Diversity has become an increasingly sexy term among businesses and agencies all around the world. Over the past decade there seems to have been an increase in the efforts of both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations to express their value of diversity in the workplace. In education, my professional field, diversity is the golden concept about which recruiters and executives preach in a sort of race to show that their workplace is safe for everyone and an environment in which all people are expected to be themselves. It's quite attractive and incredibly admirable, but if organizations think that simply increasing the number of Blacks and Latinos sitting in the lunchroom or adding images of people of color to their websites speaks to their value of diversity they're poorly mistaken.
When I have conversations with people within and outside of my field, the perspectives about diversity vary. Many tend to focus on the need for racial and ethnic diversity; others speak to the need for balance between the gender-makeup of their organizations. Lately, in a few circles, there have been conversations about the need for socio-economic diversity. That is the idea that organizations, especially those serving low-income communities, should consist of people who share a similar background as the organization’s key stakeholders. Inevitably though, this last concept of socio-economic diversity is often connected to increasing racial diversity as class and race are still, given our country's marvelous history, incredibly linked in professional and educational spheres.
So let us suppose that every interested company and organization worked out a system in which 50% of their staff consisted of individuals who identify as Black/African American and/or Latino/Hispanic; then what? Would we yell in excitement and pat ourselves on the back for setting record numbers related to the diversity of our organizations? Sounds tempting, but let's hold our applause. There's still a lot of work to do and perhaps the more important and complex work is left untouched.
We need to revolutionize the way we think about the concept of diversity. It's not just visual, nor is it all about percentages. We have to remember that attached to those numbers we use to tell the story of our value of diversity are people; men and women with histories and experiences that make them similar and in many ways different from their colleagues in the workplace. In addition, and perhaps even more important, the conversation about diversity should be the basis for a larger dialogue about the experiences, multifaceted identities and mindsets all employees in an organization hold about who they are and how they view others who don't look like, speak like, dress like, work like, believe like, or achieve like themselves.
I am a Black man. In some circles, I may describe myself as African-American, and my ancestral history comprised of African, Native American, and European elders often affords others the opportunity to stare at me trying to figure out where to place me on the racial and ethnic spectrum. In beginning conversations with me, most people use English. Some who assume that I am of Latino descent begin their conversations in Spanish and at least two or three times while living in cities, I've had to rely on my minimal understanding of Arabic to let someone know that I am not at all fluent in the language and it is in fact not my mother tongue. In predominantly White educational and professional settings, all of which have touted their respect for and value of diversity, I have encountered White colleagues who assumed that because I was their Black co-worker or classmate and they, my White peer, that our work around diversity was complete, when in my view it was just beginning.
Now that I, a Black, same-gender-loving man from a low-income background, am sitting next to you the question becomes what does my existence and presence mean for your reality? What does my color and history mean for your paradigms concerning race, ethnicity, and sexuality? What does it mean with respect to the stereotypes you hold of Blacks and the beliefs you internalized either consciously or subconsciously during your upbringing. What does it mean for me that I am one of very few people in this space who can identify as a Black man? What role must I play when I hear you say something racially offensive or that simply presents an example of you being culturally unaware? What does it mean for me to be who I am in a space that exists in a country where the value of the history and lives of people who look like me is not equal to the value of the history of people who look like you? What do I do with my struggle to balance speaking out against what I believe to be narrow-minded ideals with my desire to be liked and equally respected?
These questions and many more, get to the heart of the diversity we all claim to desire and value. These are the questions that force us to recognize our differences and similarities and to push ourselves to transform and transcend our biases and limited experiences. Simply standing among a group of people who vary in size, shade, accent, and history is not diversity. Diversity consists of people in a common space learning to deeply and continuously reflect on their own areas of growth when it comes to their understanding of themselves within a space of others and what the presence of others means for them not just professionally, but personally.
Let's be honest, we all have biases and stereotypes that we carry and until we can build a space to actively address these topics as well as the complicated questions about where we stand with respect to mindsets regarding race, class, gender, sexual orientation and a number of other identities, we will continue to be passive in our approach to diversity relying only on numbers and visuals instead of people to tell to the truth about who we are and what we believe for better or for worse.
Moments before a recent program I attended on a topic related to educational inequity, I had a colleague ask if I would encourage a small group of three Black guests sitting together to socialize with other guests, the vast majority of whom, were White. She couldn't seem to understand why they needed to be together, chatting among themselves in a moment of isolation from other guests, despite the fact that they were actually friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. Collapsing the hand of my colleague, I escorted her into the auditorium where the event was being held and began to point out the many groups of White participants sitting together without a single person of color among them. I asked her to consider why her eyes zeroed in on the people of color who were grouped and not those men and women who shared her own complexion and to also consider why the image of Black people sitting together ruffled her feathers so much.
In that moment, I had to be a mirror for her, a sort of facilitator engaged in a process aimed at disrupting her mindsets and challenging her to see right before her very eyes her own biases and cultural limitations. In my soul I felt a tinge of anger at her need to see "us" broken up and regret that I needed to even have such a conversation, but as I reflected on the experience later that night I couldn't blame her fully. She exists in a space where diversity means people of different colors, specifically colors different from her own, scattered among Whites in a shared space, visually and physically integrated in a sort of Petri dish of cultural segregation, a segregation continually renewed by our fear to actively engage in cultural understanding and transformation.