington, D.C. The best, and most genius part of the whole trip, however, was how the trip coordinators ensured that we could experience a different slice of America other than our own.
They started by pairing us in hotel rooms with kids from other states. All I remember about this was that I was rooming with two kids from Nebraska, and they liked Cake. The band, but I’m assuming they liked the baked kind, too. Nothing else about them was in any way different or extraordinary.
What was, however, was when we would all gather in one of the hotel ballrooms for discussions on current issues.
It’s all well and good to talk about diversity when everyone is excited to share their own culture and you’re enthusiastic about hearing your side of some irrelevant bit of popcorn trivia about your home. It’s not so cool when opinions diverge and a ballroom suddenly is on the verge of turning into Murderpit: The Reckoning.
As we gathered in the banquet hall at those big tables with the poofy red chairs that inhabit seemingly every ballroom in the country but nowhere else, we were given a question to discuss and take a side on. The very first question we received was “Should peyote be legal?”
Being suburban white kids from Kentucky, our drug lexicon was fairly limited at the time. All we had to go on was the quick summary given to us of the issue at hand. All we knew was that it was a hallucinogen that altered someone’s state of consciousness. Some said cool, but most said not cool, and thus our group can out strongly in the illegal camp.
No, a plant that can cause an altered state of consciousness should not be legal, our DARE trained brains concluded.
It seemed like a straightforward answer.
Our representative spoke confidently, outlining a concise and seemingly bulletproof defense of our position. Man, it sounded good. WE sounded good. This was America, man! Saying what you think and watching things get done!
You know that part in Return of the Jedi, when the rebels think they’re approaching a completely defunct Death Star only to realize at the last instant that is in fact, not defunct, and is instead completely able, ready and willing to annihilate them?
Yeah, dude, this was totally a trap.
Almost as soon as our delegate finished his last word, there erupted a loud voice of dissension from the back.
“You can’t make it illegal! You don’t even know what it is?”
“Of course!” and that’s when the dude stood up. He said he was from a reservation somewhere, and that they used peyote in their culture and that it had significance to their culture and that we should rethink our answer. He wasn’t just saying this. He was yelling it. He was saying it so strongly his mouth was voluntarily getting rid of saliva to make more room for the words, and he had that look in his eye that made it abundantly clear that the thought of murdering our delegate had crossed his mind, and while the idea was clearly absurd, he hadn’t fully dismissed it at that point. Behind him was an entire banquet table of the same pitiless stares.
Which all of us sitting at the table avoided as we counted the number of threads in the carpet like good little non-confrontational white children. Our speaker tried valiantly to debate our position, but it was no good. He was abandoned by us, and without the spirit of conviction, it was a lost cause.
I don’t remember how the debate ended. I just remember feeling so stunned that our position was not the popular one by default, and that people had thoughts on the subject that came out of a realm completely outside my own understanding, which was so ignorantly limited.
It was a powerful lesson in diversity, Blue. You don’t get to say you appreciate diversity just because you live in a diverse place. True diversity comes from tolerating a diversity of opinions. With that, however, it’s not always enough to simply acknowledge that someone thinks differently than you on an issue. It’s important to realize that if you live in a diverse place, you also have the opportunity to grow from the conflict that results from dealing with diversity.
But you have to be ready for the unexpected. That’s diversity, Blue. The unexpected.