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Yeah, But Is Your Heart in Your Diversity Work?

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.

LukeViscontiDiversityIncCEO

In a follow-up to my column “Can a White Man Speak With Authority on Diversity?”, a reader asks a critical question.

Comment: 

I find it fascinating over the pond about how the sheer notion that being experientially [sic] near a Black person can somehow give you some sort of osmotic sub-experience. It does not. If you are a white, heterosexual male with a good education, you will have little concept of the subtleties of racism and how it conspires in a myriad [sic] and mosaic of ways, and these micro-oppressions build up gradually and are pernicious for a lifetime.

Visconti has found a hook that is ironic but marketable. He will get more exposure, access to better marketing and media channels than Black people and more white male attendees at his conferences. He will benefit from being white and talking about the Black experience because he is white. It’s a beanfeast for him.

I have had bosses who do diversity and are white, but they really believed it, lived it and would lie in traffic for it. I’m not convinced in this case as he can only speak from the head, not the heart. 

And yes, I’m talking about race unapologetically, the cornerstone of most oppression. 

Response:

I completely agree with your first paragraph and your last paragraph. I both agree and disagree with the middle of your email. 

I understand how you can say it’s “marketable” and that I have a “beanfeast” because you’re looking at a successful business. It was nothing but a concept when we started out in 1997. “Diversity” existed as a business subject but was nowhere near where it is today. There were no outside investors that helped my business; however, there were and are courageous corporate people who see the DiversityInc vision and go to bat for us. 

One indication of the impact of our collective work is the number of companies that participate in the DiversityInc Top 50 competition. It has gone from 178 in 2004 to 535 in 2011. The results of the companies that achieve a spot on the DiversityInc Top 50 list have also increased; for example, percentages of people in structured mentoring and employee-resource groups have more than doubled, as have the percentages of bonuses paid to CEO direct reports for the accomplishment of diversity-management objectives. This all happened because DiversityInc applied metrics and honest witness to a business process. Our DiversityInc Top 50 companies are significantly better for women and/or Black, Latino and Asian executives by absolute measurement. Since metrics cannot be consistently evaluated for LGBT people and people with disabilities, we can only look at practices—but here, too, things are dramatically different than they were in 2004. We don’t recommend that companies chase race and gender numbers, but race and gender numbers act as a very good proxy for measuring the corporate culture. Read more about this:

The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity
DiversityInc Top 50: Methodology
About The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity 
DiversityInc Top 50 Survey FAQs

You are right in that I have benefited from being white—my entire life, but especially in my choice for my life’s work. I recognize the irony and tragedy that I, as a white man, must repetitively speak before mostly non-white, non-male, disabled and non-heterosexual people to spread this message. It hurts my heart every time I tell people who are oppressed that only the oppressed can lead the oppressor out of their behavior. As a society, we do not understand the words of Frederick Douglass, who said, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” I agree with you that race is the cornerstone of most oppression, but I will add that gender is an even larger cornerstone than race.

I have respected that and have endeavored to give back as much as I can. I’ve been a trustee of Bennett College for Women for eight years, a trustee of Rutgers for four, and I’ve been on the foundation board of New Jersey City University (an HSI) for five. I’m on the board of The PhD Project and on the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel. All of this is unpaid work. Further, I’m not a passive board member; I have endowed scholarships at all three schools and am on the “heavy-duty” committees (I have chaired audit at Bennett for six years and have been on the nominating committee at Rutgers for three). I’ve raised more than $2 million as chair of the Rutgers Future Scholars fundraising committee. I have my own foundation, a 501(c)3, and 100 percent of my speaking fees are donated to the schools that I serve via my foundation. Nobody draws a salary from my foundation, and I donate all administrative costs. This year will be the fourth that I’ve donated roughly 33 percent of my take-home pay to charity. 

Those are facts and figures, but I hope you can see how much my heart is in this. It’s everything I do. I’ve had death threats and am currently being smeared by a hate-filled anonymous person via email (thanks for nothing for being an enabler, Yahoo). It scares the daylights out of me sometimes. Not so much for my own safety—I’m a master-rated rifleman and expert pistol shot—but I have a wife and children, and I travel quite a bit. You see, I “lie in traffic” for what I do every day.

