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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

    The point that many of the 30-somethings don’t recognize the discrimination of the past is a sign of the progress that has been made. Certainly discrimination still happens. We all discriminate every day. A hiring manager must discriminate to match the appropriate candidate to the position. But when it’s purposefully done in response to some personal bias, it needs to be legally addressed. When it’s an adverse impact issue (unknown personal bias or affect) then training and teaching needs to happen. But many of the comments (from all sides of the topic) that pit “us vs them” in any manner of language is as ethically discriminatory as anything that the average individual in this day and age is likely to come across. Educate yourself to clear your rose-colored glasses the best you can…and do your best to respectfully inform and teach others so they can do the same. Recognize the positive aspects of individuality and don’t obsess on those that you may view as less than positive. And let the “us vs them” attitude that this topic always reeks of, die! Only then can we find equality in individuality.

  • Another good follow up question is: When and to whom is it appropriate for a white man to speak as an authority about diversity, and when might it be time for someone else to have a turn to speak and be an authority? Being an ally with any kind of power or privilege on behalf of those who don’t is important in many situations. Studies on gendered communication habits and the tendency of groups to listen and hear what different people say have shown that many white men feel most entitled to speak at all times on all things and take up the most air time or positions of authority in many given groups. This is something to consider for any white man who wants to be an ally for justice on an ongoing basis. Is it really my turn or is there someone else who should really get a chance to say something now? It’s an important consideration.

  • The assumption that white, Christian, heterosexual, nondisabled men have a monopoly on prejudice, EEO/diversity based bullying, “barnyard harassment” of people who are “different”, general harassment, exclusionary behavior, ethnocentric ideas about other faiths or no faith, physical beauty, etc is untrue. We all know that bullying of women by women occurs frequently in the school and workplace, skin /facial features and accent prejudice and mixed heritage prejudice exist within minorities and there are plenty of persons with disabilities who thin “I am more disabled than thou.” We can only deal effectively with diversity and inclusion when all of us take personal responsibility for promoting including and opposing exclusion, including self examination of our own attitudes and conduct. That includes recognition of any prejudices we may have towards any non-minority men. We all have to avoid the current fad of sweeping under the rug what has happened in the past (i,e, “lets look all be color blind starting now and not get hung up on the past”) without using the past as a club to beat people over the head or be ashamed of ourselves because of who we are or are not.

  • Anonymous

    I believe all ethnic groups should promote diversity regardless of skin tone. This is America…we have a diverse population of peoples. There are some who might not like the diversity of this country, but if America is to progress, we must unite as one people, one nation. A nation divided against itself shall fall/perish, now that’s a fact! There is no US vs THEM we are all Americans. The racism cancer is destroying our society. We need more people like Luke who is willing to take a stand against this deadly disease, by sharing information that can bring healing.

  • Anonymous

    I think Mr. Visconti’s points are well articulated. Admittedly, it is a mountain to overcome when you are the “white guy” doing a diversity presentation. I have found myself in this position and I consciously limited the my proportion of program activity, as not to be percieved as the only credible testimony. I “am” a white guy without a “gay brother”, and I have only been married once (25+ years), so this normally puts me at a disadvantage. My professional conduct in the business world and personally is the only base for my positive reception.

  • Anonymous

    I agree wholeheartedly with this point of view. I am disabled, and my husband though a healthy white male can very much relate to the difficulties disabled people deal with. Diversity is reality, racism is make-believe. Racism and “abilityism” only exist because there is no good reason for someone to discriminate against another person, so they have to make something up.

    Another interesting point as a “mildly disabled” person, I am able to take advantage of various programs that some severely disabled people can’t. I can work full-time with significant accommodations (accommodations that I was told by previous bosses would make “everyone want them” even non-disabled workers with no accommodation needs), I can take care of my kids without damaging my health by using a handicapped parking placard, and I contribute to society.

    I have continued to be pleased and hopeful about Diversity Inc, and as a “white” person with at least ten different ethnic backgrounds including two Asian ethnicities, the diversity within the “white community” itself is great. WASP is still the rule in most executive offices, having an accent or being a woman requires 10 times the drive of the “average guy” to get to the top.

  • Anonymous

    Every one has some element of difference from every other person in this country, in this world. Can you imagine an illterate white guy joining an MIT/Harvard fraternity, a poor white guy walking into a New York womens club…a white guy driving a jalopy…a white boy without parents in a school of others with a solid community full of kids in a two paretn family. The resentment people have with people who wear their diversity on their sleeve, blame others for their condition will always be rejected in whatever human interactions. No body deserves anything for nothing; when they ask for it, let alone demand it assures a negative reception from anyone who has done it on their own.

