In this, the fourth in his series of articles regarding diversity, Dr. Zook argues that to achieve greater diversity we need to have a fundamental reassessment of approach to achieving it.
What does diversity look like?
Before you try to answer, I’ll just spill the beans and admit it’s actually a trick question—diversity doesn’t look like anything. That’s because diversity isn’t an appearance. It’s a process.
Oh, but wait, you say, isn’t diversity where there are lots of different kinds of people in the same place? Well, no, it’s not, and let me explain why.
One of the fatal flaws in the architecture of our current approach to diversity is that we assume that diversity looks like something. We think that putting more and more different people into a room is what creates diversity. Companies and universities put manic amounts of effort into crafting publicity images that show they have “diversity,” even though most of those images look awkwardly staged and woefully artificial.
The questions we ask in relation to diversity reveal the problem of our current approach to diversity. “Do we have enough blacks?” one person asks. “Do we have too many Asians?” asks another. If we want a substantive diversity, rather than the mere appearance of diversity, we need to ask a different set of questions.
Consider, for example, an empty room. First, we’ll put five white men into the room. Anyone even remotely familiar with our current approach to diversity will instantly note that the room “lacks diversity,” and so let’s continue with this thought experiment and add five black men to the room. In fact, let’s just round out the whole picture and add five women and five Asians to the room, too.
At this point, let’s ask this two-part question: does the room now have diversity, and if it does, does it have enough diversity?
With our current approach to diversity, the simplistically insipid answer to the first part is yes, and the frustratingly myopic answer to the second part is that more diversity is always better.
A better and more substantive approach to diversity, however, would give us a very different response. The response to the first part should be “that depends,” and the response to the second part should be “the question itself is absurd.”
The reason we can’t say for sure whether the room has diversity is that it depends on the actions of the individuals in the room, not on their mere presence. If the five white men retreat to one corner of the room and talk amongst themselves, while the five black men retreat to a different corner and do the same (this would be referred to in current diversity parlance as creating a “safe space”), then we cannot speak in any meaningful way about diversity being present in the room.
Diversity isn’t the presence of different people in the room. It is, in fact, the character of the conversation that emerges between them.
That is why I say that diversity is a process rather than an appearance. Diversity is the process of enjoining the conversation across the cultural divide, the so-called “robust exchange of ideas” that the US Supreme Court said was the whole purpose of diversity.
To get a better diversity, we need to completely rethink our approach. A company seeking to “enhance diversity,” for example, should not be thinking in terms of hiring “more blacks” or “more women,” but rather of hiring more people who show a proven track-record of enjoining the conversation across the cultural divide, regardless of what identity-group they belong to.
We can enhance the conversation of diversity not just by rewarding those who reach out across the cultural divide, but also by rethinking how we situate and arrange ourselves among others.
Almost all college campuses have identity-based student organizations, organizations that supposedly showcase diversity. But think of the crucial difference between a group like the Korean Student Association, to give but one example, and the Association for Students Interested in Korea. The former is an exclusive group for Koreans only (one of my non-Korean students at UC Berkeley tried to join the Korean Student Association and was rejected—“sorry, Koreans only,” she was told), while the latter is an inclusive group that anyone can join, including, of course, Koreans. The former group does nothing to enjoin the cross-cultural conversation, while the latter is designed to do exactly that.
The key to unlocking the power of substantive diversity lies not in creating carefully staged images, but rather in finding ways to open an integrative conversation.
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but when it comes to diversity, we need the words, not the pictures. D. C. Zook teaches in Global Studies and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author most recently of the four-volume series Ourselves Among Others: The Extravagant Failure of Diversity in America and An Epic Plan to Make It Work (2018). The ideas for this article are taken from vol. 4 of the series, Unpoisoning the Well.