When difference taught me sameness
Having grown up in West Virginia, which, as of the latest census, is 95% white, 3% black, and 2% other, I didn’t encounter a whole lot of “diversity” as a child. “Diversity” was what we saw in Pittsburgh, or DC, or elsewhere… In our community, not many people stood out as different. The “diverse” kids in my town were the white Catholics swimming in a sea of white Protestants.
Leaving the shelter of my parents’ home at age 16 to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts, imagine my surprise at encountering people from so many different walks of life. While I was raised by hippies who expected me to treat everyone as my equal, and while I had traveled somewhat and knew that there were places more diverse than my native WV, I still marveled at the opportunity to interact with students from every one of these United States as well as dozens of countries – students who came in every color of the rainbow, who practiced every creed, and who came from every socioeconomic bracket. The girls in my dorm were from Manhattan, the Bronx, Greenwich, San Francisco, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, and many other places. They were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and agnostic. It became an incredibly educational and formative experience to make friends in this new world.
What surprised me the most about this new place is that many of the kids who shared my white skin were the most different from me. The father of one girl in my dorm was an “investment banker” – something I had never heard of, just as I had never heard of “management consulting,” a field that employed another friend’s dad. Where I came from, people were teachers, coal miners, mill workers, bank tellers… There seemed to be a whole world out there that I didn’t understand. The kids of the I-bankers had “fleeces,” something I hadn’t seen until my arrival in New England; the girl in the room adjoining mine had about fifteen of these strange jackets, so I borrowed one until I received my own for Christmas. I never met people with such excess in West Virginia. I had one winter coat, not fifteen; if I had enough to share, I would have given them to someone who needed them more than I did. That was my family’s way.Continued on the next page