Diversity or multiculturalism is not a goal; it’s a process. A process of working with differences; a process that has always existed although without a name until recently; a process that will continue to exist for the next millennium. Race and gender were some of the first-noted categories, but now more and more groups have been added to the list. Like research on leadership, research on diversity and multiculturalism has been abundant, and abundantly described in books, journal articles, newspaper reports, TV programs, etc. I have read many of them and have conducted several workshops, but in this space, I just want to illustrate a few ideas that really resonate with me and to relate some personal journeys.
This is how I propose to frame today’s entry: The biggest challenge in daily work life (or life outside of work) is how to converse across the differences we see, feel, or experience. At this level, it’s partly about inter-group dynamics, such as conversations on race between an Asian and an African-American, or on gender between a white female and a Hispanic male, and such are the recognized diversity issues. But there is another level, within-group differences, that isn’t as often recognized or addressed. I mean the differences within any group you can think of, differences of race, gender, religion, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, foodies, eat-&-run types….the list is endless. “Asian group” applies to at least a quarter of the world’s population but do they all share the same cultural values, or think similarly? Such further distinctions of differences are sometimes described as multicultural. But this begs the question, where do we draw the line of this list of groups? As we keep adding categories onto this list, eventually, we will come to the point where we started it all: It’s about all the differences, but particularly the differences in how we think. All these group labels do contribute to how we think but it’s the combinations of several groups’ cultures that help define who we are. The focal definition of any difference at any given time lies locally, between you and me as we face each other and detect that difference that we have to either address or avoid.
A black female Ph.D student in a prestigious school that is predominated by white males (big surprise there!) gets two typical conversations, often one-way from others to her: color is really not an issue, and they would be more than happy to help her in any way should she find the academic work too much (i.e. if she can’t keep up with it!). In such conversations, her voice is not really sought out, unless she stands firm and asserts herself, running the risk of being regarded as belligerent. There are a few Asian students who rarely if ever get these conversations; instead, they are either stellar performers or fly under the radar quietly following their advisors’ direction on research projects, biding their time to get their degree. By and large, race is usually not a wedge issue among students. One has to wonder if economic class is playing a greater role here, but that’s a volatile issue that I will not touch in this entry.
We seem to get stuck at the superficial level of handling these types of differences and often the conservations become prescribed. You walk down the street, see a man in a power suit, and make certain assumptions about him, thinking he’s probably professional, and you might wonder what that is and if he’s successful. But perhaps, he just had a tense and a not-so-great job interview, and he’s down to the last $100 in his savings account. Or, you see an Asian woman wearing a track suit (for all we know, she could be an American), wearing a somewhat harassed look, you wonder if she is as smart as the stereotype would have. And so on. There is a beautifully written passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Of course, we have to make certain assumptions in our daily life; otherwise, how could we possibly get any work done if we had to restart every conversation with basic definitions? At this point, I will just say that so long that we are aware of our assumptions, we have a chance to verify them. Lacking some basic awareness, and without checking if some of those assumptions are correct, allows hurtful feelings, repressions, resentment, and all other negativities to happen. So, yes, it is important to raise awareness. The problem with a lot of prescribed conversations in awareness-raising workshops or courses is that we get stuck at the level of politically correct terms and don’t know how to get deeper.
To get deeper, just search within ourselves for clues. Most of us have a few friends and acquaintances who are very “different” than we are, however you want to define those differences. Even within (especially within!) our families, we often experience profound differences. Reflecting upon those experiences which we have managed to live through and achieved positive outcomes, did they not provide us a sensation of expanding our horizon? Recall some details: With whom did these experiences occur? How would you describe them? How did the exchanges come about? What did we talk about? Why did it feel great? Staying with those moments is likely to give us clues about conversing across differences. Of course, not all differences are equal; some will evoke more uncomfortable feelings than others. But like everything else in our lives, the more difficult conversations are the ones that stretch our imagination and expand our perspectives.
