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Banish zero sum thinking. Embracing the value of diversity (#118)

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Jean Latting
November 10, 2023
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Research shows that groups who put in the effort to welcome diversity and promote inclusiveness may have more conflicts but are also more productive and innovative.

No faculty meeting is ever routine

It was supposed to be a routine faculty meeting.  Our task was to review the guidelines for our reaccreditation process to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and draft responses to each of the criteria.

In one section we had to describe our “special populations” – those who statistically were underserved.  The drafter listed the percentages of the racial compositions of our faculty, students, and community members who were affiliated with the school. It read something like this: of 25 faculty members, 4% were Black (that was just me); 8% were of Hispanic descent, and 8% were of Asian descent. Similar breakdowns were provided for the student population and affiliated community members such as adjunct faculty and active alumni.

A new section asked about diversity. This was the first year CSWE asked us to quantify our diversity. I was floored by our response: almost word for word the same as the underserved populations.  I waited silently for someone to object. When it was clear they were going to move onto other criteria I spoke up.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “Diversity and special populations are not the same. Special populations statistically do not receive the same access to resources as the majority population. Diversity is how different we are from one another. Diversity includes White people. So our response to this diversity question should be to list the percentage of each category, this is: what percent Black, Asian, Hispanic (the term in vogue then), White.”

There was a long silence and then someone said, “that’s not right.”

At the time, I was probably the only faculty member actively defining my area as diversity, so I kept going. “I don’t want us to look like we haven’t caught up with the times to CSWE,” I explained.  “Our responses need to show that we know the difference between special populations and diversity. Special populations do not have access to the same resources because of systemic factors. Diversity is how varied we are among ourselves. This includes White people.”

Someone urged the Dean to move forward to the next item and she refused, saying, “I don’t think everyone agrees with what Jean is saying. Let’s give it time to sink in.”  I looked around my colleagues and, as so often happened, I found myself on the outside trying to explain something some of them had never considered before.

Finally one faculty member, a person of color, disagreed with me, saying that he thought diversity explicitly referred only to people of color or other groups who were somehow marginalized by society.  I responded, “All of that is covered in the section on special populations.  Diversity is different. Diversity is not about who is disadvantaged. Diversity is about how we can advantage all of us, working together.”

More silence in the room as I tried to figure out what was controversial, since it was so straight-forward to me.

Finally one faculty member said “I believe her.”  Then another agreed. Another objected and said no, the question was asking us to talk about diverse populations.  “That’s a non sequitur.” I explained.  “There is no such thing as a diverse population. The question is, how diverse are we among ourselves? It’s not a question of who is different from the majority. When we talk about difference from the majority we talk about special populations or minorities or underserved populations or something like that; when we talk about diversity we are talking about everyone.”

Eventually the Dean moved on without this question ever being resolved. When I saw the final report that was submitted to CSWE, I breathed a sigh of relief. Whites were included in the explanation of how diverse we were as a faculty.

Fast forward a few years and Mary Lewis, one of my White colleagues, told me she would never forget that meeting when I told her she was included in the definition of diversity. The concept had visibly moved her. She repeated this several times over the years. “You told me I was included.”

Her comment has stayed with me through the years because Mary was a staunch advocate of social justice.  She and I had served on the same faculty for over 15 years and had many discussions during that time about social justice. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that she as a White woman felt excluded during some of the faculty’s discussions about marginalization of people of color.  All I ever received from her was firm support. That all changed when she confided how glad she was that diversity meant she as a White woman was included in the discussion.

When do we focus on the whole and when do we focus on the subgroups?

This scene happened maybe 20 years ago but has been replayed again and again in different organizations in which I’ve done diversity work. Often White employees automatically assume that since the training is about diversity, it has nothing to do with them.  Again and again I explain, “diversity includes all of us.”

Here’s an example: In one organization in which I served as a diversity consultant, the HR team was pulling together a panel of people from different ethnic groups to talk about their experiences. The aim was to make it real for those who had no awareness of how microaggressions were happening in their organizations and how people were impacted. The planned panel included one Black person, one Hispanic person, and one Asian person.  They were debating whether to include a veteran.  I said, “If this is a panel about diversity, where’s the White person?” 

They asked a White person who at first was reluctant to serve on the panel.  I explained to him that his role was to convey the sentiments of White people in the organization as he experienced it. You cannot represent your race, I said, but you can talk from that vantage point.  “But I cannot go in front of everybody and say I am White,” he blurted out. “That sounds like I’m prejudiced.”

I flashed back to Mary Lewis and her relief that diversity included her.  “Your value to the panel is that you will show up as a White person who supports diversity. Can you see how powerful that is and how meaningful that will be to White colleagues who don’t know how they are supposed to feel about diversity? who wonder if diversity excludes rather than includes them?”

He said he had to think about it, and the next day he said he would do it.

As you read this, take a minute and think about how many White people you know who do not believe that the word diversity includes them.  What would be different for you if the term diversity meant all of us and different people could feel free to talk about their experiences from their point of view?  Imagine the power if we could all be unified in our joint commitment to the goals of our organizations and we were all free to surface and discuss openly our different perspectives in contributing to those goals.

