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Seeking a Safe Place for a Dialogue on Difference

Seeking a Safe Place for a Dialogue on Difference
By Dr. Daryl Chubin

What’s missing these days from discourse on issues of difference — “diversity”— is not just civility, but a vocabulary. Language traps meaning and marks territory. It demarcates ideology, values, and too definitively ascribes beliefs and behaviors. We must do better than that. 

Race, ethnicity, sex, disability, age and region are all markers used by pollsters, politicians and pundits to estimate who we are. But such markers hardly determine it. Such “visible diversity” is a form of stereotyping, which helps make the world predictable in broad strokes.

But the error rate is high. Better that we are known for our
“enacted diversity” — words and deeds, not just appearances.

So where are the safe places for holding such dialogues? Surely not the op-ed pages or blogs or talk radio, shrill-fests that promote digging in, hijacking language and hardening beliefs and the rhetoric for defending them. Examples: Equating affirmative action with “quotas,” or opportunity with “preferences” and “special treatment.”

Our differences have always been our strength. Now they divide, discourage and stifle the process that can lead to better ideas, more workable solutions and brighter futures. Consider the processes set in motion last January by Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ inarticulate observations on gender and science. Out of a set of ill-considered remarks to an invitation-only audience has come a renewed dialogue on research, power and the social trappings of difference.
No, this dialogue has not all been civil, respectful or enlightened. And it hasn’t all occurred on campus. But it has allowed probing questions to emerge and diverse perspectives to be engaged, even clarified. A bright line has been drawn connecting scholarship on nature-nurture to issues of merit, position and the disparity between women in the U.S. population and women on the science and engineering faculties of our greatest universities.

There’s been some action, too — resources put toward examining and reducing disparities. As much as being about bringing parity to faculty sex ratios, this is a matter of understanding how men and women deal with the social structures of their work worlds. 

We do not all experience the same work place. And we do not cope in the same way. Research suggests that women “internalize,” while men “externalize.” Quipsters would call this depression versus aggression. It’s more complicated than that. The processing of information is not the same as interacting with others about it. That occurs in contexts constrained by organizational hierarchy, tradition, personality and expectation keyed to visible diversity. In addition, we are not all valued equally for reasons unrelated to position or status. 

In seeking to break the grip of visible diversity, we need to listen, question and exchange. Where can we discuss the pervasiveness of difference? One would think the college campus would be a safe place. But as academic Lennard Davis puts it, “The notion was that we could learn about the diversity around us by reading the literatures and studying the cultures of marginalized groups. The good news is that many students do exactly that … Of course, far more do the academic version of joining a gang — they stick to their own kind. An understandable response, but not an intellectual one.” 

A few years ago, IBM created eight Workforce Diversity Task Forces to promote diversity and expand its markets. Sponsors of each task force were drawn from IBM’s Worldwide Management Council. An analysis by David Thomas found that “Sponsors were not necessarily constituents of their groups. The sponsor for the White men’s task force was a woman; the sponsor for the women’s task force, a man. Indeed, there was a certain advantage to having sponsors who didn’t come from the groups they represented. It meant that they and the task force members would have to learn from their differences. A sponsor would have to dig deep into the issues of the task force to represent its views and interests to other WMC members.” Insight and empathy come from exposure to different perspectives. One begins to move beyond visible diversity to acting differently.

Thomas calls the IBM task forces a “model business practice.” They are more “affinity groups” with a difference, which any campus or organization seeking connections in a shrinking multicultural world could re-create. Without such enacted, crucial conversations will not happen. Difference will remain something to fear, to scorn and to avoid. As a life ethic, much less a business strategy, we as a nation cannot afford such provincialism. 

We deserve to have the dialogue that can reduce ignorance and stem intolerance — a safe place for the discussion of difference. Can the university become such a place?

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