Stop Celebrating Diversity

At a think tank in Washington where I used to work, I once attended a one-day compulsory diversity training, during which the instructor requested everyone to identify themselves by age groups, sexual orientation and childhood socio-economic background. Seeing a coworker identify herself as a gay woman, another coworker who’d grown up outside of the U.S. expressed shock and dread. It was a case of a good intention creating negative emotions. For me, I resented having to sit through the training, when I could have worked and gone home earlier.

Despite damning evidence that shows mandatory diversity trainings don’t work or actually make things worse – a 2006 review of over 700 companies showed that trainings aimed at managers activated bias rather than reducing it – we keep doing it. From Wall Street headhunters to Harvard admissions offices, diversity is seen as a positive end in itself, yet it is one fraught with cultural baggage.

First, consider the costs. U.S. companies pour billions into the diversity-training industry, whose pitch is protecting organizations from legal and financial liability. It’s a testament to how organizations run on fear of litigation. It also reflects laziness, choosing a quick workshop over long-term interventions that are proven to work: targeted college recruitment programs, setting up internal task forces and mentoring programs, and giving a diverse group of people a chance to work closely together.

Second, watching one’s language around women and minorities is not diversity. Our perception of the world, including our prejudices, are ingrained in us, consciously and unconsciously. They are passed on by family and culture. Changing people’s thoughts cannot be treated like changing accounting software.

The word “diversity” has come to symbolize positivity, tolerance and inclusion. Its antithesis is that of privilege and exclusions. But just as “democracy” – a rule by the majority – doesn’t inherently mean peace, “diversity” – the state of being diverse – doesn’t automatically translate into tolerance or inclusion. If being different is the only commonality, it doesn’t make sense to pursue it.

As David French, senior writer for National Review, has pointed out, diversity is not a strength because everyone is different; diversity is a strength because different people come together under a unifying purpose. For example, the inflow of talented faculty and students from around the globe makes America’s higher education system more competitive than anywhere else. But it’s not the collection of passports that makes American universities great; it’s their unifying pursuit of knowledge and the exacting standards they impose.

America has integrated immigrants based on core beliefs like individualism and freedom. This unifying value transcends the differences without crushing individual identity. This is in stark contrast with France, where people are considered as neutral citizens regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. French secularism strives for a religion-free public sphere; the American approach protects different beliefs. You don’t have to renounce your original nationality to be American. In France, there is no hyphenated identities. When Trevor Noah called France’s North African immigrants-dominated soccer team “African,” he was accused of denying their “Frenchness.”

This assimilation model is based on the notion that uniformity trumps diversity. But when different groups come together under a shared purpose, it fuels pluralism and upward mobility. This is not to say that America’s integration is perfect. Racism is alive and well as it is in France. Hate crimes continue to rise. Naturalization rates are lower than they are in Europe.

And yet, all the problems notwithstanding, the immigrants in America fare better than their counterparts in Europe. They nurture a sense of optimism. In fact, the 2013 Census data show that the children of less educated immigrants gained better education and jobs than their parents. This is not the case in Europe. In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that second-generation immigrants in the European Union, even with higher education, struggled with employment and felt discriminated against. Muslims in the U.S. are educated and employed at comparable levels to the general public, according to a 2011 Pew study. The majority of French Muslims, mostly immigrants from North Africa, are economically and socially marginalized through generations.

Skeptics would argue that a country’s experience of inclusion or multiculturalism is not applicable to individuals or organizations. And yet, the experience might be closer to each other. As the French experience shows, trying to erase the differences doesn’t work – it’s like attempting to be gender-blind or color-blind so as to treat everyone the same. There’s a lesson for everyone in that a country ought to be open to different experience of its citizens, especially now, as bigotry, populism and tribalism seem to eat away at the unifying core.

Still, others might insist that diversity trainings are not meant to change how people think, but rather how they act. I disagree. If accompanied by a long-term commitment, as well as policy and institutional changes that provide equal access and opportunity, the efforts to turn diversity into a strength could be much more powerful than simply changing the way people behave in the office.

Diversity is growing. Even the most ethnically-insulated countries like Japan and South Korea are becoming more diverse, if at a slower pace. By emphasizing cooperation through multiple experiences and perspectives, we can learn to appreciate others for their contribution to society, rather than for who they are.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2018. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

(Photo credit: Ian Usher via Creative Commons)