Inevitably you’ve had a discussion about racism, sexism, discrimination, diversity, etc., in your workplace with your colleagues that probably started out with the best of intentions. And, most likely this conversation ended when someone shut it down by saying something along the lines of: “I believe that everyone is equal.”
This is not a real conversation about diversity, discrimination, or the things that cause it. Rather, it’s an illustration of the kinds of behavior that contribute to discrimination and a lack of diversity.
Real conversations about anything involve a lot of listening, consideration of others’ points of view, and a legitimate interest in how that information can affect future behavior. You would walk away from a real conversation about diversity thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that when I did that I could potentially be shutting people out,” for example.
When someone starts to feel uncomfortable, and inserts a knee-jerk blanket comment about how skin color doesn’t matter, it is not an indication not of how non-discriminating that person may be, but rather, how uncomfortable they are with the subject of the conversation. I’m a big proponent of being the change you want to see. In that vein I wanted to provide a brief prescription from my experience that would be beneficial for folks who would like to have a real conversation about diversity.
Listen. Listen as hard as you can, try to really hear what the other person is saying, and see if you can identify with anything from their experience.
Ask. Ask questions that will help you get closer to understanding their experiences. Try really hard not ask a judgmental, leading, or insinuating question — that will only widen the divide you are trying to bridge. The easiest way to ask a good question is simply asking for clarification — Can you expand on that? Why is that? Could you tell me more? I’m not sure I understand. Simpler is better in this case.
Use your imagination. Try to see the world from their eyes. Take some time to try really, really hard to imagine what it would be like to feel their feelings, have their experiences, and reactions.
Empathize. Take a second to ask yourself: How would I feel if that happened to me? How would I react if that were me? What would I have done in that situation?
Say thank you. You might be tempted to share what you think about this situation, but it’s important to recognize that maybe this conversation isn’t about you. Your opinion or feelings about this topic may not be vital to the discussion. Start by saying, “Thank you for sharing,” and know that, oftentimes, just listening to someone can go a long way in bridging gaps.
Most importantly, if you feel the urge to make a blanket statement about how you don’t see color, or that everyone is the same, or that differences don’t matter to you — reconsider. Try listening to whoever is speaking and try to understand their point of view before you say anything, and recognize that “not seeing color” is a meaningless phrase. It’s like saying you really like eating food or that clothes are an important part of your life: it’s a bland, non-specific blanket statement that’s something everyone can agree with. Which is to say, it doesn’t really mean anything or hold any weight at all.
Talking about diversity and the issues around it is going to be difficult. But I hope these tips are useful to someone, as I know in my experience that being able to speak openly and respectfully about these issues goes much further in solving problems than listening to how people feel about diversity without actually ever discussing it.