We are taught to see difference

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By Paul Kleynjan:

Diversity, the experience of difference, or the way we experience race, culture, sexuality, gender, class and ability is a big part of campus life at UWS.  There are, apparently, parts of us that we consider the same or different from those around us.  We celebrate each other as a cultural and social gathering of minds as represented by the multiplicity of peoples living and learning in the western parts of Sydney.  But what if there is no recognition of all this?  What if one just exists without the need to clarify either sameness or difference in the people around us?

For some this is a concept impossible to believe, for we must all have agendas and cannot love unconditionally.  And so, I find myself in the precarious position of not understanding society as it functions around me.  I’m not saying I don’t notice sameness and difference in others… I’m just saying it doesn’t really matter.  We’re all in this together and labelling, blaming and differentiating people is just not worth the worry.  It took a long time for me to notice the differences in people, and that was only because I was taught to.  You can believe me when I say; I’d prefer to forget those life lessons.

So how can a person not be affected by it and still function in society, let alone in university?  Honestly, I can’t explain it to you, I consider myself a neutral person.  However, I can possibly demonstrate with a story on my experiences as a backpacker many years ago.

The first time I ever visited Los Angeles was in my mid-twenties (I am now 44).  It was a whirlwind decision and I found myself in a backpacker hostel on the famous Venice Beach.  I had arrived in the middle of the day and set out to explore my surrounds.  My arrival was unknowingly only a few short years after the Rodney King riots, a racially fuelled meltdown of Los Angeles following the acquittal of white police officers on trial regarding a videotaped and widely covered police brutality incident against an African American citizen.  For some, emotions were still high.

Now, I tended to avoid tourist areas when I was backpacking, preferring to submerge myself in the culture of the place I was visiting.  This time was no different and I was pleasantly surprised to find a bar decked out in a Wild West theme.  The place was closed, but through the wagon wheel shaped windows I spied an old stagecoach hanging from the ceiling and a saloon bar running that down one side.  I was determined to come back at opening time (5pm) and went back to my room at the hostel.  When I arrived there, I found my roommates were all Swedish, Norwegian and Danish.  For the point of this story, let’s just say they were noticeably white (except to dumb old me), right down to the hair and eyebrows.  I invited them to come out for a drink and we arrived at the bar just after opening time.  I bought the first jug of beer and we stood around talking while the bar slowly filled with people.

At some point in the proceedings I found myself doing all the talking.  Of course, it hadn’t registered with me at the time, or at least not until I felt a huge presence move directly behind me and, in hindsight, the fear in the eyes of my new found friends.  My heart at that point started to race, but I thought it best not to make a fuss over it.  Of course, I kept one eye on the door and thought to myself, “If he touches me, I’m piss-bolting”, but outwardly I kept behaving like nothing was out of the ordinary.

It was maybe because I looked unfazed by the proceedings that another bloke pushed through my friends and stood an inch or two in front of me, face to face.  I looked at him placidly as he almost growled at me, “Do you realise what sort of place you’re in buddy?”  It was at this point when I finally realised a few things; the place was packed, the whole place was silent, everybody but me and my friends were African American and they were all staring angrily, straight at me.  I had no radar for these things, or whatever people use.  I just don’t see people as different and, therefore, had not perceived there was a problem.

So what does an Aussie do when all the pieces finally connect?  Well, I looked over to the wagon shaped windows, ran my eyes the saloon bar, looked up to the wagon hanging from the roof and, turning back to my aggressor, put on my broadest Aussie accent…

“Oh yeah… it’s a cowboy bar…”

They stared…

“My shout for a beer, you want one?”

The entire place burst out in laughter.  I was there until 2am with my new circle of friends.  It even turned out some of them had been to Australia.

My point here is if you don’t make an issue about difference, then you will find life to be far more enjoyable.  Don’t worry about difference, instead celebrate it.  My only regret was that my new mate promised to show me around L.A. but I lost his number on my drunken stumble back to the hostel.

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