It’s Time for Honesty About Diversity
The topic of diversity is very popular; so ever-present that the word has almost become cliché. People hear “diversity” and dismiss conscious thought, relying instead on whatever stereotypical notion they have about the topic. How did things get this way?
First, we have a very real diversity problem with glass ceilings everywhere. Second, there exists a lack of bravery, honesty, and emotional intelligence when it comes to talking about diversity.
Put these together and what you get in most organizations is required training that offends some, enlightens few, but allows us all to check a required box.
In fifty years, this will not even be a topic of conversation. Thanks to immigration, interracial relationships, and the continued societal progress of women and minorities, the mythical “melting pot” will finally appear. Diversity will become the new status quo. It’s inevitable.
However, until then, we have work to do. If we are to effectively address this challenge in the next few decades, we have to get honest.
The topic of diversity is very popular; so ever-present that the word has almost become cliché.
There are two big issues that are often neglected or ignored. First, diversity often hurts before it helps. Presenting people with others who are different from them causes an odd and sometimes negative reaction. The simplistic mantra preached by the consultants is very Kumbayah. “Diversity is beautiful!”
Let’s be honest. A state of awareness and togetherness may or may not materialize. What is certain is that we are human and we continue to struggle with unproductive thinking patterns. Though it seems this aversive reaction to others was once highly useful.
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that back when our ancestors lived in caves, this “us and them” point of view supported survival. This is basic in-group versus out-group psychology. Encourage yourself by denigrating the out-group. We don’t use clubs anymore, but some of that simple reactionary thinking still lurks in our brains.
The pundits say diversity has positive effects. That is an oversimplification.
Diversity might lead to higher productivity and creativity, but only if the team is skilled in conflict management and communication skills. Otherwise, an odd tension and misunderstandings often are created; or worse yet – out of control political correctness!
What you get in most organizations is required training that offends some, enlightens few, but allows us all to check a required box.
I think diversity is beautiful and fascinating. However let’s not simplistically profess positive outcomes without giving folks a real chance to achieve them. With great communication skills, a lot of honesty, and decent conflict management skills, you have a shot.
The second unproductive action we take is to lose sight of the real goal. The goal isn’t quotas or numbers or multiculturalism. We focus too much on emotional labels. We talk about male/female, black/white, gay/straight, old/young, etc. These labels have become saddled with all kinds of emotion, rendering conversations unproductive. There are many bases of diversity including gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, education, and so on.
We get so hung up on a few legit but overly emotional labels that we fail to see the full spectrum of diversity, and we lose sight of the holy grail: creating a diversity of ideas.
So what should we do?
If I could give you only one piece of advice, it would be this: stop talking about diversity and stop reading about diversity. Instead, go physically experience diversity.
The single best way to start is to experience what it feels like to be a minority. I’ve been blessed to have this opportunity several times. Three come immediately to mind. First is volunteering in urban areas. Whether dealing with at-risk youths, or the homeless, or people with HIV, the experience was always enriching.
The second was my time as a doctoral student where white males were a distinct minority. Being surrounded daily for several years by people from the four corners of the world provided serious mental stimulation.
The third example only lasted a few hours, but had the biggest impact on me. I was asked to be part of a panel discussion at a leadership and diversity conference. I agreed, thinking this was about some aspect of leadership I had studied or addressed many times. Wrong.
The caller clarified – the topic was white privilege. Uh oh. What had I just agreed to?
As a scholar, this was not my area of expertise, so I looked it up. White privilege is a fascinating area of study examining the fact that, even if not racist, white people can accrue benefits in life simply because they are white. Imagine “white sounding” names faring better than “non-white sounding” names in a stack of resumes, even when the credentials are identical.
Very interesting stuff. That did not, however, change the fact that I was out of my element. I decided that when the time came to sit on the panel, it would be wise to say very little.
The day arrived. When I walked into the hotel ballroom I realized quickly I was the sole Caucasian in the joint. The room held about two hundred people. There were many African Americans with a minority of Asian Americans and Latinos thrown in – and me. I walked through the large room and it felt like all eyes were on me.
Stop talking about diversity and stop reading about diversity. Instead, go physically experience diversity.
I seemed out of place. I felt horribly awkward. On the dais sat my two co-panelists. One was a well-known African American studies professor from a prestigious university. The other person was a very successful Latino corporate executive. Kind fellows. We enjoyed comfortable banter prior to the beginning of the session. I felt confident that my keep-your-mouth-shut strategy would work since these guys were so accomplished and had so much to say.
The moderator was an African American woman who was the Vice President of Human Resources for a very large company. She introduced herself, described the purpose of the session, and read all three panelists’ bios. I felt oddly insecure.
I reminded myself once more to stick to the strategy. Just nod thoughtfully and let these learned gentlemen dominate. When she finished the bios, she said, “I’m very excited to see where this discussion leads. Let’s get started. White privilege: does it exist? Dr. Dewett?”
For a moment, I squirmed. It was more than just having all eyes on me. I was the odd man out. I was the minority. I was about to address a topic that touches nerves. To this day I don’t know why the moderator found it appropriate to start with the pasty white guy.
Luckily, I happen to be a bit goofy and quick on my feet, so I sat up straight and cleared my throat. I said, “Let me begin by saying what a privilege it is to be here today.” The crowd cracked up. I knew then I would survive.
What followed was a robust discussion of the labels we use, how they often trip us up, the psychology of diversity, and the need to focus on the real goal – creating a diversity of ideas. When I first walked in I felt isolated and weird. By the time I left I felt enlivened. I had been surrounded and positively affected by perspectives and backgrounds different from mine.
If you’ve never experienced what it feels like to be a minority, you need to find a way to make it happen. This should be mandatory for promotion into leadership roles. Bottom line – it helps you grow.
Fifty years from now. One hundred years. Whatever – you get my point. Until we are all a lovely shade of mocha, we have work to do. It has less to do with mandatory training and much more to do with broadening your experiences and having frank conversations.
Give it a try. You might be surprised by the ideas you encounter and those you help create.
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Art by: StaryHeavens