Ask the White Guy: Can a White Man Speak With Authority on Diversity?

Ask the White Guy, Luke Visconti, DiversityInc CEO

Question:

Upon returning to my office, re-energized by the DiversityInc event, I shared the information you addressed during your talk [when you] spoke about DiversityInc and mentioned your Ask the White Guy feature. When mentioning your feature to a group of white female colleagues, one responded by saying, what does he (a white guy) have to do with diversity; how does he create something like DiversityInc and how could he possibly speak with authority about diversity?

Answer:
I created DiversityInc as a consequence of having my consciousness raised by a friend, Tony Cato—at the time, a fellow Naval Aviator. He helped me start the thought process that led me to where I am today. He didn’t have an agenda; we were simply swapping stories as we worked together, a consequence of his volunteering to help me when I was assigned to be the Minority Officer Recruiter in Naval Recruiting District New Jersey. Tony is not a go-along-to-get-along guy; he’s tough, disciplined and very smart. He told me stories of being denied fair treatment because he’s Black. It took me awhile to understand how profound those stories are, but it did sink in eventually. I learned to share his indignation at poor treatment meted out as a result of discrimination—and the damage it does to our country.

White men are a part of diversity and there is a great deal of diversity among white men. [Read how corporations are showing white men what's in it for them: Do White Men Really Need Diversity Outreach?] I recently spoke to a group of 900 police and fire chiefs in Oregon—97 percent white men. I made the point that they might not think they have diversity as they sit around the fire house or police station and see nothing but white men—but some of those white men grew up in single-parent households, some grew up in large families, some went to college on athletic scholarships, some worked their way through—and some didn’t go at all. Some have a gay brother, some are gay themselves (and perhaps closeted). I told the chiefs that they could utilize the diversity they already have to gain new perspective on problems and in doing so would better fulfill their missions: to save lives. My point is that it is not skin color, gender or orientation that makes one “good at” managing diversity but mindset.

This mindset for majority-culture people requires an epiphany or an evolution in thinking that brings one to understand the extent of the discrimination around all of us that is perpetrated mostly by the majority culture.

Anyone can become “authoritative” about diversity. Nobody comes to the table that way. How you get there, in my opinion, starts with understanding history. I’ve gained a lot of perspective by reading books like Beverly Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” Iris Chang’s “The Chinese in America,” Isabel Wilkerson‘s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name,” Ira Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action Was White” and Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the civil-rights era.


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Watch Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf discuss his personal commitment to diversity and how he holds his leaders accountable for diversity goals.

History is important, but what I’ve found transformative is personal involvement in organizations that do not serve you directly (by “you,” I mean loosely you as defined by gender, race, orientation, etc.). For example, I’m a trustee of Bennett College for Women, a historically Black college, and on the foundation board of New Jersey City University, a Hispanic-serving institution. At Rutgers University (where I am also a trustee), I co-chair the fundraising committee for Rutgers Future Scholars. We have raised $2 million in the past three years. I donate all of my speaking fees through the DiversityInc Foundation, which has distributed more than $500,000 since 2006. The life experience I’ve gained by serving these institutions has been invaluable.

Any executive can take the same steps to broaden their experience and cultural competence. We see how people work so hard to complete advanced degrees—and they are important—but life experience is how an executive does not become a Hosni Mubarak as our country and world change dramatically. This change is not just visual; it is about the rising power of liberated people to destroy the concept of “melting pot” as they gain the economic ability to command respect—as they are.

I will note that people who are not in the majority culture must deal with the majority culture as they try to retain their own identity, but those in the majority culture do not really have to deal with anything BUT the majority culture (doesn’t make it right, but this is the reality). In this country, the majority culture is defined as white, male, heterosexual, Christian and not having an ADA-defined disability. But just because a person in the majority culture starts out with a much wider “blind spot” than people not in the majority culture doesn’t mean it’s impossible for white men to become open advocates for diversity and inclusion. It also doesn’t mean that a Black woman (for example) comes with an automatic Ph.D. in diversity management (it’s just a lot easier for the Black woman to see the problem in the first place). We must all come to the realization that, as a reader put it nicely, “I am not different than you, I am different like you.”

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. 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.

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112 Comments

  • Totally agree – you pose very compelling arguments

  • Is it okay to share this with my Race, Gender, and Ethnic Relations class?

  • March 29, 2011

    Dear Luke:

    Great response and greast answer! I know Luke personally and I have been involved in the work that he does. I am a true believer and a freind of Luke’s. He’s the real deal and a true devotee to insuring and inspiring diversity and equality for everyone.

  • Perhaps you need to look at the New York Times article of March 27, 2011 titled “Non-Hispanic Whites Are Now a Minority in the 23-County New York Region”. As far as I am concerned, I am now a minority where I live and work. Time for you to revise your view about “majority culture”

    • Ted Sessions

      I would caution the use of the term minority in this case. If you examine the article, non-hispanic whites now comprise 49.6% of population in that New York region. That means all the minorities combined out number non-hispanic whites by less than 1%. Therefore, the more accurate term would be that non-hispanic whites in that region are now a plurality not majority but are still largest racial group in that region. Very different meanings and implications based off of that. You are right though that the concept of the majority culture will have to be revised on all sides of the racial/ethnic spectrum.

      • Keener Tippin

        Majority and Minority in this usage of the word is not referring to numbers but the group of people who control a disproportionate amount of the wealth, power, access and social status (majority) as opposed to people of color who dod not (minority).

    • Look at the leadership of this country. Its politics, its teachers, judges, lawyers, senators, cops…the power and access is still controlled by a generally homogeneous group.

