Diversity Questions & Answers

by Harris Sussman, Ph.D.


"Diversity Questions & Answers" is a column that I have written for
MANAGING DIVERSITY, a monthly publication, since it started in 1991. The first four years of the column are reprinted in my handbook, How Diversity Works

Leo Patterson, Editor
P.O. Box 819
Jamestown NY 14702-0819


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January 1997

Q. Do you have a thought for the new year?

A. A new year begins every day. There are many times a year when we observe a beginning, a new start, and when we review the past year. We do it at tax time, at our birthday if we keep track (not everyone does), at various anniversaries, public and private. Each occasion gives us a way to make history, a marker of our personal life or the life of our relationship in a group.
"As life is action and passion, a man should be involved in the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived," wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes. (He wrote "man"--I read "person.") I've liked that quote since I was in high school.
The passion and action of our time includes the heightened state of our sense of who we are and how we relate to each other.
All over the world, anthropologically, biologically, diversity is a social and political issue. That mixes and mingles some powerful forces.
A new year begins every day. That's celestial mechanics, astronomy. That's spirituality, metaphysics. That's mundane detail, circadian rhythms.
I pay attention to the equinoxes and solstices, the anniversaries of my closest relationships, the national and cultural holidaays which I like best--Passover, the Day of the Dead if I'm in Mexico, Chinese New Year, fir trees and Father Frost when I am in Russia.
This becomes a combination of numerology, superstition, personal practice, and socialization. It gives me repeated opportunities for renewal and restoration according to some philosophy of cycles and repetition and second chances, turnings and returnings. It is built into the orbits and trajectories of my planet, my life, my culture, my associations. It is, I suppose, partly inherited, partly chosen. It isn't completely arbitrary, nor is it completely my doing.
The Roman/Christian calendar changes a digit in the unit column and we are at 1997 C.E. or A.D. This is one way of counting, recording where the solar system intersects our heartbeats.
It is time for a new fiscal year and budget or a new resolution and goals. It is time to see what we have learned or accumulated or lost or forgotten. It is time to make our mark or to draw up a will.
I don't know much about who's been reading this space every month or what effect it's had on anyone. I hear from very few readers; I know how people on public radio must feel. I have written for a number of reasons--to see how ideas move, to see whom I can reach, like lighting fires from one hilltop to another.
I like the format, asking myself questions. It's good for an introvert who thinks aloud in public. It is a style that is characterologically Jewish. It is a kind of call-and- response, a way of making conversation. It's a dialogue with myself and with you, whoever you might be. It is a dialectic within a political movement, a school of social philosophy, an ongoing correspondence, our sixth year together, Q&A, a changing relationship.
I've been interviewed by a bunch of reporters recently--they use one sentence out of a 45-minute conversation. I have more control here, as long as I keep within my box. Sometimes I compress too much, I know. I've got more to say and my space runs out.
I'm trying some new things. I've been giving out an email address and I've referred you to the Internet. I'm doing public seminars for the first time (January 15 in Phoenix). Recently I gave a program about diversity for senior executives without using the D-word at all, with the prior consent of the diversity managers who invited me; the response to the program was better than they expected. This is worth exploring.
We'd better explore what we're doing with more breadth and depth. (What is the influence of evolutionary psychology on your work?) We'd better be more effective leaders in our organization and in our society. This is not a time to be a wallflower. This is our time, our history, our action and passion.
Happy New Year.

