My context for diversity has always been a little different than most. I know that’s partially driven by the way I grew up. See, when you’re a child of any branch of military service, you’re subjected to so many different people and places. For me, that translated into 13 moves from one corner of the country to another. And when you move that often – about once every time between kindergarten and high school – you’re bound to be in a lot of different scenarios with people from a wide range of backgrounds. I have gone to school with millionaire’s children and rode in their parent’s limos. I’ve also gone to a classroom where the majority of girls I shared a locker room with had children under 2 and used food stamps to feed their families.
Diversity of backgrounds has always been a fact of life, not a fact of preference or a foundation for beliefs. I knew that my family came from a completely different context having experienced segregation for the first time coming to America, Texas specifically, from Germany in 1962. My grandmother still expresses shock and horror when she retells of her first experience with racism as her friends, an interracial couple, were mocked and tormented. See, in Texas at the time – interracial couples were against the law. Coming from Europe where it was so common, she just couldn’t understand why the people were staring at this family – and the language barrier didn’t help one bit.
Of course her retelling of the story was my first understanding of racism, diversity and class – one that I progressively learned more about in each of my experiences, noting the dichotomies and differences from each segment and the profile of people that I experienced in each new place. I quickly understood there was in fact a context and cause for creating balance, for helping people experience new things knowing that most were not afforded the opportunity to see new cultures annually, let alone even moving to a new town once in their entire life.
That fed my own context as I recently spent a Friday listening (and speaking) to leaders from across Louisiana – not just liberal New Orleans – on diversity.
In this context, and in my understanding of diversity as part of HR and recruiting, I’ve always thought about the numbers side – quotas and stats. Even for me, someone who thinks they’re hyper aware of race and its relation to hiring, it’s a bit of an uncomfortable topic. Mostly uncomfortable for me because I know my tendency is not towards political correctness. For others, that fear of what’s “safe to say” or the “right thing” still exists. My quotes there are because I think that’s a bit of a myth – this concept of safe words.
Not THOSE safe words.
People are searching for words that don’t offend but politely address bias and double standards. Words that won’t impact your relationship with another person or convince them that you’re a bigot. But here’s the thing, words mean different things in context. That context being the way you were brought up, the way you think, the way you see yourself in relationship to other people. That’s what makes a diversity conversation so hard. Unlike an interview where there are strict guidelines about what you can and can’t say, there are no rules that tell us how to market diversity or convince senior leadership it’s important.
The outcome is safe but not productive. I’m learning more with every event I attend that most HR leaders really don’t like looking bad. They’re almost worse than PR people, policing and carefully walking lines to avoid any conflict whatsoever. But that is not how shit gets done. That’s not how change begins but rather how it ends.
My understanding of diversity is not what drove me to start this article in the first place. In fact, it was a random encounter well after the event ended around 1 am outside of my hotel. My Uber had just dropped me off outside the Hilton Garden Inn when a young man yelled “hey man!” Know that this confusion over gender happens far too often and I’d had a few drinks so my response was something along the lines of “I’m not a man, man.”
He apologized profusely, as most do, and began telling me his story. This is also a common occurrence – I have what bartenders call “kind eyes.” It’s why New Yorkers know I’m not from there instantly. Anyway, he was a 21-year old Tulane student from California. He went to kindergarten with the Kardashians. Seriously. After a random recap of childhood for the rich and famous, I him I spent my day talking about diversity. He instantly back-tracked and started talking about white privilege, how he hated the privilege he was born with and that he just wanted everyone to be equal which needless to say, is pretty self-righteous for a kid who just tried to impress me with Kardashian folklore.
I stopped at that point to ask, “well why don’t you do something with all of it?” He looked confused. I expected that. Not many people who complain about privilege find ways to take action with it. As I started to push with ideas for helping other people, he revealed that he was recently arrested for selling marijuana.
I couldn’t help myself from pointing out that his “white privilege” was exactly why we could talk today, why he was still allowed to even leave his state instead of rotting in a cell. His parents were able to hire a great lawyer, pay for his privilege and get him out of a situation that would ruin anyone else’s life.
He quickly changed the subject as we both went in our separate directions. I still wonder if he figured anything out – something to do, not just say.
Author’s Note: If you arrived at this article because of some weird racist white privilege search string, you will be sorely disappointed. I am not and will never spout racist bullshit. If that’s something you fancy, I will kindly encourage you to move the fuck on. This is not a place for you.