Diversity, Prejudice, Tolerance, and Respect
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Diversity, Prejudice, Tolerance, and Respect

Reviewed by: Neil Izenberg, MD

Terri sat nervously waiting for the bell to ring, signaling the beginning of her first class. She looked around. The room was full of all kinds of faces: faces with freckles like hers, darker-skinned faces, faces of many colors. She was looking forward to getting to know the people behind the faces and making some friends. "I guess I'll be less nervous when I get to know people," she thought. She looked down at her smaller left hand, which had been injured years ago in a car accident. "I hope they'll like me when they get to know me."

Yusef's father was a diplomat from Tunisia, and his family had just moved to the United States. At first, Yusef missed his friends and school back home, but he was curious about all the new things he would see and learn — and the new friends he would make. He wondered, though, whether the traditional knit skullcap that he wore, like many Muslims, would set him apart from his new classmates.

Diversity means variety — and it doesn't take much looking around to see that America is a diverse land, with many people, religions, beliefs, and languages. You can see that in a classroom, at the mall, on TV, or just walking down some streets. That diversity has been part of America since its very beginning as a nation — and even before, when hundreds of Native American groups lived across the land. In fact, much of America's strength, creativity, and energy comes from this diversity.

What Is Prejudice?

Have you ever felt that someone judged you before even taking the opportunity to get to know you? The word prejudice is the noun form of prejudge, which means making judgments or forming opinions before getting all the facts. Terri and Yusef both worried that other students would form negative opinions of them before getting to know them.

There are many examples of prejudice in the world, some of which you may encounter through news reports, at school, at work, or in your home. It's unfair — and often sad — but prejudice exists so widely. You may have heard others saying things about whole groups: "All Italians are . . . ," or "Jews always . . . ," or "Girls can't . . . ," or "Gays always . . . ," or "Old people are . . . ," or, well, you get the point. The list just goes on.

Maybe you've heard people call others nasty names. Sometimes, people who say these things say them out of fear or because they just don't know better. If people hear prejudiced comments while growing up, it may seem hard to resist repeating them. Some people who feel unimportant or bad about themselves think they can feel better by picking on or bullying others.

Sometimes, people who say these things are angry or upset, and they want to lash out at others. When prejudice against certain groups leads to an act of violence, it's called a hate crime. The laws for defining and punishing hate crimes vary from state to state.

Respecting Differences

No two people in the world are exactly alike. All people, even identical twins, have their own experiences and their own viewpoints. Do you have to agree with people to respect their right to have an opinion? No. People with differing views and opinions can respect each other's right to differ.

You don't have to like the same food, sports, or music as your friends or practice the same religion. But you're probably open to learning about their differences. An important part of growing is being willing to learn new things. Being open to seeing new things and learning about other people without negatively prejudging them is a form of tolerance.

But does tolerance mean that all behaviors have to be accepted? No, of course not. 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. Tolerance also means treating others the way you'd like to be treated.

Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Don't judge a person on your first impression, which is usually based solely on the way he or she looks. Take the time to learn more about that person than what's on the surface.
  • Keep an open mind. It may be easier to spend time with people who seem just like you, but you can miss out on a lot of interesting experiences — conversations, foods, books, music and art, sports, religious ceremonies, and more. Getting to know people who seem different can be difficult at first, but you'll probably find that you have much more in common than you think.
  • Be informed about what's happening in America and the world and find out what you can contribute. You might volunteer at a social services or human rights organization. You might want to learn more about how you can combat hate. If you like to play music or write, you might try using those skills to express and share your feelings.

You probably know many people who have something that sets them apart from the norm. All of these people have feelings and deserve to feel accepted for who they are. Everyone has something to offer, even if it's something unexpected, like a new idea or a new way of looking at something. The more we learn about others, the more likely we are to realize that the myths and stereotypes we hear are unfair or incorrect.

When we learn about — and respect — differences, we not only get to experience more of the world, we also open ourselves up to more opportunities. That's because great jobs and career opportunities are going to the people who are comfortable working in a world that is becoming increasingly diverse. The ease of global travel, communications, and trade make it more important than ever to learn to respect and appreciate others.

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