Tim Wise – “diversity is just air”

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday April 02 2014 in Opinion
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A good rule of thumb for any speaker is to make things simple. Get your message across using simple terms. Employ metaphors and similes and other figures of speech if they help. With a good speech, to my mind, you don’t have to think about what the speaker said to understand what he said. The point or points come across easily and simply.


This is what Tim Wise does well.


Tim Wise is White. He is a White man from the southern United States – Nashville, Tennessee. And he has taken on the mission of talking about “White privilege” – the belief that White people have this innate belief that they were endowed by the Creator to be the “it” of the world. We call it White supremacy.


But that was not the specific message that Wise brought to Toronto last week. Wise spoke, over a couple of days, at the “From Counting People to Making People Count” conference, presented by Turner Consulting Group and METRAC (the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children). The conference was designed to help employers and employees better understand and execute better appreciation of diversity in the workplace.


As one of the keynote speakers at the opening session, Wise made the observation that “diversity is like air”. By that he meant that diversity was as natural as having air (good air) to breathe. What else can one expect from a world in which the majority population is, by western standards, considered the minority? The rich western countries have a vast population that is diverse. That’s okay. Is that sufficient as a goal?


The goal for Wise, in the context of the conference, is “equity”. Now, here is a word that has fallen by the wayside over the years, particularly since the former Mike Harris Conservative government repealed Ontario’s Employment Equity Act in 1996. Politicians and others have gone out of their way to stop using “equity” in much the same way they have abolished use of the word “racism”. And, in many ways, human rights and anti-racist activists have succumbed to this preference by embracing “diversity” as the goal.


Practitioners will probably justify this use in a number of ways. For one, they will tell you that “diversity” has become more than just a state of being. Its new meaning is more action-oriented, driving towards a state of being that incorporates the representation of different population groups at all levels of an organization in significant quantities.


To be clear, using the term diversity in this manner goes beyond the inclusion of race. It also subsumes the representation of women, persons with disabilities and those from the LGBTQ community and the various intersectionalities that often prevail – a Black woman who also has a disability, for example. The bottom line is no discrimination.


Somehow, for me, it does not seem to go very much beyond that dreaded term “tolerance”.


Another part of this discussion is what Wise calls “unconscious bias”. Even though we may profess and practice anti-racist and anti-discriminatory ways, our comfort level rests usually with those who have similar traits to us.


He may not be the originator of the term but he wove that message into his delivery very easily and logically. We all have biases. The problem is the degree to which we allow those biases to dictate the people we hire, for instance, or more precisely, don’t hire.


Like many groupings and conferences like this, the people who attend, for the most part, are people who are already convinced and are on the right track. They are not necessarily the senior executives and decision makers who could have a “road to Damascus” moment and feel energized to engineer the changes that need to be made and making the commitment of resources available. Far too frequently, we hear of organizations initiating programs to improve diversity and inclusion but the commitment of resources and the energetic support of senior executives are lacking. Or, to be cynical, the initiative is undertaken more for the public relations value that it would bring without the sincerity of really making a change.


And that is one of the weaknesses in trying to change the system – the absence of a sincere engagement of the key decision makers. They are not necessarily exposed to the raw facts of understanding what it means to be discriminated against. Changing the system to be more inclusive therefore does not achieve the same priority as other initiatives undertaken by the company/organization to improve its bottom line.


In a world that tolerates the popularity of an Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, it is good to have a Tim Wise that brings the other side of the story.


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