February 1997

Q. Why do we have to deal with diversity issues?

A. We can expect people to have problems relating to each other. That's why there are so many articles and books advising people how to get along--with their spouse, their neighbors, their children, their parents, and so on. This is nothing new or unusual. It is typical for human experience.
When people are in a political culture which reinforces their differences, we can expect problems of interacting in a shared social space--society, workplace, school or family.
When there are differences of status, power, control, privilege and compensation, we can expect people to have problems with each other. When there is domination and discrimination we can expect problems. Anyone trying to "manage" in such an environment should be studying the best lessons of what works under these conditions and what alternatives there are. We know a lot about that--and it is the opposite of what all too many human resources and diversity programs offer.
We know that people with seniority or authority need to set an example. Yet too many organizations model exclusion, ignorance and narrow-mindedness and then expect people in the lower ranks to treat each other with generosity and respect.
Too many organizations have few if any people from outside an inner circle--often a clan of white men--in positions of authority. And then they think everyone else is going to express sharing and openness.
Too many organizations don't mean what they say. For too many, diversity is for them, it's not for us. Throw the masses some crumbs, a diversity awareness workshop--let them eat jelly beans. What that gives us is Texaco.
Too many organizations don't spend the time or effort required to even get people's attention, much less their "buy-in" or commitment. Advertisers know that messages need to be repeated; why do people promoting diversity think once is enough?
When people have problems relating to each other, that is an organizational problem, a management problem, a productivity problem--they are not concentrating on the work you're presumably paying them to do. It's an economic problem.
When people have problems interacting--with co-workers, clients, customers, constituents--they are distracted, they are not paying attention to the agenda. When people are preoccupied with how they're being treated, that's energy that's not going into getting work done. Indeed, if there is enough of such distractions, no work (or learning) gets done--what if the environment is so hostile, abusive, or toxic that people barely go through the motions of working? That is quite common. You don't need to do a "culture audit" to discover that.
Diversity work should be integrated, holistic, and institutional. A diversity satisfaction task force would be useful. A diversity business performance committee would be useful too. A diversity leadership accountability council would also be useful.
Diversity needs to be comprehensive, intensive, extensive. When it is not, we get Avis, Shell, Circuit City, Texaco, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Tailhook, Astra USA, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Denny's, etc. When it is not, we get most organizations that have settled for less. It will come back to haunt them, mark my words.
How do you contribute to making matters better? How can you improve the climate for diversity? Social knowledge helps. There's a lot of information available. We can also learn from the bad examples. There are resources all around us. Let's get the most benefit we can from them.
I think that means HR and diversity officers should be less timid. They should show their organizations how much they can do, not how little. They haven't done enough for their companies or for the rest of us.

Q. What did a diversity manager say to you the other day?

A. "We haven't had backlash because we haven't had the lash in the first place."

March 1997

Q. What response can we expect from senior managers to attending a diversity awareness experience?

A. I find that the single best predictor is whether someone has had some personal growth experience, such as psychotherapy or going to a marriage encounter weekend or an outdoor adventure course.
What is often overlooked are the very personal experiences people have had in their lives. One vice president (who seemed to outsiders like an ordinary white man) talked to his group about how important diversity was, telling them how he had grown up with a child who had Down's syndrome and how his outlook about people's differences was formed from that experience. The other day a woman whom everyone else in the group thought was a "homogeneous" white American talked about her brother's Korean wife and her intensive experience of Korean culture. The group was surprised.
Don't assume resistance. Don't jump to conclusions. It is my belief that the hidden dimension, the deep diversity, is there more often than not. Of course, for some, this will be their first encounter with themselves and with others. You need facilitators who can handle the unexpected, in all its forms.

Q.Where do we go from here?

A.Diversity awareness sessions should be followed by diversity action sessions. We have found that people are ready, willing, and able--indeed, impatiently wanting--to move ahead. For tens of thousands of people, diversity awareness was a short session a long time ago and hasn't been connected to the realities of their work. More and more people who went to awareness sessions are now requesting or demanding some follow up. They want to put their awareness into action.
Many groups want a next step to follow the awareness session--whether it comes six months or several years later. It is clear that the same trainers who did awareness are usually not the ones who can do the follow-up.
Our programs on "Diversity In Action--Beyond 2001" (or "Putting Awareness to Work") are about increasing organizational capability and performance by leveraging the multiplier effects of inclusion, pluralism, and collaboration . And they are about institutionalizing mechanisms, processes, and structures that go beyond individual attitudes.
Most diversity awareness programs introduced an approach that separated people according to various demographic categories. "Diversity in Action" brings people together.
Diversity awareness often cites the "Workforce 2000" report from 1987 which was based on the 1980 census. "Diversity in Action" is based on projections for 2020--which is just about the same number of years from us, only in the other direction. Anyone who uses data from 20 years ago should be fired. Anyone who uses data from 20 years ahead will be fired up.
The best awareness sessions have tried to humanize statistics and to eliminate labels. Action sessions need to make the connection between individuals and work, between the social philosophy and the functional operations.
Most awareness sessions don't talk about systems and systems change. Action sessions do. Most groups in the last ten years had one session on diversity awareness. Our diversity action programs establish a course of action and the means to see it through. People managing diversity efforts can either help make something happen or keep postponing it, which undermines the effort that has already been made.
It is time to move from appreciating to actualizing. The celebrating came too soon and has caused a lot of cynicism and backlash. Diversity work loses credibility if it just celebrates an awareness session. Now is the time to operationalize and activate people's awareness. Otherwise, it will turn into an awareness that you didn't mean all that diversity stuff in the first place.

