June 10th, 2013
In my last post, I talked a bit about diversity being misunderstood. Organizations often lack clear, concise definitions and the word diversity is often used as code for race, African American, minority, gender, affirmative action, etc. While these are all important parts of the diversity and inclusion conversation, I continue to argue that the word diversity does not actually mean any of those things, it means difference. Difference takes many forms and we need to have a good grasp on the dynamics of difference before we can even hope to have meaningful, actionable conversations about these other things.
For the most part this resonates with people and seems like a logical, valuable and actionable way to move forward. But not always.
Sometimes my message generates some anger or frustration because people think I am saying that race, gender, etc. are not important or do not require any more work. Sometimes my message generates some relief or excitement because people think I am saying that race, gender, etc. are not important or do not require any more work.
Both groups are incorrect, this is not at all what I am saying.
I think that race, gender, age and other forms of diversity that we have traditionally focused on continue to be important and that we still have tremendous room for improvement. I sometimes even feel like we are losing some ground around these issues. I do not think you have to look very far to find evidence of this…just spend some time online.
If there is one constant regarding every post I read about race or gender, it is that somewhere in the comments will be someone complaining “why are we still talking about this, we have fixed it, lets move on already.” And there will also be somewhere in the comments blatant proof that we have real work yet to do.
Every time that I write something about privilege, anti-racism or anti-sexism work I get the same cut and pasted e-mails from the same yahoos about how anti-racism is actually anti-white and anti-sexism is actually anti-dude. I get the same crotchety responses from the same recruiters saying that the only thing that matters is hiring the best person for the job, as if that were a real thing.
Some folks think that I rant and rave about diversity and inclusion because I have something against straight, white dudes, but that is not where my issue lies. I believe that talent, ability and potential are evenly distributed across social groups. I believe that most people claim to believe the same thing, and I believe that as a nation we claim to believe this. If that is true, then it makes sense to me that we should expect that even distribution to show up in the outcomes produced by our organizations and institutions…for example in retention rates, promotions, graduation rates, incarceration rates, the make up of our management team, etc. If that even distribution does not show up in those outcomes, if they are biased or skewed in some direction, then there is something causing it and we should want to know what that is. If I was part of an organization that had overwhelmingly straight, white dudes as managers, I would be concerned. I would want to know what is causing that particular outcome. Not because there is something wrong with straight, white dudes (some of my best friends are straight, white dudes!), but because I would see that as evidence that we may only be able to identify talent that shows up in a certain kind of package.
And that could be a pretty significant disadvantage.
There are a lot of people who know that I do diversity & inclusion work that think they know what I have to say about it, but they have never sat in one of my sessions or read much of what I have to say. My work is less about hate and fear and more about human nature and social dynamics.
The question that I care about and see as actionable is not whether or not you are a “good person” or a “bad person”, but whether or not you understand human nature and act accordingly.
The question is not whether or not you have bias (because if you are an awake and alive human being you do), but whether or not you are doing anything to mitigate it.
We have so many people running around convinced that they are open minded and non-judgmental that we might never make any further progress.
Let me point the finger at myself for a moment, rather than at you. I do diversity and inclusion work for a living and have for over a decade now. I am good at what I do. Not only do I do it for a living, I believe in it…beyond my work I believe in the value and power and importance of diversity and inclusion. I have read books and books and books about topics related to diversity and inclusion, I have read posts and articles and white papers and enough research to fill my office and yours. I have attended conferences and seminars and symposiums and retreats and workshops and forums focused on diversity and inclusion. I have presented and facilitated diversity and inclusion sessions for Fortune 100 corporations, schools, non-profits, churches and government entities. I have worked hard to bring considerably more diversity into my personal and professional networks of relationships.
I think that the idea of expertise is greatly overrated, especially in matters involving human beings, but I would say that there are not a lot of people in the world who have spent more time studying, reading, writing, talking, arguing and thinking about diversity and inclusion than I have.
I still have bias.
I think that Jennifer Brown, Andre Koen, Eric Peterson, Andres Tapia, Allyson Robinson, Mary Frances-Winters and Howard Ross are some of the most important voices today regarding diversity and inclusion. They have tremendous experience, expertise and insight.
They also still have bias.
Bias is not dependent on being filled with hatred or fear or belonging to a hate group. It just means that you are a living, breathing human being. Bias is also not dependent on you being part of a majority group, that simply amplifies the consequences.
I have bias and I am likely to interpret differently the behaviors and words and appearances of people based on who they are or who I think they are…much of this, maybe all of this, happens outside of my conscious thoughts, but that is where most of what my brain does happens. And it still can inform the outcomes of my interactions with people.
Having bias is not about what is in your heart, and I am not going to question what is in your heart. Bias is a natural product of how the human brain works, processes information and makes decisions…fear and hatred only amplify it.
Are you mitigating bias? Is your organization doing anything to mitigate bias?
That could be a pretty significant disadvantage if they are not.
I think that there are many kinds of diversity that have real implications on human behavior in the workplace, among them are race and gender. I cannot support the idea that race and gender, or the longer list of protected classes are the only things we should focus on in diversity and inclusion work, though I think that a great deal of the work is still found there. Logically and linguistically I always go back to the basics, and when we use a word that means difference, our work should be about difference. If that is not the work we want to do, we should use some different words.
But far more troubling to me are the ideas that race does not matter any more, or that gender does not matter any more. “Post racial. Kids today don’t care about race, ethnicity, gender. Race was a big deal in the 50s or the 60s or the 70s, but not today.” I hear stuff like that all the time, you probably do so as well.
I do not know what evidence gets you to the conclusion that race and gender do not matter.
Be good to each other.