Narrowing The Gap

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My entire life, I have believed that all people are of equal value. But until recently, I naively thought that we had moved beyond prejudice. I have since discovered just how real prejudice is; and with this discovery, I have learned an important lesson. In order to make progress, it is vital to actively embrace difference and confront intolerance.

At times, I look back and wonder how I could have missed something so obvious. When I began to realize the extent of prejudice, it seemed to appear all around me. I was stunned to learn that not everyone has a tolerant attitude. I can recall those moments of realization as if they happened yesterday.

In one case, my school invited our sister school from inner city Milwaukee to join us in classes for the day. Sitting in my first hour class, I heard one of my peers whisper a racial comment about one of our visitors. His words ran through me. All I could hear was the hate in his voice. I could not even imagine thinking what he said, much less saying it out loud.

The rest of the day, my awareness of the prejudice in my own school was heightened. I began noticing mocking gestures and off-color remarks. Frustrated, I sensed others' lack of respect for anyone who was not exactly like themselves. Somehow they had erroneously placed themselves on a pedestal. It seemed as if the presence of our visitors made them feel uneasy, as they feared anyone who was different. Above all, I felt embarrassed for my classmates who were so unevolved. The problems at the root of many conflicts existing in the world today became clear to me. I understood that we will never make progress with such limited views.

A similar situation occurred a few weeks later. Since sophomore year, I have been a Best Buddy, an international program designed to provide mentorship to people with disabilities. While registering for the year, a classmate approached me. He questioned my motivation and made his prejudice towards people with disabilities distastefully evident.

I was speechless. Although I did not know him well, I had known him through reputation. He was known as an intelligent, faithful and down-to-earth person. Confronting me with his arms crossed, his mask lifted. I saw beyond his reputation and into his true self. I realized the breadth of his prejudice and how well he, and so many others around me, have disguised it. I was sad for him and everyone else who viewed him as a future leader.

After those days at school, my mind was whirling. Generally, I feel in-tune with the nuances of my surroundings. And now, here I was trying to comprehend something I thought I would never understand. It occurred to me that I had never heard any intolerant words from anyone in my family. I have always found difference to be interesting and something to be embraced. I have worked with children of all ages, senior citizens, people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, and people of varying races and religions. Not once did it occur to me to label or devalue any of them. Rather, I appreciated all that we were able to learn from each other.

Although these moments terminated my innocence, I clearly recognize my responsibility to stand up for those who are or dare to be different. When others make narrow-minded comments, I find it easy to bring it to their attention. As I continue on this path, I find myself gaining confidence and becoming more of an advocate for anyone who needs one. Seeking opportunities to express my acceptance and direct daily conversations towards tolerance, I can sense other’s responsiveness. Their willingness to narrow the gap of difference gives me hope. It is the small steps like these that propel progress.

In a world full of opportunities for progress, working together is essential. Progress will never be made if people are intolerant of each other. I learned that one of our most valuable resources, diversity, is something taken for granted. Every culture has something valuable to offer. Disregard for this truth is not only morally indefensible, it is at our own expense.





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