It is no secret that Houston is “the most diverse city in America.” Academic studies, numerous newspaper articles, billboards, and even the mayor have flaunted this title. A wide array of cultural festivals alternating almost weekly and the unfamiliar linguistic tongues overheard while walking along the streets all buttress this designation. Houston is diverse and proud of it!
Since moving to Houston, TX, I have grown to appreciate the vast diversity and rich culture this city has to offer. Instead of sitting comfortably in spaces familiar to me, I have ventured beyond my confines and befriended people from different races, socio-economic classes, political affiliations, and religious beliefs. Building these relationships through active listening and meaningful conversation has expanded my worldview. While we may disagree on certain points, at the end of the day my friends and I still value one another as an integral member of society. We can better understand each other’s perspectives and realities, and acknowledge that our differences in opinion will neither alienate the other nor diminish their importance in existence. In the same way, schools have an opportunity to offer a space for students, faculty, and administrators to learn and practice cross-cultural interactions and relationships.
As an advocate for more diversity and integration in education, I would like to offer three tangible benefits of considering racial diversity and cross-cultural relationships when considering school choice:
Cross-Cultural Relationships Cause Us to Grow in Self-Awareness
As a child, I never understood why I could never truly relate with some of my friends at school. While we all enjoyed playing football, eating pizza, and talking about our crushes, I never grasped the idea that our experiences in life were still very different. I was the son of Korean immigrants and we did not speak English at home. The struggles my parents faced in attempting to survive in America were very different from my non-Korean friends. I realized that my reality was different from the reality of others, and that was okay. My parents helped me to be proud of my Korean ethnic background while also encouraging me, albeit on my own, to learn about what it means to be an American. Later on, I learned that being Korean-American meant living in two worlds, juggling to fit in, but not ever really finding a place. That was my normal.
I credit a lot of this growth in self-awareness from going to schools with a diverse group of a people. This helped me to learn from others what aspects of our lives were different. Through these organically formed friend groups in a diverse school, we were able to have more confidence in who we were as individuals both within our respective demographics and beyond. Cross-cultural relationships in schools allow for conversations to begin in a place of learning as well as at home where students might ask their parents about their backgrounds.
Cross-Cultural Relationships Encourage Us to Empathize
The realities that might seem implausible to one are incredibly real for someone else. I never had to worry about being followed in a store or being stopped while walking as a suspect of a crime. I never had to fear being questioned abruptly about my residency status by local authorities. In essence, I never had to consider the consequences of particular judgments placed on people based on the color of their skin or natural outward appearance. But following conversations with friends who have lived these experiences, these are realities that they cannot escape. Unfortunately, it is a deeply ingrained idea in society that certain people are more dangerous than others.
While some may deny the validity and prevalence of these experiences, I grew to understand the experiences of a very real part of life the more I developed friendships with those who looked different from me. I placed myself in their shoes and wondered how the world could be so unjust and broken. It wasn’t until my early twenties when I truly began to mourn with those who mourned. Had I learned how to listen well and empathize at an earlier age, I might not have further aggrieved those who were already upset with their state of the world. We could have sat in the heartache together and moved toward deeper understanding and mutual trust. However, if we encourage students at a younger age – younger than twenty – to begin learning how to reflect on the experiences of others, we will be able to raise young women and men who will be better in both the classroom and society.
Cross-Cultural Relationships Can Lead to Reconciliation
While cross-cultural relationships themselves cannot lead to greater systemic reconciliation, they are a step toward healing. By learning to empathize and listen to one another, we can acknowledge the pain and discomfort from our country’s history of racism. The implicit biases that we have learned and presently exhibit through our words and actions can be unlearned. We can work toward restoration and empowerment of less prominent voices in this nation and around the world. This conversation is currently more important as America has become even more diverse. And while our students might be young, they will one day be the leaders of this nation. They are the ones who will have to navigate and lead an America that is projected to become even more diverse, just as Houston has now become.
Although my cross-cultural relationships were formed organically, they were not without awkward moments and instances of broken trust. I wish I had formal guidance, structure, and situations that fostered growth and understanding in truth, while displaying grace. Teachers and administrators have an incredible opportunity to encourage these cross-cultural interactions to flourish. Students can feel affirmed in who they are and value others in their differences. Where else could students have the unique chance to ask thoughtful questions and learn from mistakes regarding diversity than in a learning environment? Schools that are mindful of diversity can provide age-appropriate curriculum on self-awareness and crossing cultures in order for students to become well-informed citizens and kind human beings.
We can see fruitful dialogue and progress through sacrificing our self-centeredness, and respecting others instead. In a city as diverse as Houston, it is unfortunate that we do not see more cross-cultural relationships, but instead stagnation in segregation. But as we value cross-cultural relationships and take the initiative to place the worth of diversity and the experiences of others above our own comfort, we can see growth toward a brighter future. We can hope for the best and help these students by offering safe spaces to develop cross-cultural friendships, exercise empathy, active listening and conversations that will lead toward reconciliation.
Woojin Kim is a former STE Middle School & Upper School Latin teacher and Junior Classical League (JCL) sponsor. He holds a B.A. in Classics and History from the Johns Hopkins University.
- Cross-Cultural Relationships
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