Diversity, or Seeing in 3D
May 18, 2019
There is a story of three blind men who were brought to an elephant. The first man grabbed its trunk and shrank back, yelling about the leathery snake someone let in the room. The second man touched its leg, wrapped his arms around it, and marveled at the huge tree that had grown up before them. The last man felt its tail and determined he was holding the strangest painter’s brush in all the world.
There is a very new struggle in the history of the world - the historically powerful are becoming just one of the crowd, and they don’t know how to react to it. As Microsoft) and Google are having internal conversations, the debate over affirmative action in hiring and college admissions rages on. So much of the conflict is wrapped up in those who feel injured claiming that prioritizing diversity ignores personal merit. Their central idea is that the “most qualified” person should get the role or place, and a person’s identity should not be part of that qualification.
But beneath that statement is an understanding of identity as simply a detail, a decoration on a person. Since, they reason, doing the job means knowing certain things and executing them well, the mere fact of the hat you’re wearing shouldn’t factor into selection. They look at college admissions through test scores, job applications through certifications and accomplishments - show me what you know, and I will know if you can do the work. In that way of looking at things, it makes sense that who wrote that code, or made that sale, or scored that grade, doesn’t matter as much as the work itself. The problem is that to be truly successful, you need to also be able to ask questions about the test that was scored or the product that was sold - not just what, but why. And to ask why, you need more than the ability to execute, you need the perspective to evaluate.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The goal of diversity is not about fulfilling a quota or checking boxes on a list, but in bring more perspectives to bear to come up with better solutions. Organizations, companies, schools, and communities all need multiple perspectives to see things not only as they are, but how they could be as well. Part of the powerful qualification that people of diverse backgrounds bring is a whole new set of ways to ask why. Rather than being a hat decorating a candidate, identity is at the heart of why they are valuable to an organization. And right now, for most upper-socioeconomic organizations (neighborhoods/companies/colleges) in the Western world, that means that women and all people of color actually have greater qualifications for bringing fresh perspectives than white males like me since our general life experience is well represented already. That is a very hard thing for many of my peers to accept, especially since they generally aren’t taught to think critically of a system that has been working pretty well for them. We need to understand that we have a lot to gain by hearing from voices we have missed, and we will be made better for it.
The pursuit of diversity by organizations today is, at its best, like a person realizing they have been living with one eye closed. Though some may be crassly checking off a corporate todo list in their hiring, a smart and long-lived organization knows that what they are really after is opening both eyes, unplugging both ears, and getting deeper wisdom and better problem solving. That also means that they will need to listen to this newly hired staff or accepted student and let that new perspective change some things they have taken for granted - which will be another post for another day.