>> Read more “Ask the White Guy” columns at DiversityInc.com.

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26 Comments

  • I disagree with the statement, “If you are a white, heterosexual male with a good education, you will have little concept of the subtleties of racism and how it conspires in a myriad [sic] and mosaic of ways, and these micro-oppressions build up gradually and are pernicious for a lifetime.” If it’s a good education, including courses in the humanities and social sciences, it should.

    • I concur with the comment “If you are a white, heterosexual male with a good education you have litte concept of the subtleties of racism and how it conspires in a myriad and mosaic of ways, and these micro-oppressions build up gradually are pernicious for a lifetime.” Also if you grew up in a culturally diverse environment which was enriched by family values.

  • I want to ask a question, if the cornerstone of oppression is race (the original commentator) and gender (Mr. Visconti), would we consider economics to be the foundation of oppression?

  • Melva J Hayden

    Dear Mr. Visconti,

    I was deeply touched by your response to a reader’s honest and challenging email questioning whether you truly do walk the walk, and talk the talk, of diversity. Or, whether you do it because it has been a vehicle of success for you as a business endeavor.

    I thought I was familiar with your interest in and passion for diversity. However, in reading about the work you do outside of the business-end of Diversity, Inc., I was truly and pleasantly surprised to know about your unpaid work for the cause of diversity.

    Furthermore, As glad as I am to know about the charitable sacrifices you’ve made on behalf of diversity, it also saddens me to know about the death threats you’ve received because of your diversity work. I and others share your concern for your family’s and your safety. In my opinion, a lack of diversity and pervasive racism will only be irradicated when others in the majority, such as yourself, become committed to spreading diversity and doing away with racism. I echo and agree with the sentiment of Frederick Douglass’ quote, by analogy it is tantamount to the those persons who put bars on their homes seeking to keep intruders out, while imprisoning themselves behind the very bars erected to protect themselves. Kudos to you and Diversity, Inc. Please continue working for a righteous cause.

    M. Hayden

  • Ryan Wheeler

    Luke,
    Thank you for this. You continue to be a source of inspiration and your words and actions continue to motivate me.

    I’m in a similar position and have been since high school (geesh, going on two decades now) when I began to stand up and speak out. While my advocacy often garners comments that I take as compliments like, “You’ve got more soul than any white guy I’ve met!” or “Are you sure you don’t carry a gay card?”, it also garners a good deal of criticism and skepticism of my sencerity. But that’s alright too because it’s a clear indicator that people are hearing and witnessing that advocacy. When they question, I’m always happy to explain why I defend the human dignity of people who society tries to hold back or break down. I believe that the vast majority of us “allies” have compelling paths that have led us to be the advocates that we are, and I’ve found that sharing our stories has a powerful awakening effect on people who are “like” us (pick your likeness: straight, male, white, Christian, US-born, etc.). When I’m thanked for my advocacy — thanks that I don’t believe are necessary and often wish weren’t offered since I regard this as right and essential as breathing — I’m often reminded by that person that when I say the same thing to a bigot that someone says who is the bigot’s target, it’s probably my words or deeds that will break through to bring that bigotted person around. That’s a role that I can fulfill. And to your skeptic, I don’t claim for a second that I “know what it’s like” to be on the receiving end of the overt or micro-oppressions — in fact, one of my litmus tests is people who do — but, **I have an idea**. I think that to be an effective ally, one must have an idea.

    Thanks again!

  • It is evident to me Luke’s heart and head are aligned

  • Regarding the statement that Mr. Visconti “will get more exposure, access to better marketing and media channels than Black people and more white male attendees at his conferences.” If he gets more exposure and access, he is reaching more people. Is that necessarily a bad thing? It seems as if the original commentator’s observation misses the point: To combat oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, et al, one needs the buy-in of straight, heterosexual white guys like Luke Visconti.

    As the commentator is from “over the pond” surely he or she knows that it was white people (many of whom were straight) in Britain who played a crucial role in ending the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1800s. It was their having more exposure and access that led the way.

  • Gayle Edmond

    Please know that Mr. Visconti is a man with empathy and that is really all you need. He can feel sorry for people and want to help them and that is the most important thing. He does not have to be a different race or gender to understand someone’s suffering. Whenever anyone wants to help us we should gladly accept it as the more people who fight for what is right, the better. Try and look at it that way. Any help is appreciated. And yes, I am African American.

