Is “Diversity” Really a Good Thing?February 7, 2011
I know, I know – the title of this post is practically sacrilege considering all that I write about, but I’m kind of serious.
See – we are all currently living in this time where “diversity” is such a popular buzzword. We attend “diversity” trainings (*1) hosted by the businesses and organizations we work for as they try to encourage a “more diverse workplace.” We ask that tv shows and movies run with more “diverse” casts. Those of us who have them like to brag about how “diverse” our groups of friends are. We compliment people on their “diverse” tastes and interests.
In all of this, obviously, we assume that “diversity,” in itself, is a good thing. We never, ever question that . . . at least not out loud. Because we all know that if there was somebody out there who expressed doubt about the absolute “good” of diversity – well, they’d have to be an evil person. Probably a racist. Certainly ignorant. So no moral, upstanding citizen would ever question that – because “we all know” that “diversity” is GOOD.
Except I work with kids. And kids aren’t so hesitant to ask questions when they pop in their minds. And many times I’ve seen kids ask of adults – why? What’s so good about “diversity”? Why do I have to learn about Civil Rights? If I’m white, what’s the purpose of learning about Black History? If I’m a man, what do I get out of learning about the women’s suffrage movement? If I’m anybody at all, why should I have to interact with people that don’t agree with me or think like me or share my interests or background? Why?!
And then I watch the adults try to answer . . .
I watch as the adults flounder and hem and haw and give these pat no-answers like, “because we need to remember that things haven’t always been like they are now;” or “because Black people have contributed to our history, as well, and we need to acknowledge them;” or “because learning from people different from ourselves makes us better people.” I see the kids’ eyes roll up to the back of their heads as they respond, hitting the truth of the matter as only kids can – “See? You don’t know, either.”
And that’s the thing. I’ve met few people in the world who can ACTUALLY tell me why “diversity” is a good thing. So few people can say out loud why talking about Civil Rights is actually important. If it’s “not your problem,” let’s be honest – how many of you think it is truly, honestly in your best interest to learn about it or become involved (and not just because it’s “the right thing to do” – another no-answer)?
So I’ll see what I can do to actually ask this question, say all those things that a lot of you folks are probably thinking but don’t say out of fear of being branded “evil” (or “racist,” or “sexist,” etc.), and figure out if “diversity” is really any good for us at all.
Part I: Doesn’t Seem so “Good” to Me
The following section will contain some comments that may rub some folks the wrong way, maybe even trigger them a bit. If that happens to you, please understand that I have a purpose to saying what I do, and read all the way through this post before responding.
Okay. So let’s get right to it. “Diversity” may actually be a bad thing. Seriously. Check out the following thought experiments if you don’t believe me:
1) What if there was only ONE religion in the world? Goodbye Crusades, the Inquisition, all “holy wars,” in general. The World Trade Center is still standing, Israel isn’t a war-zone, and we all agree on what THE “moral code” is. So much less violence and fanatic hate in the world.
2) What if we all just looked the same? Peace out, hate crimes, anti-immigration legislation, and racial profiling. Hitler doesn’t get his Holocaust (and probably loses the chance at provoking WWII), and Rwandans live peacefully side by side without the sounds of machetes re-traumatizing the population every day.
3) What if we were asexual creatures that just budded off clones to reproduce? No more rape or domestic violence, sexual objectification or degradation on video. Everybody’s just as “strong” as everybody else, and there’s never a question about whether somebody else can “handle the job” or not. Homophobia not even conceivable.
4) What if we all just shared the same interests, and culture, and ways of being? No misunderstandings turning into fights. No judgment or projection or fear-turned-hatred. We’d all just hang out together and be able to feel comfortable and share a good conversation with everybody we met.
I could keep going, obviously. But every time I play this “what if” game, I come up with some pretty horrible things erased through a simple lack of diversity. And, obviously, we can’t just make all these things go away, but we certainly could self-segregate and just hang out with people that look like us, talk like us, share our culture, interests, sexuality, etc. We can definitely do that. Many of us do. And that’s much less uncomfortable, there are less misunderstandings, less chance for judgments, hurt, etc. I mean, that seems a lot better than mixing us all up and pretending that we can “all get along” and connect over our “shared humanity,” doesn’t it?
