While workplaces and educational institutions need to be particularly sensitive to creating environments that welcome women and people of color, it is also important to remember that every person is important, even those who belong to majority groups. For example, if White men feel that their concerns are insignificant, they may react with a backlash.
At a Southwestern US university, ugly, racist flyers that targeted Latino students were circulated on campus. To respond to the incidents, the university held a day-long assembly for all students in a huge auditorium. At one point, a White male student mentioned that he was ashamed of being White and male. The group facilitators encouraged him to heal the shame by leaping into the air and shouting, “It's great to be a White man!” While he was leaping, they asked the rest of the students to applaud.
The next day, the dean of the campus said she was pretty sure she knew who had passed around the racist flyers. The student had come into her office and said, “If White men can also get applauded in diversity work, then I want to learn how to be part of leading prejudice reduction workshops here on campus.”
When we take the time to listen to all voices, we can build even stronger intergroup coalitions.
Activity: Consider the various ways you identify yourself (e.g. First Nation/Native-American, African heritage, European, male, Lutheran, bisexual, owning class, overweight, divorced, Canadian, etc.). Is there a part of your identity of which you are not proud, or that you tend to hide from people? One of the most profound blows to oppression is claiming legitimate delight in who we are. Try the phrase, “It's great to be _____________!” Notice where you struggle in claiming pride in who you are.
Encourage all voices to speak
Building an environment that welcomes diversity requires gaining the active participation of all the people in the community. We can easily overlook the fact that most meetings favor people who are articulate and willing to speak in public. Because they have been told that their opinions are unimportant, members of minority groups often find it hard to speak up in mixed groups.
A number of women who attended the United Nations Women's Conference in China in 1995 noticed that women from developing countries would not readily speak in the sessions, while women from western countries always had plenty to say. Even when the session moderator would specifically encourage women from non-western countries to contribute, US women would quickly jump in and dominate the discussion.
Eventually, attentive moderators had to set ground rules that encouraged the participation of the whole group.
Activity: Here are ways to encourage greater participation at group meetings and ensure that key voices are heard:
• When a topic is up for discussion, ask the entire group to form pairs. Within the pairs, each person takes a set amount of time to think out loud. Without comment, one person simply listens attentively to the other person. Once the group reconvenes, everyone already has a point of view to contribute.
• Set ground rules. For example, you might establish the rule that no one speaks a second time before everyone has a chance to speak once.
• Ask group members to set personal goals. For those who tend to dominate discussions, ask them to listen and encourage the participation of others. For those who tend to become invisible in groups, ask them to try responding to every question.
Individuals have different needs
A common response to diversity programs is, “Why are we always focusing on group differences? Wouldn't it be better if we simply treated everyone as a unique human being?” Although that is a worthy goal, it is also important to remember that many people have been mistreated as members of a group. When we ignore the ways in which groups have been historically oppressed, we may fail to see the important needs of individuals in that group.
Two colleagues, Barbara, an African-American woman, and Connie, a White woman, were on a business trip together. After a day of meetings, they decided to have dinner together at the small country inn where they were staying. Barbara had invited a male colleague, who was also African-American, to join them.
While they were waiting, Barbara kept nervously rushing out to the lobby to see if her friend had arrived. After the third time, Connie said, “Hey, relax! This is a small inn. He'll find us. What's going on?”
Barbara responded, “I can't just relax. Black men always get stopped in hotel lobbies, because the hotel staff often automatically assume that a Black man couldn't possibly have any business in a place like this. I want to make sure he gets treated right.”
By thinking that her Black colleague had the same experiences she had, Connie was unable to see how Barbara was still having to handle racism.
Activity: At work or in your neighborhood, practice asking people who belong to groups other than your own how they may continue to experience discrimination. We may be embarrassed, thinking that by just asking such questions we're demonstrating how uninformed we are. The opposite is actually true. There is no way we can know about the experience of others without asking.
Imagine what workplaces could be like if we were open to asking about and listening to how our colleagues experience mistreatment as members of particular groups.
Past traumas often color the present
The fierce battles we carry on in the present often have nothing to do with the present, but can be traced to similar situations in the past. Unless we actively seek to heal the past and separate it from the present, we are bound to repeat inappropriate behavior. Whenever a person or situation is making us excessively angry or frightened, chances are good that those reactions have only a little to do with the actual situation in the present and a whole lot to do with unhealed wrongs in the past.