Sometimes, I think it is equally difficult, if not more so, to have conversations across the differences within a group. How many people you know who have more “issues” with their family members than with someone of different racial background or religious background? Similarly, within a racial group, there can be painful dealings with members’ own differences. Or just look at religious groups! But often, when facing an “adversarial outside” group, these within-group differences can be temporarily suppressed; we rally with our “own kind!” If we don’t, “disloyalty” is usually the first assault that gets hurled around.
I think it is usually within one’s affiliated group, be that based on identity, work, family, or whatever that’s most important to a person, that one experiences most keenly the tension between holding onto one’s individual identity and group identity, or between individualism and collectivism. Diversity or multiculturalism is a very personal topic to people because whatever categories/groups you choose, they help define you. Personally, negotiating those boundaries has been a lot harder than dealing “straightforwardly” with visibly different group members. Every one of us has some stories to tell about balancing between these two desires and handling such tension.
Appreciative Inquiry stresses stories. For good reason, as stories provide context and depth; it is through stories that we form relationships with others and begin to understand each other. Most of us feel more ourselves when given chances to narrate our stories, from beginning to end, as we define them. While stories can still be misinterpreted, they also offer more information on which we can base our inquiry and further clarifications. It is also a whole lot easier to remember a story than a theory, or a hypothesis. Remember, the “essential is invisible to the eye!” One must be wary of those that can be immediately categorized.
Another important reason for using stories is that all of us possess several identities. For example, I am a daughter, a mother, a wife, a consultant, a painter, a gardener, an enthusiastic cook, etc., and not necessarily in that order of importance. Some of my colleagues and I adopt the usage of multiculturalism for describing ourselves at personal level. I don’t always want to choose only one dimension of myself to present to the public – in fact, at any given moment, I possess several of these identities simultaneously — and using stories allows me to better relate the complexity of me. In a prescribed dialogue, we tend to paint each other in one dimension, and leaving us feeling utterly misconstrued.
During a few months’ stint of working in a diversity office in a large science organization, one conversation really struck me: the diversity office staff voiced their “concerns,” in fact, feeling downright indignant at the work “attitude” of the majority of the scientists in that they tend to work long and odd hours. Some staff actually advocated imposing restrictions on office hours with the reason that “these people need to take care of their personal life!” It is perhaps true that some scientists are rather obsessive, but a lot of them actually feel “relaxed” when they are immersed in their work, mentally relaxed, that is. I saw this type of difference, between professional groups, as one of the most profound schisms between groups at a lot of workplaces. When these differences are conflated with race, gender, and whatnot, the world gets complicated to navigate through. In next entry, I will use a delightfully titled article, “Fix the Women” for a more succinct illustration about complicated organizational dynamics viewed through the lens of diversity.
There is another type of difference at work that is rarely discussed: the difference between introverts and extroverts. The majority of managers are extroverts, and I don’t think we need to conduct another social research project to understand why. And since the world is dominated by extroverts — according to Myers-Brigg study — introverts by nature are not likely to make a fuss about it. So, for instance, the concept and the emphasis on teamwork, while certainly having merit, does not address the ramifications of “making the introverts work in a team.” I am by no means suggesting that introverts are not capable of, nor taking pleasure in, working with others. However, the nature of extroverts is that they get “energy” by being with others; the opposite holds true for introverts. So, for introverts, why shouldn’t organizations be aware of their needs as well, and provide them ample space and time to be alone so that they can “recharge” themselves?
I think of diversity and multiculturalism like cooking (I like it, what can I say?). Each ingredient or equipment can be interesting by itself, but it’s the combination that produces a flavorful dish or an awesome dessert. Sometimes, we may yearn for a simple fruit – and we do need them – but more often than not, it’s the complexity of combining ingredients from different food groups that provide us with the necessary sustenance to live fully. So it is with our development. We may prefer to sharpen our professional wit by hanging around with like-minded, but ultimately we need different ideas from different quarters to push ourselves onto the next level of development.
So, till we get to the next level or next blog entry (2/13),
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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