April 1997

Q. How should we deal with the political controversy about diversity?

A. Diversity is political. It is often addressed in ways that accentuate both the politics of the institution and people's personal political perspectives. It provokes people's emotions. It is not a neutral subject. Nobody should be surprised at the political reactions it generates.
Yankelovich Partners in December 1996 found that a majority of business CEOs they surveyed believed diversity is important to them and to their companies but that "when it comes to implementing and executing" diversity programs "they often come into contact with the problems and hence shy away."
Perhaps the CEOs need help with this dilemma. Most of them supported the purposes and value of diversity but were unwilling to deal with the troubles associated with programs. The idea of "rolling out a diversity program" often leads to the kinds of problems that worry the CEOs. Programs need to change. They need to combine a political process and an educational process. What the CEOs should understand is that there is too little diversity work, not too much. It's just that diversity shouldn't be a subdivision off by itself in a training room.
The best efforts make that commitment. When people ask about best practices and benchmarking, they should be open to the likelihood that the best practices won't fit into their model of a training session. That also means that the best function to handle diversity is probably not the training function, which isn't experienced in handling a politically- and emotionally-loaded issue, one without a right answer or a predetermined outcome. Diversity training without follow-up and institutional back-up is incomplete-- and training usually has little or no authority for follow-up or for back-up from the system outside the training room.
Diversity efforts need to embody political action as well as opportunities for learning. One without the other makes matters worse.

Q. What is going on with diversity in Europe?

A. 1997 is the official European Year Against Racism, declared by the European Commission. The purpose of designating the year is to highlight the threat posed by racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and intolerance.
These are some of the many programs that will be held throughout Europe all year:
"Europe Between Integration and Exclusion," "Migrant and Exile Literature," "Women Against Deportation," "Tolerance in a Multicultural Society," "Cooperation Against Nationalism and Racism," "Integration of Foreigners," "Intercultural Learning," "Conflictology," "Working Together for Equality," "Violence and Human Coexistence."

Q. Who are Caucasians?

A. One answer is that Caucasians are people who live in the Caucasus Mountains area between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Russians often use an offensive nickname for them that refers to their dark complexion. When white people in the U.S are called "Caucasians" this amuses Russians who are likely to think this is the most mixed-up thing they've ever heard.
Which is just one reminder that the fundamental vocabulary around "diversity" is a peculiarly American Eurocentric structure. EEO/diversity categories seem to provide evidence of American ignorance and arrogance--how can we lump together half the world's population and consider them a "minority" called "Asian?" How can we be so cavalier about ethnicity, skin color, language and nationality and call people "Hispanic (may be black or white)?" How can we be so unwilling to deal with the U.S. version of institutional apartheid?
Much diversity work reflects the neurosis of the society instead of offering ways to heal the trauma, pain, and anguish we carry.

May 1997

Q. Why do some people avoid dealing with diversity efforts?

A. I see diversity programs losing both supporters and critics. Some people have bailed out of diversity work because it's not doing what it promised, which was to help create a new social order that would mix and match the energies of a wider range of people. They have gone to find and create a better vehicle for achieving that goal.
Some people are afraid of diversity. They fear it leads to disorder. Sameness and uniformity are the opposite of diversity. There is always a gap between different people's conceptions of diversity which is usually about their attitude toward disrupting the status quo.
Some people prefer things not to change, period; and if they are content with the way things are, a change would be a threat to their well-being. Some people feel that diversity leads to chaos--or at least to discomfort adjusting to a new situation. Other people have a much greater appetite (not just tolerance) for living with differences and they enjoy the process that it requires.
This becomes an issue when people who are promoting diversity programs try to keep the program from bothering anyone, when they say they want to make people aware but don't want to rock the boat. They forget that awareness by its very existence alters the status quo. As a friend says, to do diversity work, you've got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
So, many people look for a diversity program that is canned, packaged, cookie- cutter, and guaranteed to fall short of accomplishing its mission--unless its mission is to mislead people. Some people who are in charge of diversity programs are actually avoiding dealing with diversity in any deep or fundamental way. It's a mixed message, or what one radio host called a "sham." The program gives the impression of looking at diversity, but it's really going to ignore whatever people might see.
There are a growing number of people, and of lawsuits, that won't stand for this any more. They're going to raise the ante on your ability to live up to the vision, the mission, and the commitment to diversity. No more cutting corners. No more inconsistent rhetoric. We're playing for higher stakes. Make diversity work, put awareness into action, or don't waste my time by pretending. .

