“We don’t have diversity problems here. It’s our neighbors south of the border who have those kinds of problems. Don’t forget, this is Canada, and remember, Toronto is the most diverse city in the world!” So said a group of Canadian professionals who were about to participate in a multi-day diversity workshop. These people may have been in denial, or perhaps they were just rationalizing. They were taking diversity to automatically mean a problem in the U.S., primarily with African Americans. After all, who hadn’t heard about the civil rights movement? So after a series of questions that allowed us to peel away the layers of reasoning proffered, these participants were able to acknowledge the issues, ultimately saying, “Yes, we do have diversity problems. It’s just that we are usually much too polite to talk about them, especially in mixed company.”
Indeed Canada’s problem areas were major ones that brought much pain, sadness and anger to large numbers of people. A key area was English-speaking Canadians versus French Canadians. “Why can’t they just speak English?” was the popular sentiment. There were also the ever present gender issues with women knocking their heads against the glass ceiling just like what was happening in the U.S. and elsewhere. Their racial issues targeted Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and others. They also had religious issues manifested as disparate treatment for people of other religions. Case in point, returning home from that particular trip, I rode to the airport in a taxi driven by a man who had a Ph.D. and a swarthy complexion. He also wore a turban. “I have applied everywhere,” he said. “So far, this is the only job I could get.”
Canada is not being singled out for having diversity problems, nor is it unique for having them. Conversely, it would have been extremely unique, and rare, had it not had them. It seems that not willingly accepting others who are “different” is the way of the world. Similar sentiments of having no diversity issues were uttered across the globe, certainly in many of the countries where this training was conducted. This included several countries in Western, Central and Eastern Europe; North America, including Canada, the U.S. and Mexico; South America including Venezuela and Brazil; and Egypt in Africa; Asia, including China, Japan, and South Korea; and the Middle East, including Bahrain, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
While some countries may have started out with the notion that they had no diversity problems, it was always shown to be otherwise. Every place in the world has women, thus they are bound to have gender issues stemming from the universal belief that women are inferior to men. But then they probably also have people of different races, ethnicities, or religions, who are short, obese; people who are disabled; who wear tattoos, piercings, certain hairstyles; people who are gay vs. straight, city vs. rural dwellers; working class vs. professional; upper and middle class vs. poor; advanced degreed vs. none; people who attended a prestigious university vs. those who went to state schools, and so many other divides. And every kind of difference named above, plus others unnamed, gave some people a reason to target members of those groups as less-than, deserving of discrimination.
One question that enabled people to identify their prejudices was, “Who are the people you tell jokes about?” Interestingly, joke-telling seems to be a universal phenomenon, and this question worked every time. Especially in a country like China which first thought that because they were a country of 1.3 billion people, they were all the same. This question enabled them to recognize the prejudicial attitudes of city workers toward rural farmers, Hong Kong vs. mainland China, Cantonese speaking vs. Mandarin, and more.
The Nature of Prejudice (1954), a book written by Gordon Allport, a former Harvard psychology professor, remains the standard work on discrimination 60 years later. In this book, Allport says that the easiest thing to convince someone of is that they are superior to someone else; and it needs to have no basis in fact, whatsoever. That may just explain why it doesn’t take much for people to feel like they are better than someone else. And remember, the reasons can be as seemingly insignificant as how people wear their hair.
The problems with diversity result from prejudice and discrimination which are the attitudes and associated behaviors. Prejudicial attitudes are those based on stereotypical preconceived notions, and the behaviors are those that limit or diminish some groups while advantaging others. The types of behavior that can be directed toward victims of prejudice and discrimination range from avoidance to physical violence. With respect to physical violence, we have seen plenty of news stories that tell of far too many people having been hurt or killed because of their “difference.” The types of discrimination in between can include denying someone jobs, equal pay, promotions, access to finances for quality housing, education, health care and spreading stereotypes and propoganda. Here’s my belief. Prejudice is so rampant that everyone has experienced discrimination of some kind or another at some point in their lives. There are few if any exceptions for everyone probably belongs to one or more groups about whom someone has an intense dislike or about whom jokes are told.
After all this, what might surprise you is how people responded when they learned how many groups faced discrimination in their own countries. In every single case, when people’s eyes were opened to the reality of discrimination against so many groups, sometimes groups they, themselves, belonged to, they expressed feeling freed up, able to let go old hurts, and relief from finally being able to discuss these matters openly without fear of being misunderstood. They felt enlightened and for that, hopeful. Many learned that they had been doing some of the very things that had hurt others but they never even thought about it for it had always been their norm. Suddenly they felt empowered because they knew they could finally do something about this very huge problem, if nothing more than to change themselves.
As we head into the future and see the new age groupings bringing forth their new standards, it is my hope that some of these biases will lose their momentum. And they will, too, if we can find a way to fully accept who we are without needing to compare ourselves to others, for that will eliminate the need to seek new ways to feel superior. Doing this should also enable us to allow others to “live and let live.” And it will allow us to create a new norm, one in which we openly accept, even embrace all others for what and who they are.
Gladys Gossett Hankins, Ph.D., Former Fortune 500 corporate executive, international consultant, adjunct university professor, Author of Diversity Blues, How to Shake ‘Em (2000) and newly released suspense novel, The Midwife Factor (written in her pen name, GiGi Gossett). For more information, visit gladyshankins.com.