Column: Diversity or Multiculturalism – It’s All About Working With Differences

Column by Elena Yang
Diversity or Multiculturalism – It’s All About Working With Differences

Diversity or multiculturalism is not a goal; it’s a process. 

A process of working with differences; a process that has always existed although without a name until recently; a process that will continue to exist for the next millennium. 

Race and gender were some of the first-noted categories, but now more and more groups have been added to the list. 

Like research on leadership, research on diversity and multiculturalism has been abundant, and abundantly described in books, journal articles, newspaper reports, TV programs, etc. 

I have read many of them and have conducted several workshops, but in this space, I just want to illustrate a few ideas that really resonate with me and to relate some personal journeys. 

This is how I propose to frame this topic: The biggest challenge in daily work life (or life outside of work) is how to converse across the differences we see, feel, or experience. 

At this level, it’s partly about inter-group dynamics, such as conversations on race between an Asian and an African-American, or on gender between a white female and a Hispanic male, and such are the recognized diversity issues. 

But there is another level, within-group differences, that isn’t as often recognized or addressed. I mean the differences within any group you can think of, differences of race, gender, religion, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, foodies, eat-&-run types … the list is endless.

“Asian group” applies to at least a quarter of the world’s population but do they all share the same cultural values, or think similarly? 

Such further distinctions of differences are sometimes described as multicultural. But this begs the question, where do we draw the line of this list of groups? 

As we keep adding categories onto this list, eventually, we will come to the point where we started it all: It’s about all the differences, but particularly the differences in how we think. 

All these group labels do contribute to how we think but it’s the combinations of several groups’ cultures that help define who we are. 

The focal definition of any difference at any given time lies locally, between you and me. As we face each other and detect that difference, we have to either address it or avoid it. 

A black female Ph.D student in a prestigious school that is predominated by white males (big surprise there!) gets two typical conversations, often one-way from others to her: (1) color is really not an issue, and (2) they would be more than happy to help her in any way should she find the academic work too much (i.e. if she can’t keep up with it!) 

In such conversations, her voice is not really sought out, unless she stands firm and asserts herself. But then, she runs the risk of being regarded as belligerent. 

There are a few Asian students who rarely if ever get these conversations. Instead, Asians are either stellar performers or fly under the radar quietly following their advisors’ direction on research projects, biding their time to get their degree. 

By and large, race is usually not a wedge issue among students. One has to wonder if economic class, or power, is playing a greater role here, but that’s a volatile issue that I will not touch in this space. 

We seem to get stuck at the superficial level of handling these types of differences and often the conservations become prescribed. 

You walk down the street, see a man in a power suit, and make certain assumptions about him, thinking he’s probably professional, and you might wonder what that is and if he’s successful. 

But perhaps, he just had a tense and a not-so-great job interview, and he’s down to the last $100 in his savings account. Or, you see an Asian woman wearing a track suit (for all we know, she could be an American), wearing a somewhat harassed look, you wonder if she is as smart as the stereotype would have. And so on. 

There is a beautifully written passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Of course, we have to make certain assumptions in our daily life; otherwise, how could we possibly get any work done if we had to restart every conversation with basic definitions? 

At this point, I will just say that so long that we are aware of our assumptions, we have a chance to verify them. Lacking some basic awareness, and without checking if some of those assumptions are correct, allows hurtful feelings, repressions, resentment, and all other negativities to happen.

So, yes, it is important to raise awareness. The problem with a lot of prescribed conversations in awareness-raising workshops or courses is that we get stuck at the level of politically correct terms and don’t know how to get deeper. 

To get deeper, just search within ourselves for clues. Most of us have a few friends and acquaintances who are very “different” than we are, however you want to define those differences. 

Even within (especially within!) our families, we often experience profound differences. Reflecting upon those experiences which we have managed to live through and achieved positive outcomes, did they not provide us a sensation of expanding our horizon? 

Recall some details: With whom did these experiences occur? How would you describe them? How did the exchanges come about? What did we talk about? Why did it feel great?

Staying with those moments is likely to give us clues about conversing across differences. Of course, not all differences are equal; some will evoke more uncomfortable feelings than others. 

But like everything else in our lives, the more difficult conversations are the ones that stretch our imagination and expand our perspectives.

I will continue on this topic in the next week’s space. So, stay tuned … till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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