Q. What does the demographic future look like?

A. Well, the Census Bureau's new report on the U.S. in 2050 says what readers of this column already know. Big increase in people over 65 (will be 1/5 of the country) and over 85 (from 4 million now to 18 million). Hispanics will outnumber all other "minorities" combined--and will be 1/4 of the U.S. Whites will drop from 73% now to 52.8%. Blacks stay about the same--12% now, 13.6% in the 2050 projection. Asians more than double, from 3.5% to 8.2%. I'm not sure about those decimal points, but you get the idea. If you want my latest fact sheet, I can e-mail it to you.

Q. What's wrong with using the word diversity?

A. Unfortunately, in many diversity programs, the word diversity does not refer to everybody. It refers to everybody except white men. First--how can you leave them out? (Many people don't know how to talk about them--or to them.) Second--white men are as diverse as any other group you could name. (Some people use the word "homogeneous" inaccurately to refer to any people with the same skin color or ethnic classification.)
Third--many programs refer to white men as the dominant or normative group, which confuses numbers, power, and human qualities (and which makes everyone else abnormal or a deviant). Fourth--diversity is used as a substitute for "minority," and I've always said you'd better clarify what you mean by minority. Fifth--compounding all those errors, some programs operate as if white men should learn to manage everyone else's diversity. Then you're really in trouble.

June 1997

Q. Do you have a progress report?

A. This month marks 10 years since the publication of the "Workforce 2000" report. If you don't know about the report, that's O.K. It's old news. It's time to move on. The question I've been asking is, "Are you ready for a year that starts with 2?" Many groups are not. This gives me a chance to help organizations become futurists.
Thinking about years that start with 2 requires a new outlook, a different worldview, new coordinates for people working together and for organizational management. Diversity is no longer an adjunct of 33-year-old EEO programs. Managing diversity is not a human resources program. Diversity is about our orientation to the world, up close and far away. It is one of the most powerful forces around.
Taboos within diversity seem a contradiction. And yet there are taboos. Representatives of companies say they want awareness about diversity but they don't want any mention of women or of sexual orientation or of economic class. Outside instructors are hired to do diversity training but they are told not to deal with this or that. "This or that" are always, in my experience, the clue to the state of diversity in that organization. So diversity is being screened, sanitized, and censored. People are being exposed to the approved version of diversity, which is a denial and a runaround of the true diversity situation and issues. This can be the tactic for only so long.
If you still hear people quoting from "Workforce 2000" you know you're caught in a time-warp. Dial 9-1-1.

Q. How should we manage diversity?

A. I don't think you manage diversity. You might manage the conditions within which diversities exist. You might manage individuals, groups, or organizational systems and of course there will be many forms of diversity within any of them. I hope people interested in psychology, political philosophy, education, and other disciplines involved in management are considering the contingencies and variables that are often called diversity. Indeed, I don't know how managing can function without taking them into account, one way or another.
You can manage for diversity, just as you can manage for change. There are diversity-favorable conditions and factors and diversity-unfavorable, and much of the work has been identifying them, developing a set of principles that can guide people. I'm concerned that diversity has become a slang term, a euphemism, for particular kinds of social situations that people avoid discussing or dealing with. So they substitute the word diversity and we're supposed to know what they mean. One of the first steps is managing the way we talk and that can be a project in itself.

Q. What is a good tool to use in managing for diversity?

A. One of the best is to have people who can be facilitators within the groups of your organization. This should be done whether or not you have awareness training. Of course, if you do have training, you must also train people to be facilitators. (Didn't anyone tell you that?) You need a core group of people who can provide assistance for interpersonal and intergroup translation, meetings, negotiation, interventions, moderating discussions, mediating disputes, monitoring group dynamics, suggesting new forums, procedures, or other mechanisms.
I have just returned from helping to train people in Russia to be facilitators. Just as in the U.S., what is most obvious is the need for skillful facilitation. I think this points the direction to the next piece of work. There will always be a need for good facilitation and you should have people in-house who can do it.

