Could focusing on diversity be re-inforcing prejudice?

Diversity is a term that is commonly used throughout business these days.  Much of my work is in Europe and further afield such as Dubai and Hong Kong and I regularly coach people from all across the world as part of the programmes I run and follow up coaching that I do.  Many people are passionate about diversity as an issue or a value.  Yet something troubles me about diversity.  What I notice is that in identifying diversity with ethnic background, gender etc. we have fallen into the trap of re-inforcing people’s identification with their gender, ethnic background etc.  The assumption is that one woman speaks for all women, or one Chinese, Italian, Black, Indian, English person speaks for all.  It makes someone’s viewpoint synonymous with their gender, ethnic background, race.  We are defining people by these elements.  Surely, paradoxically, this is the very thing that we are trying to get away from?  If we identify people with these things then it does divide us completely into separate beings with nothing in common, it divides us into us and them rather than just “us”.

I do not think that diversity of viewpoint is synonymous with these things; I have met Chinese people who are very similar in their viewpoint to English people; I have met men and women who share very similar prejudices and views about the world.  This is not diversity.  The aim behind the focus on diversity is that it is the antidote to closed mindedness; that it fosters an open mind.  Yet my experience has been that this is not the case, I have noticed instead that what fosters open-mindedness is open-mindedness.  If we become fixed and rigid about what constitutes open-mindedness then we are being closed-minded.  At the moment, if a group is composed of mostly men it is immediately seen as closed minded or lacking breadth of perspective.  If a group is composed entirely of women, or one ethnic background the same is assumed.  Yet my experience is that it is not about the background or gender of these groups but rather the open-mindedness of the individuals within them.

This paradox seems to lie at the heart of many issues.  Those who are most fanatical about racism are often full of prejudices; those who are anti-war are often some of the most aggressive people, prepared to fight warmongers to the death!  I am not against diversity; the fact that we are all different is paradoxically what we all share in common, it is a point of unity not of division.  At a recent lecture by Edward De Bono, someone asked him what wisdom was and Edward De Bono replied that it was the ability to have multiple perspectives through which to look at the world.  This strikes me as the real heart of diversity; the ability to hold multiple perspectives.  It has always saddened my heart to be with men when they talk about women as if they are a foreign species, similarly being with women when they describe men as a foreign species is equally sad for my heart; it diminishes us all when we are identified only with the superficial level of our skin, gender, cultural background.  I am not suggesting that these differences do not exist, indeed I notice that when people are not identified with them then they assume their proper place and we can laugh and play with them and be interested in them in a way which re-inforces our common sense of humanity.  I listen to colleagues tease each other about their nationality, background etc. I also hear people ask each other about how things are seen by others in different parts of the world, but behind these questions there is a warmth and interest which says – we know that we are fellow human beings beyond all these superficialities and this warmth of the common heart melts away the barriers or divisions.

When I worked at Islington Local Education Authority I was intrigued by the perspective of a woman on the senior management team; what drew me to her was her open-heartedness and open-mindedness.  She was wonderfully insightful.  She would tell me that I needed to be more Nigerian (she was from a Nigerian background), more assertive and less concerned about being tactful and diplomatic and she was in many ways right.  What intrigued me was that she told me that the private sector would be much quicker in getting past prejudice than the public sector because the public sector was too concerned with race.  In the private sector she noticed, companies were so obsessed with making money that they tended to pick people on the basis of their competence rather than their race.  She felt the public sector in its focus on equality and race re-inforced the emphasis on race as being the determining factor.  My own experience was that I noticed that the emphasis on being politically correct encouraged people to be more offended and take their nationalities, race and gender more seriously to be more stuck in identifying with it.  The result was that everyone played a game of competing to be the most politically correct and scapegoating anyone who made a mistake.  There was a wonderful man who came to speak about working creatively with children and addressed the whole conference of Islington staff.  He started by relaying his fears about coming to address Islington people and how scared he was about being politically incorrect and what would happen if something politically incorrect popped out of his mouth from his unconscious without him being able to stop it.  I looked around at everyone laughing and smiling at each other; in one brilliant stroke he had burst this awful bubble of fear which separated everyone.

As we become more global, companies are having to grapple with becoming international.  Life has set the game up very cleverly so that their ambition to be successful means that companies have to embrace other nationalities and break down barriers to be successful.  It makes me wonder how Life is going to cope and motivate us to evolve if we lose our greed?  Yet on a very regular basis the question I get asked by participants is, yes but how do you coach or lead someone who is from a different culture?  The Russians, the Chinese, the Malaysians, the Italians, the English, the Americans are different you can’t coach them in the same way!  Ironically I am often being asked this by each of these nationalities about each other.  People are adamant that in these cultures people really are very different and alien, yet it is a nonsense.  Businesses’ perpetuate the same myths – that only someone with industry expertise can understand their culture and the issues that people face but it is complete bunkum.  It is a myth perpetuated because people want to identify with being special or different in some way; they want a clique or club to belong to – the club of men, women, city traders, lawyers, Chinese, Italian etc.  It makes us feel insecure not to belong yet I think we are in the process of learning that we do belong.  We belong to the human race, to Life, to the Universe.  If we know we are part of the Universe we don’t make the mistake of settling for anything less or creating barriers against others.  It is hard for us clear away the illusions that get in the way but I think it is our work so that the universal flow of our hearts (love) can freely flow out to everyone.

Perhaps I have got to work on my prejudices about people who are prejudiced?!

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