So why the Hell would anybody say that “diversity” and creating a “diverse community” is a good thing? I’ve lived and worked in “diverse” places, and it seems to me that it just leads to more arguments, more discomfort, more people getting offended or hurt or frustrated . . . that’s certainly all that most “Diversity Trainings” look like when somebody comes in and makes us all talk about this sh– with people we don’t want to talk about it with.
So why is “diversity” actually important or good – for ANYBODY?
Part II: The Social Network
Let me give you the shortest version of my answer first:
Because even ants fight wars.
Yup. Ants. They fight wars. And to the best of my knowledge, they don’t have religion or race – and even gender is largely controlled for. But they still fight wars. They enslave other ants. They kill each other. Because they’re social animals, and social animals – when they are close enough to other groups to share resources – strive against each other. It’s a biological inevitability because difference is an infinite variable, and there is always a way to differentiate between “my” group and “your” group – even within the same species – if I deem it necessary.
And humans do deem it necessary, because we are also social animals. There are a few of us who live completely outside of social bonds and networks, but that is a rare exception, and it is not how we have been biologically designed to survive in the world. And so, as long as we continue to be social animals, we will strive against “other” human groups.
It is ingrained in us to very quickly determine who is one of “us” and who is one of “them.” And whatever factor determines that will become our focus in interactions with the “other.” Race, gender, religion – all good indicators of “other”ness. But they’re not the only ones. Nope – depending on the circumstances, we’re just as likely (or even more so) to use music choice, food taste, style of dress, accent, which hand we eat with, athletic ability, hobbies, presence or absence of body modifications, etc.
We are brilliantly designed to take the smallest differences and build them up to be threats. Why? Because if I ran into a complete stranger back in the day, that probably meant he was from a competing group, and we were going to end up fighting. That’s not true, anymore, of course, but we haven’t had time to evolve out of these dialed-in reactions, and I’m still going to have that residual emotional response from when my systems were “designed” – that uncomfortable gut-reaction, fear, and distrust when I run into somebody that I deem “different from me.” It’s just how human beings are.
And so our biggest problem – as humans – with “diversity” is our ridiculous ability to over-simplify. We take single indicators of “other”- ness and create elaborate stories in our heads (some call them “stereotypes”) based on those single indicators to tell us what that “other” person is like. Sometimes we do that in a “positive” way (she’s got good musical taste – like me – so I’m more likely to trust her). We also do it in more obviously “negative” ways, of course, and use our ensuing fear or distrust to turn us against these “others.”
Ironically, it’s this same over-simplification process that makes “diversity” a problem for us, in general, that causes most “Diversity Trainings” to be such disasters. Because “Diversity” trainings are seldom about true “diversity” at all. They’re about race. Just one thing. And, although I obviously believe race plays a large role in how the world is today – it is not the only thing that plays a role.
Gender also plays a role.
Religion plays a role.
They all play roles. Huge roles. And, in this world, as human beings, we cannot treat any one of these things in isolation. Because we do not live in isolation. We are part of a large, interconnected social network. The second we begin focusing on one thing as THE one thing, we are falling into the same oversimplification trap that got us all here in the first place. (*2)
We must remember that these bigger things are hugely important, and need to be addressed and dealt with – but they are only symptoms of a much deeper issue. Doing a “Diversity Training” focused on race is the equivalent of taking Tylenol for tension headaches. Sure – it temporarily eases the pain and feels a lot better, makes me a little better able to cope and buy time to deal – but it can never SOLVE the problem, because it attempts to address a web by plucking out a single strand – which still leaves the basic structure and end-result in place. (*3)
Our deeper problem is simply “Us” and “Them,” however we divide those lines. It is the problem of all social animals. It is our amazing ability to take somebody totally different from me and throw a uniform on him and have me claim him as “mine.” And the equally amazing ability to take somebody else JUST LIKE ME and throw a different uniform on him and have me hate him and feel morally right in shooting him in the face.
“Solving” the race problem will not fix that. We’ll just move on to something new. “Solving” sexism or homophobia or class distinctions changes NOTHING in terms of some people oppressing and hating other people that “aren’t like us.”
So why is a true understanding of “diversity” important?