July 1997

Q. We want to move toward your idea of deep diversity--what is an example of that?

A. One example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. There are other reconciliation efforts in Australia and Canada, addressing relations with indigenous/aboriginal peoples. I think they can be models for US versions of diversity. Notice that there's got to be truth-telling and truth-hearing in order to get to reconciliation.
That is, we need to address some dimensions of diversity that are only hinted at in most diversity programs--which includes what to do after you know some bare facts about differences. What do you do about the whole spectrum of demons--ignorance, disrespect, misunderstanding, distrust, animosity, hostility, conflict, discrimination, prejudice, and numerous ways of insulting and offending, accusing, avoiding, and blaming each other?
Remember, you can't value or celebrate diversity unless you can experience diversity and you can't do that unless people will reveal their diversity, and they won't do that unless they feel it is safe and comfortable to do so. But, in a peculiarly evasive manner, many diversity programs have started with celebrating without doing any of the work. (Historically, people had a barn-raising before they had a party.) By doing so, they have>

Transfer interrupted!

ople who know they've skipped a crucial step. Yes, that step is difficult--time-consuming, demanding, challenging, complex, and unfamiliar. (When's the last time you built a barn?)
So by my estimate most diversity programs have done maybe 10% of their contract. What remains is what I have called deep diversity. (There's always more under the surface or behind the scenes than what's obvious.) And that involves dealing with people's beliefs and feelings, such as pain, trauma, grief, anger and fear. It means dealing with remorse, suffering, restitution, as well as apology and justice. It means mending and creating relationships. These things are not usually on the agenda after the demographic projections are presented but they must be if you're going to do the work that everybody is waiting for.

Q. What's the point of working on diversity?

A. Many times people talk about diversity as if it were a statistical condition. If diversity stays on the charts and tables of numbers that you compile, no wonder people keep asking to see business benefits, or organizational payoff, from it. Many places do treat "diversity" as if it just sits there. I think that's missing the whole point. Diversity means you've got dynamic phenomena. To me, it is about interactions, relationships in motion, a living ecosystem. Diversity is not static. This sounds obvious, but I don't think it is.
I'm working with a company of 210 people on developing a collaborative culture in the firm, which has involved their project teams, professionals and staff, administrative councils, 15 directors, and the multiple connections among them all and with their clients. You realize that with 15 people, it takes 105 links for each person to be connected with each of the others; with 210 people, there are 21,945 links. What goes around comes around, in a multidimensional matrix of personalities that needs to be supported by organizational structure and process, systems and values.
Any group can become transformative and collaborative if they're willing to work at it. It's worth the effort. After all, when people spend more than one-third of their time at work, shouldn't it be the most optimal experience they can make it? And you know what we find: their work is done at a higher quality, more effectively, and people feel better about their participation.
So the case for diversity goes beyond numbers in a report. It's about people. You're dealing with people wherever you turn--workforce, customers, stakeholders, constituencies. Work is a measure of energy. Numbers are just a way of counting. You need to figure out how to handle such matters in all their variations.

August 1997

Q. How do diversity programs fit into the larger picture?

A. Some of them, I hope, have prepared people to be leaders and facilitators in the national discussions on race that President Clinton announced in June. In addition, various sponsors have planned "National Days of Dialogue on Race Relations" throughout the U.S. in the five days before the Martin Luther King holiday in January 1998 and "International Dialogue on Race and Ethnic Relations" in 1999 and in January of 2000. I hope that members of diversity councils, in particular, will take leadership roles in these efforts and many others like them. I hope they have been practicing bridging differences in their workplaces. I hope diversity program coordinators will function on a larger scale, inside and outside their workplace, helping to facilitate the relationships and actions that need to take place across all the lines that divide or separate us. These are opportunities to see how your work on diversity holds up. If you are not yet able to lead, at least these initiatives should encourage you to do the work that will bring you into the process. And if you are not yet ready to share the fruits of your labors with others, be prepared for people to ask you why you aren't--what have your diversity efforts been for, if not to be gearing you up for just such occasions?

