Home Informed Learning to Engage in Human Difference 101

Learning to Engage in Human Difference 101

by Confluence
Reading Time: 5 minutes

By: Iyabo Onipede – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.


I will be writing a series of posts on Confluence about learning to engage with other humans who are different from us. Why? Because if we all learn new skills that will help us engage, in a healthy way, with others that do not think, look or act like us, then, as a country, we can move forward.

So here is key #1: It is a learning experience. You and I both do not know what we do not know. The old paradigm of trying to get difference to assimilate into the majority society is just not working. We all have to become aware of ingrained habits of learning, identify them, unlearn them and learn new paradigms based on real core values.

Key #2: Engagement is the goal. We are not here to learn how to tolerate others. We are not here to merely have difference represented. No. We are here to engage with those that are different from us so we can expand and grow our own selves to be our best selves.

Key #3: Human Difference is normal and healthy. Just like your DNA is different from mine, each person is unique. We live in a world where we put different people in different buckets for no good reason, other than to make them an “other,” a person whose human dignity is diminished or dismissed. Needless to say, in the US today, this is the most pressing urgent issue as we try to navigate difference and define who we are as a nation. I am defining difference with a very broad stroke: gender (including non-gender conforming and gender fluid folks), race, religion, age, national origin and differently abled folk.

What qualifies me to write this series? I am a straight cis-gendered woman. I am 53. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a white American mother and a Nigerian father. I have lived in the United States for 37 years and I only became aware of the nuances of my privilege in probably only the last 10 years. I am often mistaken for Latina but I consider myself Yoruba, my father’s tribe. I love my white mother and I am not here to beat up on white people (even though some of us humans of all races may need a good spanking (Ok, no violence here) correction, every now and then. I have a unique experience of being called “White” for the first 16 years of my life and then I came to America where I thought I was “a mixed-race immigrant” and unceremoniously discovered I was “Black.”

I bring a unique multicultural and multiracial lens to this important conversation. I am a recovering lawyer and I also have a Master of Divinity from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. My core values are compassion, communication and truth telling and it is my intention to bring a healing aspect to these conversations.

Let us dive right in.

Lesson #1

I have had many negative experiences in the US of A based on my perceived difference. But most of them were all about race. I was shocked. My parents had not prepared me for this. You think they would have. My mother was blond, blue-eyed, half Irish American and half Polish Jew. My father, dark-skinned, was the son of a Yoruba Itinerant Methodist preacher.

When we talk about difference, in this country, we must first share our understanding of language so that we make sure that we are talking about the same thing. “Race” is such a loaded word. It often feels surreal when I speak about race to white people because they are saying one thing and I am saying another thing. For purposes of our mutual learning conversation, let us use common shared language.

Ijeoma Oluwo in her book, “So you want to talk about race” says that we cannot agree on the definition of racism as each person defines it as they want. She gives a couple of definitions but here is the one I am going to use for the purposes of this post:

“Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power” (pg. 26)

One of the things that I have discovered is the issue of shared language. Racism stems out of artificial bias. Bias is natural. Racism is a social construct meaning it is artificial. The differences were originally stared by white people to denigrate black people or indigenous people as inferior. Subhumans if you may. Therefore, because white people are still in power overall, racism has a power component to it.

Bias, on the other hand, is natural in that what you do not know you are naturally suspicious of. Racism says, “I am better than you just because my skin is white, and I have power over you.” This power component is what a lot of what people miss in their definition although it is there. Also, what this translates into is that “white” is the “default,” the norm. Which means someone like me falls outside of the norm.

Some of what you must understand is that when most white people hear “racism” they hear, “I am a bad person that uses the ‘n’ word and I cheat black people and treat them bad.” Of course, most white people may not even fall in that category. Yet, when I, as a Woman of Color (WOC) hear racism, I immediately viscerally grasp that it means personally nastiness and cultural racism and systemic racism. Cultural racism is driving down the highway and all the billboards show white people. All magazines (unless it is Ebony, Jet or Essence) only show white people. Almost all TV shows may only have one small role for a black person. No black people on “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” Systemic racism is when the white boy gets three years (see my Facebook timeline) for raping three women but a black man selling illegal cigarettes dies for his crime before a trial or goes to jail for 20 years for selling weed. The system is stacked against black people and we keep being held to a different standard. The finish line keeps moving for us.

That is the value of shared language.

Now, here is where I do some truth-telling. I believe all white people are racists. Hold on. Don’t switch off. Hear me out. When I say all, and I mean “ALL” white people are racist, I am saying each of you have benefitted from the ill-gotten gains of racism, because you have benefited from the system being designed by y’all, for y’all and to y’alls benefit. No matter how bad you feel about this, your tears do not put me on an equal footing with you culturally or systematically.

And I am going to need to you to process this and get your life together because we are in this together. Get over your personal guilt and the attack you feel. It is not about you. Kinda sorta. But no. Those feelings you are experiencing are your soul saying you have a role in getting this together and healing this wound that is in your orbit. Therefore, learn. Dig deep. Process guilt. Do not let white women’s tears derail this process. Tap into your power.

I wish I had the wherewithal, I would also write about privilege and patriarchy and the role it plays in all this. Enough for now. We will get to those topics. Hit me with your questions. No shaming here. You are safe with me.


More by Iyabo:

The Power of Unlearning



Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).

Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).

Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com


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