Archive | September, 2011

Defining diversity

30 Sep

I recently had my work described in air quotes. As in:

Alison Park is a “diversity” consultant.

I understand and even sympathize with the reasons one would refer to diversity from a safe-distance outside the quotation marks. “Diversity” is one of those everyday words that we often don’t bother to define when we use it, perhaps because the very act of defining it can lead to endless semantic warfare.

Some of us believe diversity, quite simply, refers to differences. These could be differences in dessert preference (pie or mochi), sartorial choice (corduroys or denim) or, yes, race (but why do we get stuck on that?? is the implied frustration)

… which points to the other default definition of diversity: race. Or more specifically, racism directed at poor people of color. Under this definition, the entirety of “diversity” is co-opted exclusively for a conversation that is really about racial inequity. (Notice this in your next conversation when skin color is never explicitly mentioned, and yet is the focal point of the “diversity” issue being discussed.)

Between “diversity” referring to everything and “diversity” referring only to race, there is the list approach to defining what we mean when we talk about “diversity.”

The National Association of Independent Schools, uses a list to define diversity (

  • Ability
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Socioeconomic Status (Class)
  • Body Image (“lookism”)
  • Educational Background
  • Academic/Social Achievement
  • Family of Origin, Family Make Up
  • Geographic/Regional Background
  • Language
  • Learning Style
  • Beliefs (political, social, religious)
  • Globalism/Internationalism
  • ?

You may be familiar with other versions of this list, the so-called “Big 8,” “Big 10” and “Big 12” lists of apparently Big social identifiers… which folks always struggle to recall. While NAIS has officially stepped away from numbered lists “because they [imply] a sense of hierarchy, placing greater value on the identifiers in the list over other identifiers,” the unofficial message of their current list persists: we do place greater value on some identifiers over others. (Hence, this list.)

The “?” at the end of NAIS’ unnumbered list is another version of the “etc.” that so often punctuates lists of so-called Big social identifiers. I think it serves both to acknowledge the diversity of diversity and to proactively defend against the inevitable outcry about what has been left off the list.

Maybe the problem is listing to define “diversity.” While a list tells us what diversity is supposed to matter, it doesn’t tell us why. This is what I used to struggle to understand in the face of this or any other “diversity” list: what are these listed identifiers supposed to represent? What do ability, age, sex, race and socioeconomic status have in common?

So I created my own working definition of diversity that has served Blink well in its work with over 35 schools:

Diversity refers to those differences in identity that impact our social experiences, including status and access to resources. The impacts of those differences play out for entire groups of people, not just individuals.

Takeaways of Blink’s definition:

  • Diversity is always social and contextual. 
  • Diversity includes majority and normative identities. (Consider how identifying as heterosexual, physically-able and gender-confirming facilitate everyday life.)
  • Diversity matters to you, to me and to us.
  • The point of naming and talking about diversity is to create communities and institutions where everyone can thrive.

Based on this definition, I’d like to declare loudly, proudly and unequivocably that I am  diversity consultant. No air quotes needed.

From bake sale to Butter

29 Sep

Let me see if I can get this synopsis right… the soon to be released movie Butter is a thinly-basted allegory about the competitors in a butter-sculpting competition (read: candidates in an election campaign).

In a clip from the movie (, Jennifer Garner, who plays the wife of the best butter carver in Iowa, takes on diversity as it (in her mind) threatens “excellence in butter” and the American way. Expressing her dismay that the standard of excellence appears to be taking a backseat to “who’s the most disadvantaged,” she declares, “I’m sorry that I was born white and tall and pretty.” 

OK, enough already. The sarcasm, the histrionics, the implication that to be white and tall and pretty is to be (God bless) American is the big red herring of privilege. And we need to be able to direct the conversation back to basics:

While Garner’s character seems to make a reasonable argument, her premise is flawed: diversity is not the antithesis of excellence. In fact, diversity tends to beget excellence, in that social diversity in groups has the effect of cultivating self-awareness and more intentional, diverse thinking, speech and action, from which we can discern our best options (whereas social homogeneity can, in the extreme, produce groupthink). In the case of butter-carving, diversity is symbiotic with excellence as it casts the broadest net for talent and abilities that are scrutinized through the same lens of merit.