Q. What is diversity work doing about white people?

A. Critical thinking about whiteness should be part of doing diversity work. The stories, syndromes, outlook, and lives of white people help determine what diversity is. Being inclusive means including an examination of white dimensions. Pluralism is multi- dimensional. Diversity managers and councils need to be programming for and about the multiple realities of what "white" means just as they program for and about any other identities or social conditions. There's more substance, more theory, more resources on whiteness than there was. Make good use of it.
The Minnesota Review recently came out with "The White Issue." The University of California in Berkeley had a conference in April, "The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness." In May, Race Traitor magazine sponsored a program in New York, "Building a New Abolitionist Movement." There will be a conference November 8/9 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "Exploring Whiteness to End Racism"--for information, send email to: contact@euroamerican.org or phone (908) 241-5439.
Many people who attended elementary school in the U.S. got the idea that Columbus discovered America and that America thus became a white territory. What if that's not true? People get disoriented if their beliefs or myths are questioned. I have a "Columbus Daze" program (offered year-round) that presents a different perspective on our understanding of America. People say that raising these issues helps them see themselves, and their experience in American society, in new ways.
A friend who is a woman and person of color wrote me, "Whites are totally unused to being the 'subject' of any form of social analysis except to be in control of the analysis. Their vast control of social/psych/history etc. has created a mental 'knee jerk' reaction to any analysis by the OTHER....You have 'broken ranks' by writing as you do, which really enrages folks." Self-analysis can be threatening. A white person who is willing to examine whiteness is called "a traitor to the cause." What cause? Isn't diversity work supposed to examine and challenge our assumptions and the ways we act out our thoughts and conditioned reflexes? Isn't it about changing systems that are undemocratic and self- destructive?

Q. Last words?

A. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, earlier this year--"The only thing that counts is how much service you have given to your fellow men, and how much love you have given and received."

September 1997

Q. How can we make our diversity efforts different from our other training?

A. When I lead groups I arrange tables and chairs in ways that the group is not used to. Often people coming into the room comment on the way the tables and chairs look and say, "Ohh, this is different." Some people are intrigued, others are wary or confused by the tables and chairs. This is before anyone has said a word or done anything. People read into the furniture that something is different. They can't be on automatic pilot, they can't stay within their usual unconscious ritual with each other. Before I've been introduced, some people are already dealing with an unfamiliar experience.
But in too many cases, diversity sessions look like all the other training that people are sent to. The room is organized in the same way, the instructor functions like any other instructor, so the participants stay in their classroom mindset. How can you deal with differences if you won't dare to be different?
Much work in diversity has followed a common classroom pattern. Some of it includes group activity and about 10% has addressed systemic, institutional change. Most programs remain passive. I think they need to be active. Working with groups is valuable, I like doing it. But often groups don't learn about the dynamics of social relations, they just do some exercises.
It is simpler and shorter to have people do exercises than to have a group committed to learning about themselves, much less their environment. It is easy (and lazy) to have instructor-led games for a few hours, rather than analyze and strategize about changing interactions and social structures, how people treat each other and how they are treated by their organization.
It is good for people to talk about things but that by itself does not change the social and political systems they live and work in. They would have to work on making those changes. A lot of trainers and consultants have been treating diversity awareness and sensitivity as generalizations unrelated to the specific professional or spiritual activism of people in the room. They don't teach people how to transform the conditions outside the room. And in too many cases, they don't even transform the conditions inside the room--or inside a person.
It's not as if we don't know how. But many people do not seem to have learned from the last 50 years of developments in this kind of work--or they are not willing to apply those lessons. So what is their guiding principle, their conceptual or inspirational platform, their model, their intellectual rationale, their coherence? In many cases, they either don't have one or it is dubious, slippery, expedient, or suppressed. Many firms really thought they would be getting a paradigm shift, a change in their strategic and operational values, behavior, and effectiveness. That's what they wanted. Instead they get a one-time once-over-lightly, the equivalent of snack food.
Who will have the courage of their convictions, who will practice what they preach? Who is willing to put meaning and purpose, conviction and commitment, right at the center of this work? Doing that means adopting a different approach, rearranging the mental furniture as well as chairs and tables.

Q. Who should be leading diversity work in an organzation?

A. Anyone. Everyone. It doesn't matter. Diversity champions and initiatives and resources can come from any business, from the quality office, from people interested in containing medical costs (since diversity is good for your mental health), from anyone interested in the productivity of individuals or groups or in customer service or in becoming a citizen of the world. Anyone can and should be incorporating dimensions of diversity into their functional activity. People in market research can drive the issue. A board member, director or trustee can put it on the agenda. The only mistake is waiting for someone else to do it. The subject crosses all lines and plays a part in all areas. Anyone who wants to see a quantum jump in organizational life should be involved. People should be planting so many seeds for diversity that the garden is always blooming.

