Goldberg: Diversity is what brings us together

A false dichotomy is often constructed when approaching the issue of human diversity. On one hand, some people emphasize the ways in which people are different rather than how we are similar. On the other, there are those who wish to see past difference and recognize that all people are basically the same.

This latter group tends to believe that concepts such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religious affiliation and sexual orientation are irrelevant to identity. These things don't really matter, because we're all basically the same anyway.

I am struck by how many well-meaning people take this second view to heart. In fact, both of these approaches are problematic. Difference does matter, though difference need not be divisive.

People do not have to be congruent in social identity in order to be equal in value. It does not follow from the belief that one ought to treat all human beings equally, that one ought to view all people as being the same. It actually takes a sophisticated ethical system to recognize that all people deserve one's sincere respect in light of the enormously wide spectrum of humanity.

I therefore want to suggest a worldview which recognizes and embraces differences rather than ignoring them in an attempt to "transcend" them, while keeping in mind the collective identity of "human being" that all of us share and which bonds us together.

It seems easy to understand what is wrong with the first view. If differences are over-emphasized, boundaries between identity groups become so defined that cooperation across lines becomes difficult and it is more tempting for individual groups to assert their superiority over others.

It seems difficult to find fault with the second viewpoint. It allows us to erase the distinctions between people and have everyone together as human beings, right?

The fault lies in that word: "erase." This is effectively a giant palimpsest. In fact, it is further propagation of the power held by those groups that have historically been in positions of dominance.

For example, proponents of this view are likely to speak of less-affluent socioeconomic classes without mentioning race, because race is not a factor of economics. The 2008 Census, which states the median household income of all U.S. citizens was $50,303 while that income for blacks was $34,218, is simply unfortunate.

This ignores a significant historical narrative on which current society is built. It erases the memory of slavery and Jim Crow and allows us not to talk about de facto segregation. It absolves of any need to acknowledge unjust distributions of power. If there's no problem, there's no need for a solution.

No individual exists apart from his or her historical narrative or social context, but no individual is bound to perpetuate his or her historical narrative or reinforce his or her social context. That's the paradox we're working with.

History and social context are effectively narratives. Who gets to tell their stories and which stories we choose to listen to are very telling of our collective character.

Don't burn away these narratives of difference. We may wish that some parts of the stories never happened, but we need to resist the temptation to write over them. We are different. Embrace that - don't ignore it.