A supervisor was about to fire a member of her staff who had come late to work several mornings in a row. When the supervisor described the situation, she said, “I feel violated by the staff person's behavior. After all I've done for her, she's completely abandoning me.”
As it turned out, this supervisor had been abandoned by a parent early in life and tended to see the world through a lens of pending abandonment.
In response to her supervisor's concerns, the staff person said, “It's none of her business why I was late. I don't need to tell her everything about my personal life.” The staff person was raised by a domineering mother who demanded to know her daughter's whereabouts at all times. Carrying this injury with her, the staff person did not want to tell her supervisor that personal crises at home caused her to be late.
Both the supervisor and the staff person were playing out past unhealed patterns, which, if left unchallenged, would undermine their current work together.
Activity: Think of a person or situation in the present that is giving you a hard time. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Of whom does this person remind me?
2. How is this person similar to that person (or situation) from the past? How is this person (or situation) different?
3. What do I still need to say to that person in the past that will enable me to separate that relationship from this one?
4. If I were to see the present situation as a completely new opportunity, unencumbered by past experiences, how would I take charge of it?
We choose our attitudes
We may not have control over what people say, but we do have control over our attitudes. Instead of getting upset when we listen to painful or abusive talk, we can decide, “This is a wonderful opportunity to make contact with someone, to have a useful and open dialogue that might change someone's perspective.”
A Korean-American mediator was asked to work with a Washington, DC, neighborhood in which a conflict arose between African-American residents and Korean-American merchants. The Black community decided to boycott Korean shops in the aftermath of the killing of a Black teenager. The young man had been robbing a small Korean shop when the owner shot him.
The mediator met with an African-American woman, who was a leader in the neighborhood. The woman screamed, “You come into our neighborhoods, and you have no concern for our community! You just take our money and run.”
Instead of attacking back or challenging the woman, the mediator responded, “This is exactly the kind of honest dialogue I've been looking to hear. I'm so glad you're telling me all this. I want to know more.”
Later, the Korean-American mediator commented, “I don't think this was what she expected to hear from someone with an Asian face like mine, because the woman looked at me in complete shock. Then, the woman's attitude shifted, and she said, ‘I do know how your people must feel. Some of these young kids come into the neighborhood and have no respect for anyone, even for their own people. We both, Koreans and Blacks in the neighborhood, need to figure out what to do together.'”
Activity: Welcome whatever negative comments come your way. Cultivate the attitude that you are lucky when someone hands you an offensive comment, because you can't wait to try handling it in a way that may lead to genuine change. Stepping beyond powerlessness, it is possible to choose an attitude that puts you in charge of any situation.
Reach for higher ground
We begin with the assumption that humans are always doing the best they can. No one wants to be ineffective. Therefore, there is no room for blame, but plenty of room for reminding people how good they are and how well they are already doing.
While Alvin and Cherie were waiting in the airport for their next flight, they saw a mother traveling with two young children, a boy and a girl. The mother lost her temper and smacked the girl hard across the face. The daughter shrieked, tears flowed down her cheeks. The other passengers in the area muffled gasps and cast their eyes to the floor.
Deciding they had to do something, Al and Cherie said to the mother, “Having a hard day?”
The mother answered, “I'm having a horrible day. My husband couldn't be with us, and the kids are fighting and driving me crazy.”
While Al continued to listen to the mother, Cherie struck up a conversation with the little girl. Al and Cherie listened to them without offering advice and in the process, both mother and daughter relaxed considerably. It only took five minutes.
Activity: In a tense situation, remember how good the other person is and how hard he or she may be struggling to do the right thing. For example, you might say, “I know how committed you are to having this project go well, and I appreciate how much effort you are putting into working things out with me.”
It never weakens us to be generous, to assume the best of each other. Prejudice reduction work requires tremendous patience and generosity. We never know the difficulties that another person is bearing.
The article was adapted from Healing into Action: A Leadership Guide for Creating Diverse Communities, which contains exercises and principles developed by the National Coalition Building Institute to create diverse and inclusive environments.