I recently had the opportunity to gather with colleagues from across Temple University for a popular discussion series called “Can We Talk?” I chose as my topic the question of why diversity is so difficult to accomplish, and what might make it easier. Of course, neither question can be answered to anyone’s satisfaction in an hour, no matter how robust and sincere the conversation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important conversation to begin, and to continue whenever possible.
I think it’s important, though, to offer a few observations up front. First, I think it is important to recognize that however much it is desired (in theory or in reality), diversity doesn’t come naturally. While a lot of people express support for it – and even a desire for it, we’re not all clear on what “it” even is, let alone how to achieve it. Second is the matter of vocabulary. The word itself sometimes gives off the connotation of “forced mixing,” which sounds like work or something even less voluntary. And third, the work of diversity is not only hard; it also involves personal risk and personal commitment.
Diversity doesn’t come naturally. More and more scholarship confirms that we all harbor biases that affect our perception of those around us. They’re part of our cognitive process – how we interpret information and make sense of our world. Mahzarin Banaji, a researcher at Harvard, has designed the Implicit Association Test as a mechanism for illuminating these biases in each of us. Take the test: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.
The list of such biases is long and readily available; among those I found most interesting were confirmation bias, which describes how we selectively see and process information that supports our preconceived notions; anchoring, in which we give too much weight to unsupported knowledge because it is consistent with our assumptions; and actor-observer bias, in which we attribute our own actions to the situation in which they take place but attribute the actions of others to some internal characteristic or personality trait. When it comes to how we approach diversity, I think that actor-observer bias is particularly worthy of exploration.
The word itself has some issues. For some, the word “diversity” has acquired a negative connotation. I think many well-meaning people perceive it as a forced mixing, something we know we “should” do but either don’t want to, or don’t do naturally. Tackling differences takes us out of our comfort zone, the one filled with people who don’t need us to explain ourselves. Perhaps a better word to express our desire would be “inclusion,” suggesting that we’re widening our circle rather than visiting an unfamiliar one.
There’s another issue, though, too; one that I think is harder to address. It’s the question of what, exactly, we mean by diversity. I think that for many of us, “diversity” really means “me, slightly different.” We understand diversity to mean that people from historically marginalized groups – women and racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities – should have the same access to resources and opportunities that others do. But we assume that those categorized differences are the only ways in which they’re different from us, and when that turns out not to be the case, we get uncomfortable. So the thing that offends us about a coworker isn’t her race or her religion; it’s how loud her voice seems to us. It’s the large stud in his ear or the way she’s so formal, even in relaxed settings. When we realize that real diversity means these things as well, it seems a lot more complicated than we would like, and so the challenge increases.
It’s not just a matter of equality. Diversity initiatives that focus on equality at the end of the pipeline without addressing the injustices at its beginning will never succeed. We must ask ourselves why groups fall out – why, if our communities have roughly the same numbers of men and women, do men disproportionately occupy positions of power in government and industry? Why are racial and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities so dramatically absent from those roles? Where – and why – do those who are “different” fall out along the way? There are some obvious places to start looking for the leaks: the state of public education and entrenched socioeconomic inequality (itself often a proxy for race) come immediately to mind. How can we reach our potential without access to a quality education, or safe housing, or enough healthy food? But this is just one place to look; clearly from the examples above it is not the only contributor to the challenge we face.
There are things we can do. I think there are actions available to us individually and collectively, if we are willing to do some hard things. On an individual level, I think the real game-changer is trust. It’s still very risky to talk about hard issues – we don’t want to offend, or appear unknowledgeable, or come across as angry, or alienate someone. But talking about these things is the only way that we’re ultimately going to change them. And that requires trust, and a safe space within which we can let ourselves be uncomfortable. Collectively, I think we need to have some hard conversations in our communities about what we’re willing to change in order to address the injustices that have created leaks in the pipeline. We need to get clear on what we really mean by “diversity,” and do some soul-searching about how hard we are willing to work for it. If we can come to some consensus on those things, then I think we will see a path forward.