My dear and now deceased friend Mary Harlan launched all of her diversity initiatives in different organizations with this mantra: to be effective, diversity programs “must equitably and positively benefit all employees.”1

In a world where many people assume a zero-sum game – that for one person to gain, another must lose – diversity and diversity training have come to imply people of color gaining ground while White people lose.  Yet it doesn’t have to be that way, and the data show it has not been that way. Heather McGhee in her book The Sum of Us writes about the detriments when people believe that diversity is a win-lose game.2

When I first started doing diversity work, someone would always tell me about their cousin George (or nephew Sam) who had great grades and great test scores but did not get into his favorite college because of diversity admissions.  Or they would talk about their best friend’s son Chester who did not get a promotion because the leader had hired a woman or person of color instead. 

I would ask them if they believed the manager who gave that explanation. What if the manager simply didn’t want to tell the employee the truth – that their performance had not been up to par.  The research shows how much managers hate giving feedback. Much easier to tell a direct report, “You didn’t get the job because I had to give it to a woman” than to give honest feedback saying, “you did not get the promotion because your work doesn’t merit it”, or “many of your peers do not trust you and see you as self-serving.”

The conundrum of diversity programs

In general, the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are to reduce bias and promote an environment in which everyone can contribute their gifts and talents fully for the benefit of all. A slew of research has supported the efficacy of diversity initiates in the workplace.  Organizations with greater diversity in their management have higher financial performance; diverse team are more innovative and are “simply smarter.”3  When people with diverse backgrounds problem-solve together, they pay greater attention to facts and each other.  They go off autopilot and listen to key information that might be overlooked if they assumed others thought the same as they did.

The problem is that diverse teams are notoriously more conflict-ridden and can even become polarized.  The result can be what most of us have experienced in our workplaces – people who look or think differently become outcasts, and exclusion and inequality become embedded in the culture. Diversity, inclusion, and equity programs attempt to forestall the negatives and harness the positives that diversity brings.  

The effectiveness of these programs has been mixed, and for multiple reasons.  An oft-cited reason when the goal is racial and ethnic diversity is that Whites can feel excluded by even the mere mention of the word.  Even people who sincerely want to realize the benefits of diversity – as Mary Lewis did – wonder whether a diversity focus will end up excluding them, or worse, humiliating them somehow. 

Research supports what Mary was implying.  As reported by Harvard professor Frank Dobbins:

Diversity language in company policy can stress white men out…Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and University of Washington put young white men through a simulated job interview – half of them for a company that touted its commitment to diversity and half for a company that did not.  In the explicitly pro-diversity company, subjects expected discrimination against whites, showed cardiovascular distress, and did markedly worse in the taped interview.4

The potential for stressing young White people out has now become the focus of policy debates in this country with the extreme example in the “Stop Woke Acts”5 popping up in states around the country, with Florida in the lead. Gov. Ron DeSantis is scoring political points by appealing to White voter fears of being left out and excluded. His rationale is that any policies that allow this country’s historical legacy to be fully told will automatically make young White youth feel bad about themselves and therefore should be legislated out of existence. Supporters of diversity, even including the Disney franchise, have been unable to slow down his crusade.

The underlying belief of those who object to diversity programs or anything that implies “wokeness” is that by pointing out racial or ethnic differences, stereotyping and bias will automatically result.  Their solution, then, is colorblindness – pretending that no one can see what is plainly right before them.  But as we have noted in a previous blog post, colorblindness doesn’t work.  We can’t fix what we can’t acknowledge.  Pretending to not see differences allows the dominant group perceptions to prevail.6

I have witnessed the same scenario again and again in facilitating diversity teams or conducting training sessions.  Here is what it looks like.  The people of color, particularly the Black people, are downright excited when I show up – glad that there is a possibility that their negative experiences can finally be put in the open and discussed. 

Some of the Whites are interested – and even invested – in the problems they are experiencing being put on the table.  Others can barely look at me, anticipating what they believe will be a dump session – with them as the target.  In their way of thinking, they have done nothing wrong, and now they will be condemned for their skin color rather than the content of their character.  With the popularity of White Fragility, How to Be an Anti-Racist, and other books, I can understand the eagerness of the people of color to have their story told and understood, and the dread I see in some of the White people’s eyes as they prepare themselves to endure what they are sure will be a bashing.

I can put myself in both sets of shoes.  I know what it feels like as a Black person to work and live and care in a predominantly White environment, wondering how to surface a truth that others have no reason to even know.  By the same token, I also know how cringeworthy it has been for me to watch movies and shows with stereotypical Blacks playing the dumb, lazy, grinning Black person. Stepin Fetchit7 still makes me cringe when they show him on television.  Good Times8 was an inside joke among Black people.  I once started watching an episode with a group of White friends and ended up leaving the room, it felt so humiliating.  Is this how Whites feel when they watch stories about slavery or segregation or listen to their colleagues of color talk about the microaggressions they have endured?

My job, then, is to prepare the entire group to listen to one another’s stories and to encourage respectful listening.  In nearly all of the cases, I have been successful.  The most notable exception is a painful story I may tell one day.