  • Don Brandon

    Mr. Visconti,

    When I think of diversity, I recall that white is part of the diversity blanket. Just as Brown, Black, Yellow, Red, etc. When I was younger I worked with young people with addiction issues. I learned that you don’t have to be an addict to speak to addicts, but it helps.

    I wouldn’t want someone to identify with my pain and the things that make me different, just to be cognizant that I have it. My pain has shaped me, ellightened me, and brought me to value interdependance.

    I see a new bias emerging between the haves and have nots. The economic challenges of diversity are magnified greatly when the competition of jobs is as great as it is today.

    D. Brandon

  • D. McKee-Stovall

    I don’t think that we can every truly understand another person’s or any group’s experience with oppression; but in spite of this I do believe that we can all become allies in the fight against oppression regardless of how it is manifested.

    What I related to most in the question and the comments posed by the “critic” is the unrelenting depth of pain and suffering that has been experienced by oppressed individuals and communities for generations. I also understand the sense of hopelessness that oppressed individuals project when they witness time and again the systematized reception that well meaning allies against oppression receive over those with direct and grievous experiences with oppression.

    I have witnessed for over three decades the repeated acceptance of filtered and detached understandings of the manifestations of oppression from well meaning allies by a wide variety of institutions and systems willing to approach the subject.

    My experience as a student of and exponent of respect and bias reduction has taught me that second person story telling, exposure to sociological and psychological theories, role plays and “exercises” focused simulating the experience and impact of oppression do not begin to reach the heart of the experience of being oppressed. i have never considered allies that supplant the voice and experience of the oppressed, no matter how “innocent” or “compassionate”, as particularly effective in the transformation of biased hearts. They may impact biased mind, but oppression has never been a matter of the mind.

    Allies have always best served the oppressed when they stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed while the oppressed speak their truth. The oppressed do not need a filter or translator to create an understanding of what is true. Instead, an “Amen”, squeezed hand, a head nod, the willingness to break down barriers, interrupt witnessed bias and cast votes on measures that will end all aspects of oppression are the most valued actions of an ally in the fight against oppression.

    i did not feel that the author of the question was not asking about the intent of a compassionate heart. I believe that author was seeking insight about the experiences of and appropriate role of the heart that has not suffered the depths and varied aspects of oppression.

  • Tonia R. Haynes

    Hi Luke. I know what you mean when you say that you lie in traffic everyday for what you’re doing. I was an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, when I was drastically demoted to a secretary for doing my job. I got no support. I am now being blacklisted throughout City Government. I cannot get an EEO manager or manager position anywhere in City Goverment. Needless to say, I don’t stop looking. I will go out on that limb again tomorrow.

    TH

  • Thanks very much for sharing where you are, Luke. I can certainly understand the situation having been the target of anonymous hate for the past year to the nth degree. One would not think that being a great marksman would be necessary in a civilized society, but I too am thankful that I know very well how to use a gun. The anonymity can be unnerving at times.

    As a white woman, I have to say that I do not see in the U.S. as much open and nonsensical hatred toward women as can be incited by difference in races. After all, many white males have women that they live with so usually there must be some sort of common ground. The vitriolic nature of racial discourse seems the heavier burden to bear from a receiving end. I can certainly see through my own experiences with anonymous hatred how having this behind the scenes simply because of skin color can be a huge burden and cloud hanging over which changes people interactions due to distrust of motives — and that distrust exists by experience. It aides my understanding that my sons are members of a NA tribe, and I’ve a feel for the subtleties experienced by the darker one vs. the lighter one.

    Members of the oppressing group do carry much weight however when they step forward, disagree, and lead toward a better way. Those who lead for justice and equality have however historically born the hatred of many. Thanks for your work, Luke, and for taking the risk. Your leadership is much appreciated!

  • Was the person who wrote that his/her “experience as a student of and exponent of respect and bias reduction has taught me that second person story telling, exposure to sociological and psychological theories, role plays and ‘exercises’ focused simulating the experience and impact of oppression do not begin to reach the heart of the experience of being oppressed” addressing my disagreement to the comment, “If you are a white, heterosexual male with a good education, you will have little concept of the subtleties of racism and how it conspires in a myriad [sic] and mosaic of ways…”? If so, there is a big difference in having a “concept of the subtleties of racism and how it conspires in a myriad [sic] and mosaic of ways” and “the experience of being oppressed.”

