NOT long ago, my daughter came home from school and asked for our national flag. Remembering a small Stars and Stripes that once marked my place at an international dinner, I fetched it and gave it to her.
''No!'' she said, ''that is the American flag. I need our national flag.'' She explained that the school's ''diversity lunch'' required each student to bring in a flag or symbol of his or her national, racial, or ethnic heritage, as well as a traditional food.
I told her that, like many Americans, our background was mixed and I was not even sure of all its elements. I could not choose a single flag. Besides, we did not feel a particular link to any of our background groups.
She went to school with the Stars and Stripes and some homemade baked goods of indeterminate national origin. But she returned home that day in tears. The teacher was disappointed, and the children accused her of claiming to be more American than others.
The incident was confusing and upsetting. We had sent her off believing that all the students had an equal right to that flag. As it was, my daughter had felt slightly disadvantaged, having to relinquish claim to some special group.
Not long ago, schools projected a very different image of the United States. In that picture, people from all over the world could throw off old prejudices and build a new nation, regardless of their complexion, accent, or the spelling of their name. Race, ethnicity, and gender were held to be almost meaningless compared with an individual's worth or ability to excel. This idealistic image was useful, if only as a guide to what we believe we ought to be.
Now it seems that the image has changed. From the criteria used in President Clinton's Cabinet choices, to census classifications, to school programs, the emphasis has shifted from the individual to gender and ethnic or racial bloodlines. To be sure, all these efforts at diversity are well meaning. Who can argue with the stated objective of cultivating respect for other cultures? But I fear that the present approach creates more self-deception and divisiveness than respect for diversity.
The emphasis on ethnicity, race, and gender often fails to achieve the diversity that people seek. Depending heavily on appearances, it misses the great distinctions between individuals. According to official distinctions used today, a woman of Hispanic origin and a man of Scandinavian descent represent ''diversity.'' But if they are both well-educated and come from professional families, they perhaps share more values and perspectives than this Hispanic woman would with the Hispanic daughter of a migra nt worker. Yet official standards would not see any difference between the latter two.
THE popular emphasis on gender, race, or ethnic affiliation tends to encourage identification with a group at the expense of individual development. It also distances those in different groups. When the schools and government promote diversity, individuals cease to be simply Americans and become modified Americans with a certain designation, such as African-American, Irish-American, Mexican-American, etc. This practice creates a temptation, especially among young people, to retreat into the group and ad opt its identity. It also gives the impression that the individual's prospects are tied to his or her group. This invites individuals to segregate themselves with their particular affiliation and view other groups as competitors.
The US and its Constitution have traditionally emphasized the individual and largely ignored groups as simply agglomerations of individuals. This ideal has created a remarkably open, fluid, and diverse society.
It would be better for teachers and authorities to return the focus to the individual and to cease dwelling on distinctions between groups. They should emphasize the country's common heritage: respect for the individual, regardless of race, creed, gender, or ethnic origin.