Does a Diversity Focus Perpetuate Racism?

"Advocates of 'diversity' are true racists in the basic meaning of the term: they see the world through colored lenses, colored by race and gender."

Read one person's thoughts here - be sure to read the comments too.

Might be tough to generate comments here on RBC - this isn't exactly the easiest topic to discuss.

Views: 465

Comment by Maureen Sharib on October 31, 2008 at 8:54am
Meagan comments:
"...I believe this article raises important issues. At what point is the focus on our differences to our detriment? Are we promoting ideas of "otherness" through exclusive groups such as employee networks designated for specific demographics? Are we creating a reverse racism by continually stressing our differences, mostly in the arenas of race, gender and sexual orientation? How can we ensure we are moving toward tolerance and friendly work relationships rather than pitting employees against one another by filing them into their respective groups?"

Important questions and yes, Steve, I doubt if we'll see many step forward. But for those that do, I applaud your bravery in advance. To the others who "watch" and maybe are motivated enough to respond, I plead for tolerance.
Comment by Steve Levy on October 31, 2008 at 9:09am
Many? I'd be happy with 2 or 3 but this is one of those topics that people don't want to talk about. And given that the US is on the precipice of a major paradigm shift in the politics of color, I would think that people would want to talk about diversity particularly since it's so ingrained in our profession.

I'm less concerned for tolerance as I am for an honest discussion.
Comment by Maureen Sharib on October 31, 2008 at 9:37am
That's all well and good if everyone can keep from shouting and insulting each other.
Comment by Steve Levy on October 31, 2008 at 9:46am
Are you thinking what I'm thinking???
Comment by Steve Levy on October 31, 2008 at 7:17pm
Ignorant fear of things that go "boo!" in the night certainly is at the core of its outward appearance as racism and discrimination. Psychotherapy aside, I'd venture that there are more than just a few citizens who believe EEO and diversity mean that people like them - qualified or otherwise - will get a job. I'd venture that there are more than few workers who look at the person in charge of diversity at companies and think "Oh, now I know why they were hired." Confuse these people by pointing out that there are blacks who are not voting for Obama or that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is vehemently against Affirmative Action and watch these folks start short circuiting...

I think there is to many an us versus them polarization wrt diversity. This tells me we've done an exceptionally poor job explaining what diversity is all about...
Comment by Joe Gerstandt on November 1, 2008 at 12:30am
Well...I am new here. I have been meaning to join this community for awhile, but this post has actually driven me to do it! I would agree with some of the things that have already been said here, and maybe disagree with a few others. I sometimes think that diversity is maybe the most misunderstood issue in the world of business today. That is unfortunate because, while it has always been important in a number of ways, it is now becoming a really, really, really critical business issue...
+The nature of competitive advantage is changing, which is making diversity and inclusion more important.
+We are on the front end of an unprecedented generational transition...bringing generational differences to the forefront and also bringing us what looks to be a significant amount of leadership and workforce volatility. +By the end of this calendar year the Bureau for Labor Statistics is predicting that 70% of new entrants into the workforce will be women and People of Color...meaning if you are not good at attracting, engaging and retaining women and People of Color you are going to be competing for a shrinking portion of the available talent.
+Employee retention and engagement in most organizations translate into large dollar numbers, and as the economy tightens up are going to become increasingly important. Many organizations have a great deal of room for improvement in the retention and engagement of women, People of Color, Gen Y, Gen X and other employee groups

