Cultural Diversity, Diversity Conferences


Difference makes a difference

I get told from time to time that we should only talk about certain kinds of difference. People have actually gotten angry at me for suggesting that diversity means difference (which it does), and that difference takes many forms. If the dictionary offends you please take it up with the dictionary people.

More often than that, I am told that we should not focus on differences at all. “It’s divisive,” they say, “You’re just stirring things up.”

I know that it can be more comfortable to pretend we are not different. I am on the far opposite end of the political spectrum from several of my own family members, and we tend to avoid talking about politics. It’s not terribly valuable for any of us, but it is certainly easier. It may be easier, at least in the short term, to avoid discussing differences, but I vehemently disagree that talking about our great many differences is what divides us.

Our differences do not, on their own accord divide us, just as our commonalities do not, on their own accord, unite us. Only we can do those things. It is our beliefs, choices and behaviors that divide us, and this quite often happens because we are profoundly confused about difference and its dynamics.
We are different. One of the very few constants between all human beings is difference; anytime two or more humans are gathered, diversity (or difference) is present. There is no social, no relationship, no exchange, or communication without difference. Difference is a fundamental and universal aspect of the human experience, and if talking about a basic truth is divisive, I think that we are clearly having the conversation in the wrong way.

Not only is it true that we are all different, it matters that we are different. Difference affects us, as much as we like to claim otherwise. Difference has consequences, even differences that are meaningless or invented can influence our beliefs and behaviors.

Sometimes when I am speaking at a conference I will divide the audience into two groups, and it is often as simple as dividing them into “the left side of the room” and “the right side of the room”…a completely random and meaningless kind of difference. While this difference does not generate any hatred or conscious bias, with just a bit of time interacting as groups I often see some unconscious bias show up between the two groups and there is always clearly some in-group favoritism.

This is not terribly rational or logical, so we continue to convince ourselves that it does not happen (or at least not to us). But it does.

We are different, we see difference and we are affected by difference. If we interact with difference in the right ways it can fuel incredibly valuable things; the tension of difference inside of a healthy container is at the root of all change, learning, creativity and innovation. The tension of difference inside of a non-healthy container is at the root of discrimination, violence, hatred, fear, and other bad things.

Difference is not the problem, our orientation toward difference is the problem.
Not only do we need to continue talking about difference and its impact, we need to talk much more about it. How we continue to hire and promote people (especially into management, talent, and H.R. roles) without a basic understanding of difference and its dynamics is truly beyond me.
What do you think? Talk about differences less or more?

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