It’s time to abolish the term ‘diversity and inclusion’

I say we abolish the term “diversity and inclusion.” Instead, let’s talk about embracing difference – all differences.

Einstein taught us everything is relative to a reference point. Well, what or who is the reference point here? In the Western hemisphere, and certainly in the U.S., heterosexual, white males serve as the reference point against which it is determined who or what is diverse. Those in power make the rules as to defining the “in” crowd and the “out” crowd. This dynamic has been going on for thousands of years.

People typically fall into the “diverse” category by the focus on externals, such as color, race, ethnicity, gender and so on. But by far the larger and more significant element of our differences lies in our values, beliefs, expectations, attitudes and world views. These create the real tensions and dissensions. 

Then there is the word “inclusion” – a term for the powerful over the powerless. “I will decide how and when to include you!” Who wants to be included rather than be part of the decision-makers? Who wants to be included rather than embraced? 

I also say let’s get rid of that odious word “tolerance.” Tolerance is the simmering end of the long torch of hatred. It describes borderline acceptance. And as we know, at any moment, tolerance turns to intolerance.

Diversity trainers

What makes a person competent to train other people not to have biases? And then which biases are they to focus on? 

Typically, diversity consultants are a mixture of white people and African-Americans. This is a tiny representation of the hugeness of differences among people in the world. Are these people trained psychologists, people who have studied religions and cultures, who have lived in many countries around the world, who can speak multiple languages, who have studied the history of tensions between races and cultures over centuries? 

Lastly, do trainers realize bias cannot be eliminated? It is what we do with it that matters.

Diversity training

In my opinion, most diversity training is a waste of time. Training people to embrace difference is not a Pavlovian exercise. As a former ethics professor, I can attest to the fact that one cannot train people to change their minds. They might change their behaviors out of fear or adherence to authority, but that does not change their minds and their hearts. 

Anything that is done instrumentally – that is for the sake of something else rather than for its own sake – loses its ethical integrity. If we argue that diversity is good for business, or being biased toward diversity is bad for business, then the love of difference goes out of the window and tolerance and diversity become instruments of the bottom line – yet again! We must embrace difference for the sheer love of it!

We will always have some bias – it is part of our social DNA. Training will not get rid of it. What we want to really change, is our self-awareness (add some humility!) and, we want to expand our consciousness and thereby shift our hearts, minds and behaviors. 

Getting people to take classes a la Starbuck’s reactive training sessions, is not the answer. You cannot train people to embrace difference with true empathy. You train them to tolerate, to be political, to adhere to the law, to not get into trouble, but you cannot train them to open their hearts. What embracing difference is about is shifting the needle to acceptance and love, and that can only be achieved if people are inspired and stimulated from the inside. 

Those under-powered diversity officers in most organizations have a tough job. They are supposed to increase diversity in organizations to satisfy the statistics and bar charts that the CEO or university president can parade in front of the board. But in truth, an organization will only truly embrace difference if the love of difference is part of the climate and culture. And then who needs statistics and bar charts?

To this day, I thank my father for my fourth birthday present. It was a Reader’s Digest atlas that stood taller than I did and that I could barely pick up. Every evening I would sit on his lap with this huge book and he would show me the world. He taught me about people, languages and faraway places. He inspired me to read about those people and those places and to make travel one of my top priorities. Thanks to him, I consider myself a citizen of the world.

Leaders of organizations can do the same. They can role-model their love, and I mean love, of the world and its magnificence as displayed in the vitality of difference. They can offer classes on philosophy, cultures, religions, traditions, archaeology, literature, poetry, music and dance. Staff can be exposed to discussions on climate change, poverty, immigration throughout history, and the human interface with nature. 

Management teams that are to be rewarded for high performance should be given experiences building houses in Africa, helping earthquake and flood victims, working in clinics in the Sahara, and teaching students in the slums of India rather than being given ostentatious, self-aggrandizing trips to Las Vegas or Aruba.

We will only embrace difference if we learn about it, if we become truly educated. Only this way will we expand our consciousness to a new openheartedness to the multitude of differences that constitute the reality of ourselves and this wonderful world.

Annabel Beerel is president and CEO of the New England Women’s Leadership Institute.

Categories: Opinion