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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

  • Leann Simmons

    Luke, having worked with your organization and seeing the scope and growth of your commitment, I don’t question your ability to speak as an SME for diversity. I applaud your championship. However, I do understand the undergird of some perspectives that we don’t want to acknowledge as diversity professionals. In a counter-storytelling society, or majoritarianism historically based society (Yes, check it out), those of us who have lived the subtle oppressions know the difference. As a white male, you have learned, and yes, I respect that you have learned, witnessed and understand well, and put hands, and feet to that commitment. But you have had to learn and come to understand the subtleties that minorities get frustrated with. As a Diversity professional, and an African American woman, I am almost required to discount the subtleties that exist, even in this ‘profession of tolerance and embrace’, that I have to add and delete too many verbal faux pi, and file them under the ‘I didn’t mean it like that syndrome’. As a Supplier Diversity professional, I am often confronted with contractors, caucasian males, with front organizations as women owned businessess, and I say, ‘Dayyum, we are only trying to get 10% of an organizations contractual relationships spread across African American, Hispanic, GLBT, WBE, Native Americans owned businesses, and the majority still has to scam us out of that portion.’ And will get contracts, via the old guard relationships! I worked with a former MBE business whose contact can talk the Supplier Diversity talk with some of the biggest organizations in the country. Yet when asked how many MWBE’s he uses in his personal business, none, zip, zero. No dentist, insurance man, cleaners, nothing. I suspect, he has very little consideration of them other than a means for talking up a business contract – just a job. I’m not mad at that as we all are working for a check. But if I go to a BMW dealer who extols the virtues of BMW, and then I ask him what he drives, and he tells me he only drives Mercedes Benz, well its not a requirement, but it resets a perspective of his/her personal integrity. ‘Oh, so you want me to drink the Kool-Aid, yet, you won’t go near it’. For those who live the story of why Dr. King and so many others spoke for economic equities, which are yet to be achieved in this country, these mockeries can challenge the reality of why there is still a question about the role of majority stakeholders, of their genuine embrace of diversity and what and why it goes deeper than numbers. And for those who really carry the commitment, I have witnessed their frustration having their integrity questioned. And I am compassionate to those, because they represent the many and not the few. But I also have to admit to sometimes saying, now welcome to my world of constantly having to re-explain your credentials. It is a sad fact of our society, and as much as we want to create a safe environment for discourse of tolerance or embrace or what ever your diversity approach language is, there is still broad disconnect between what is being sold and what is being embraced. Now I’m not speaking for a race or gender, but sharing a perspective to consider.

    • Luke Visconti

      Great post, thank you for taking the time. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Luke, I have to disagree with your agreement on the sentiments of the commenters first paragraph! He/she directly relates education and sexuality to racism and all the while completely misses the mark on scope of diversity, the nexus of all of your work. Working within the context the writer creates, i.e. racism, isn’t your profile exactly what is necessary to break through to the oppressors? They sure as heck aren’t going to listen to an uneducated, homosexual, non-white. Obviously we don’t know much about the writer, could be just like you only with a different agenda.
    As a white, heterosexual, 50+ year old, educated male, my awareness and knowledge of diversity has been significanlty broadened by this site and your writings. Thanks for that and stay the course.

  • Luke,
    Quoting Wendell Berry from his pivotal work on racism (The Hidden Wound) -

    “…in the effort to live meaningfully and decently in America, a white man cannot learn all he needs to know from other white men.”

    The key word in this quote is “all”. I am a white man who struggled beside many mentors (including a fair number of other white men) with defining my proper role in building awareness and bringing change. I feel there are immensely powerful and vitally important lessons that we can likely learn ONLY from other white men.

    The only players who can realistically be expected to change the rules of the game so all can play as equals are the ones who continue
    to win. Paraphrasing familiar words – a great deal of the work must be expected of the white men, by the white men and for the white men.
    The continuation of a system that gives a disproportionate share of the prosperity and political and social power to the white men in spite of evidence that the playing field is still tilted in our favor diminishes us all.
    White men who accept our collective responsibilities must be willing to sometimes lead, sometimes follow and sometimes get out of the way. Which position is right for a given situation is often very hard to determine. However, to suggest that our collective past disqualifies us from ever leading is wrong. Sometimes we must be willing to be at the very front. Thank YOU for being there.

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