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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

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate the question and answer and threaded discussion. It provides insight and broadens my understanding of the topic and everyones perspective. I agree that a white male can speak with authority about diversity and that we all bring something to the table. These conversations keep moving us in the right direction as expressed in the comment: “I am not different than you, I am different like you.” When we can embrace, accept and integrate these words into our walk and talk we’ll be moving in the right direction of what true diversity and inclusion can mean and bring to us all as human beings; after all we are still one people with different shades, cultures and experiences.

  • Anonymous

    Great article Luke. I think we need to hear more stories from the “majority”. This perspective gives us a view rarely expressed. There’s a lot of credibility that comes with a successful Diversity Leader who happens to be in the “majority”. I am taking a class on Multiculturalism and, if the subject arises, I would like to share your perspective. Let me know if I have your permission. Thanks, this article made me think. Maybe you’ll have a book to follow…

  • Anonymous

    Racial Identity Theory is an intergral part of the enlightenment of all races. A must if people are to have civil discussions about race and if white men are now going to be experts on minorities they need to know where they stand intrinsically. Knowing where you are by using a tested barometer is helpful to you as an advocate and to the people you are advocating for. There is a theory cited in Dr. tatum’s book for Black Racial Idnetity and the stages that Blacks go through there is also a White racial identity stage theory. I invite people to be engaged entirely in a process by first recognizing their own frailties.

    CBJ

  • Anonymous

    There is no doubt through personal experience and education and wth intent focused, anyone can learn or discover how to be represented of an ideology which is not a matter of political correctness. In reading the posts and your comments across the years, I am always reminded of the statement made in the report called “The Moynihan Report.” Though Moynihan’s name doesn’t appear, the conclusions in the introduction of the report and specifically chapter one has been grossly and intentionally ignored. As a matter of reality, the report has been used to constantly used contrary to the original purpose. This is why I personally have had doubts about the ability of White males and females to really comprehend the struggle which they find themselves and are quickly to make statements in the name of freedom of speech which has hinder progressive moves. The Moynihan Report needs to be re-examined by Diversity pundits and critics of diversity.

  • Anonymous

    I think it depends on the specific situation. Having two or three minorities as “friends” and having a Master’s Degree in diversity doesn’t make you an authority on Diversity.

  • Anonymous

    Very well written and explained. The great part and the hope I see in this article is that he finally stopped and really listened to what his friend was saying. Took the time to investigate and not just conversate but took action. Like so many say “not just talk the talk but walk the walk”. This can be said of all cultures and races. I believe so many grand ideas, cures, leadership and just overall greatness because we still color before we see character

  • Anonymous

    It is a fact that many times (not all the time) in corporate America the higher the rank the lighter it gets (if you know what i mean). As part of the “minority” i am Hispanic but the black kind if you’ve ever heard of it lol. There is blatant racism among Hispanics as well! Which is just plane stupidity. There is racism among families and this makes family gatherings more interesting! So no African Americans are not the only ones experiencing discrimination…please they (“the majority”)does not know how to label me. I am black because my skin tone is dark brown but i was born in Puerto Rico with Dominican parents…ah and my mother is “white Hispanic” and my father is black Hispanic…ah and i am woman which seems to be an issue for some people too because i can potentially bring children into the world and that means too much down time in the workplace. Is all so ridiculous and full of such nonsense. We will all experience discrimination period end story. Is how we handle it what makes the difference. I can only be myself. I have learned to focus on myself and my own young family and not put so much energy on someone else ‘s bitter ways or opinions of what i am capable or not capable to do due to whatever made up reason or excuse to not give me a chance. Each culture discriminates within or outside their circle and has their own definitions of what acceptable or not acceptable. Example, i was not even qualified to rent a home because the owners where not “diverse” enough to rent to a Hispanic family! This problem is all around us. I am glad we have the freedom here to speak about this very sensitive topic.The world is bigger than we think it is there are things he have yet to see and learn specially when it comes to respecting each other.We can not change those things we do not acknowledge. That being said understanding diversity whether in the part of Mr. Visconti or the rest of the world means the opposite of racism.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Luke,

    Even as a child I knew I didn’t need to stick my hand in a fire to know it was hot.

    Of course a white man can speak with authority about diversity–please, continue to do so!

  • Anonymous

    >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..

    Does that mean a person can only speak with authority as long as they have more than three CLOSE friends or family members who are not ? We will only achieve true diversity when we stop focusing on people and just treat people as people. Despite the sins of white males in the past, no race, gender or creed is immune from racism or bigotry.

  • Anonymous

    Well said, timely and inspirational. This happens to be a hot topic in one of my workgroups.

    I’d like to add one point, diversity MUST not be confused with affirmative action.

    There are many people who hear the word “diversity” and immediately assume they are excluded.

    I think anyone passionate about respecting others enough to hear eachother, would be based on the person’s ability to inspire others. :)

  • Mr. Visconti,

    Please stop trying separate us. I have experienced discrimination but that just made me work harder and now I am doing better than my white peers.

  • First of all, what does DIVERSITY really mean here. Does it mean color? or does it mean DIVERSIFY? Have you all looked around the room lately? We are all DIVERSITY people. Work with it.

  • Anonymous

    I am a 60 yr. old white female who has been aware of racism, discrimination and bigotry since I was six years old and made friends with the only Black girl in my first grade class. It was a changing moment in my life and I made a vow to myself and to God that I would never treat someone as “less than” because of the color of their skin or being different than I. Dr. King was/is my role model for peace, justice and inclusion. I am a Silver Life member of the NAACP and believe in Dr. King’s dream of building an inclusive Beloved Community. A white person can be a strong advocate for diversity. All it takes is agape love and the willingness to serve others. Walk what you talk. Somebody will follow when they see through your actions that you are authentic and REAL.

  • Anonymous

    So true. I’m white, male, straight, US-born, without an ADA-defined disability. Though I’m a practicing Buddhist people perceive me as being in the majority and those with authority to define such things might agree. But what opened my eyes was growing up in rural NC in a solidly middle class white neighborhood with my closest friend being Black living in a turn of the century sharecropper house down the road. It wasn’t the difference in our living conditions that was the eye-opener, but rather the difference in how he was treated when he visited my neighborhood versus how I was treated when I visited his home and family. That experience gave me an awareness that has opened my eyes to much more of what’s around me and lit the path that I’ve taken for social justice, diversity, and equality ever since (mind that I’m an Engineer, not someone in HR or anything like that).

    In a meeting some years ago, a colleague was having trouble understanding the accent of a peer who worked in another location and he saw that as the reason that his project was running behind. But rather than just saying so he said, “This is behind because the guy I’m working with is …. ‘diverse’.” That last word was preceded by a slow, deliberate look around the room to ensure he was in the company of all white, all male, presumably all straight, etc “safe” people. When his presentation was over and he went to leave the room, I followed him out, stopped him, and calmly said that I took offense at how he communicated what he saw as the reason for his project being behind. He looked confused as though he were wondering why someone who looked like him would be offended so I explained: “You very deliberately looked around the room to check your company before using the word ‘diverse’ as you did. My second family is Black and my immediate family and I were chased from our home by racists when I was a teenager, so when you look around a room to see if anyone is not white, please see me as being not white. Further, I’m the VP of our LGBT employee network and several of my most beloved family and friends are gay, lesbian, and one of my best teachers is transgender so when you look around the room to check your company before saying something against gays, please see me as gay. Oh, and I am the proud father of a little girl who is very bright and I’m sure will be capable of doing any job as well as any man, so when you look around the room to see if you’re around any women, please see me as female. Please, just make this easy and when you wonder if you’re in the company of anyone who you might think of as ‘diverse’, please see me as that person because I am diverse, and you are too.” It was a good moment and from then and in the years since, he’s seemed to get it.

  • Anonymous

    I suspect that the question “how could he possibly speak with authority about diversity?” had little to do with skin colour and more with what are *your* qualifications. The individual probably knew little about your experiences other than you set up the site and do speaking engagements related to diversity. Nevertheless, Irving Goffman had pointed out pointed out in Stigma: Management of an Image Spoiled that there are three categories in the relationship with exclusion: the accepted, the stigmatized and the wise. A white guy amoung the wise can speak to diveristy with aurthority but might have a hard time speaking with force on the impact of discrimination unless he has felt it as a member of a stigmatized group (e.g., disability, sexual orientation, lived in a oppressive country, etc.)

  • Anonymous

    Luke:

    Appreciate every word said. It is about time individuals like yourself who understand the issues of diversity speak out. More individuals need to say what is in their minds regarding this divasive problem in our society. We must be welling to carry the tourch for improving our socierty and how we treat one another..

    Again good job and keep it up. We need more white men like you to speak up who understand and get the true meaning of DIVERSITY.

  • Anonymous

    In response to “Can a White Man Speak with Authority on Diversity?” I think that we are asking the wrong question. The question is “Should a White Man Speak with Authority on Diversity?” I believe that the answer is absolutely. Historically, white folks have largely benefited from, if not contributed to the inequalities that still exist in terms of equal opportunity and access in this country. I believe that it is incumbent upon white people to learn about diversity issues—their own as well as others’; to embrace their responsibility to become culturally competent about racial and other diversity issues and to shoulder some of the burden of educating themselves and others about issues of inequality related to diversity and non-inclusion our country faces…. if not out of altruism then out of enlightened self-interest. The world is changing. You can be a productive part of the change and be competent to compete in this global economy or you can be left behind.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your considered response, Mr. Visconti. Thank you also for helping your readers to understand that diversity exists within what seem to be homogeneous groups (i.e. hundreds of white guys) as well. What I wish to challenge you with, however, is staying focused on the question about whether or not white men have the “authority” to speak to this topic. The unfortunate reality remains that white men will typically have “authority” (sanctioned, approved, implied or otherwise) to speak to just about anything in this nation. That is not particularly a bad thing but it does constitute our reality. The more important and more appropriate question, I think, is whether or not ANY man or woman has established some measure of “credibility” and authenticity in doing so. I would also caution everyone not to use these terms as if they were synonyms. Diversity and inclusion, for example, are not the same thing. EEOC, as a further illustration, could not be more different a discipline than is the study and practice of diversity.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree that has the concept of diversity doesn’t have straight relationship with race,gender and sexuality,it is some kind of believe.It is related to the pursue of freedom,represent the love to this world,to people!

  • Very good article, glad you opened up the discussion this way…DIFFERENCE is the KEY. I am black, I worked with a white guy, that was treated like dirt. Now I am a fighter, so I would comment on the way the COMPANY and other employees treated this guy(YOUNG MAN 21 years old). I knew what the whole problematical situation was, remember I am black. One day the young man came to me very upset about the way people treated him, I could tell in appearnce that he could not take it any more, THIS YOUNG MAN HAD DONE NOTHING WRONG, HE WORKED, NEVER LEFT HIS WORK STATION,just a regular guy coming to work to make a living. Outwardly he looked like any other young white male, but I knew what it was that bothered THE COMPANY AND CO-WORKERS, he did not associate with the status quo, would not engage in their jokes and horseplay, HE WAS DIFFERENT, he would take his breaktime talking to me sharing his artwork. He was fired for being different, so was I.

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