Difference is what makes us unique and beautiful. Our differences can cross all sorts of social and cultural experiences, and that sometimes requires reaching out of our immediate circles to find ways to embrace and learn to support communities that you may not otherwise be a part of.
For a long time, tolerance was touted as the standard in coexisting with others different than yourself. There is a continuum in socialization. On one end — the extreme negative end — there is Hate. From there it would go to Intolerance, and then Neutrality. On the positive side, it would progress to Tolerance, and then Belonging. “Tolerant” is defined as showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with. The willingness to allow. Is tolerance really the best we can do with people who are different than us? We merely allow them to exist? If someone walked up to you and said, “I tolerate you,” what emotion does that bring up? Are you happy? It makes me feel like they don’t really want me there, but they aren’t going to actively remove me. Do you feel like you belong?
I think we can all do better than to simply endure what is different between us. If that is all the work we are willing to do, then what a missed opportunity to connect. Right here, we have such a rich and diverse community to learn from. We have a large and thriving Islamic Center that has an open message of welcome on their page, inviting community members to come see their space and attend a worship service. The Jewish Community Alliance states on their website, “The JCA is not solely for the Jewish community; we welcome all people from every different walks of life into our family to prosper and grow with us toward a better tomorrow.” St John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church hosts a Greek Festival, the Northeast Florida Scottish Games and Festival are held focusing on Highland culture, and the Jacksonville Caribbean Festival is held annually. River City Pride Parade and Festival is held in October each year celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community, and you can explore a tour with your family of Jacksonville’s African American Heritage Trail.
Sometimes it can be scary to step out of your comfort zone and admit that there are things you don’t know. If you have a friend, coworker, or a parent in your child’s class whose background is different than yours, and you are interested in getting to know their culture better but aren’t sure about starting a conversation yet, a great place to start is books. Read some things about their country and their culture, read an author from their area, and learn a few things that might make a new conversation more comfortable. From there, let a relationship naturally develop. Let them know that you are interested in their background, and that if they would like to share, you would love to take time to learn more. One important thing to point out is that it is never someone else’s job to make you comfortable with their heritage… if they choose to share with you then that story is a privilege — and it should be treated as such. No one is the spokesperson for an entire culture, but if you are genuine and really looking to connect, I have found that most people are very willing to share the culture that has defined who they are as a person, and an open mind is an amazing avenue for human connection.
My personal goal will always be one of welcome and belonging — tolerance simply isn’t good enough. Recently I attended an amazing conference that focused on inclusion. The keynote speaker shared a story of her time in Africa, and told a story of common Zulu greeting — Sawubona which means “I see you.” The response is sacqona, which means, “Because you see me, I exist.” This is a greeting of witness. Relationships — whether romantic, friends, family, or community — are interdependent. Everyone wants to be seen, and because we are seen, our souls are fed to exist. We exist in a thousand beautiful ways with histories and stories as varied as we are as people. And how wonderful it is for each of us to be seen — truly seen — and be welcomed with “I see you” and together, then, to belong together.