October 1997

Q. Our program isn't having the effect we expected. What's wrong?

A. We have moved into a new, more volatile phase of dealing with diversity. Racial, national, ethnic, sexual, religious categories are not fixed, not permanent, not stable--just as age changes, so do the other descriptors of a person's life. People move among ideologies, identities, characteristics. Borders and boundaries are changing. Labels can't keep up with the reality of people's lives. Neither can programs based on labels.
So you need to look at the dynamics of social politics and personal experience, not at government-issued categories That seems easier said than done. Most of the diversity programs in American workplaces are an outgrowth of the government's Affirmative Action initiatives from thirty years ago. The politics have changed. The lines have been redrawn.
Michael Lind: "In absolute numbers most of the beneficiaries of affirmative action (if it is not abolished) will soon be white women and immigrants from Latin America--not the black Americans for whom the program was intended in the first place. (By 1993, 74.9% of legal immigrants were eligible for affirmative action on the basis of race.)"
Richard Rodriguez: "I find LA very interesting, partly because I think something new is forming there, but not in a moment of good fellowship, as you might expect from all this diversity claptrap. It's not as if we'll all go down to the Civic Center in our ethnic costumes and dance around....We're looking at such enormous complexity and variety that it makes a mockery of 'celebrating diversity.' In the LA of the future, no one will need to say, 'Let's celebrate diversity.' Diversity is going to be a fundamental part of our lives."
Diversity has come 180 degrees from where it was. Turn around; you're facing backwards.

Q. Isn't diversity too broad to be meaningful?

A. It's difficult to talk about diversity without having it put in some context. I think that's why there are still places where people need to have diversity defined or justified, or where people say they don't know what "the business case for diversity" is--it hasn't been put into context for them, it hasn't been put in terms they can relate to. Diversity is not self-explanatory, it is not a subject unto itself, out of context. It is interconnected, interwoven, with experience and with relationships. It plays itself out in multiple ways which are highly contextualized, context-sensitive.
:So it won't make sense to talk about diversity all by itself, as an abstraction. Diversity modifies life. Diversity is modified by social tension and peculiarities, by how someone experiences the world. I worry that the way diversity has been handled in the workforce is a dead-end--"We've been to awareness training, so we've got that over with." Awareness is not the last, or the only, thing you need to go through. It's the first part of peeling the onion--and it ought to bring tears to your eyes. You go on from there.
We need a new kind of leadership that lets people in on the secret--diversity is not about them, it's about us; diversity is not out there, it's in here; diversity is not a hypothetical future, it's an actual present; it is not a cryptic slogan--it is a universal phenomenon. It is not necessary to keep using the word diversity. What we need is education, practice, rehearsal for collaboration, for coevolution. We need to learn how to mix and match, how we are interdependent, how we intersect in the biosphere and in our social spheres. People live in different realms of experience and consciousness, in different contexts--that's the human condition. Diversity is ancient, it is modern, it is a creature of the humanities, social science, and nature. Diversity is opportunistic and enduring. Yes, it is broad--and that is what makes it so meaningful.
Too many of the approaches to diversity divide and subdivide it. They make diversity narrow and specialized. Too many diversity programs take a technical, mechanical, statistical view of diversity. They use oversimplified rhetoric. They have lost the context. They have lost their way.

November 1997

Q. When are we going to see some changes around here? Years of talking about diversity haven't changed anything.

A. Any activity related to diversity has to lead somewhere, it has to be part of a larger movement in a certain direction. That requires a map and compass for orienteering, or filing a flight plan, or some other deliberation or strategy for navigating through the territory. But I hear about too many efforts called diversity which aren't going anywhere, and which weren't intended to. So they are misleading--but they're not fooling anyone.
This year, with President Clinton's initiative for national conversations on race, there is an opportunity to broaden the field of activity. Workplace diversity programs are largely discredited by activists and academics alike. Diversity work should be an engagement with political issues as well as personal issues--with issues of power, domination, oppression, exclusion--that is, with the fundamental issues of democracy. Diversity re-engages us in a struggle for liberation and equality--against the forces that do not want people to be liberated and equal. How could this purpose become dull or passive or lacking in vitality?
Diversity workers have a responsibility to keep raising the issues and addressing them. If you know someone with the word diversity in their job title, make sure they haven't become lost or lazy, make sure they haven't forgotten the mission. Remind them that "managing" diversity is a calling that answers to a higher authority--to the principles of liberty and justice for all.

