Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2002 / 27 Tishrei, 5763

Joseph C. Phillips

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Consumer Reports

'Diverse' or just confused? | I wanted to know the definition of diversity, so I wrote to a friend of mine who is knowledgeable about these things. In response, my friend e-mailed me about the 1978 Bakke decision where Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell held that diversity offered a compelling motive for a university to use racial preferences. "No, no," I wrote back. "I am familiar with that. What I am trying to decipher is what is meant when, during a conversation, someone tells me 'they're excited because a program offers diversity' or when a company says 'they encourage diversity in the workplace.'" At that point, my friend confessed that he wasn't sure.

Diversity should mean a variety of individuals with varied experiences and ideas. The sad fact, however, is that rather than fulfilling the aims of the Civil Rights Movement and unleashing individuality it has turned individuality on its head. Diversity is now synonymous with Group Identity.

A recent advertising insert in the Sunday New York Times magazine solidified, for me, the vacuous ness of the Diversity movement. For eight pages, various corporations discuss their concerted efforts to recruit diverse candidates on the basis of "race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, religion and sexual orientation." I imagine work and life experience falls in line somewhere later on the list.

In the words of Antoinette Malveaux, president of the National Black M.BA Association, diversity is necessary because as companies target different segments of the population, it "helps to have individuals inside the company who understand those [cultural and ethnic] nuances." This makes perfect sense. Joe Ramirez down the hall may be able to add value to a discussion of marketing to the Hispanic community. But should we assume that simply by virtue of his ethnicity Joe has some expertise? Do we want to suggest that Latinos are better able to market effectively to Latinos simply because they are Latino? The same would then follow for African Americans, Asians, and other ethnicities. This racial pigeon holing would set us back 40 years.

The source of this erroneous analysis is revealed on the first page of the ad where, in big bold print, a diversity expert boasts: "The problem with the golden rule is that it makes the assumption that everyone likes the same thing. In a multi-cultural society, you teach people how to make the platinum rule - that is: treat people the way they want to be treated." Apparently, these experts are not satisfied with undermining the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. They must now rewrite scripture as well.

Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, (the actual wording) demands the very sensitivity to others that the Diversity experts claim to be seeking. I am fairly certain that, if polled, employees of every ethnicity would say, above all else, they basically want to be treated with respect and dignity. Concentrating on my cubicle-mates' color or sexual preference is unnecessary in order to meet this request.

Consultants consistently cite diversity training as an ideal way to overcome stereotypes, but a review of their efforts suggests that they actually encourage stereotyping. Andrew Erlich, a cross-cultural psychologist (whatever that is), is quoted as saying, "I try to get people to understand the process of stereotyping as well as some key points about culture and how it affects the way each of us act." Call me silly, Mr. Erlich, but workshops that teach White supervisors that African American culture may be responsible for the tardiness of his Black subordinate sounds more like a reinforcement of a stereotype. It also doesn't jibe with Kodak Diversity Manger Gary Voelkl who believes "We need an environment where people feel free to express themselves as individuals." Interesting. So what does he think of the diversity program at Coors?

The Diversity Management Program at Coors has set up a total of eight affinity councils: The African American Association, Hispanic Network, Native American Indian Council, Lesbian and Gay Resource, Women at Coors, The Veterans Group, The Asian Network and The Silent Group. Are they mad? How exactly does one assert their individuality if, upon walking through the door, they are forced to declare allegiance to a group? What's more, the groups are not assembled based on interests or values. There is no Christian group, no Republicans of Coors, or Trekkies council - groups that ostensibly would be racially and gender mixed. These programs seem to fly in the face of individuality and demand that we embrace the grossest of stereotypes -- namely that people of certain races, genders or ethnicities think and act the same.

What is meant by diversity? I don't know and I am not so sure any two diversity experts would agree. It's all such a convoluted mess. Authorities on diversity should be applauded for developing a vernacular of inclusion and awareness, but in my mind, they have yet to demonstrate how so much emphasis of our differences has brought us any closer together.

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JWR contributor Joseph C. Phillips, professional actor, published writer and public speaker, appeared in a recurring role on The Cosby Show and a variety of TV sitcoms. Comment by clicking here.

09/17/02: Reflecting on High Noon

© 2002, Joseph Phillips