Just a few points that I would share...a few things from my perspective:
1.) Diversity (if we are using dictionaries) means difference . It does not mean race, or gender, or quotas or affirmative action. Those things are all a part of the larger conversation, but diversity is much bigger than any of those specific things. It means difference, and difference comes in a lot of forms.
2.) Diversity is a relational exists within the context of relationships. If we are being precise with our language there is no such thing as a "diverse person" ...we have all probably heard the word used that way and we generally know what is being communicated, but that is not accurate use of the word. If someone is "different", they have to be different from something or someone...a relationship is inherent. Diversity exists between people. It is an emergent property of groups and relationships and it exists in every relationship between human beings. You can pick any two people from anywhere on this planet, put them in a room together and there is diversity there. There may or may not be racial diversity, gender diversity or age diversity in that relationship but there is still more diversity present than those two people will ever be able to explore in there life times. So...true diversity and inclusion work is not a "set of tools" or an "attitude" to be pulled out just when you are interacting with a co-worker or a client that is of a different race or from a different is work that applies to every relationship that you have with another human being, because every relationship that you have with another human begin involves diversity. The other characteristic that is present in every relationship that you have with another human being is commonality. Because of the paradoxical and contextual nature of our social and cognitive identities there are differences and commonalities between us and every other person on this planet. And if our relationships / interactions / transactions /conversations with other human beings (co-workers, clients, spouses) are going to be healthy, valuable, effective, authentic and sustainable...then we must be about exploring both the difference and the commonality within, because both represent great value for us. Real diversity and inclusion work is not about any kind of "preference", it is about who we are in relationship with and the nature of those relationships. We want those relationships / interactions / conversations to be as authentic and real as possible so that we can make the best decisions (hiring, firing, promoting, dating, electing, etc.). Contrary to what we might like to believe, those decisions are often times heavily influenced by stereotypes, assumptions, labels, judgements, etc., regardless of what our intentions are or how good of a person we consider ourselves to be.
3.) We have to get clear on the value of diversity. This might not be a terribly popular thing for me to say, but I believe that a lot of us in my line of work (I am basically a "diversity consultant") have not done a particularly good job when it comes to this. In my humble opinion I believe that we have also done a poor job of really defining and breaking down diversity...this is a big part of why there is so much confusion still around these issues. I continue to see people saying and writing things like "there is no business case for diversity", "diversity is more trouble than it is worth", etc. Do not be deceived...the business case for diversity (there are actually a number of specific business cases, depending on what you are actually doing (targeted recruiting, training, etc.)) is strong. Cognitive diversity (very different from identity diversity, but informed by it) is a critical ingredient for creativity and innovation. We live in a time when innovation is rapidly becoming the new competitive advantage, and that alone makes diversity and inclusion pretty dang valuable. Cognitive diversity also drives better problem solving and decision making on a group level. When it comes to groups of people solving complex problems, diversity actually trumps talent. Identity diversity (things like race, gender, age, orientation, etc.) has also been proven to improve group decision making...I just finished reviewing an excellent study that looked at how juries deliberated, processed information and made decisions and how that was influenced by whether there was racial diversity present or not, and it has a profound and positive impact. As I look around the world of business (and healthcare, education, government, law enforcement, etc.) I would say that we could certainly benefit from some better problem solving and decision making...and diversity can help us get there. There is a lot of very good, very strong research out there that shows the raw power and value of diversity, unfortunately a lot of it is hidden away in academic, science and research oriented journals. A lot of my work is geared towards sharing this information and research with folks in the corporate world. A couple of good books for examining some of the research around this are The Difference, by Scot Page and The Medici Effect, by Frans Johansson.
4.) We have to get clear on human nature. We are not quite the beings we think we are. One of the reasons that we need to have a "focus" on diversity is that we are wired socially to avoid difference. Regardless of our intentions (this is not about being good people or being bad people, this is about how human beings function socially) we are all biased. We all operate on assumptions that we make about people and groups of people and we all have many cognitive biases that skew how we interpret the behavior of other people, the value we assign to their behavior, what we remember about people and what we think we remember about people. That is why today in 2008 the research shows that if I put two copies of the exact same resume online, one with a stereotypical white name and one with a stereotypical black name, the one with the white name would be downloaded many, many, many more times. It is not because there are a gazillion evil, racists, hateful recruiters out there, rather it is because of how we are wired as human beings. So we need to own that, deal with it and make at least a little bit of effort to counteract it. And again, this is what a lot of my work focuses on...this is why I call my work "Illuminating Blind Spots", because we have a lot of blind spots...a lot of ways in which we do not make decisions and process information quite the way we think we do.
5.) We have to be honest with ourselves about what we truly believe. I appreciate the fact that folks are concerned about "reverse-discrimination." Discrimination is discrimination in my book and it is a bad business practice, it is bad citizenship, it is bad morally, theologically and in just about every other way I can think of. And if we are truly and seriously against discrimination then our outrage should first and foremost be directed towards the systems, institutions and processes that we are a part of. If we truly believe that talent and ability are not determined by race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc. then we should be outraged by the fact that there has never been anyone other than a white male in the White House. Nothing against white men, I happen to be one myself. But if talent is not determined by gender and / or race, a "fair" system would never produce a result like that. If we are wanting to take a stand against discrimination, we should be outraged that there is almost ZERO racial, ethnic, gender orientation at C-level positions in the Fortune 500, that there is almost ZERO racial, ethnic, gender diversity on the Boards of Directors of those Fortune 500 Companies. If we believe that talent and ability are not determined by race, gender, etc. than that outcome can only exist as a result of a clearly biased system. And that outcome is not just something that exists at that level. I live in Omaha, Nebraska. And this is a good community with all of the right intentions. And here in Omaha Nebraska the Board of Directors for our Chamber of Commerce has almost ZERO racial, ethnic, gender diversity. We are either outraged by that or...or...or we really believe something different from what we are saying in public. We are either outraged by the clearly biased system right in front of us, or we believe we believe that white men are more talented and able leaders.

