Isolated Diversity

Olga Phaedra PouppisJune 7, 2021Connection and IsolationInterfaith Connections

Artwork by Alyssa Wang

In the Cypriot culture I have grown up in, “community” is perhaps one of the most important concepts.

Cyprus is a small country that was occupied by different nations for the majority of its history and became independent just a few decades ago. You might not have heard of it before, and that’s understandable, as on many maps it’s not even represented. Perhaps as a result of its long subordination and sudden freedom, Cypriot people developed a very strong sense of patriotism and fellowship. It is, of course, nice to be surrounded with this kind of unity, to feel that you’re part of a group, that you’re not alone, that you belong somewhere. On the other hand, this can also be problematic. In order to be in a community, you need to fit certain norms, follow certain rules, and believe in certain things. If you don’t, then you might become an outsider, a person who does not fit in. And while publically those “outsiders” are not really shamed, still they are excluded from most social groups. At most times they are unwelcome in our community, even though generally there is no hate toward them.

I first experienced this when I was around six or seven years old. My friends and I called an “emergency meeting” on one of the school breaks to discuss a very serious and confusing problem. Our classmate, let’s call her Alice, turned out to have a different religion than my friends. It was possibly my friends’ first encounter with the fact that people they know might believe in gods different from theirs. We were left with a question: “Should we still be friends with Alice?” Looking back, it didn’t really matter what we chose, as we weren’t friends with her in the first place. But, for us, whether we would let Alice into our group, our environment was a matter of principle. Thankfully, in the name of world peace, we made the decision to let her be our friend, though when we informed her about it, she genuinely didn’t care.

This experience represents the whole system of how we’re raised and educated. In school, we are taught about equality, acceptance, and diversity. We are constantly told that we are equal no matter our religion, tradition, race, or way of thinking. But the situations we are told about in lessons are abstract. The teachers refer to people different from us as something isolated from us, something that has nothing to do with our reality. The educational system often seems to try to separate us from people different from us, even though we are learning that they’re equal to us. They are represented as something that is not bad, but not a part of our culture and community. We understand that somewhere on the globe there are places where people are unlike us, and we are OK with that, but we aren’t taught that those people may also be among us, part of our culture. As long as they have nothing to do with us, we are ready to accept them very easily. They are not part of our life experience, so it’s easy for us to talk about fairness and justice when we don’t really have to be fair to them. When we face diversity in our life, we don’t know how to react.

So was Alice actually part of our community, of our culture, or was she outside of it because of her beliefs? Am I excluded from society because I do not necessarily agree with all the morals and ethics that are valued in my culture? Does someone need to absolutely rely on everything they are taught in their community? On the one hand, what shapes a group are the things we have in common. However, a community is going to surround you for most of your lifetime. It is linked to many aspects of our life, and even if we are not part of it, we will still have to interact with it. A community is not just a group of similar people, it can also be a place for different people with different ways of thinking, different beliefs, and different philosophies to come together and unite around some key ideas. People in a community can be different.

A big part of being open to variance is seeing that variance in real life. For me, this was exactly what made me start questioning how fair our system was to people unlike us. I first came across the term LGBT+ community in sixth grade, when the bullies of my class “upgraded” from calling their victims stupid and “pigheaded” to the worst (from their point of view) insult: gay. And despite how bad and ignorant this experience was, it was the first time I was exposed to the fact that people can love others of the same sex. I didn’t necessarily understand the nature of this, but I still started questioning why there is so much hate for those people, and why society is literally fighting love, a feeling that is so romanticized when it’s heterosexual. I started asking these questions and thinking about this topic only when I learned about homophobia and got the chance to observe it. In my life experience, I have worked on being inclusive after learning about the oppressed groups. My family also helped me with that a lot. They are always accepting of people, no matter their nationality, sex, or religion. They not only talk to me about inclusivity but also try to give me a good example of how to treat people. Most importantly, they do not ban me from meeting people unlike us, and always encourage me to learn about the oppression of different groups. I am so grateful to them for raising me this way. Personally, I believe that a common mistake we make is trying to “shield” ourselves from anything different from us. We try to pretend it isn’t there, wishing to avoid any encounter with that topic. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are against diversity, it’s just that we are scared of the unknown, and we prefer to live in our own little world, pretending that things we do not understand don’t exist. The homophobic slurs that my classmates used to say came from a place of ignorance, as most of those kids didn’t even know what exactly being gay meant. I still can’t say that I myself am always fair and inclusive, but I am working to reach that goal by learning and trying to understand different people’s perspectives. So while the educational system taught me that diversity is something I shouldn’t be in contact with, I learned from my personal experience and from the example of my family that diversity is a part of my life that I can’t and shouldn’t ignore.

I believe that a community simply cannot function if it requires all members to be the same. Diversity is what makes a community stronger. By cooperating with people who are different from us, we can learn, get inspired, and help each other. We can start looking at things from a different point of view. If we stop avoiding our dissimilarities and accept them, we will finally be able to destroy the boundaries that are holding us back as a society. Difference shouldn’t just be allowed outside of a community, it should be welcomed inside of it. We are different whether we like it or not, so why do we constantly try to fit norms and standards to become one with the masses? Why do we have to diligently hide anything that may make us stand out, why do we put on masks to please the public? A community should help us find our true selves and express them to the world, not forbid us from doing so. Instead of just talking about diversity, we should try to accept it in our own lives by building a society where being different doesn’t mean being alone. A community where people can be diverse without being evicted. A place where everyone feels involved even if they stand out. A place where diversity is welcomed not just to exist but to enter the public.

Olga Phaedra Pouppis is a 12-year-old girl who was born in Moscow, Russia, and who lives in Limassol, Cyprus, with her family and dog. She likes nature, chocolate, and Harry Potter. In her free time in between her lessons and studies, she is usually reading or resting by the sea, or doing both at once. When she grows up she wants to become a journalist, writer, and activist.