Monday, October 12, 2015
Why We Need Diversity - A Non-US Perspective
I grew up in Finland, a country of 5 million people snuggled between Sweden and Russia. I started school at the age of seven and went through the nationally designed program every single child in Finland goes through finishing with my compulsory education after nine years of school at the age of sixteen. Despite my lower middle-class background as a half-orphan and a daughter of a single mother, due to several circumstances, I was able to enter a student exchange program through which I was sent to United States to attend a local high school. So on September 2007, at the age of 16, I packed by bags and flew via Germany to Washington D.C. and moved in with a local family in Northern Virginia and enrolled to a local high school of over 1,500 students.
Before traveling to US, I had been to Sweden and Greece. People in Sweden looked very much like me and I was aware of our shared history - through my education I had become aware of Sweden's role within Finland and it has become tangible for me through the compulsory Swedish lessons I had to take. People in Greece looked different, though I do have to admit that mostly our time was spent on hotel pool, surrounded by other Finns.
My familiarity with United States before going there was gained through popular culture and literature. Now that I look back to my mindset before actually leaving Finland, I am not sure whether I should laugh or cry. In my mind, American high school was like a mix of The O.C., Mean Girls, 90210 and Clueless. My friends kept telling me that they hope I meet the football captain and become a prom queen and drive around in Hummer H2s. Though I did not voice it, my hopes were on the same line. Discussion about the potential family I would stay with never even considered that I would stay with a family that didn't look like me. The expectation was the every single American family I should dream to live with is like the Cohen's from The O.C. and that the worst thing that could happen to me would be ending up with someone from a place like Chino (yes, I watched a lot of O.C. back in the day).
The books I had read followed a same kind of pattern. Schools were filled with people like me - white and privileged. At that time, I was already an avid reader, and read through a lot of young adult literature that had been translated to Finnish. Because of the books and the movies and television I had become familiar with, my expectation about United States was that it would be different from Finland due to language and larger portion sizes.
When I got my family information and heard that I would be placed into a Mexican family (first 2 children were born in Mexico, three children in US), I did not quite know what to think. My education had not focused on Mexico at all. I had never studied Spanish. And popular culture let me believe that all Mexicans are somehow involved with drugs or the mafia. Despite some hesitations, I left Finland with open eyes and found myself being taken in by a wonderful family - a loving group of people who were excited to share their culture with me and learn something about my culture, which was completely foreign to them.
As I started school, I quickly realized how wrong those depictions I had seen in popular culture had been. Popular culture and books had made me expect gangsters, cheerleaders and mafia connections. In Finland, there had been maybe one of two students of different race than Caucasian in my class for as long as I had been in school. Now I was the minority, surrounded by people with a variety of racial and historical backgrounds.
Quickly I learned how limited my Finnish education had been in regards to American history and was shocked to see that despite the coherence I saw in the school environment, there were issues boiling underneath the surface that divided people. For the first time, I properly learned about slavery. I became aware of the Black Power movement. I started to understand why Bush's administration was under so much critique. I felt the consequences of 9/11. I read and heard stories about the situation on the US-Mexican border. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of discrimination, a world of diverse issues and histories I had not been prepared for during my education in Finland.
After I came back home to Finland, I found it difficult to talk about those issues with people who had not gone through the same experience as I did. My friends seemed disappointed when I told that the life of cheerleaders wasn't really like Bring it On. Suddenly, rather than renting American teen movies, I wanted to see films that focused in US history and politics. I wanted to read books that would open up what I had seen and learned more. But finding books like that, especially from the young adult genre, which at that point was already my favorite, was difficult.
Though educationally my year in United States wasn't really challenging, and further emphasized to me the differences between the education systems of Finland and US, I feel like I probably learned more about people and diversity than I'd ever learned before. Coming from a place of very little diversity and a lot of privilege, the differences between the social classes within just one classroom full of people shocked me. This was something I had never seen on TV or read about in books.
I am forever grateful for the year I was lucky enough to spend in United States, because I can honestly say that I has made me a more tolerant, more open person. The fact that the wonderful family I got to spend 10 months with so enthusiastically opened up their home for me and invited me to be a part of their family is something I will forever be grateful for. Spending time with them, and going to a school in which my skin color was the minority opened my eyes for the diversity of people and educated me about facts that I had not been made aware of during my education.
But not everyone is as lucky as me. Without a doubt, I acknowledge my privilege. Within that one classroom full of different social classes, I was on the highest tier, and I know the people around me were aware of that. Student exchange is not cheap, and though I had to pay a price for being able to have the money to go, I won't deny my privilege. Many of the students in that room would not have had the change to travel to Finland for a year, even if they would have wanted to. Through conversations with students, I found out that not many had even been outside the Virginia state lines.
So why exactly do we need diversity? Because things are not as WHITE as media and books let us believe. For people who live in United States, this is probably no news. I am so extremely privileged to read books with characters I can relate and identify with because they LOOK EXACTLY LIKE ME. Though identification with someone does not necessary mean that you have to look the same, it is a damn good starting point. After meeting and getting to know people from different cultural and racial backgrounds, I started to yearn for stories about people like them. I wanted to know more about something I did not know through personal experience. I know how very privileged that must sound, especially for someone who is time after time fed characters that look like me and never characters like herself or himself.
I know someone could say to this something like "hey, there are a lot of black characters out there". Well yes, but that is not the point I am trying to make here. The point I am trying to make is the fact that all these diverse characters I had found from books, television and movies seemed to follow certain stereotypes. And when I actually got to meet people from those backgrounds, they were nothing like the people they had been made to look like in popular culture. These people were not one-dimensional. They were not there just to be funny sidekicks or sinister youths you should stay away from.
This discussion on diversity is one that will probably never come to and end and I think that despite some of the ignorant things that people have been saying recently within the bookish community, it is a good thing that this need for diversity has been brought up. This is just my little contribution for this discussion, written from a perspective of someone who had to face the lack of diversity through an experience generated from privilege. But I felt it was worth sharing.