Truth be told, there are very few real organizational diversity initiatives in this country. I am someone who studies, designs, supports and works with organizational diversity efforts at large and small organizations, and for the most part they are understaffed, underfunded, and undersupported at best. To be successful they need to work with numerous functions across the organization, yet they are staffed in HR which does not have the political or other capital to really back them. ...and at worst they are set up to fail. The vast majority of them (even many of the initiatives at the organizations that win the diversity awards) are focused more on perception than they are on reality. There are very few that are actually changing organizational culture and individual behavior...not for lack of effort or for lack of the right intentions, but largely due to he still prevalent misunderstanding and confusion around what diversity really is and what it really means, and also due to some of the baggage and damage from past diversity work.

There may be the perception that some of their efforts are about discrimination or preference...but many of the employees of an organizations often do not know the truth about their own diversity initiatives. Employee Resource Groups can be a powerful and dynamic tool for recruiting, retention, leadership development, R&D and a number of other things, and today it is rare to find an organizationally sponsored ERG that is not open to any employee that is interested in participating. But a lot of people still have this idea that ERGs are exclusive. Just like the vast majority of people (regardless of whether they oppose it or support it) do not actually understand what Affirmative Action is...what it does...and what its impact has been.

I have certainly not worked with a diversity initiative that is having the impact of reverse - discrimination, if they are out there, they appear to be horribly ineffective at this reverse discrimination. And if they are having that effect, they are based on flawed principles. Based on what I have observed in the last ten years from the world of business with the Enrons, Worldcoms, AIGs, etc., ad nauseum, I would venture to guess that there are some diversity initiatives out there that are operating on flawed principles, but I think we have far bigger fish to fry...and they are swimming all around us. Grab one.

Respectfully Submitted (that means please do not invite me to leave after my first post)
Joe Gerstandt
Illuminating Blind Spots

diversity | inclusion | authenticity | innovation | transformation
Comment by Steve Levy on November 1, 2008 at 9:13pm
Joe, thx very much for visiting and offering up a real fine primer on diversity - you better come back and comment or else someone's going to have to write a demonic

Let me start with your last paragraph...And if they are having that effect [reverse discrimination], they are based on flawed principles. Of course as you noted, poor implementation of diversity initiatives - any change initiative - negatively impacts positive goals. Bad planning is bad planning - and it has nothing to do with being part of a class (skill and organizational readiness immediately come to mind as reasons why initiatives fail).

Definition. My definition of diversity is a bit different from yours. For me, diversity is about taking down barriers to progress. The ethnicity of the person in charge of diversity simply won't be successful if the barriers that prevent anyone from moving up or contributing positively are not identified and re-engineered.

Relationship attribute. I like your explanation Joe. Let me add something else: Where do we become ingrained with our initial definitions of diversity? I'm making a rectal-linear assumption here but I'll venture that 75% of the population is still feeling the effects of their parents - even as these people move into their 40's and 50's. Let's try and work with a new definition of family values - one that isn't politically charged (you know what I mean) - so kids don't automatically adopt the unfortunate biases of their parents. Education can only go so far as a solution - especially when the tenure thing doesn't help but actually hurts the process: How can our current education system teach excellence when tenure promotes mediocrity? Oh oh, opened a can of worms here...