Q. What should I be reading?

A. Trespassing by Gwendolyn Parker
Ethnic Conflict by H. D. Forbes
Not Only for Myself by Martha Minow
The Myth of Continents by Martin W. Levin and Karen E. Wigen
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Q. How can we measure the value of working on diversity?

A. A growing number of organizations are using various kinds of social accounting, an idea introduced by Clark Abt and others more than twenty-five years ago. There are different approaches to developing a social balance sheet, a social performance index, stakeholder surveys, benchmark studies, disclosure accounts, human asset valuation, or cost benefit analysis. They are helpful tools and formats that can be used to put diversity efforts in a recognized systematic framework of assessment and strategic evaluation.
This is not the same as doing a diversity audit to diagnose the state of diversity in an organization. Instead, it is about including the effort of addressing diversity in your description and analysis of your organization's performance, reputation, and prospects. Your officers are continuously doing this with other areas of operations. Help them add diversity into the mix. (And help them see that their effort is incomplete and inadequate if it does not include diversity.)
Diversity should be treated as knowledge creation, as decision support system, and as an expert system. It is value-added. Contrary to common belief, it is not an overhead function. Benefits of and from diversity can be measured directly and indirectly, especially if you use activity-based cost accounting or any of the other economic sustainability indexes recommended by groups like Redefining Progress or the United Nations Development Program. The modern organization is a dynamic system of diversity operating in a dynamic economy of diversity.
In other words, if you're having difficulty measuring the impact or benefit of diversity you need to use better tools, analysis, models, theories, and methods.

December 1997

Q. How have classifications of people changed?

A. New Federal labels will be used in the year 2000 census--they will give people a list that says American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African-American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, White, Hispanic or Latino. What's different is that people will be allowed to check as many boxes as they wish. This should be interesting. People who are "mixed" or "multi" are probably the fastest-growing group in the country, and may soon be the largest. A front page story in USA Today on November 3 was "Interracial Dating: 57% of teens who date have dated interracially." The chart showed that 47% of Whites surveyed, 60% of Blacks, and 90% of Hispanics, had dated someone of another race. (13% of the teenagers said they never would date someone of another race.)
Of course, there continue to be reports that scientists don't think there are different races. We tend to confuse our terms--or maybe our terms confuse us. What in the world is race? What do we mean by distinguishing people according to skin color, ethnicity, languages, cultures, country of citizenship, religious beliefs, and calling these distinctions races? How can there be racism if there aren't actually races? Why do we perpetuate this? Michael Jackson's song "Black or White" says "I'm not going to spend my life being a color." How can people avoid, resist or transcend the classifications? Meanwhile we let the system--the government or an employer--label, count, sort, and categorize us. This is the contradiction at the center of so many diversity issues. No wonder people are frustrated and sick at heart over this.

Q. What if people don't have diversity where they live or work?

A. Most people move within a multifaceted family, society, and world--or such a world finds its way to them. Most people live in a varied, metamorphic, prismatic series of social relations and interactions and encounters. That's our reality. We are by default citizens of a world of diversities, biological and neurochemical if not in other ways.
Probably there are people whose lives are parochial, separated from others. Such a person would have to live in quite a bubble--without exposure to mass media, without contact with any commerce or politics. Such a person would be quite distant from the contemporary world. It's not easy to "get away from it all."
But it is not plausible for a company, a business, or any modern social institution to claim this kind of insulation and isolation. It doesn't make sense. There are psychiatric terms to describe such dissociation when it occurs. So when you find a group, in an organizational system operating in the modern economy, which is made up entirely of people from one particular subset of humanity, from one narrow slice of life, in the most mixed society in the world, you've got to wonder how that could happen. A very strong force, an electromagnetic field of some sort, must be at work. Do you have another explanation?

Q. Isn't there another phrase we can use besides "managing diversity?"

A. What about "the joy of diversity?" Aren't you tired of merely tolerating differences, of passive awareness, of mustering up the minimum interest required to value diversity? How about being knocked out by human capacities, by the release of energy that occurs with diversity? How about treating diversity as the force of nature that it is and going with the flow? How about being surprised and spontaneous instead of containing, restraining, restricting, and constricting people--which is what happens in a situation that spends its effort keeping diversity at bay? Isn't that what diversity work deals with--the fear and censorship of basic humanity in all its range of expression? Can we turn that fear into delight, wonder, astonishment (not just appreciation)?

Q. Isn't managing diversity really just good management?

A. You know, a lot of people have come to that conclusion.

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