When the work is successful, it is as though the cork has been popped from a champagne bottle.  The relief and bonding of the group is palpable.  Before the cork is released, there are silent stares, people glare at their phones, and the thickness of the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. 

We have the discussion or training and, slowly but surely, the tempo begins to build as people realize they can say what they have to say and be listened to.

When the realization hits that everything is out on the table and no one has been humiliated or harmed, the cork pops off and suddenly, they really are a group of Black people and White people and Brown people and Asian people and multiracial people who work together toward a common mission, bringing their different perspectives to the table and hearing one another out. It’s a beautiful, humbling sight when it happens.

I know that some people get paid as diversity consultants with the avowed purpose of stirring up White guilt and discrediting White accomplishments, and they do indeed end up as divisive forces. As must be apparent, this is not representative of the work I do nor that of most of the diversity consultants with whom I affiliate.

For many years when I was teaching, when we got to the diversity part of whatever course I was teaching, a White male would ask me how can he be proud of the accomplishments of White men considering all the harm White men have done. I typically responded that I don't see how he can be a whole human being if he doesn't look at the positives that his gender/race have contributed to the world and not feel proud. I referred my White students to role models they could emulate and feel good about themselves.  Just as I don’t choose to identify with Stepin Fetchit, so is there no need for them to identify with a local Klansman or whatever White supremacist is in the news.  I can face the historical fact that Black men really did act like Stepin Fetchit as a survival act.  They can face the fact that their ancestors really did enslave and brutalize. 

How, then, do we resolve the diversity conundrum? 

Two ways stand out:

The first, and better known, is to encourage the two divided groups to form a common identity.9 A common identity can be evoked through a shared higher purpose or by evoking a common enemy. With Mary Lewis and me, our common identity was as social work faculty committed to social justice. Within that common frame, we had different racial identities that added our unique perspectives to our common goal. And, history is rife with instances of antagonists dropping their animosities to ward off a common enemy.

The second approach to resolve the diversity conundrum is more subtle, yet possibly equally effective. We can encourage people to view those in the other group through a more complex lens, rather than fitting every member of the group into a single stereotype. This is known as the “variability” intervention, where people are encouraged to view members of the outgroup as heterogeneous.10  In one randomized control study in France, two sets of high school students were assigned to sit and perform different tasks in different rooms with six posters put up in various places around each room.  In one room, one of the posters showed Arabs of different ages, physical features, and genders with the caption, “What makes us the same – is that we are all different.” In the other room, the sixth poster showed pictures of fruits and vegetables.

At the end of the experiment, those exposed to the poster emphasizing the heterogeneity of the Arab population held fewer negative stereotypes, showed less prejudice, and were more willing to volunteer in support of Arab groups than the students who had not been exposed to this poster.

Both interventions encourage people to break out of stereotypical molds and either view people in the other group as part of a superordinate group of which they are all a part (common identity), or to recognize differences within the same subgroup (variability).

In the end, this is what happened with Mary and me along with the other faculty. The school’s application for accreditation contained recognition of special populations, identified by race, with an inference to the disadvantages members of those groups typically experienced.  At the same time, we recognized our diversity in the context of our common identity as a faculty with different groups of all races included in our membership. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. How do your identities fit under the umbrellas of disadvantaged and/or diverse populations? How do you identify yourself racially and ethnically on censuses or other forms? How do you feel about that identification?
  2. Given your background and racial or ethnic identity, what can you contribute to any discussion on how to improve your organization?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Test negative assumptions
    • Move from the answer into the question
    • Look for multiple points of view
    • Consciously test your negative assumptions
    • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Build effective relationships
    • Engage in powerful listening
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
    • Learn how to give, receive, and seek feedback
    • Distinguish intent from impact

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com

[1] Harlan, Mary. 2008. "Diversity Action Learning Teams: An Adaptable Methodology for Generating Outcomes at Multiple Stages of an Organization’s Life." OD Practitioner, 40(3):24-30.

[2] McGhee, Heather. 2022. The Sum of Us. Penguin Random House

[3] Rock, David, and Heidi Grant. 2016. "Why diverse teams are smarter." Harvard Business Review, 4(4):2-5.

[4] Dobbin, Frank, and Alexandra Kalev. 2016. "Why Diversity Programs Fail." Harvard Business Review, 94(7/8):52.

[5] Reilly, Katie. 2022. "Florida’s Governor Just Signed the 'Stop Woke Act.’ Here’s What It Means for Schools and Businesses." Time, April 22, 2022.

[6] Is colorblindness a covert way of protecting racism? (#26)

[7] Stepin Fetchit

[8] Good Times

[9] Paluck, E., Porat, R., Clark, C.S., and Green, D. 2021. "Prejudice reduction: Progress and challenges." Annual review of psychology, 72:533-560.

[10] Er-rafiy, A. and Brauer, M. 2013. "Modifying perceived variability: four laboratory and field experiments show the effectiveness of a ready-to-be-used prejudice intervention." Journal of Applied Social Psychology 43 (4):840-853.