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Understanding Difference: A Shift in Perspective: by Dr. Barbara Trepagnier
SOUTHPORT, CT –/ -- DiversityBusiness.com /- Much of the discrimination that occurs today, both in the workplace and outside it, is not intentional, and it occurs routinely. The solution in U.S. workplaces has been a proliferation of diversity trainings over the last thirty years. These trainings generally present participants with new information about differences of many kinds—race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, as well as other distinctions. Although information about people different from participants is useful, information alone—without a shift in a given participant’s perspective—will fall short of any lasting change. My goal is to encourage diversity trainers to challenge the underlying logic surrounding their participants’—and their own—assumptions about difference. Specifically, I propose changing the very language we use to think about all forms of discrimination.

The work of diversity trainers is critical to organizations, and important for raising the awareness of individuals who attend the trainings. However, trainings that focus primarily on presenting new information are likely to have several shortcomings. First, like the negative stereotypes it replaces, new information about any group is, itself, stereotypical. In other words, information about a group, positive or negative, will only be true about some members of the group, not all of them. This drawback is not serious, but it does illustrate that presenting new facts to participants in diversity trainings is superficial and therefore unlikely to produce fundamental change.

The second shortcoming of diversity trainings that rely primarily on providing new information concerns participants’ behavior after the training. If the goal becomes not offending others, their behavior will become stilted and rule-centered, making them apprehensive about making a mistake. Becoming apprehensive about difference will result in avoidance of both people who are different from themselves and topics regarding difference (Trepagnier 2006). However, if a new way of thinking about difference replaces the new information, likelihood of real change both in the workplace among colleagues and outside the workplace with clients is greatly increased. The third drawback of diversity trainings that rely solely on presenting new information is that participants leave the training with the idea that they now understand difference when, in fact, they do not. Instead, they have new information on top of a flawed foundation. So while diversity trainings that rely solely on giving people new information are a step in the right direction, it is a small step and it will not accomplish the ultimate goal of changing the way people understand difference.

A few diversity trainings do more than give information; they require participants to take part in experiential exercises, such as playing the role of someone in a subordinate group. These trainings are often filled with tension, and run the risk of backfiring. This can create more resentment about the experience than understanding, and therefore would not accomplish the goal of the exercise: to understand how discrimination operates on a personal level.

Understanding difference
Understanding difference involves acknowledging that growing up, we all adopted stereotypes about groups that were different from our own. Most of the stereotypes we learned are negative, and most have never been questioned. Stereotypes and misinformation, called silent racism in the case of race/ethnicity, become embedded in our perspective, or worldview, and are the guide we use for action. Even when we learn that a particular stereotype is not accurate about a group, it remains with us, in the back of our heads. Acknowledging this makes us more open to understanding others. It is a first step in understanding difference.

Much of the unintentional discrimination that occurs today is routine and goes unnoticed by the person performing it. When the discrimination concerns race, it is called everyday racism (Essed 1991); when it concerns gender, everyday sexism, and so on. In addition to everyday discrimination being unintentional, it is more often linked to faulty assumptions than to hatred. A big part of the problem is that, because our own discrimination is routine and unintended, we think that it is not important—that it does not really matter. But that is not correct; everyday discrimination is as harmful as discrimination based on hatred (see Trepagnier 2006).

Rethinking diversity entails changing the language we use to talk about—and think about—difference. The erroneous perception that everyday discrimination is not harmful is reinforced (in the case of racism) by the oppositional categories, ‘racist’ and ‘not racist.’ The categories themselves tell us that the ‘racist’ category is full of intentional and hateful racism, and that the ‘not racist’ category contains no racism. However, all of our misperceptions, negative emotions, and stereotypes about race/ethnicity operate in the ‘not racist’ category. Put directly: the ‘not racist’ category is filled with both silent racism and everyday racism. This principle is true for sexism, homophobia, and any other form of discrimination. Understanding difference therefore means acknowledging that we are racist (or sexist, etc.) to some extent, even though we may not be aware of it and do not intend to be.

Changing the oppositional categories to a continuum for all forms of prejudice would more accurately depict the reality of difference. It would include people’s blatant discrimination at the one end of the continuum and yet not hide people’s subtle and unintentional discrimination at the other end. Phrases such as, “I’m not racist” and “I’m not sexist” would become obsolete, and people’s subtle acts of discrimination would no longer be obscured by the words we use to talk about them.

The most important outcome the change to a continuum would bring about is that it would lessen the importance of whether people intend to discriminate and focus instead on the negative effects of discrimination. People would begin to change the questions they ask. In the case of racism, instead of asking “Am I racist?” people will ask, “How am I racist?” If, as Einstein suggests, the questions we ask are fundamental to the answers we get, then this shift in focus will be paramount to diversity trainings achieving lasting change in their participants.

A requirement for understanding difference is acknowledging that, at times, we are likely to act based on the stereotypes we have carried around in our heads for years. This means we will occasionally make mistakes. And, when we do make mistakes (and we will, often without our awareness), if we are lucky, someone who cares about us will let us know. Under the best circumstances, the person we offended will engage us in a meaningful conversation about the incident. A shift from being defensive to a posture of openness will increase the likelihood that we will learn something from our mistakes. Many participants in diversity trainings would be relieved to learn of this new way of thinking about difference, some of whom have been aware of their own negative thoughts but did not want to risk acknowledging them to others.

In addition to hiding subtle forms of discrimination, the ‘not racist’ category also hides and protects people’s detachment from the matter of difference. People who assume they are not racist, or sexist, etc., are likely to be passive regarding that difference. An example of passivity from my study of well-meaning white women concerns Sharon, who expressed a sense of detachment from race issues when she said, “Racism has no connection to my life” (Trepagnier 2006:50). Sharon’s detachment makes her a passive bystander in the face of others’ everyday racism when it occurs in her presence. However, if Sharon were to adopt the shift from oppositional categories to a continuum that I am proposing, she would be faced with the implication that racism does, indeed, have a connection to her life, and that her passivity is regarded as encouragement by others for the racist thoughts they express and the racist actions they take.

Looking Ahead
Most diversity trainers have high expectations for their participants, and are likely to find that many of them are ready to shift from the out-dated way of thinking about difference—the oppositional categories—to a more contemporary model—the continuum. Some participants will readily accept this new way of understanding difference, however others will reject it. Nevertheless, those that reject it are the same ones who resist the new information given in trainings today.

Bill Bradley, the former basketball player and Senator, whose friends were often different from him used to ask, “When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation about race with someone from a different race?” His question gets at the heart of understanding diversity and can be applied to every kind of difference. Shifting our perspectives should cause us to want more conversations about difference. The very best way to increase awareness about difference is to spend meaningful time with people different from one’s self. And by “meaningful time” I mean spending time talking about difference. Diversity trainers should do this, and they should encourage their participants to do it. Learn everything you can about all kinds of difference.

The shift in perspective I am proposing here will not end discrimination; however, it will promote a deeper understanding of difference in many participants of diversity trainings. And when people begin to think differently about an issue, they also begin to do things differently. This is the hallmark of lasting change.

About DiversityBusiness.com
Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.

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