  • Anonymous

    I am glad that you brought this topic up sir, but there are some things that I noticed were not brought up. Growing up I realized that every human being is not exactly alike and so I grew to respect the differences of people in turn hoping they would respect that I was different. When I got to college I saw something that horrified me (I went to a college that was very “diverse” if by that diverse meant there were people from every walk of life there.) There are so many “races” who hide behind their race, group together, and don’t “integrate” with other races. I spent time at first trying to go to “multi-cultural” events and I was shocked to find that those non-white races just didn’t want to join in with others, or let others join in. I tried to befriend Blacks, Asians, Indians, Native Americans, Hispanics, and even other Whites. I was nice to everyone I met and gave everyone the same chances (I am a very culture and language curious person, so any bigotry I may have had was washed away by my want to know about other people and how different their lives were) This was to no avail. I actually was discriminated against because I was WHITE, and it was made very clear that I was not wanted in their little groups of bigotry. As a young white woman, I was given the stink eye for showing up at African American events, and if I showed up at an Asian conference, all hell broke loose (even though these events were ones that said “everyone is allowed to come join in the festivities and culture”). People always claim it is White people (men and women) who are always racist and unwilling to “diversify,” when I have actually realized that it is not only White discrimination that keeps us from all being of the HUMAN RACE, it is all races. I hate being stereotyped as having White privilege, because honestly, I grew up in some rough conditions and if it weren’t for my determination, I wouldn’t have made it to college either. I know this, because my other white friends of the same background (male and female) who did not try, did not make it to college, they are sitting at home doing nothing with their lives. I see plenty of people complain to me about how they cannot do something because they are a minority. I believe that if you want it bad enough, you will get it if you are qualified for it. You may have to keep trying, but giving up is admitting defeat. Life is a lot like sales, you have to accept “no” as an answer and not give up. Yes, there are prejudice people out there, but they are not just White, they are of all races.

    I guess the biggest thing I want to point out to all people of all races and cultures and everything else is: We are all of one race, the HUMAN race, and we should treat others accordingly. I have a rule to myself: Unless someone is trying to steal, harm, take away my human rights, or kill me or the ones I care about, they deserve the same respect I would give anyone else and it depends on their actions how I would “judge” them accordingly. If you are a jerk, you will be treated like a jerk. If you are nice, you will be treated as such. I don’t care if you are green, pink or purple; male, female, both, or neither; christian, muslim, or any other religion; you are HUMAN. It is your actions that bring about judgment of who you are, nothing else. I believe if this belief was passed on there would be much more tolerance to others and “hate crimes” and bigotry would slowly fade (they will not just up and disappear because ideas die with the people who believe in them, and some people will never change their minds).

    There will always be people who will treat others poorly, no matter what. I have seen this. I have been treated poorly by other white women because they thought that somehow they were better than me, so I know that superiority complexes exist and race/religion/ethnicity/sexuality are not the only triggers, and it is not always against people who are different than the “bullies” who torment you.

  • To say that white men have no place to speak on diversity is to deny the power of their voices in the perpetuation of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. Mr. Visconti’s consciousness was raised by a black friend. However, since minorities are just that, minorities, every white person may not find a minority person to help them out (or who wants to help them out). So just statistically speaking, white people must educate each other in order to reach enough people to affect real change.

    It took Mr. Visconti some time to identify w/his black friend’s struggles. Especially in the early phases of consciousness raising, many whites don’t truly “hear” what minorities have to say. White people need other whites to help them move efficiently from denial and guilt to productive diversity work. (Which is somewhat funny, since this all started with a white woman who didn’t want to listen to a white man.)

    Finally, I’m glad Mr. Visconti noted that minorities aren’t automatic PhDs in diversity. Some minorities use their privilege against other, less privileged, minorities instead of seeing the common struggle. (ie – Perhaps a gay man uses sexist language.) In addition, internalized oppression can hinder a minority person’s consciousness raising to the point where they wouldn’t be a good diversity trainer. The persistence of the N-word in black culture is a good example. Minority groups need just as much training as dominant groups, otherwise, none of us can move from a dominant/minority relationship to an “everybody’s awesome” social/cultural/economic structure.

  • Anonymous

    I too think white men can definitely contribute to diversity. We can absolutely be discriminated against. Many believe this is not the case because we are white males. Rare is the US citizen who does not say the XXX-American. By that statement, most people are minorities!

