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Just Imagine…Accepting our Differences

Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Maya Lin grew up in Athens, Ohio. Her parents emigrated to the United States from China, but Maya was born in the US. Maya never thought much about her cultural heritage growing up.

While at Yale, Maya entered a public design competition. There were 1,422 entries, but Maya’s was very different. The competition was “blind.” Submissions were anonymous to encourage the review panel to judge the design concept rather than judging the designer.

Instead of a design featuring a human figure or a grand looking structure, Maya’s design was simply a black granite wall. Her design was accepted and has become one of the most treasured memorials in America: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The acceptance of Maya’s design was controversial. The fact that she was of Asian heritage angered some. Ross Perot, billionaire donor for the memorial—and eventual presidential candidate, called her an “egg roll.” Maya would later remark that if the competition had not been blind, her design would not have been accepted. The fact that the judges didn’t know her ethnicity or her lack of experience contributed to the selection of a design that has changed the way we think of public memorials.

As a nation, we have long struggled with the acceptance of our different identities in terms of things like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Those who visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are often brought to tears as they see the vast number of names of those who died. As visitors mourn, they’re not put off by the fact that many of those names represent persons whose backgrounds are very different from their own. In such mourning, we can treasure those who paid the ultimate price in the name of our country. Yet, in the rest of our lives, how often do we balk at accepting our differences?

What’s remarkable is that when we really get to know those who are different from ourselves, we often find we that we not only accept those differences but come to embrace them. A key step toward this embrace may be the recognition of shared values—the recognition of an identity that binds and connects our many different identities. We may find that the values that motivate our pursuit of a purposeful life are not unique to us, but are shared by others. Those others may differ from us in many ways, yet in these shared values, they are bound to us.

Just imagine what it will take to accept and embrace people in their different identities, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability status, or other factors. Just imagine what it might look like to find a vital sense of identity across our many different identities. How can we elevate and cultivate those shared values and virtues that bind us together in a vibrant sense of community?

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“I refuse to allow any man-made differences to separate me from any other human beings.”  -Maya Angelou (American poet and civil rights activist)


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.