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Defining Diversity, Prejudice, and Respect

The Philadelphia Eagles' football stadium can seat almost 70,000. Could you have picked your brother out of the crowd? Yep. There are over 8 million people living in New York City. Could you recognize your mom out of all those people? Of course. And the population of the entire world is more than 6 billion. Could your family possibly mistake you for someone else? No way!

Although there's bound to be a person who looks something like you, you are totally unique and special. Your brother, your mom, and the other members of your family are each unique, too. And so is every person who has ever lived, is living now, or will live in the future. Pretty cool, right?

But what if everyone actually did look exactly the same? What if everyone talked and moved in exactly the same way? Boring! We'd no longer be one of a kind. We'd lose our uniqueness. We'd lose our diversity.

What Is Diversity?

The word diversity means a variety or assortment of different types of things. Think of how many kinds of fruits, or T-shirts, or books there are. How about all of the many types of houses and cars that exist? Or the amazing variety of birds, plants, and fish found all over the world?

In the same way, human beings have a great deal of diversity. Although our basic structure is the same (we all have a head, body, arms, legs, etc.), there's diversity in our looks. Skin, hair, and eyes all have lots of interesting colors. Our bodies are different, too, in size and shape. Even our fingerprints are unique!

People are diverse in other ways, too. We live in different places, have different kinds of jobs, and go to different schools. We have a variety of ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs. And we speak many different languages and differ in our thoughts and feelings.

Where Do I Find Diversity?

Diversity, of course, starts right in your own family. You probably share things like the shape of your nose or texture of your hair, but each person is still different. Even identical twins are unique!

But to really check out diversity, look around your town or city and around your school. How many shades of skin color do you see? How many hair and eye colors? How many body shapes?

Then think about the different ways people in your community worship, work, and play. Where do their families come from? What languages do they speak to communicate? How do they study and learn at school? It's not the same for everyone - that's for sure.

All of this incredible diversity is why the United States is sometimes called a melting pot. This means that people of different races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds have all come together to share their lives. Americans share a number of very important beliefs; in democracy, in freedom of speech, and in the right for a person to worship as he or she chooses. These common beliefs give an important foundation on which to build a nation. Americans stand for these beliefs and defend them.

Americans also celebrate their different cultures, differing political viewpoints, and differing tastes in food, art, music, and just about everything you can think of. From the birth of the nation, these differences have strengthened and enriched the country. The diversity that Americans have valued throughout history has a lot to do with making this world an exciting and interesting place to live!

What Is Prejudice?

Unfortunately, not everyone sees diversity as such a positive thing. With diversity can come prejudice (say: preh-juh-dus).

People show prejudice when they form a negative opinion without knowing all the facts. (That's not fair!) These opinions might be based on someone else's race, religion, or ethnic background. They might be based on a person's gender (whether the person is a girl or boy), age, disability, or even income or education level. Then prejudice can turn into hatred or unfair treatment of a person belonging to a particular group.

Do you recognize prejudice when you hear it? As soon as people are lumped together in a group, unfair opinions are probably being expressed. Consider the beginnings of these statements, for example: "All African-Americans are . . ."; "Every white person is . . ."; "Catholics always . . ."; "All Italian people . . ."; "Everybody in a wheelchair . . ."; "Poor people are . . ."; "Girls are always . . ."; or "Old people are . . .".

Comments like these don't have anything to do with looking at a person as an individual, do they? Instead, prejudice divides people into groups and says who's in and who's out. Rather than building bridges between people, prejudice puts up walls. People who show prejudice often fear diversity for some reason. Instead of welcoming diversity, they're afraid of or uncomfortable with people who are somehow different than they are. This kind of thinking can lead to hatred and even violence.

What Is Respect?

But there's another way to look at diversity in the world around us. People who see others as individuals instead of labeling them according to the group they belong to are people who show respect for each other. (Some people use the word tolerance to mean the same thing.)

Respect for one another means being willing to accept other people's differences - even if they look different from you, have a different religion, or come from a different land. It also means treating other people the way you'd want to be treated.

Does this mean that all behaviors should be tolerated? No way! Behaviors that disrespect or hurt others, like being mean or bullying, or behaviors that break social rules, like lying or stealing, should not be tolerated. Respect is about accepting people for who they are, for their best selves - not about accepting bad behavior.

Practicing Respect

But isn't it easier just to be with kids who are like you? Kids who have the same skin and hair color? Who speak the same language? Who think the way you do?

Easier, maybe. But sticking with the easy way also means missing out. You won't get to find out about different cultures or learn about new ideas, places, or ways of looking at the world. You'll also miss out on making new friends.

Getting to know someone who's different than you might seem a little uncomfortable at first. Here's how a kid named Mike puts it: "When I see somebody who's not like me, my first reaction is to keep my distance. But after getting to know this really cool kid - who's totally unlike me - I realized that everybody's just looking for a friend."

A smile and a simple "hi" are all you need. All it takes is one person to take the first step. Why not you?

Reviewed by: Neil Izenberg, MD
Date reviewed: April 2004