Monday, June 12, 2006

Perspectives on Diversity

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a workshop on diversity for managers. The interesting thing about the exercise was that the focus of the workshop was not on issues of overt discrimination, but how a person's own identity influences and shapes their spheres of inclusion: in discussions, in peer groups and by implication in large organizations. I think it goes without saying that overt discrimination is a problem that needs to be dealt with, but it is also one that any healthy organization is committed to addressing quickly and effectively in the modern and globalizing business environment.

The way we project our identity into work environments unconsciously, however, is a much more interesting issue. On the one hand, our received identities are a tremendous source of personal strength and a way to build bridges with others. On the other hand, they can be a wall. Simple example: a group of Indian and British guys sitting around talking about cricket may be a wall to, say, a Canadian baseball fan. Then again, it's also a chance to build a bridge.

But what I found most interesting of all was reflecting on my own self-identification and how its shifted over the years. When I was growing up, in a lower-middle-to-working class, predominantly white and Catholic neighborhood, I picked up many of the dominant biases of my environment. In general, these were parochial: in retrospect, it was an environment that suffered from a fair amount of myopia about the broader world. My way of looking at the world was also one that focused exclusively on defending legitimacy claims about its own interests without showing the same consideration for others. After all, when you're right, you're right.

When I went off to be educated at an Ivy League school, my impulse was to seek philosophical rationalization for my own biases. Of course, I didn't think these were biases at all: as a kid, I thought I knew how the world worked (though of course I didn't) and my mission was to prove that this received way of looking at the world was correct. In many ways, I have come to see that this is quite common, and it applies to the all kinds of philosphical biases: people often tend to search for reasons to prove they are correct in what they think they know, rather than seeking a balanced perspective. In my case, I read widely, but in retrospect, with an aim to narrowing rather than opening the mind. Looking for justification rather than understanding and systematizing against all the wrong things. I managed to make an ass of myself more than once and I can only imagine what sensible friends thought at the time.

Fast forward through the years (now we're on order of decades!) and I look at my own identity as being very different than it was as a older child/younger man. I tend to err on the side of ambiguity when it comes to philosophy, religion, comparative judgements across cultures. My friends are literally from all over the world, from all kinds of religions, races, and ethnicities. And I find that even my own cultural identification is progressively more difficult to pin down, even in simple, basic ways: I can't imagine not eating Indian food, listening to jazz, trying to struggle with Japanese, coming to terms with the sheer ancientness and depth of Chinese civilization, planning trips to Africa, spending time in Europe. And there is something else very important that I've learned through life. If there's one thing you can count on about a stereotype is that the first thing real people do is prove it wrong.

The 20th century persons I tend to admire now are people like Martin Luther King or Ghandi -- though both were in some sense religious figures, while I struggle with the idea of faith regularly, I've been most attracted to their emphasis on both nonviolence and bridging extraordinary cultural divisions. Unlike the titanic political figures of the 20th century, neither changed the world by brute force; instead, they were closer to what seems to me to be the ultimate expression of the ethic that the Jesus we know about from religious history taught and lived. As humans, we like our heroes to be god-like, seemingly perfect. In fact, there is no such person that has existed. But some people do manage to rise above our imperfect condition and change the world in ways that deserve to be admired.

I've often thought about how my own process of identification and outlook has changed -- what I regard as a maturation process -- and I'm not sure how to explain it with confidence. I like to think that this is a result of reflection and inner-directed growth, but it could also simply be the influences of an environment that I'm now a part of -- and one that I love. My day to day world is both multicultural in the American sense and really quite international. One of the defining facts of the technology industry is that it is global and it will only continue to become more so.

There is a practical point to all of this: its impossible to do global business without a perspective that builds on mutual respect for people of all kinds of backgrounds. I would argue that is also true even in the American context, but that's in some way yet another blog entry. The essential question is how to ensure a broad understanding and acceptance of this fact. The cliche answer that it's a matter of education, I think, falls short. Education can just as easily reinforce biases and enforced education may increase barriers to acceptance all the more. On this I don't have a clear answer, but it is undoubtedly among the most important issues of this young century.

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