And implied in the character’s insincere mea culpa for being “white and tall and pretty” (WTP) is that suddenly being WTP matters. Suddenly, it is being held against her… with no acknowledgment that it has always mattered, and mattered in her favor. Tellingly, she describes herself with adjectives full of positive connotations and proven effects: implicit association studies ( tell us that people, regardless of their own racial identity, tend to associate whiteness with goodness; Judge & Cable (2004) and other researchers have demonstrated that we presume leadership, capability and integrity of tall people–thus we tend to promote and pay them more than their shorter colleagues ($166,000 more over a 30 year career!); and as for pretty, countless studies indicate that attractive people enjoy diverse perks, including the blanket assumption that they can do no wrong ( So in her protest against the discrimination she suffers, the character conveniently reminds the butter-carving judges of all the reasons in a biased world that she deserves to be treated better than the competition: she is white and tall and pretty. And she doesn’t even have to be fully cognizant of what she’s doing. That’s part of the privilege: being oblivious to the unfair, unearned advantages that she enjoys.

Too often, the argument against acknowledging identity as a factor in a competition, whether college admissions or a political race, hyper-focuses on the protest about how minority identities matter, without any recognition of the ways in which majority identity affords power and privilege. If we start the conversation from the truthful premise that identity always matters, whether you have a minority in the running or not, then we have a better chance of deciding and enacting how we think identities should matter. And we can talk inclusively and honestly about the complexities of privilege.

(Trying to) fly the “family-friendly” skies

28 Sep

Southwest Airlines likes the kick off. 

In 2010, the airline kicked actor-director Kevin Smith off a flight in 2010 (for being too large to safely occupy on seat). At the beginning of September this year, the airline kicked Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong off his flight (because his pants sagged too low). And now Southwest has kicked off actress Leisha Hailey for “excessive behavior.” Apparently, Hailey and her girlfriend were kissing on the “family airline.” While “excessive” is a matter of debate, the airline’s explanation, not surprisingly, is tellingly adamant in its denial of any discrimination:

“Our crew, responsible for the comfort of all customers on board, approached the passengers based solely on behavior and not gender,” the statement continued. “The conversation escalated to a level that was better resolved on the ground, as opposed to in flight.”

Methinks they doth protest too much. The reality of the matter is that “excessive” kissing cannot be extricated from who was doing the kissing. It’s not as if the other passengers on the flight saw kissing… and no people. It’s a package deal.

And this position, that Hailey and her girlfriend were invisible (thus, the kicking off was strictly about behavior and not gender*) is actually a subtle form of heterosexism in and of itself. A heterosexist world expects that all people are heterosexual, and will (intentionally or not) go as far as erasing LGBTQ folks from our minds… and our fields of vision.

It’s better, perhaps, to acknowledge the identities of the excessive kissers (OK, maybe not legally). Only in acknowledging homophobia and heterosexism can Southwest actually take a stand against discrimination. If it denies the reality of a social bias that claims family as the sole province of heterosexual folks, then Southwest is left with only one recourse: enabling that bias. Because in matters of discrimination, if you’re not taking a stand, you’re facilitating the status quo–intentionally or not.

* A note on wording: I believe the airline meant that the decision to kick the two women off was “based solely on behavior and not sex.” (Yes, confusing language when kissing is involved.) Whereas gender refers to a manifestation of qualities that we characterize as “feminine” or “masculine,” sex refers to the biologically determined reproductive identities of male, female or intersex.

The wage gap… it’s complicated

27 Sep

Back to the bake sale proposed by Cal’s Campus Republicans (see the 9/26/11 post).

The students proposed a pricing structure as follows: $2.00 for white men, $1.50 for Asian men, $1.00 for Latino men, $0.75 for black men and $0.25 for Native American men–with women getting $0.25 off the male-pegged prices for their demographic group.