  • I agree. I’ve received this question to me over the years as a white male conducting training in EEO and diversity. It’s what each person brings to the table based on their life experiences, skills, and one’s willingness to step our of his or her comfort zone to learn about bias. It all starts with me. Thanks.

  • As a white American male with a Masters Degree who also happens to be gay, I couldn’t have said it better.

  • I believe a white “man” CAN speak with authority on diversity topics as long as he or she has more than three CLOSE friends or family members who are not white. Good article.

  • Your response is well stated Luke…. but I would add an additional thought. When people ask what white males have to do with the diversity & inclusion discussion I have come to realize that in essence they are talking more about a concept more akin to Affirmative Action. They don’t understand that diversity and inclusion efforts are really all about managing change in general and about leveraging the unique experience that everyone bring to work every day to benefit the entire organization. The only way to do that is to work towards a culture change in the organization. Maybe culture enhancement is a better way to say it since there are always some good things about an organization’s culture… but there are always areas of opportunity to enhance an organization’s culture to make it more inclusive and supportive of the possibilities that can arise from embracing all of the experiences, backgrounds, ways of thinking, etc represented in all the people in the organization. This includes of course, white males.

  • Luke in your thinking, you are of the minority. There are not many individuals that look like you, think like you. If Mr. Cato touched your conscious, then your readers are blessed for it. Keep doing what you do.

  • You ALMOST hit the mark by saying, “it is not skin color, gender or orientation that makes one ‘good at’ managing diversity but mindset.” However, I was disappointed that you did not go to the “next step” by acknowledging that it is not color, gender, orientation, or ADA-defined disability status that makes one “diverse.” EVERYONE is diverse in some way–geography, education, life experiences. As such, anyone can be an authority on diversity. Until we move beyond well-defined, protected classes to the more malleable facets of diversity, progress in achieving diversity will remain limited.

  • We are all diverse ibecause God made us all different. However, Iwe talk about wanting to fit in, yet we make such an issue of being diverse. Why don’t we just look at people as people, stop with the labeling. I get tire of seeing Black, Hispanic and whatever else. why isn’t it just a person, male or female.

  • wow…what a frameshift in perspective I had never viewed diversity within this context

  • What a great way to start your day! I am just blown away by this article. I hadn’t read something so powerful and inspiring about diversity for a long time. Thank you so much for writing this. Everything you said validated my feelings, thoughts and experiences. I’m also considered a white woman, but I’m an immigrant fromt he Middle East and was a minority there. I’m a Diversity Manager and have had to tolerate many critical looks and attitudes from Black and other ethnic looking coworkers who are wondering how I could be possibly qualified to do the work, even though I have a Graduate Degree in Interncultural Education. Again, thank you for this thought provoking and inspiring article.

  • Back when I was in the JC’s (Junior Chamber of Commerce, I invited a friend of mine to one of the meetings who happned to be in the 100 Black Men organization. In turn, I attended one of their meetings and was shown the same couresy as he was at the JC meeting. That was nice to experience, and I occasionally run into him from time to time, and he calls me hs JC Brother.

  • Thank you for sharing. I wholeheartedly agree and truly believe diversity is a very sensitive and personal tpic and everyone has a story. There’s lots of life lessons in it for all to benefit and learn.

  • I happen t be white, male, heterosexual, Christian, and I don’t have an ADA-defined disability. By your definition I am part of the majority culture. But I am also Hispanic. What does that make me, then? A minority culture is not that easy to categorize. Only when the human race stops trying to pigeonhole people into groups wil true integration take place. Notice that I say integration, not diversity. Let’s get further together, not promulgate diversity, That sounds to me like a growing apart. The exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

    Next time you show a group of “minority culture” people, don’t forget the white, male, heterosexual, Christian, not ADA-defined disabled. The truth is you just never fully know who is what.

  • I for the past few years serve on a Board of a multi-cultural organization where sadly being a White Male is a rarity. It has been a positive experience for me personally and professionally. Your article hit a homerun with me!!!

  • I found the ariticle very interesting and insightful on the topic of diversity and i do believe that white poeople do have much to contribute but the fact remains that a person of color do not have the ability to ment into the dominant society. We are out there, figuritively speaking, alone or as a group without the opportuniy the white population has; speak diversity take on important issues/or make statements that may raise some peoples ire but having said that disapear or blend in with the rest of monochromatice population. Look forward to your response, Peter

  • I really appreciate his stance! It is kind of like I tell people, what does not affect you directly will eventually! Thanks, this reading was much appreciated!

  • I think this article is about your efforts at trying to see all sides of race in Diversity.. that is the issue? Correct?
    The race problem, which is and always has been the biggest problem in America is something I feel from your article that you really want to feel and find out what is going on. However, you will never ever know what is going on because you do not know what it is like to feel discriminated against just because of the color of your skin…Nothing more, northing less. This is something that is imbedded in America. It will probably not change. The Hispanic community for which Blacks laid the groundwork for them along with white women is business never had fire hoses turned on them or dogs attack their small children.
    You are trying to find a perspective (or justification?) by doing some homework but still it sounded like at first you did not even believe your friend until probably you realized it must be difficult to make up this stuff.
    Yes diversity to most African Americans in todays’ work place is a joke; they still place us in positions as tokens or simply ignore our problems with the old school small and little minded old white manager. We are still discrimated against.
    What today’s Diversity programs say to me is: I know that a 22 year old white female college grad can and will be given my job with much more money at any given time and just for the record, as an educated Black woman the diversity problem is NOT easier for us to see… such a remark.
    I

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