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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.

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

  • In the US Federal government, white men are not considered to have anything to contribute to diversity and EEO work. NIH’s former EEO complaints manager once stated that “white men have no basis for filing an EEO complaint.” That misinformation comes from a prejudiced culture where EEO and affirmative action programs are abused to further the victimization of persons of color while while using the programs to retaliate against the ‘white majority.’

  • Anonymous

    Great article. I seriously don’t understand your comment… “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.” It sounds like you are saying “melting pot” is a bad thing.

  • Anonymous

    One of the first things I learned growing up in Toledo, Ohio, is that there is great diversity among White males. That fact helped me to dismiss the myths that were being sold to me about the superiority of White men and the inferiority of Black men. There are areas where I have been dominant and blinded by my own dominance to the challenges that non-dominant people face. My desire to learn and grow, but most importantly, my ability to listen and change my behavior has led towards a rising tide that lifts all boats. Our greatest challenge as a country and as a global community is to embrace pluralism rather than assimilation as the highest level of diversity and inclusion. Thank you for writing the article: it was well-written.

  • Anonymous

    How wonderful that you have ascended to a higher plane of understanding the human condition. It is a goal to which we should all strive. I am a Black Woman and yes, much more sensitive to the majority’s opinion and pigeon-holing of my position in society. However, if we can all just be positive and look for the “positive” in each peson, regardless of differences, we can solve all of this world’s problems.

  • Anonymous

    Quite honestly I don’t think a white man can speak about diveristy until he’s actually experienced exclusion in a bad way. Yes, we are all different but to speak to the heart of the matter requires experience or real empathy. I’m sorry to say that most white men don’t get it because they don’t live it and they choose to exist on the side with the majority and having things their way. It’s so bad at the company I work for until when real eye-opeening exercises are suggested for Diversity they are turned down because no one wants to offend the white man. What kind of thing is that? How will you ever bring about awareness if you can’t involve realism.

  • Anonymous

    Luke, you’ve done it again! Thank you. Your insight is valuable. I agree that a white person can talk about, teach, etc. diversity. First of all, white is a race. And just because someone is not a minority doesn’t mean that they can’t understand diversity or have not been discriminated against. I receive questions, as a black woman, about why I hired a white male as my Asst. Dir. It was the best thing I could have done. He’s compassionate, educated about the laws and diversity issues and works extremely hard for those he feels have been treated unfairly. Keep up the good insights.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, Luke. A White guy can be versed on diversity but only if he has an open mind and heart to “hear” what is going on around him. Thank you for being able to “hear” what folks of different ethnicities, cultures and races are saying.

    • I second those sentiments and couldn’t have said it better. Thank you Luke for having both the ears and the heart to truly hear, absorb, and understand what is the truth. Thank you for being who you are and doing what you do. DiversityInc is so very needed. Keep up the excellent work!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article. In California, there is no “majority”; we grew up in and deal effectively with a diverse culture on a daily basis. With the influx of multi-nationals, as well as the current society, a thinking person cannot help but learn first-hand about diversity. It’s not something from a book.

  • Anonymous

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article!

    I believe the minority groups DO have to be more patient and understanding of those who fall into the category of the majority. The “ephiphany” that you experienced whch changed your thinking is a testament that CHANGE CAN HAPPEN. And POSITIVE change can happen when our eyes are open. It is the kind of experience that you had which gives you authority – because that experience resulted in a change of thinking that we all can benefit from if we are willing. Thanks again for the enlightenment! May we all continue to live and learn….

  • Anonymous

    Understanding what “Diversity” means i believe gives anyone the authority to speak about this topic. Knowing what it means and living it on a daily basis will avoid labeling so many things, gender, race, disability, hair color, weight…I mean come on why is so hard to understand that we are all different instead of imposing our own little thoughts of superiority due to our skin tone or place of birth! The truth is I did not choose my skin tone or place of birth and…neither did you so get a grip, open up your eyes and see the world for what it is and stop placing so many unnecessary labels. I am human and my parents gave me my name so ill tell you what to call me. As far as the rest is pretty simple in my eyes. Is all a matter of being humble, respecting and others and putting arrogance where it belongs. It is a step in the right direction to speak about it so we can all learn from each other move on and grow.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent Luke … excellent!

  • Anonymous

    Great article, White guys have a lot of insight regarding Divesity issues . They are the majority of the decision makers in business and among the leaders when it comes to implementing change when it comes to Diversity.

  • Anonymous

    I wish we were living in a society which was color blind with no prejudices. Additionally Diversity should not be a catalyst for undermining people achievement. After all, it has been scientifically proven that we have a common origin and physical vitiations are simply evolved coping mechanism for dealing with various environments

  • Anonymous

    Great article. I enjoy reading intelligent, focused, open, mind searching, topics regarding diversity. Just mentioning the word “Diversity” draws just all kinds of responses; negative and positive. Some up lifting and some down right ugly. What should be admirable is a person like Luke Visconti has placed his being in the limelight of such ‘sensitive’ issues of race, diversity, cultural differences, etc. Should we not praise dedication toward someone whom communicates our “differences” to the same table? What saddens me and is rather alarming when I read from “intelligent” folks who dont’ quite get it, “The truth is you just never fully know who is what..” that kind of response tells me that some people still have a long way to go toward accepting people for who they are: just regular people who deserve respect, honor, kindness, and love. It’s very simple. Yes, there really are people like that in the world.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the insightful article. I agree that a “white man” can speak out about diversity, but I wonder how much of an advocate a “white man” can be without experiencing the discrimination minorities have experienced or the limited success minorities have attained even while consistently outperforming the “white man” from an educational and job performance perspective. Let’s face it, most minorities attain limited success in their professional careers even when they are exceedingly good at their jobs. The problem is that the “system” is designed to discriminate. For example, how many blacks and hispanics occupy top positions in major and mid-sized companies and in law, accounting, and consulting firms? How does this scarcity of minorities at the top impact promotions and hiring decisions? How much does client pressure impact appointment of a minority to handle their account? How much discrimination occurs through employment background checks? Unless you fix the system, you won’t fix the clandestine discrimination that permeates our society. That is not to say you shouldn’t speak about diversity, but I think you have a tough charge if you expect to have a noticeable impact on diversity.

