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Diversity Versus Inclusiveness: A Radio Essay

December 21, 2012

Several weeks ago, I was asked by WYPR–the local NPR affiliate station–to contribute a radio essay to its year-long series on segregation, “The Lines Between Us.” I was asked to explore the differences between inclusiveness and diversity. You can listen to my essay here and read the text below:

Periodically, someone—or some organization—asks for my advice on how to become more “diverse.” Here’s how that question sounds to me: “Rodney….how can I be less white?”

That’s an awkward role for a 28 year-old black guy to play. Even more so in a majority-minority city like Baltimore.  My friend, the Baltimore Sun columnist Lionel Foster, calls it “translating.”

For members of most minority groups, cultural dexterity seems to be a matter of survival. It’s not an option, or something you ask someone to help you with.

Inevitably, I find myself “translating” between black and white Baltimore—helping people to better understand and communicate with the other side—though most often for white Baltimore. I don’t ever recall a black professional woman asking me, “Can you help me be more intentional with my relationships with white people?”

Even in a majority black city like Baltimore, it’s sort of a given that minority groups have to navigate these complex racial realities.  These complex realities often get filed away under the term “diversity.” But diversity, to me, is an outcome of inclusiveness.  Inclusiveness is about being welcoming and open to differing ideas and people.

So again, diversity is an outcome of inclusiveness. And this usually gets lost on people. If your office environment or event is not inclusive…it won’t be diverse. But everyone–most people, most institutions–believe themselves to be inclusive. Of course, we’re all lying to ourselves, since inclusiveness requires us to constantly re-evaluate and reassess ourselves and our networks.

It reminds me of the HBO show, “Girls”–yeah, I went there.  Critics have blasted the show because the main characters lack friends of color. And I giggle at that–yes, giggle.

People often get offended by fiction when it reflects reality. I know young ladies like the ones on ‘Girls’–and they don’t have black friends. And there’s the difference between diversity and inclusiveness: inclusiveness would be Lena Dunham embracing a world that’s less white; diversity would be a show with more minority characters. Without the former, you won’t have the latter.

And that’s why ‘Girls’ doesn’t make me uncomfortable…but does make a lot of young white Americans uncomfortable.”

Go figure–we all lie to ourselves about matters of inclusiveness and diversity. And usually we don’t even know we’re doing it. It’s…subtle. And it’s hard not to do–we’re generally attracted to people like us.

Example: there’s a wonderful event organized by colleagues of mine called Create Baltimore. It’s a platform for “people building creative community in Baltimore.” Create Baltimore generally has a low attendance of people of color—and they’ve been criticized for it. The organizers are looking to change it – because the implicit question is, “Do you NOT want to ‘create’ a Baltimore with black people? You know, the other 63 percent?”

Morgan State professor Ray Winbush has said you can live your whole life in Baltimore and never realize it was majority black. It’s true. I remember talking with a prominent Baltimore businessman whose jaw dropped when I pointed out that the city was almost 65 percent black.

Baltimore. So diverse. So segregated. And not going the way of D.C. anytime soon.

This is exacerbated by our tendency to outsource diversity. I’ve literally had diversity outsourced to me—I’ve worked as a consultant to help an overwhelmingly white companies improve their diversity. I did my work for them…and moved on. It’s like that across the working world. Rather than embody the act of inclusiveness or critically assess what we might be doing wrong, let’s get someone else to figure it out…and then return to business as usual.

Being inclusive and achieving diversity is hard work, yes–because it requires us to abandon our comfort zones. But it’s also surprisingly easy. Have trouble attracting women to your company, with its male-dominated, bro’d out culture? Lack critical skills and perspectives at your organization because everyone has the same degree—the very same degree you happen to possess? It’s actually not as difficult for us to recognize how parochial our lives are—but it requires intentionality and a long look in the mirror.

Inclusiveness and diversity questions make people defensive and uncomfortable. And they should.

If you’re not forced to question the incompleteness of your monolithic universe–you likely never will.

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From → Baltimore, Race

4 Comments
  1. Cultural adoption issues in the African American community for mobile apps is one thing i’d like to discuss in the hangout.

  2. This is a fantastic writeup on an increasingly important and misunderstood issue. I love this quote in particular: “Inclusiveness is about being welcoming and open to differing ideas and people.” Once people start thinking of diversity like this and less in terms of quotas and numbers of minorities in the workplace we can start to make some headway in areas like graphic design and tech where most employees look, act and think alike.

    Most people doing the hiring are most comfortable hiring those like themselves with similar interests and backgrounds. And,of course this leads to a less diverse workplace.

    Sometimes the solution to this problem is to actively hire a minority. But, it is not enough to hire a token representation of a minority group. We need to think of diversity in terms of diversity of thought… and then diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation will naturally follow. Thanks for giving me some valuable insight Rodney.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Unpacking Male Tech Privilege | Skillcrush
  2. Inclusivity and Inevitability | Rena Tom

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