Because gender issues are not my problem. Neither are homophobia nor anti-Muslim rhetoric. But “Us” vs. “Them” is my problem. It’s your problem, too. Whoever you are. Even a straight, white, middle-class male in the U.S. has this problem, and is going to have to deal with it – when he walks in a room and his clothes don’t look like “their” clothes, and there’s hesitation, discomfort, maybe even dislike. When he speaks differently from other people, and that “other” ness keeps him from becoming a partner, or gets him beat up at school, or laughed at, or without friends growing up, etc. (*4)
And so we are all, actually, on the “same side” here. Because you cannot allow somebody to “Us” vs. “Them” in one context and hope that their mind can truly alter and adapt to NOT do that, in others. It’s all about reinforcement and balance – if I am encouraged to handle conflicts with violence, I’m going to do that for ANY conflict, whether it’s over race, gender, or who’s going to win the Super Bowl. Same situation if I’m encouraged to handle difference with an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality (of judgment, stereotyping, and treating as “less-than”). It doesn’t matter if you let me do it “only in regards to women,” because the underlying systems and biological pathways are the same, and so I will subsequently “slip” and also do it in regards to race or class or whatever, as well. A kid of color cannot allow bullying to exist in the world – in any form – and expect that not to come back in the form of racial “bullying” (or oppression) in the future. This goes in every other direction, as well.
True “diversity” and social justice work is about this running battle against “Us” vs. “Them.” Because my brain is going to do all it can to oversimplify the world and the people I come across, in every situation. So the more I can actually interact with people that don’t look like me, or act like me, or talk like me, or think like me, etc., the more defenses I have against those oversimplifications. If I’ve spent a lot of time around black folks, I know they aren’t “all the same.” I’m also more comfortable with them, and less likely to fall back on stereotypes out of discomfort or fear next time I meet a new black person. It will also be harder for a new black person to be uncomfortable with me, as I sit in ease in their presence, and their preconceived judgments and oversimplifications now become reduced.
The same goes with everything else. The more opinions I’ve listened to, the more music I’ve appreciated, the harder it is for me to “other” somebody else over those things later on (or be “othered” by them). Religion. Class. Food. Whatever. The more and more I come to understand and be around and actually participate in, the less often I find myself out of my comfort zone, and the stronger and more stable I am, while making it more difficult for people to pigeonhole me into a stereotype. (*5)
That’s what’s “in it for me.” Not the moral high-ground or just “relating to anybody,” but to be better able to defend against other people’s discomfort. If I’m at ease and can buy time for them to stop “othering” me – then my life just got easier. I have more opportunities, less conflict, and just less social stress, in general.
Of course, it’s not so easy as all that. Being around true diversity is uncomfortable, by definition. And even being more diverse in your own experiences, skills, and knowledge doesn’t guarantee anybody else will treat you any differently for it. But it’s about playing the odds: the deck is stacked against us – we are built to make these snap distinctions between “other” human groups – so everything you can do to even out your chances a bit is well worth it. And if we were able to improve in our abilities to respect every aspect of “Us” vs. “Them” (and not just the one that we know the best) as one worth putting down, then it might get a little bit easier, as well.
This post is just the beginning of a whole lot more. In subsequent posts, I will delve much deeper into the biology involved in all of this, and how we can use knowledge of that biology to “trick” ourselves (and others) into reducing our own stereotypes and “othering” tendencies. In the meantime, the next time you’re asked to explain the importance of this type of work – just think of the ants.
(*1) Strange name, no? I mean, honestly – how do you train people to be “diverse”?
(*2) For instance, try to tell a woman of color that race is the only thing that matters in her life – that she has the same experience of oppression as a male of color . . .
(*3) Of course, me saying that it isn’t about just “one thing” doesn’t mean that “one thing” can’t ever be the focus. If somebody else is telling you about their experience with race, for example, it doesn’t help matters or advance the cause by trying to change the focus back to something that more directly affects you. Because the whole point is it all does, and you’re going to do more learning and improving when you’re listening to other people share about what you know the least about.
(*4) The perceived “severity” of these situations doesn’t matter, and I’m not playing “Oppression Olympics” here. The fact is that nobody feels good about these situations, and the majority of hurt and frustration in everybody’s lives stems from this basic issue.
(*5) As long as you truly engage the other person with respect and give them a chance to be one of “us.”