What Does Diversity Mean to an Antiochian? by Ryan Sharma, PsyD

What does diversity mean to an Antiochian? I wondered this myself, so I went to the authority on Antiochian attitude: Horace Mann. I had serendipitously found a copy of Slavery: Letters and Speeches written by Horace Mann in 1851 to the young people of Massachusetts. I was sure that this would shed some light on the subject. In the opening letter, Mann described several classes of people. He first described those who “adopt with implicit and unquestioning faith the views of their parents, or of the circle, or caste, into which they were thrown by the accident of birth.” He likened this group to “unfledged birds,” who eat with open mouth and closed eyes whatever is fed to them.

He then described a group who are eager to look beyond their own immediate context for the sake of advancement. The people of this class look for the predominant views and dogmas, attend to the most current political tides, and attach to those with the stronger principles. Mann likened this group to chameleons, who change color with every contact. But Horace described yet a third group who—upon realizing God and Humankind as the two most significant objects in the universe—had also realized the most reverent duty: Love.

Thus, this class of people understands that all sentiments and achievements related to fame, power, opulence, knowledge, things to come, and things of past are secondary and subordinate to the supreme duty to love Humankind.

It is exactly this abandonment of egocentric accomplishments and desires that allows us as human beings to engage in acts of love for Humankind that reveal to us the “truth-hallowed” path. We need to take a step back at this point, because Mann was not approaching this issue as Pollyanna would. In discusssing the acts of this third class of people, bent on the steady and moral path of truth, he said something very profound. He said that as people of this class look within themselves to their own moral nature they understand that “annihilation with truth is better than the most favored existence with error.”

“… all sentiments and achievements related to fame, power, opulence, knowledge, things to come, and things of past are secondary and subordinate to the supreme duty to love Humankind.”

Some years ago, I was walking across the campus of a large university when I was about to cut through a parking lot as a shortcut to my destination. In this parking lot was a small group of Black students gathered around a car talking.  At the last moment, I decided not to cut through the parking lot and continued on the sidewalk that traversed the road on which I was walking.

Now, there are many ways to interpret this incident and we can start with the obvious. Perhaps I have unquestioningly adopted the views of my caste, as Mann described his first group of people. This would make sense given that the media portrays members of the African American community in a specific light. For example, a study examining news crime coverage shows that Black defendants are four times as likely to have their mug shot shown than White defendants, or that youth of color are less likely to be shown in stories about education or health.

It may be the case that I have heard from teachers, friends, or relatives to avoid certain parts of certain cities because of the color of the people living there. It could also be the case that when I’ve been told about an African American who has made significant accomplishments, that she or he has been an “exception” to the group’s defining characteristic, such as how the news commentator during Obama’s inaugural parade ensured that those who can both put their mind to good use and have a good conscience can accomplish anything in the world.

Now if I were of this second class of people I would likely recognize that this act is contrary to the liberal notions of race relations. Indeed, as “multiculturalism” and “diversity” have become buzzwords in many institutions, this is clearly a politically incorrect action.  It seems that many in this group would self-identify as “just” people, well-intentioned, sympathetic, and non-racist. It’s often from this group that I get a “Tsk! Tsk!” when I tell the above story as they relay to me the fact that they grew up in an “open” environment that accepted all people and were brought up with egalitarian values. These individuals themselves. Yet there is something specific that separates the second from the third group, which goes back to this apparent willingness to be annihilated by truth.

“The Antiochian works on the self, first and foremost, to exemplify Gandhi’s oft quoted phrase, “be the change you wish to see in the world.””

I can report, from my above experience, that I could have very easily rationalized my choice in direction that did not include race as a factor. In fact, I have the privilege not having to if I don’t want to. If I wanted, I could have simply said to myself that I chose to walk around the parking lot simply because, and I could have excluded it from conversation in this article and it would have been lost in history as a non-incident. By doing this, I could avoid the annihilation of the part of my identity that identifies as a progressive liberal with regards to race relations, especially when I teach about these issues and pride myself on the work I do for social justice. In social psychology, they refer to this as the confirmatory bias, in that we internalize the information about ourselves that matches, in this case, our self-image and reject the information that contradicts it.

Indeed, there are many examples of incidents like these that happen daily and could feasibly be explained away by one’s chosen rationale. The car salesman in ABC’s documentary True Colors, who quoted a car price to a Black man as $1500 more than he had just offered to a White man, and that financing was not available after he offered financing to the White man explained that “multiple factors” are taken into account when pricing cars for potential buyers. I wonder what explanations the high school principals and disciplinarians give when confronted with the nationwide fact that Black students are suspended three times more than White students.

I would think that some of the explanations would fall under Mann’s first category of persons when they say, “well, the Black students just cause more problems.” Many of these behaviors go unnoticed by the individuals engaging in them, such as tapping your wallet or clutching a purse when walking past a man of color on the street, or avoiding people of color when asking for directions, or assuming that any Asian on campus is a student, or that a woman’s opinion is somehow less valid. Turning the mirror upon ourselves to truly question the motives behind our most automatic responses subjects us to the vulnerability we experience when we offer up our selves for annihilation by the bold truth. It is far from an easy thing to do, which perhaps is why Horace Mann described this act in the context of love. Love means being responsible for your part in the relationship and seeing beyond our own preconceptions to fully embrace the other person.

The key difference between Mann’s second and third classes is that the third class understands, is aware of, and accepts their own role in the perpetuation of suffering.  This acceptance is necessary for corrective action—corrective action that contradicts the stories that have been spoken through the media and the cultural ethos that define how we should respond to certain social groups.

The Antiochian works on the self, first and foremost, to exemplify Gandhi’s oft quoted phrase, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Diversity for us is the cleansing of our lenses that have been dirtied not by our own volition, so that our actions can purely represent our love for all Humankind.