  • Anonymous

    Re: “Melting Pot”: I’ve argued against this concept for years. I am of the opinion that America (the only country in which I’ve lived) is and has always been (at least since European influence, possibly even before) a “Stew.” There is an overarching conept of American-ness but with local concentrations of carrots, onions, tomatoes, spices, meat, potatoes, etc. And sometimes one only gets broth.

  • Anonymous

    How refreshing to see some honesty. I’ve often thought that if we really talk ot each other about these issues honestly we will get somewhere. But, as a majority WASP, I’m reluctant to speak out to my own group or minorities. Glad to see someone with the courage to lead some discussion.

  • Anonymous

    I think that this is an interesting article, and under some circumstances I agree that it is powerful to have a non-minority articulating the virtues of diversity. And while all people bring “differences” to the table, this country has never owned up to the pervasive discrimination that exists historically, and TODAY against racial and ethnic minorities. Do you think that a white male President of the United States has ever been asked to provide his birth certificate to prove his nationality? Are American Indians still called “Red Skins” in the nation’s capital? Let’s finally acknowledge that no how many differences we generically bring to the table, some people will remain more different than others–and without power in the society.

  • Most white people do not understand what it is to be in the minority. I actually do, because I was the only white in a Black neighborhood. My mother and father divorced, and both married Hispanics. I married a Japanese woman. My family includes some Jews. So, when I saw the ugly racism of the 1950s and 60s, I felt it as directed against my neighbors. When I heard the racial slurs against Jews and Hispanics, I felt it as directed against my relatives. And when I went to Japan, I learned what it is to be a minority of one. Even so, I don’t believe I come close to fully understanding what it is to grow up Black in America.

    I’m always glad when people join the struggle to treat everyone fairly. But I think most white people are dreaming if they think they get it, and I know for a fact that a lot more are racists than think they are.

  • Chris Burgess

    Luke, I mirror your comments, I think being part of the majority requires you to overcome sterotypes like the one that you always get (being White and championing Diversity/Inclusion) and there’s a strong need to have the majority educate the majority, especially when the “majority” thinks you’ll go along with racist/homophobic slurs, jokes and generalizations.

  • I am a white immigrant who came to the US from Brazil as a child. Living in Queens, New York, and joining the YMCA I was exposed to many kids of different ethnicities, races and religions and had no trouble interacting (once the language barrier was overcome).
    That said, I have since integrated into the “majority culture” but have always considered myself non-racist, open-minded, empathetic and “diversity-sensitive”…that is until my daughter expressed an interest in dating a Black boy.
    It is then that I discovered that it is one thing to intellectually proclaim one’s non-racist, open-minded, empathetic and “diversity-sensitive” mindset, and yet another to admit one’s lurking, innermost, subconcious prejudices.
    Acknowledgement is the first step towards reconciliation.

  • Paul Robinson

    I am one of three white males in a large group of technical service engineers. We all work for a major oil company. In our group, we don’t discuss diversity. We do talk about our families, which live in India, China, Vietnam, Surinam and the United States. We especially enjoy learning how to eat new and interesting food. When we were told that we had to engage in diversity acivities, we visited King Tut in Houston, because there are no ancient Egyptians in our group.

  • I’d just like to thank you for including the “ADA-defined disability” point. Perhaps because “disabled people” are very difficult to box up neatly as a monolithic group (though really, if you look at it carefully, every group is this way–including the majority), disability (or “different ability” or however one refers to it) seems to be the “forgotten child” in discussions on diversity.

  • Grannybunny

    My first job out of college began in 1969, as a White token in an all-Black office, located in an all-Black area in Dallas, Texas. Needless to say, it was a total education to me. I quickly realized that the racial segregation that was still so predominant had disadvantaged me, an Anglo female, just as it had disadvantaged the people of color who were its primary targets, although — obviously — in very different ways. The Black people with whom I worked, some of whom became life-long friends, knew all about White people and the majority culture. I, on the other hand, although highly-educated and open-minded, was largely ignorant of African-American culture and society. Without a doubt, I had the advantage over women of color when it came to opportunity, but was clearly disadvanted when it came to broader societal knowledge and insight. My entire life was transformed by the experience. Needless to say, I understand and appreciate the value of diversity, even though I am White.

  • Carman Burney

    I thoroughly enjoy DiversityInc and all of the light is shines on humanity. Often times, we forget that we have many idiosyncrasies that challenge us to think differently about ourselves as well as others; however, we have to be mature enough to recognize then change our thought processes. Diversity, at all levels, is truly what makes the world so awesome! I too am over the “melting pot” flawed concept but I am totally in love with a great pot of stew where each ingredient maintains its unique color, texture and flavor when placed in the same cooking temperature.

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