While the students intend to make a point about racial minorities and women “getting a break” (by The Man, I suppose–who else?), I’m interested in a secondary statement they are making:

In short, that a woman’s status is defined in relation to a man’s.

According to the Campus Republicans’ logic, women’s experience is tied directly to that of the men in their racial demographic, and the divide between men and women is a uniform, pan-racial constant.

While this makes for a neat and tidy way to “include” women in the bake sale and the social statement it intends to make,  reality is a little more complicated than that. You simply can’t subtract 25 cents from a male-standard to define the place or (dis)advantage of women.

Before I continue, let’s acknowledge that various studies and all sorts of analyses have been done on the wage differences between women and men, within and across racial groups. As a result, you can find conflicting results. So this is not to present The Truth about sex, race and income in the US, but to present some of the nuances:

  • Citing the US Census Bureau, Dr. Hilary Lips of Radford University notes that while men across racial groups tend to outearn the women in their own racial groups, the wage gap is largest between white men and women. In 2001, for example, white women earned 73.4% of what white men earned; in the same year, black women earned 84.8% of what black men earned. Latinas tend to fare the best, in terms of closing the wage gap with Latinos, while Asian women do only slightly better than white women in matching the earnings of the men in their groups.
  • Psychology Today contributor Dr. Linda Young’s research reveals that the overall trend of men outearning women isn’t absolute: citing the 2009 Census, Young points out that in the $100,000 and over income bracket, black women outnumber black men–by over 1.5 times. While there are 157 black women for every 100 black men earning over $100,000, there are approximately 450 white men for every 100 white women in this income bracket.

So it would seem that the Campus Republicans might do well to pull out their calculators before printing up their bake sale prices, if they really want to promote social awareness and not just stereotypes.


When the students bring the learning

26 Sep

The Misfits is a young reader-friendly novel about name-calling. The protagonists include a gay boy, a smart girl, a supposed “hooligan”, and an overweight boy being raised by his dad. This band of “misfits” confronts homophobia, gender stereotypes, weight bias, ageism and racism (cleverly presented through one of the protagonists’ well-intentioned liberal agenda). Rich with social insights and issues (including the moments when you wish the author James Howe had gone further or handled a storyline differently), The Misfits offers educators some obvious teachable moments.

That said, here’s what was on one 5th grader’s mind: “What’s a department store?” (The narrator works part-time in a department store selling ties.)

I love it. Just when you think you know what the issue is… a child points out what you hadn’t even noticed. Scientists call it “inattentional blindness.” In diversity work, we’re usually blind to our own norms–which are glaringly obvious to those who don’t share those norms. Kind of like department stores.

Sliding scale bake sale

26 Sep

Campus Republicans at Cal have decided to make a statement about legislation that would let the UCs consider race and national origin during the admission process ( The Republican organization has been inspired to put on a bake sale, charging as follows: $2.00 for white men, $1.50 for Asian men, $1.00 for Latino men, $0.75 for black men and $0.25 for Native American men. Women will get $0.25 off the male-pegged prices for their demographic group. (More on this in my next post.)

If you find yourself stuttering with disbelief at this innovative yet all too familiar stunt, this post is for you. It’s time we confront the misdirected fears that deny white privilege and promote xenophobia and maintenance of an inequitable status quo. And we can’t always wait for Tim Wise to speak up and set the record straight. Which he did—what ensued at Cal is textbook cultural race debate protocol: campus—and national—outrage (including a crisp response from Tim), followed by purported shock (including an implied claim to victimhood) by the young Republicans, who will proceed with their bake sale with renewed commitment. The FaceBook volleys to continue.

If you thank some higher power for the Tim Wises of the world who speak up when minority identified and identifying people get scapegoated for historic and systemic social inequities, I ask you to do more. While we can learn from Tim’s example, we can’t rest on it. We need to be able to name what’s wrong with the bake sale ourselves, and to be able to talk empathetically and persuasively about it with those who disagree with us. We need to breathe through our own indignation and help reframe the conversation in a way that dignifies each individual’s struggle to live in a diverse world.

