Are White Men Racist When They Ignore Ethnicity?

There's no business case for diversity unless you make it, says DiversityInc's CEO Luke Visconti. How can a company manage diversity to produce positive results?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Ask the White Guy Luke ViscontiQuestion:
I work for a major oil-manufacturing company. I am a Hispanic woman in my mid-40s. My company is very committed to diversity and inclusiveness and we have had a Diversity Council (of which I have been a member for about six years) and we also have various Diversity Networks. We are planning a Diversity Open House later this year to promote our Networks, etc. We are planning on sending out a voluntary survey to all of our 750 employees to gather interesting diverse facts to show that we are a very successful company and that is due to so many diverse backgrounds, etc. Members of our Diversity Council (most of the white ones) want to ask questions like, “What is your favorite ice cream? What is your favorite color?” What? They’re even worried about asking what is your ethnicity? They don’t want to ask what other languages do you speak; they will ask do you speak another language. I don’t get it. Do you have a survey that you can recommend that has been used in other large organizations that has shown good results with true diverse questions?


Not only is your company’s survey useless, it takes your company a giant step backwards by trivializing diversity management. As described, your survey will not materially connect diversity with business success. Therefore, it will be correctly viewed as non-professional claptrap by most people at your company.


You might think that it’s self-apparent to believe that diversity is “good” for business. I don’t think that’s true, nor do I believe it’s proper to have a “belief” guide business–a “belief” is an acceptance of an intangible. I leave “beliefs” for religion. Business runs on facts.

Here’s the fundamental fact about diversity: Diversity by itself has nothing to do with business success. A company must manage the diversity it has to produce business results.

The reason you’re getting silly questions from your majority-culture council members is because they are dismissive of the relative value of other races/cultures. This is normal behavior; we all define culture from our own perception. Uneducated perception often leads to incorrect conclusions. For example, people believed for many centuries that the earth is flat. We’re no more intelligent as a species than we were 1000 years ago–but we’re less ignorant. Think about it.

If the white people on your Diversity Council had diversity training, it wasn’t meaningful. That’s not uncommon: Most diversity training I’ve seen is garbage.

From the majority perception, your ethnicity and even your gender are just as meaningful as the flavor of your favorite ice cream. Questions that value other cultures/genders/orientations/age groups or disabilities equally with the majority culture* are usually an insult by the majority. That’s why you often see rage from creepy Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity when people far more educated and accomplished, like Judge Sotomayor, make statements they don’t have the capacity to understand.

The fact that your “Diversity Committee” is sitting around dreaming this stuff up also tells me your company’s management is sitting on a potential publicity disaster. Keep in mind that it was an oil company executive who came up with the dopey “marbles” comment that destroyed more than $1 billion in Texaco market capitalization.

Not only is a potential liability out there, given your question, I doubt your company is reaping the rewards of proper diversity management.

Correctly implemented, diversity management increases the engagement of ALL employees by building the corporate culture that demands equity in outcome. This is because people who feel they’re being treated fairly will be more engaged. Engaged people are more productive–and more innovative.

Engagement, productivity and innovation are measurable and quantifiable. This is how you prove the business case for diversity at your company.

You will note that there are no oil companies in our DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity. Much like the price of gasoline is apparently coordinated, there seems to be agreement among companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron not to participate in the DiversityInc Top 50. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t have a survey I care to share with your oil company.

*In this country, the majority culture is white, male, heterosexual and Christian with no ADA-defined disability.

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  • While I completely agree with the meat of this article with respect to ice cream and its relevance to workplace inclusion, I find it interesting that we cannot seem today to define diversity and tolerance without loving Sotomayor. Why do we need to support Sotomayor in order to be in accord with the rest of this article? Not even during the election of Obama was the support of our now President required in order to avoid the label of useless bigot. I am a huge supporter of diversity and inclusion. I am concerned, however, about a lack of recognition as to “diversity” as it applies to non-Latino, non-African Americans as issued from Judge Sotomayor. Love or hate the Judge, I would think that articles focused on topics other than the Supreme Court should be able to stand on their own merits, not hanging onto the philosophical coat-tails, or robe-tails, as the case may be, of our latest celebrity.

  • This article was great and Luke your response was on point with my past experiences. I did a “cultural competence” survey of providers in the 90’s for a state mental health agency.The questions were serious and really questioned how much a potential respondent “understood” simple things like the social graces of other cultures and some of the values. I received angry feedback from white employees on the questions with demands to know why that information was relevant to their ability to “treat” minorities. It took me about six months to respond in the various ways available to me that “treating” mental health issues of “minorities” was not possible without an understanding of their cultural norms and values. A lot of the responses asked me why couldn’t “they” just accept that “they” are American. I had to explain that “we” (I was new to the agency so many did not know I was African-American)understood that we were American. We needed the majority culture to understand that we were American. I also had a problem getting the respondents to understand “they” had a culture. In their minds, they were Americans and something was wrong with everyone else because we did not think, speak,and behave as they did. It was a powerful lesson for me but it also saddened me.

  • I don’t understand. With a name like Visconti, you’re not white. In my history class, I’ve been taught that white are those that are of British desent, not Italian. I may be wrong. But if you are white, this makes hispanics white as well.

  • Q: “Are white men racists….?”A: No. We weren’t raised that way. Things have changed, however, and with all the anti-white b.s. (from Sonia Sotomayor’s mouth,or from ‘Rev.’ Wright’s mouth, for two examples) out there, we could learn to be, if that’s what you want. It’s up to you.

  • I’d like to offer a different perspective from that put forth in the article, just so that we’ve considered several possibilities. First, I think it is possible that most majority people (male + female) are not seething pustules of rage like Limbaugh or Hannity. Many know diverse people, think they’re pretty fine coworkers and neighbors. The ‘stupid’ questions they ask might be prompted by an attempt to look beyond difference to simple things everyone enjoys, like the ice cream. These folks have surely missed out by not using the opportunity to uncover and explore valuable cultural distinctions and acknowledge them. However, in most cases they just don’t know how to have the tough conversations, are afraid curiosity might be seen as ignorance, or of unintentionally giving offense. While this clearly isn’t a best practice, it doen’t necessarily mean that the ice cream team finds the diverse folks meaningless. As far as oil companies, I do tend to think of them as somewhat of an evil empire. However, it is possible that they have not colluded to avoid your survey. They may know that they cannot be nominated and choose not to invest the staff time in gathering the detailed responses to the survey. My company, for example, had to minimize our supplier diversity program due to economic issues, and so did not respond since we knew the omission would disqualify us from the list. Again, just proposing possible alternatives to malice aforethought. Best to all.

  • Djueno Searles

    I have always personally defined diversity as a willingness to be open to something besides my own experience, history, values, race, beliefs, etc. Not to judge others for how they look, how they speak, who or what they choose to worship, who they vote for, or who they choose to seek companionship with. I’ve read three “Ask the White Guy” columns now and there is a strong political bias running through all of them. So strong in fact, it makes me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome to the DiversityInc wesite because I don’t share those political opinions. WOW! That sounds a lot like what discrimination victims go through. Is Mr. Visconti in need of some remedial diversity training? Perhaps…

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