Today’s Word on Áccent: Diversity

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Diversity, in its simplest sense, means variety. But in the last few decades it has taken on a political definition, encompassing ideas such as individual and group rights, inclusion, identity, multiculturalism, and social justice. Today, we hear terms that were not widely known even ten years ago, such as white privilege, microaggression, and intersectionality.

Colleges and universities and even some large corporations have hired specialists or have created entire departments that deal strictly with issues of diversity and inclusion. Diversity training through company HR departments is increasingly common.

In light of all this focus on newly defined issues of diversity, my question is: To what purpose?

If the purpose behind focusing on diversity is to build bridges, to create greater understanding, and to develop relationships between people who are different, then we are headed in the right direction.

If the purpose is to help the people of the world understand that we have more in common than we have differences, then we are headed in the right direction.

I’d like to compare the issue of diversity to what I learned during my doctoral education. The primary reason for becoming steeped in the principles of organizational psychology was to help businesses and nonprofits become more functional.

To do that, we learned about which leadership styles are most effective, how to help executives by listening not just attentively, but by being empathetic, and to go into an organization with an open mind—seeking to discover from the people there what they think about the organization and often, instead of telling them what to do, helping them discover their own solutions. In other words, it means taking a stance of “not knowing” rather than coming in as an expert.

As I further examined “not knowing,” I realized I should take out and dust off an old word—prejudice. We used this word much more often when I was young, especially in the sense of not wanting to pre-judge someone based on skin color. In that way, the idea of eliminating prejudice is very similar to the concept of going into an organization with a stance of “not knowing.” The task is to discover and understand, rather than think you already know it all.

The principle behind eliminating prejudice and encouraging diversity is that we all (barring those with evil intent) have something to learn from each other.

That makes me think of a scene from the 1994 movie The Air Up There. The Kevin Bacon character, Jimmy Dolan, is trying to recruit a Kenyan man, Saleh, to play for his American basketball team. Dolan observes that every day the people of the village work together collecting water via a bucket brigade. With the selfish intent of getting Saleh to change his mind about playing basketball, Jimmy Dolan says that he can help Saleh’s village by building a system that will help them get water more efficiently. Saleh replies that if they did that, then his people would lose that time spent visiting with each other.

Though The Air Up There has been panned by many for its portrayal of cultural imperialism, there is an important lesson to be gleaned from that scene in terms of choosing to adopt an approach without prejudice and to make a decision to understand rather than impose a viewpoint.

In the case of the movie scene, neither Jimmy Dolan nor Saleh were wrong. They each emphasized a different value. Jimmy placed a higher value on efficiency, and Saleh and his people placed a higher value on relationship. But Jimmy did learn something from that exchange: that his way was not always the better way.

(As an aside, there are effective and less effective, or good and bad, aspects of every culture. And there are some aspects of culture that are neutral. I have often thought that when we get to heaven, we will finally know exactly how many of our beliefs were wrongly influenced by culture rather than truth.)

This brings me back to the quote at the opening of this blog post. I have such great respect for the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly because he emphasized judging people by the content of their character rather than for their physical characteristics or heritage.

King was also right about how we should approach issues of diversity. You might be able to change someone’s behavior by using force, but you’re unlikely to change someone’s heart and mind that way. Just as studies have shown that the most effective leadership styles employ empathy and understanding rather than authoritarianism, the most effective way to create a more accepting society is to seek to understand, to bring light, and to love people into it.

If the goal is to make the world better, to make it more functional, then it’s important to consider tactics. Rather than painting a group of people with a broad brush, consider each person individually based on character and behavior. Rather than taking an accusatory and denigrating tone when communicating, seek instead to understand and build bridges. This is especially important for those seeking to improve diversity in their communities and organizations and even in politics.

Women and men should seek to understand each other. Blacks and whites should seek to understand each other. Christians and Muslims should seek to understand each other. Democrats and Republicans should seek to understand each other. And so on.

King was right. Only light casts out darkness, only empathy casts out prejudice, and only love casts out hate.

In searching for a focus for this blog, I finally alighted on the idea of WORDS. For a site called “Áccent on Words,” it makes sense. As an editor and writer, I work with words for a living. Words are important to me. But really, they’re important to everyone, and even more so in an age when we’re constantly bombarded with them and continually consume them through social media, television, radio and what we choose to read. My aim is to choose a particular word or phrase as the focus of each new blog post and talk about why our words matter. — Deborah Jackson