  • Anonymous

    It is true that people of color “cannot melt into” white society. It is just as true that a white person cannot “melt into” a minority social group, which is something that we face fairly often.

    And quite often the “diverse” person who looks like a member of the majority group may feel just as unrecognized or alone as a person of color does. One of the diversity staff where I work is an American Indian with white skin, freckles, and red hair. The point is that we should not judge what people know and understand based on how they look.

    The same point was made in a cultural competency training presented by a black woman. She was very dark skinned, with very curly hair, and quite overweight. She said people might assume that she was the first one in her family to earn a college degree, when actually both her parents had masters degrees and her family was solidly middle class. There were several white people in the group who had grown up in poverty and were indeed the first individuals in their respective families to earn college degrees. Surfaces can be deceptive.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent article and response to the question regarding whether a white male can relate well enough to diversity and inclusion to be a speaker or writer on the subject. I am a white female and after enforcing the US Dept of Labor’s Affirmative Action Executive Order for many years, I now train employees and managers on how to live and work in a respectful environment. While there may be initial doubt from the audience that I cannot understand cultural differences, the doubt is quickly overcome through life-experience (I have lived overseas and have been a minority in other cultures), knowledge, and respect. The passion required to pass on the truth is not one we see in many other fields of work, as the lessons of diversity and inclusion must reverberate throughout your core values and come from a place deep inside one’s heart. Those who fake it will not last long. Luke, you are real in your earnest desire to change our world and make it a better place to live and work for all individuals. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Luke, good article. The issue in my mind is not whether a white man can speak to diversity but rather the issue is to whom the majority audience will respond. To that end, the white man absolutely can and should address his peers about diversity when and wherever possible. This conversation however should be well informed by research that capsulate the minority voice and issues for redress. This is why your work at Diversity Inc. is so important.

    On a more general note, who is the “white man” in 2011. My experience is that many European white men do not align with the historical perspective of the “American white man” when it comes to diversity.” Maybe it is time that we take a closer look at the social identity of ‘the white man’ and break this group down into smaller parts and highlight the diversity within (i.e., immigrant, socioeconomic disadvantages, foreign national, etc.). May then we can get a better foothold on diversity by driving your point home that we are all diverse.

  • Anonymous

    Luke, what initially sparked your interest about diversity was hearing from your black friend about his workplace issues, correct? When we talk about diversity (at least in the workplace), more often than not, it is RACIAL diversity that causes the most friction, and more specifically, groups who are and will most likely continue to be considered in the minority. One of the most exploited and out front on this issue is the black minority. I’m glad that you got a chance to dialogue honestly with your black friend. I’m glad he got the chance to shed some light on what we as a people go through on a daily basis just trying to survive and feed our children, much less thrive in a professional environment. Most white males will never hear this. Most don’t care because they’ve always had the luxury of not caring.

    That being said, when I first read the title of this article, my first (gut) thought was, “No, a white man could not possibly be an authority on diversity — unless he has lived at least five years in black skin.” Many of the comments before this one speak about having all kinds of diversity. What is defined on this comment board as “other minority groups” really waters/dumbs down the issue. To a black woman who has experienced racial discrimination my whole life, it is almost insulting to lump my background in with other types (i.e. geography, education, life experiences ,et al) of what you all are calling “diversity.”

    I understand that you might not understand why that would offend me. And I understand that you may disagree with me being offended. But I am. My difficult experiences will never be yours unless you have tried as I have to build a professional career in this black skin.

    Until you walk a mile in my shoes, you’ll never truly understand how racial discrimination impacts a person’s life. If you truly understood, you would immediately stop doing what you are doing and never do it again to anybody else.

    “But what are we doing?” you might say. Very slight actions are done everyday to keep minorities from achieving, progressing, getting promoted. Promote a less qualified white person over a more qualied black person. Give the white person the job and leave the black applicant empty-handed. Give the black person the job, but offer them less pay/benefits than you would the white person. Inact double standards so that the black person never achieves the goals you’ve set for him/her as a requirement for promotion. Use petty personal preferences as obstacles to keep a black person in the same position year after year. Close the door on any black person who tries to get your ear for mentoring opportunities. Only mentor or create opportunities for those who look like you. That is what you do.

    These actions are actually racist. But most majority culture doesn’t see it this way. Most majority culture defines racism only as calling a black person the “N” word and hanging them from a tree. Majority culture doesn’t consider any other actions as racist. Consequently, most of the majority culture don’t consider their actions or lack thereof as discriminatory. Therein lies the real problem of discrimination.

  • Anonymous

    Think a white male can’t be discriminated against? I’m a white male nurse. Heard any good murse jokes lately? No I’m not gay, no I didn’t drop out of med school, and no I don’t want all of the unruly or overweight patients.

    • Federico Forlano

      Your last statement made me laugh out loud. I was at one time working retail when I got out of college. I was the only male most of the time working at a “big box” office supply store. I spent a good portion of my day doing heavy lifting because I was “able to”. I was always helping people load desks, chairs, computers, printers, boxes of paper etc. in their cars and always had to unload the truck delivery while still maintaining my regularly assigned job duties. I kept a smile the whole time, but to me it wasn’t a fair workload.

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