Yesterday during a diversity class, this interesting topic came up. One of the participants was a white male who held the title EEO Officer, and he shared his experience with being challenged by his peers when he first came on board. “People were suspicious,” he said, “because we’d never had a white male in the position before. They thought I was a pawn for management. They also thought that I wouldn’t push our diversity initiatives.” He went on to say that eventually, as they got to know him, they understood that he was serious about the organization’s diversity initiatives and there were no political motives involved in placing him in the position.
It’s an attitude I can relate to. I once worked for a consulting firm that specialized in diversity work, and when faced with many people of color in a diversity awareness class, I often felt the vibe: “Why have they sent a white woman to talk to us about diversity awareness?” Our company had a couple different takes on the issue:
1. Diversity is about differences that matter, and that means that everyone is included. We need people of all races, cultural backgrounds, religions and genders involved in the awareness effort, and that includes white people. Having white people as diversity champions underscores the point that we all need to get involved, not just those we see as the greater “stakeholders”.
2. Having said that, whites generally haven’t had the same direct experience of being marginalized, categorized, segregated and stereotyped that people with other dimensions of diversity have had. Perhaps that makes for less rapport, less credibility in certain audiences. Our solution was to co-facilitate, to send out pairs of trainers that, as often as possible, were of two different genders and two different races.
It’s a delicate balance we must strike as white people who want to make a difference for our organizations. But eventually, that need to strike a balance may disappear. A Newsweek column by Ellis Cose last week pointed out that the most recent Census projection says whites in the U.S. will be in the minority by about 2050, compared to people of color collectively. When my white male EEO Officer training participant said that his colleagues asked him how he could understand what it felt like to be a minority, I said, “Well, you may soon know.”
When I was very young my mother used to say, “I can’t wait until all the interracial marrying and breeding makes it impossible for us to distinguish between blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics. Then we can stop all this nonsense.” In the same vein, Cose comments, “Census Bureau demographers are highly skilled. But there is no way they can program projections to capture the complexity of American’s shifting attitudes….no attempt to measure Americans’ increasing propensity to propagate with partners of other races.” He concludes that whites will never truly be the minority, but rather, the category of “white” will expand. And more promisingly, the issue of race will simply become less of a big deal as races become more mixed, something we are already seeing in the atittudes of younger generations.
So perhaps the question is not whether white people can be diversity leaders, but whether we will even need to ask the question, at some point in the future. Your thoughts?