Diversity doesn’t mean we’re all the same

Our differences make us stronger

Last weekend, my husband, Bernard, and I heard Rev. Thom Belote, of the Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, talk about the spiritual and practical significance of a passage from the New Testament, Galatians 3:28. The gist is this: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…

I realize, with some trepidation, that scholars have made entire careers of interpreting Galatians 3:28, and many scholarly papers have been written on the subject of what Paul meant. As the dean of a public university’s school of public health, I will not venture into that territory.

My observations are not about the Bible but about diversity. Belote’s sermon made me think about sameness and differences. Above all, we all are humans. As humans, irrespective of race, gender and other characteristics, we have more shared biology than differences. Current research tells us that “[w]hile there are significant differences among the genomes of human individuals (on the order of 0.1%1), these are considerably smaller than the differences between humans and their closest living relatives, the chimpanzees (approximately 4%2) and bonobos.”

While there is much we share biologically, we differ in cultures, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation and identification, race/ethnicity and a host of other factors. Some people see it as a positive that we could blend, acculturate, assimilate and become one. Differences are minimized in that particular utopian vision. However, there is another way of thinking, and I share it, that our differences make us stronger, that those differences bring varied and variegated ways of seeing and being in the world, and that, in itself, adds perspective, creates the foundation for innovation, and makes our world richer and more interesting. I don’t want to be in a world of me. Moreover, as Belote noted, there is a negative side of sameness, the opposite of differences—a hostility to difference. That hostility may translate to maltreatment of those who are outside the mainstream. History is full of examples. I want to live in a world and a society where we can accept and celebrate what we share and where we are different—with civility.

As Boyarin and Boyarin (1993) observed: To our understanding, it would be an appropriate goal to articulate a theory and practice of identity that would simultaneously respect the irreducibility and the positive value of cultural differences, address the harmfulness, not of abolishing frontiers but of dissolution of uniqueness, and encourage the mutual fructification of different life-styles and traditions. We do not think, moreover, that such possibilities are merely utopian…3

gradsAt our School, we have defined individual differences as contributing to our strength. The differences—not sameness and not incivility—make us stronger. A school of public health must reflect the diversity of the world and the people we want to reach. Without differences, our understanding and effectiveness would be impaired. I do not want to minimize the challenge of reaching across our comfort zones to understand and accept differences, even on something like political persuasion. Still, our School should be a place where the richness of our differences is not merely tolerated but celebrated. Barbara


1 – National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education. Curriculum Supplement Series. “Understanding Human Genetic Variation” Teacher’s Guide.

2 – Varki, A and Altheide, TK. (2005). “Comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes: searching for needles in a haystack.” Genome Research, 15(12): 1746–58. PMID 16339373.

3 – Boyarin, D and Boyarin, J. (1993). “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity.” Critical Inquiry, 19(4): 693-725. The University of Chicago Press.


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