Time for ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ Diversity Model

Updated Feb 20, 2014

As far as models of diversity go, I thought we dumped the cauldron and dispensed with the melting pot idea long ago. I think the late ‘70s was the first time I started hearing about the salad bowl as the new model for diversity.

It made sense to me. It was healthier, too. Let the bell peppers be bell peppers, the cukes be cukes, the baby spinach and the lettuce mix. Add some kale. Let them all keep their precious identity.

Throw in a few croutons, and bacon bits, too, if you must.

And these days, squirt some Sriracha sauce in the dressing, if we’re going to be truly multicultural.

Lately, however, I’m hearing less about the salad bowl, and getting a sense of nostalgia for the cauldron. The “melting pot” did have an easy kind of appeal. Who can argue with “blending in”?

OK, but when it all cools down and chills over night, what are you left with? Velveeta?

That’s not even cheese. That’s a processed “food product.” And what about us chunks that refuse to melt down?

Still, assimilation has its continuing appeal because some insist we should be one and the same.

Nothing wrong with a little unity. But shouldn’t we strive for a status higher than a form of Cheez Whiz?

I thought about that after reading Tanner Colby’s article in Slate, where in a discussion of SNL’s diversity problems, he talks about how HR folks and diversity advocates seem to be at odds. That is to say, diversity advocates are all multicultural salad types who want hires from all the different groups. But the HR folks at places like SNL want what Colby calls an “assimilated diversity.” It’s the search for the acceptable Black or minority face, one who has adapted, not one who will change the mainstream. At SNL, it’s the Black performer who feels comfortable with White writers and producers. It’s the one who knows how to schmooze and play the game.

It may not be the Black face with the White soul, but it’s the Black face that knows how to deal with and be around Whites. In terms of our models, that’s a little like the crouton thrown willingly into the melted cheese. It absorbs the moisture, gets soggy and loses its crunch.

Is that the assimilation we desire? How about a slightly different model: the jigsaw puzzle?

In HR, or admissions, what’s really the goal? You’re just looking for the missing pieces ― the pieces that fit. Fit is everything in making a hire, or choosing the right candidate for admission. But you need something that will interlock and make sense.

Our diversity puzzle is slightly different. We shouldn’t care about the picture the puzzle makes. We’re just looking for pieces ― of different colors — that fit.

In the end, you have something brand new that works as one whole united thing: an institution of higher learning, a place of work, an ensemble cast.

If the cauldron and the salad bowl have brought us to a parallel discussion, maybe the jigsaw will help people see diversity in a slightly different, and perhaps, more productive way. In this jigsaw, each piece is individual, distinguishable, creating a predetermined shape (your puzzle’s rectangular shape could be the student body of a college), but not a predetermined picture (we aren’t doing a puzzle of some still life or a reproduction of the Mona Lisa).

We are left with an entirely new creation — pieces that make up our world, fitting together in a whole new way. Sound like diversity?

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog)  Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok