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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

  • Great article! The threaded discussions (in their own way) support your analysis and opinion that “mindset makes us ‘good at’ diversity.” Discrimination, harassment, inequity can only be aimed when the target (physical or cultural characteristic) is known — mindset. Efforts to prevent this blight in America have been laws and diversity — mindset. Before you came into our lives Luke, I am sure white males knew of if not experienced discriminatory actions and many chose to paricipate in, justify or ignore its continuance. But it thas taken public discussions/awareness of this atrocity, such as yours, a sort of view from the other side, to make all of us face the reality — mindset. Keep up the good work! Heaven has a place for you!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article! I KNOW a white man can speak on diversity. Just look at Michael Fosberg! The problem is that there aren’t enough white people talking about diversity openly and honestly as it is.

  • I am amazed! I think this article may have had some truth, but the bottom line is that, while it is important to accept different cultures, just because you are white, male, and Christian it doesn’t mean that you aren’t diverse. For goodness sakes, diversity is made up of experiences. Everyone has to come from somewhere and that in and of itself represents diversity.

    So, does this mean if you are an Irish, Catholic male, you can’t be diverse? I don’t agree that the amount of melanin in one’s skin speaks to whether or not a person can be diverse.

    No one can tell me if I am diverse or not, and certainly can’t say that I am diverse as long as I accept his/her definition. I am American Indian. That doesn’t make me special or different-it just means that the two people who created me were American Indian. What makes me different is what I do and think-that defines who I am. And besides, as a wise friend of mine once said, “When you look down, you are either a man or a woman!” Well said!

  • Anonymous

    Wow, very powerful article and related comments. I particularly liked the comments from the Guest you encouraged his unenlightened colleague to view him as more than just what he sees in front of him. We are all diverse; we all have a story and experiences that make us who we are. I have no interest in assimilating; I am that I am. Not only should White people speak about diversity but all People should speak about diversity and all that makes this issue both riveting and complex.

  • Well said Luke, thanks for a very honest article.

  • Chalette Renee Griffin, M.A.

    Very refreshing response to a complex question. Unfortunately, the issue of Diversity is very complex and many people will have a hard time grasping what it means and how it can empower not only their businesses, but also enrich their personal lives.

  • Anonymous

    I am employed by a large healthcare & trauma center and am a white middle-aged woman. I previously worked in an area where family members and friends of the trauma victim would come to wait while the patient was in surgery or while the medical staff were working with the patient in one of the Intensive Care Units. One nite several people of a motocycle gang (it was pretty apparent based on their dress and tatoos) came in because one of their members had been badly hurt. The security dispatcher knew they were coming to me because he had seen & talked with them to give them after-hours access to the hospital. Each person of this group was very respectful of me. My preconceived notions of what a motorcyle gang “should be” completely vanished after the doctor came and talked to his friends. Immediately, they stood up, joined hands and prayed. Even though this happened many years ago, it made a lasting impression on me. Then I could look at the members of this gang as a group of wonderful individuals that was there to support their friend. I have always viewed this as a powerful learning experience for me and one I will never forget.

  • It always amazes me that when the subject of Diversity arises; some people or groups of people want to tune out or discredit someone because of their ethnicity. To question anyone because of their belonging to or deriving from the cultural, racial, religious, or linguistic traditions of a people or country would mean that they are not biased; as biased is based on facts, but prejudice occurs without a person knowing or examining the facts .

  • It takes all kinds of people from all different walks of life to make true change. As a Black, spiritual leaning (as opposed to a specific religion), bisexual, 3rd generation college female graduate, I am a diverse oddity on many levels. Does that mean I can only speak to diverse issues within the communities in belong to? Of course not.

    I think another thought that is missing here is that who better than those who hold the majority of the power in our society (White, hetero, able-bodied, Christian men) can communicate to others like them. One of the most important aspects of diversity training is meeting people where they are. White men who choose to enter diversity training have already (hopefully) unlearned much of what society has told them about diversity; hence, who better to reach others who are likely the MOST skeptical about issues of diversity. Who better to educate and assuage their fears?

    I takes a village…it takes many different villages to become the ever changing melting pot of America’s past, present and future.

  • The problem with this essay is that the majority culture coopts all discussion about culture to make it about them. Yrs there is diversity of experience among white men. But why is the conversation still about white men??

  • As a white male diversity practitioner, I have two sides to the same answer of YES! First, as a professional, I am NEVER precieved as having a self serving motive when addressing diversity. Second, diversity is NOT EO! Diversity is about differences and simularities, NOT about race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc… We use those as indicators of the success of our diversity programs. EO is about fair opportunity, diversity is not. The two are different programs that leverage teh successes of the other for thier own good. If race is a factor for those who work and manage diversity, then the program is a sham and just about race relations and EO.

  • I am responding to the guest who posted on Tuesday Mar 29, 2011, ‘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”.’

    Do NOT mistake majority culture simply as the number of individuals of color inhabiting a particular place. While you may now live in an environment where white people are fewer in number, I assure you that the power and control in that area still is in the hands of, for the most part, whites, or the “majority culture.”

  • I completely agree. You say this very well. I came to my epiphany after six years in Kenya as a child and returning to the US to go to college. As a White, Jewish middle class woman continue to broaden my views by being on our local NAACP board, joining We Refuse to be Enemies (a Jewish, Christian, Muslim group), attending workshops and community discussions, reading books and watching movies created by people from cultures different from my own and….traveling. It is about perception and moving through the “feeling threatened by other” stage enough to reach out a hand and truly see the other person’s humanity.

  • I am an American Hispanic living in Iowa. Yes, an American Hispanic.

    One of the most intriguing comments I have heard was when I was serving in the military. I was in a small aviation unit with soldiers from all walks of life and very diverse backgrounds. As we were preparing to invade Iraq during Desert Storm, the topic comes up of how all of us are here to serve our country and keep our American flag flying high. Each of us had a common denominator. We were all born in the United States.

    It was then that we decided to still recognize our ethnic diversity, but it would not preface who we truly were…Americans! I was now an American-Mexican, some were American-Africans, and others were American-Asians. Having this common denominator reminded all of us we were a team with differences, and all of had something different to bring to the table.

  • Luke, here is one African American man who appreciates you You have been consistent over the years that i have know you, and you make it plain in a way that should be a model to others. I often refer to you when recruiting white men in affirmative action/diversity efforts. I would add that the history of white men is also a history of power and even when they enjoyed superior power President L.B.Johnson and a white male congress passed the civil rights acts, in the context of the movement for change personified in Dr, Kings leadership. Sometimes epiphany meets self interest. Please keep leading from where you stand and from your authentic self because we need you on that side of our family.

  • Bravo and well said Mr. Visconti! You have been an asset tot he Board and the women of Bennett College which is where I first learn of you & Diversity,Inc via Dr. Cole. I’ve been a huge fan since.

    Warmest regards.

  • Anonymous

    Reminds me of when I joined the International Club at the University of Wisconsin and was asked why I (an American) did that. I said, “America IS part of International you know/.”

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the root cause of discrimination is one’s mindset. Consequently, if we are going to be successful in developing more inclusive organizations, the training that is provided needs to be directed at changing persons’ mindset. I believe that allowing time for interpersonal conversation, in a dyad format, is an important way to help one focus on the components of their mindset.

  • Anonymous

    First, I like your article and it hits home to anyone who would take the time to understand. Like you, I too am prior military and feel my Diversity training started there. Now days I work for the US Air Force in an HR capacity, and I am also a Qualified Diversity facilitor. I received my training from Dr. Samual Betances in 2006 and have been teaching/facilitating ever since. Having been a production supervisor/manager for over 20 years I found out and feel that we humans are more alike than different, regardless of color, gender, culture. More to the point I want to footstomp and add to your your comment that it is mindset and attitude that makes a good Diversity facilitator, not skin color or culturial background. There are a still a lot of people that still try and bunch Diversity and EEO in the same breath, showing they don’t truely understand. If we ever get people properly educated and working toward the MISSION, most of our issues will go away. Until then all we can do is keep teaching and preaching.

    chuck

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Visconti, the short answer to your question is YES from the perspective of a 30-something living in America today. For a 60-something like me the answer is absolutely not. Born in the shadow of Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympic performance, the afterglow of the original audacity of hope stamps my perspective on your question. Our nation’s institutional resume shows that our country took the high road fighting this heinous dictator Hitler while winking at the world with its own onshore atrocities. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment sanctioned in full by the U.S. Health Services from 1932 to 1972 happened in my lifetime. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed a month after I graduated from high school. But just because it was law didn’t make it so. The historical perspective that you mentioned is more important than most think. It certainly doesn’t encourage trust of the majority. My father’s biggest challenge was to raise me to be a man when our country treated him like a boy. My father was a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army and my father-in-law was an original Tuskegee Airmen. Their service and sacrifice was commendable given that civilian life offered overt racism and discrimination in the workplace after their military service. In the late 60′s I served in the USAFSS as a Russian Interpreter in Europe and the Middle East but could not find a job upon my discharge. I thank God for men like Dr. Warren Bennis who personally touched me when he was President of the University of Cincinnati and Admiral Benjamin Hacker who opened his home to me. Our 30-somethings have probably never been refused service, never been unable to get a gas station restroom key, never seen a cross burning, cannot reconcile “Freedom Riders”, never been stopped by the police for going 36 in a 35 mph zone or don’t know anything about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots,. For them Dr. Martin Luther King is a postage stamp and shopping holiday? It is amazing how I went from “boy” to “sir” in a short 50 years. This is a better, not bitter diatribe. You keep talking about diversity and I may investigate personally speaking with authority on the pain of childbirth. Stay after it!

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