  • Linwood Cephas

    Hi Luke, up until 2 years ago, I didn’t know anything like Diversity Inc. exsisted. I now look forward to the articles that are emailed to me during the week. There are always suspicions about companies like yours from the black community because of people in the past being opportunist to take advantage of so called helping our community, but you are the real deal and you stand up for true diversity. Keep up the good work. I supported you 100%

  • Linwood Cephas

    Typo, I support you 100%

  • Franklin E Rutledge

    This one thing I do know about Luke, he believes in what he is doing and he has a heart for it. Which ultimately means, he tries to help people regardless of ethnicity or sexual choices? I disagree with him on certain issues, as do other people disagree with me. But, I will never disagree with God’s word, nor try to interpret it wrongly to make others feel secure. Nonetheless, Luke’s heart is in his Diversity Work.

  • Gregg Ward

    CORRECTED VERSION… As a straight, white, American-born, educated, male, I completely understand the “mindset” behind the reader’s question. AND Luke, I applaud your response and your commitment to the work and the community wholeheartedly. I have had this question directed at me numerous times during my work as a D&I consultant and trainer. Usually it comes in the form of “What are YOU doing up there?” or “What can you possibly teach us (people of color, women, the disabled, etc.) about diversity since you have no experience of what we’re going through?” These are entirely reasonable questions and answering from the heart is paramount. I do my utmost to speak from a fundamental place of respect and fairness for every human being, no matter how different we may be from each other. Respecting and honoring differences and treating each other fairly is to me the very foundation supporting the concepts of diversity and inclusion. Those practices transcend race, gender, religion, age…you name it. Walking that talk – especially when faced with outright hostility – is not always easy, but as Gandhi said: “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” Luke, you’ve had lots of practice and we are all much the better for it.

  • Anonymous

    Given your experience in the Diversity domain, my following comments might not be new or valuable, but I just wanted to vent after reading the comment which served as the platform for your blog.

    Your reader made some assumptions/arguments that I don’t think hold up, and in some ways are offensive.

    This “it may come from the head and not from the heart” argument may “feel” right to someone “from the inside”, but doesn’t hold up in my opinion from a logical standpoint.

    You can’t care and be fully invested in something you haven’t fully experienced from a personal level?

    That is somewhat (albeit not completely) like saying:

    Oncologists can’t be passionate about curing cancer because they haven’t had it.
    People with professions where they care for animals or protect the environment can’t be passionate about their work because they’ve never been animals or plants.

    By that logic diversity efforts by Black people are doomed to fail when it comes to helping Hispanics, Gays can’t help Transgendered people and so on.

    It flies in the face of much of what I’ve understood about diversity efforts. It suggests that people of one group can’t put their heart into helping people of another- and that is entirely counter to the concept that we are all stronger by appreciating and leveraging what everyone brings to the table. Someone that an issue or topic hasn’t touched personally may be able to provide a perspective that someone “too close” to a problem or topic can’t see or identify- whether that be on the topics of cancer, animal rights, environmental issues, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. That is a value of diversity that your commenter seemed unwilling to profit from or acknowledge.

    My comments don’t ignore or excuse discrimination based on various prejudices, but having heard this argument so many times, I get frustrated by the lack of insight it demonstrates, and feel that often it does more harm than good.

  • I applaud your great work on diversity and hope that the organizations you have helped to see the value of this great need in our society continue on the the right path and treat everyone fairly. There are going to be skeptics no matter what, but don’t let that slow you dowm on your noble cause. Thank you for being a champion for understanding diversity, especially in the workplace.

  • It hurts my heart every time I tell people who are oppressed that only the oppressed can lead the oppressor out of their behavior. —– Excellent lines, tragic but true, needs a lot of contemplation.

  • Darrell Thorpe

    Therre is an absolute difference between caring about something and going through something.
    That being said, thank you Luke for all your efforts. D&I in America needs as many champions as possible. I don’t know why anyone would chastize you for caring and helping.

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