After white supremacist marches and counterprotests, NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality against black men, and demonstrations aimed at preventing conservative speakers from appearing on college campuses, there has been much said and written about what America stands for.
Out of all this chatter, one thing is clear: America is not a monolith where one perspective — that everyone must stand for the national anthem or that hateful views should never be expressed — is the only correct one. Diversity of backgrounds, cultures, views and beliefs, and our ability to accept them, is a hallmark of this country.
Diversity, of course, brings challenges, especially when a dominant culture feels threatened by newcomers, new views, new practices and beliefs. But, we only remain strong when we recognize and talk through these threats, not when we seek to silence or drive away those who may make us feel uncomfortable.
That was the message delivered in a powerful speech by the superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria. He gathered together all the academy’s 4,000 cadets, as well as faculty, coaches and staff, on Thursday to deliver a forceful response to racist slurs that were written on message boards outside the dorm rooms of several black cadets.
“If you’re outraged by those words, then you’re in the right place,” Silveria said of the racist messages.
“You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being,” he added. The U.S. Air Force shared Silveria’s speech on social media.
“I will tell you that the appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas, the appropriate response is a better idea,” he told the group.
“What we should have is a civil discourse, and talk about these issues,” Silveria said after noting that the incident at the Air Force Academy comes after white supremacist marches in Charlottesville and the NFL protests. “That’s a better idea.”
“I also have a better idea, and it’s about our diversity,” he continued. “And it’s the power of the diversity … the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this county, that we come from all races, all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringings. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”
Silveria urged the cadets, who listened in silence, to record his words on their phones to ensure they would resonate long after his five-minute speech.
“Just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you my most important thought today: If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
A simple message from a wise man: Appreciate diversity. Treat others with dignity.