To that end, I encourage you to take the time to practice what you might say to someone about the Campus Republicans’ bake sale (which is just today’s example of a debate that will pop up in another form tomorrow). Do it out loud with a friend. Practice what you could say, so you can hear what you really have to say.

Here are some things you might say or consider:

  1. Let’s not confuse diversity and merit. The legislation is not suggesting that race and national origin should replace academic performance as the core admissions criterion. It’s unfair (both to the UCs and their students), unfounded and simply inaccurate to assume that non-white and international students get in “because of diversity,” while white US students are all there “because they earned it.” And that’s the underlying assumption in this protest. The corollary belief that white US-born students are being discriminated against becomes a murky charge, when you consider the longer standing traditions of affirmative action that historically and currently favor those particular students. (See #3 & 4 below.)
  2. Face it: we’ve always considered race and national origin in admissions. Whether we talk about it or not, people “read” race and ethnicity into applicants’ names, home addresses and activities. It can’t hurt to name this and be transparent about how race and national origin factor into the decision-making process.
  3. Identity in admissions is sticky. What do you think about eliminating all identity consideration in the application process—including whether someone is a legacy, or able to pay full tuition?
  4. There’s always been favoritism for applicants who have an “in” (a relative who is an alumnus/a, a family friend who knows someone, professional help in putting together the application or writing the essays…) How do you think the UCs should handle the informal affirmative action that prefers people with an inside connection? Maybe the legislation should include and address all forms of consideration given to applicants.
  5. Studies show fewer men are getting accepted into and successfully graduating from college. Should we stop considering applicants’ sex in admissions, even if it means ending up with few or no men in the incoming class?
  6. Why do you think diversity matters at a school? Is it just a numbers game that only benefits minority identified and identifying groups? Actually, studies suggest that social diversity helps to unleash thought diversity within groups, enriching critical and creative output (see resources below). Claude Steele’s research also indicates that being “the only one” is cognitively, emotionally and physiologically stressful for minority identified and identifying students, who end up carrying the burden of having to prove that they—and their groups—deserve to be there. (True, sometimes they overperform to compensate, but stress is still stress, even if the results appear to be “good.”) The UCs already recruit and retain a qualified cohort that ensures no white US student is “the only one” on their campuses. Don’t minority-identified and identifying students deserve the same freedom of mind?  
  7. Flipping the script, the Campus Republicans’ pricing structure serves up a certain justice when you consider the inequitable distribution of wealth in the US. The prices read as a menu of privilege, especially when you factor in red-lining and other discriminatory practices that have contributed, in no small degree, to a race-wealth inequity in this country. (Thanks to my colleague SK for this last thought, and for sharing the article.)

I hope this was some help in identifying what you want or have to say on this issue. It certainly helped me to write it out. Thanks.


* Antonio, Anthony Lising, et al. “Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students.” Psychological Science <;

* Gurin, Patricia. “New Research on The Benefits of Diversity in College and Beyond: An Empirical Analysis.” Diversity Digest <;

* Steele, Claude. Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us

Making contact

25 Sep

Bespoke Innovations ( is a company flipping the script of a deeply held, tacit but pervasive cultural convention: don’t look, don’t name. Folks with visible physical disabilities share an all too common social experience with obese people: invisibility (King, Shapiro, et al., 2005). Out of well-intentioned politeness, personal discomfort, negative judgment or a convoluted fear of making someone else feel self-conscious, people often look away and pretend they don’t notice when someone has a prosthetic leg. Now Bespoke Innovations wants you not just to look, but to stare.

By making prosthetics that are cool, Bespoke is challenging the convention that you should have to hide your replacement limb. Simultaneously, it is making it OK for observers to notice, not just the prosthetic, but the whole person wearing it.

I love the obviousness of what Bespoke is doing: taking what we can’t help but see, and making it something to look at. These cool artificial limbs aren’t just helping us to talk about the prosthetic elephant in the room: they remind us that treating people with dignity and compassion starts with accepting not just how they’re different from us, but how our own fears and biases shape our interactions with others.