Value of diversity. Going to get back to you on this one Joe; I need to see what types of meta-analyses have been conducted on diversity research of behavioral/cognitive innovation. Thanks for planting the seed.

Human nature. Evil recruiters Joe? More like people who shouldn't be in recruiting. The research you noted has also been done for age, religion and gender - same results. The answer as far as recruiting goes back to the definition of diversity. Blind spots are complicated things:They're part ours, yours, environment, etc. Teasing these things apart is the challenge.

What we believe. Want to be ashamed by something? How large is the core population of "diversity executives" who serve on corporate boards. A few weeks ago at Kennedy's Executive Search Summit, Chris Metzler in his presentation entitled, "This Isn't Your Father's Workforce" pretty much seriously noted that it's the same 20 or so people who sit on Corporate Boards as the "diversity person" - this is utterly pathetic! I wonder why the diversity experts aren't talking more about this! Are they waiting or Obama as if his election alone will suddenly open the flood gates?

Far too much uni-dimensional thinking here.

More comments?
Comment by Steve Levy on November 3, 2008 at 7:53am
Monday morning thoughts on this topic...

I wish more would comment on this; I know it's a tough topic to discuss openly but respect comes from honesty (having learned this the hard way...and still in school). We're 24 hours away from a very bright light being shone on this topic so we might as well talk about it.

If you were to interview someone to lead a diversity initiative but had to write the performance based job description first (yes, performance based not 10-15 years, blah, blah, blah) and the interview protocol and questions, what would these be?

Please advise...
Comment by Joe Gerstandt on November 3, 2008 at 8:50am
Hey Steve-

Thanks for your comments, I think were at pretty much in agreement, but I do have a couple of additional comments...
Definition: I will stick to my definition, but I do agree that a fundamental component of diversity work is to remove barriers to difference. I think that if an organization is really going to harness the power of difference it is going to be working to remove barriers in the intentional, behavioral, cultural and social domains. I basically break organizational diversity work down to three primary components 1-remove barriers, 2-seek out additional difference, 3-seek out additional ways to benefit from difference. One of the quickest ways for me to evaluate whether or not an organization really gets diversity is whether their "diversity person" also has AA/EEO responsibility...because we are talking about two different bodies of work and they should be separated.

Relationship Attribute: Yes, yes, yes. We see some pretty significant shifts from one generation to another, but our parents have a large impact on what biases we buy into at least into early adulthood. And the education system...that is probably a discussion theme on its own...I think it could be a part of the solution, but it seems to be primarily part of the problem. If there were just some real efforts to teach critical thinking, dialogue and collaboration skills, we would probably be much better off.

Human Nature: I think that in any industry or craft there are some folks that are probably in the wrong job. I think that one of the key things for us to keep in mind is that even the most talented recruiter (or teacher, police officer, author or cab driver) has implicit bias that to some degree influences their behavior. Blind spots most certainly are complicated things...and a good diversity focus, operating on the right principles can support folks in their development.

What We Believe: Again, right on the mark. The same dynamic also plays out on a local level. Diversity practitioners (in my experience) do not talk about this much and I think we are certainly a part of the problem. I think that this profession at times gets afraid to truly rock the boat, concerned that it will lose the ground that has been gained. Diversity and Inclusion work has got to include a certain amount of diffusion of power...that is boat rocking work. This issue is also about the segregation of personal and professional networks at the executive level. When organizations or boards of directors start talking about 'bringing some diversity on to the board", they tend to discover that they do not "know anyone", so they reach out to a friend of associate for a recommendation and they end up being directed to someone that serves on another board. The exact same thing plays out locally...especially regarding race and ethnicity. There is some pretty interesting social network research that shows that most of us in this country have no racial or ethnic diversity in our primary network of influence...I think that the implications of that are probably quite profound.

Far too often, diversity practitioners are hired or promoted based on their passion regarding diversity issues. Passion is a wonderful thing, but diversity practitioners need strong business skills, communication and collaboration skills...this discipline sits at the intersection of a lot of organizational functions. I think far too often, organizations that are ready to get serious about diversity work do not really understand what that means and are not sure how to staff the position.

At least that is what I say this Monday morning.
Comment by Steve Levy on November 3, 2008 at 10:28am
Two balding caucasians talking about diversity. Go figure.


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