Different Like You

I’m not different from you; I’m different like you.
— Unknown

My first post of 2015 was about the courage it takes to continue to explore and evolve our beliefs as individuals.  So it is perhaps fitting that my final post for the year delves deeper into a topic that requires this courage - our beliefs around diversity.

In many contexts, diversity is embraced with positive emotion because it promotes choice whether it be 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream or the multitude of make, models, color, and features you can buy on an automobile. In the context of human interaction, diversity often feels somehow limiting because society attempts to draw lines across identity groups.

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Why do I raise this heady subject right before the new year? Because the end of this year seems to be marked with strong social tensions, especially around race and religion, and I’d like to encourage everyone to consider in their new year’s resolutions how they might contribute to reducing tensions and promoting trust in 2016.

Why do I think it matters? Because if we are to achieve the variety of perspectives that many studies claim is critical for increased productivity and innovation to occur in our organizations (and ultimately our communities at large), we need to have the will to acknowledge and address individual and societal beliefs that limit diversity.

This year has provided me a rich mosaic of personal and news events which have spurred my own reflection of my experiences of bias and my own assumptions and beliefs. It's made me appreciate how deeply ingrained and hard-to-change some of our underlying beliefs are, and how much personal trust and faith in humanity that assessing and having the hard, headache-inducing, heart-wrenching conversations to work through biases requires.

I've been grappling and continue to grapple with the following questions. I welcome your thoughts and ideas. 

1.) How can we celebrate our cultural* differences openly and yet not perpetuate stereotypes that are hurtful? Should there be a double standard if the person is seen as speaking from the demographic he or she is viewed to represent?

I choose these words carefully, because, not only do I dislike being pigeon-holed into a demographic, I also did not grow up self-identifying with what my external appearance might convey to others.

I grew up as a first-generation American born Asian in a tiny college town with a very small handful of minorities. I endured my share of racial slurs and chants (i.e. round-head/ slanty-eye), but otherwise, had little clue about the generalized stereotypes about my ethnic background because I lived in isolation from others who shared my ethnic culture. Plus, as much as my family turned heads in many a McDonald’s on a small rural U.S. town (people in the restaurant go silent and all heads turn to follow us to the counter), we received similar reactions when we visited China in the early 80s. So it wasn’t until later in life that I became more aware of stereotypes and how some applied to my own life: the Tiger Mom, the focus on STEM, driving styles.

Both my Asian and non-Asian friends and I laugh (and cry) about some of the stereotypes that we grew up with, because they are aspects of celebrating our cultural differences… We rarely take offense to any ribbing from each other, but when does this cross the line from being funny and endearing to being damaging?  Because for every Asian Tiger Mom telling their children “You will have to work harder because you are different,” or every “bad” Asian driver going 45mph on the Interstate highway, there’s someone out there with a different ethnic background doing the same thing.

*I use the word “cultural” here broadly to mean a variety of identity groups - ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. even though my example is limited to ethnicity.

2. ) How can we promote awkward cultural conversation as genuine curiosity with good intent?  And what do we expect of others if we unknowingly offend anyone?

As an ethnic minority in U.S., when I am asked “Where are you from?,” and I respond “New York originally,” my answer is often rebuffed with “NO, where are you FROM?”  As a woman, I am sometimes asked “Why do women do x?,” when I may never have done x in my life.  I can come up with a question for every characteristic of an identity group I represent (marital status, age, job role, etc.).

When asked questions such as these, I can choose to be offended or to educate. I choose the education route, because as someone who is super curious about cultural norms, I ask lots of questions that might appear silly, offensive, or judgmental only because I'm trying to learn and relate them to my own experience.

I hope others respond in kind, but often, people take so much out of context and assume ill intentions around statements or curious questions. I’m a bit baffled as to why: Because it makes for better drama, especially if picked up by the media?  Because we think it brings better attention to our cause of educating others about bias? Perhaps we'd make better progress if we would all chill and assume best intention until proven otherwise.

3.)  How do we judge when someone’s stereotyping results in an offense or exclusion that is intentional? WHAT ARE BEST WAYS TO respond to intentional vs. unintentional transgressions?

Being blatantly discriminated against is rare nowadays; it still exists, but discrimination more often it exists subtly, and oftentimes the underlying belief is unknown to the offender.   

As a woman who golfs, a pet peeve of mine is being overlooked as a player for golf outings by my male counterparts.  Yet I’ve learned over time that most frequent reason for exclusion is because the person holds some generalized societal assumption that that women don’t golf and they don't even recognize it as a bias until it’s pointed out. So I try not to take the exclusion personally, mention the "misunderstanding," and have a squirmy uncomfortable conversation where I try to be empathetic to the chagrin and ruefulness I would probably feel in that person’s shoes. 

And of course, there are times when I have not taken the time to point out the transgression and I've grown to regret that - should I?  When is it OK to avoid conflict in favor of peaceful ignorance? 

Then there are those situations when the offense was intentional...well, I’ve not come up a graceful solution for resolving those situations...so, Readers, please share any best practices!  Unfortunately, irreconcilable differences prevail that only time and more experience seem to resolve (if ever at all)...

4.) What can we do to foster respectful dialogue on controversial issues and encourage ourselves and others to express and listen to differing points of view about what is creating inequalities without also fostering more hate and communications breakdowns?

I feel privileged to live in an era and country where we have smart people looking closely at issues like diversity, coming up with a variety of opinions; and that I can voice my own thoughts, hear the perspectives of others and engage in healthy debate. I love the way healthy debate helps me foster new ways of thinking, but I despite when debate devolves into name-calling and slurs.  Why is it better to do this than demonstrate thought?  Why is it that some people aren’t willing to accommodate a thoughtful yet uncomfortable discourse? What’s “easier” about that?

So I couldn’t agree more with what President Obama said recently in his NPR interview about being free to disagree on issues, particularly around the “how” of creating a just society (his example: that not agreeing with affirmative actions does not mean someone is racist; they just may not believe it's the best approach to achieve equality).

Those of us who don’t enjoy mud-slinging are reluctant to jump into the fray to avoid being a victim or accidental perpetrator of those tactics. So our voices get drowned in the theater. But if we don’t are we just letting the mud-slingers win? I was listening to George Takei quoting his father in his TedTalk: “our [American] democracy is a people's democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. He told me that American democracy is vitally dependent on good people who cherish the ideals of our system and actively engage in the process of making our democracy work.”

So my call to action is merely - if you care about this issue - to ask yourself, regardless of how you take part in this today, what part you want to (and will) play in the future?