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For Diversity to Work, Recognize Differences, Not Just Similarities

  • December 15, 2014

by Andrés T. Tapia —Multiracial Hands Making a Circle

There is no question that embracing diversity by finding common ground with others has been a good idea. It has been a key to transcending racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices. Societies that have found a way to discover or create shared values to reconcile cultural clashes have experienced much healing and prosperity.

But this approach, heavily shaped by the gospel of tolerance and sensitivity, can also have a shadowy side. Assuming sameness can mask ways in which we are different. If key gaps are not recognized by assuming differences, it can lead to a different form of bias. When we assume that everyone is the same, we are assuming that everyone is “just like me.” This, ironically, is the very essence of self-centeredness.

Tolerance is an antidote to defensiveness on the part of majorities toward those who are different. It’s manifested in statements such as: “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” “We’ll agree to disagree.” “Live and let live.” It’s the answer to, “Why can’t we all just get along?” But tolerance does not delve into differences. It maintains a “truce,” rather than “seeking the truth” and the awkwardness that often accompanies uncompromising candor.

Sensitivity takes the cultural “cease-fire” a few steps further. It finds its voice in statements such as: “I will work at understanding that you have unique needs and preferences.” “When you say something bothers you and it doesn’t make sense to me, I accept that it is important to you.” Between the lines, it says, “I’ll let you have that, ‘gimme’.”

But sensitivity and tolerance are not enough to guarantee progress after a “culture war” ends. Ignoring or glossing over differences won’t make them go away.

Here is one example of how I made a mistake in assuming similarity, and my co-workers erred as well.

I was working on the leadership team for one of the largest human resources consulting companies in the world. Most of my colleagues were white, Midwestern and female. I was a male from Peru. We liked each other personally and professionally. We seemingly wanted the same thing, which was to serve the organization well with our best thinking while living by the company’s values of collaboration, integrity and respect.

So when the breakdown happened, none of us saw it coming. It played out like this: I would present an idea to the group, and I would hear responses such as “Andrés, I agree with you 100 percent.”

So after the meeting, I thought I had gained agreement from the group and took the next steps with assurance. But then the e-mails and voicemails started flying in: “What are you doing? This is something we did not agree to!” Confused, I replied, “What part of ‘100 percent’ didn’t I understand?”

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