Just What is Diversity, Anyway?

By Michelle T. Johnson

Not to get all Bill Clinton, but I feel the pain of anyone who thinks diversity is a synonym for political correctness. Diversity can be confusing, it can be irritating, and it can just straight up be a pain in the butt. But it’s not just about being politically correct, or P.C.

Talking about diversity can definitely be circular, where it’s hard to determine which should come first — caring about diversity and then working to figure it out, or working to figure it out so that you care.

It’s just like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? The chicken that has to lay the egg or the egg that creates a new chicken? Ultimately, though, does it matter which comes first?

I do know this and so do you: It is confusing to know what is current and “correct” with every group of individuals who bond over an identity and with every issue that attracts a group of individuals. Is it black or African-American? Is it disabled or handicapped? Is it Hispanic if I know that someone is a Mexican-American? What’s the difference between gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender? And why can I call a rug Oriental but not a person? Hey, even for those of us who deal with it all the time, it can be confusing!

What is the real issue here? Does it matter knowing why diversity is important, or is it more crucial to know what diversity is? For me, diversity starts with a definition, because if you do not like how I define it, you will not bother to decide whether the topic is important anyway.

My definition of Diversity

My personal definition — after years of talking about it, writing about it, litigating it, mediating it, and just thinking about it whenever I so much as watch a television commercial — is the following: Diversity is seeing the differences, distinctions, and dividing lines of others with a soft gaze but with clear vision.

That’s my personal definition, which I think works as a great starting point for what diversity is and what diversity is not.When I say “seeing the differences,” I mean the obvious, usually immutable ones — differences of race, color, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and physical abilities.

When I say seeing “distinctions,” I’m talking about the distinctions between the differences. I’m talking about understanding that an East Coast lesbian who is black with a Jewish mother might be having a different life experience than a married black woman who is Southern born and raised. To the naked eye, you may just see two black women, but by seeing their distinctions, you see that they very well could be worlds apart in the key ways they look at the world and operate in the workplace.

When I say seeing “dividing lines,” I’m talking about the life choices that define how people live their lives — the dividing lines where people decide on their political parties, their leanings within the parties, their positions based on religion and family upbringing, and sometimes even whether you swear by bottled water versus tap.

When I say in my definition of diversity that one should see “with a soft gaze but with clear vision,” it’s a fancier way of saying that we should see others without judgment.

Actually, in all fairness, when I say “without judgment” what I really mean is with an awareness of the fact that you are judging and questioning yourself as to whether judgment in a particular situation is relevant, let alone fair. We all judge, whether we want to admit it or not. With workplace diversity, however, it’s a matter of whether judging serves any legitimate purpose.

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When it comes to people, it appears that as a society we increasingly rely more on judging others. This is because the more we encourage and encounter differences in our society, the more we have to make ourselves feel safer by judging what we think others are about.

The heart of the matter

At its heart, diversity is not about what you say or what you do. It is about how you think. And how you think is what determines what you say or do. The diversity code presented in this book is about giving you mental tools to change your thinking about diversity so that you have a better chance of creating, working in, and managing workplaces that succeed.

In other words, workplaces where people are not constantly engaging in battles of perspective, viewpoint, and will based on ego that end up turning into complaints, lawsuits, and generally unproductive environments where there is more frustration and resentment than cooperation.

Most people hate thinking about diversity when they feel the topic is forced upon them.When it comes to diversity in the workplace, just put out a memo announcing a mandatory diversity seminar, workshop, or training session and see how loud the groans get. Sure, there are a few people who look forward to a diversity get-together either because they think it’s an easy way to get out of work for a few hours or they genuinely believe that the meeting will get to the heart of whatever diversity issues they have observed. These people are the minority, though.

One of the reasons why diversity can be a touchy if not downright divisive topic is that it is all about your perspective, and what often happens with perspective is that most people don’t see any other way of looking at a situation other than through their own eyes. Therefore, when someone has a different perspective, the presumption is that the other person or group is being deliberately contrary or willfully insensitive.

The great modern-day philosopher Woody Allen once said, “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.” Where diversity can get weedy is that people are often surprised by which people view themselves as lions and which view themselves as calves.

Groups with more power, for example, often express that they feel “held hostage” by the concerns of various minority or special interest groups— as if they will always be held in the wrong no matter what because of their historic power and larger numbers. That’s why part of what The Diversity Code aims to teach is ho w to talk to people so that you can figure out where they are really coming from and not just where you presume they are coming from.

Excerpted from The Diversity Code: Unlock the Secrets to Making Differences Work in the Real World by Michelle T. Johnson. Copyright © 2011 Michelle T. Johnson. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

Michelle Johnson (www.michelletjohnson.com) writes the "Diversity Diva" newspaper column for the Kansas City Star. She is a former employment attorney and author of Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace. Her diversity workshop clients have included Wal-Mart and H&H Block. Contact her at michelle@michelletjohnson.com.