Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cultures Are Not Bumper Stickers*: Valuing Diversity and Subverting Discrimination

America has a history of cultural diversity and tension around it. Our cultures are integral to our individual and group identities – usually drawn upon identity-group lines like race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. Past rhetoric refers with pride to America’s “melting pot” of cultural heritage, but today you are more likely to hear the word “implicit bias” and “disproportionate incarceration” when referring to America’s contemporary diversity policies. Officer shootings of black men have turned public attention to structural racism and how we can direct our own efforts to addressing the need for more authentic action on diversity issues.

Why should you care? Ethics and economics. Many of us react emotionally, even viscerally to these issues. As far back as the U.S. Declaration of Independence we have held the belief that everyone deserves the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and in the twentieth century many cultures around the world internalized the idea of dignity as a human right (McNett 2004). That queasy, uncomfortable feeling is our internalized values telling us discrimination is ethically wrong. But beyond ethics, simple economic logic also supports the idea that society is most productive as a whole when a diverse group is allowed to question the process and drive innovation (Robinson and Dechant 2004). We care because it’s our ethical and societal responsibility to do so and we stand to gain from acting on it. 

What needs to be done? We need to move away from the models that we have used to address diversity issues and shift paradigms to truly value different cultural and individual perspectives. Common models of encouraging diversity in the past have been affirmative action-type and legacy legitimacy-type. The first employs quotas to make groups look more like society and comply with federal programs. Women and people of color are implicitly expected to blend in to the historical organizational culture. Legacy legitimacy programs seek diversity because it’s good business; they assign diverse staff to responsibilities associated with their background to gain market insight into that identity-group. Both of these approaches perpetuate discrimination. The diversity of opinions and life learning that staff members bring to the table are not independently valued; and they are discouraged from challenging how work is done (Thomas and Ely 2004). Men and women who enter companies under such diversity programs are often assigned to unchallenging positions with little opportunity for advancement (Robinson and Dechant 2004). Both styles of diversity management fail to harness the potential of a diverse workforce and perpetuate structural disadvantages.

But what can I do? Be a leader. Recognize and value differences from cultural diversity. Brainstorm ways to foster an organizational culture that makes everyone feel valued and is open to new ideas and change. Start open discussions about how workers' identity-group membership influences their experience in the organization. Above all, work to identify forms of dominance and insubordination which are often not readily visible and actively reform to avoid replicating those structures (Thomas and Ely 2004).

While the debate about structural racism in law enforcement has been the recent focus of public attention, structural discrimination runs through almost all facets of our society. Looking at law enforcement’s role in structural discrimination alone ignores the larger systemic problem and may once again create solutions like those described above where the problem is addressed where it is most visible, but not at its roots. If every organization in America - including police forces - took responsibility for how they engage and include diverse groups in their work, we would be well on our way to a more inclusive and productive society.

*The title of this piece “Cultures are not bumper stickers” is a quote from Sowell 2004


McNett, Jeanne (2004) “Diversity in the Workplace: Ethics, Pragmatism, or Some of Both?” Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 241-253.

Robinson, Gail and Kathleen Dechant (2004) “Building a Business Case for Diversity.” Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 228-240.

Sowell, Thomas (2004) “A World View of Cultural Diversity.” Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 27-38

Thomas, David A. & Robin J. Ely (2004) “Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity.” Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 211-227.

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