“Diversity & inclusion” is a hot topic of our times. Yet it is one which most of us are not sure how to deal with. Reactions sound like these – “It’s not relevant to me, so why should I bother?”, or “OF course I know what diversity is, but I don’t see the big deal, so why bother?” Or “I should be bothered about it, but I don’t understand it!” Or “It’s such a touchy topic, not sure I should bother”. Well, given it is such a hot topic, and almost part of “general knowledge” of our times, it’s important that we at least understand what this hullabaloo is about.
We all know what diversity means in relation to people. Differences of colour, gender, race, economic status are visible and hence obvious. What is not obvious is how people think, decide, act, or who they are at their core. We are all born different, and then our upbringing, environment, experiences condition us further to shape us. Even the same conditioning can shape different people differently because of how they react, what they learn and how they adapt. Net, we are born different and then become even more different as we grow up. We all know this – so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that while we may understand this at a subconscious level, we don’t always think about it consciously. So, before we decide not to be bothered by this topic, why not think through this just a little bit more to ascertain if and how it impacts us?
I love little kids and am fascinated to see them in action. At that age, their thinking is very clearly visible in their expressions and actions. Imagine a little girl playing with her toys; she looks up from the toys as her ears focus on the sound of the key turning in the lock; the flash of interpretation that her parent is back, the look of happy anticipation of seeing her parent; down goes the toy; the toddling dash for the door, that momentary anxiety as the door opens to reveal the entrant, the absolute delight to see who she wanted to see, and then the complete surrender into the arms of the parent! In this lovely scene which I am sure each of us has experienced at some time or another, one can literally see all these emotions and thoughts in the face and actions of that little kid. Kids are transparent not just in their expression but also in their interpretation. We love them for this honesty and transparency, which makes interacting with them so delightful and easy. How nice it would be if that could carry through to adulthood.
Now imagine this same little girl growing up. She starts experiencing life and its innumerable situations. She reacts and responds to them, interprets, analyzes, internalizes, makes decisions. As she moves in this manner from situation to situation, her character and personality are being unconsciously but definitely shaped. So, one change as she grows up is that colours, textures, layers get added to the simple persona she had as in infant, adding fascinating facets to her personality.
However, another change happens as well – her interpretations, thoughts and thinking processes that were so visible earlier, become more and more internal to her and less and less visible on the outside. And by the time she emerges into the adult world, all that is visible to us is her actions and that part of her thinking and emotions that she (consciously or otherwise) chooses to show. What she feels, how she interprets, those flash emotions, instant decisions, how she decides, what she decides, how much of it she reveals and why, are all invisible. We know neither how and what she interprets or understands nor how she processes inputs. And what she shows to us may be very different from what she thinks.
Thus, as we grow up, not only do layers and colours of personality factors get added to us making us more interesting and eclectic, but these layers also dramatically reduce the transparency of understanding and interpretation, thoughts and feelings that we had as kids. Colours and layers make up the beauty of diversity; their opacity makes up its enigma and intrigue, also making it challenging to manage. I often imagine all of us moving about with these invisible yet opaque layers around us. Any interactions we have with anyone need to cross these layers outwards and inwards, and as that happens, there is a lot of room for distortion of the message even without any intent for it. As a student of physics, I studied refraction of light – how light changes direction and intensity as it passes through layers of different materials. What happens in human interactions is an infinitely magnified and complex form of refraction. And it is in this layered world of diversity that human interactions happen. That’s what makes it so fascinating but that’s also what makes it complex.
I hope that by this point you have answered for yourself the question about why diversity is relevant to you. But some may still be wondering – yes, but so what? And even now, why should I be bothered?
The complexity of layers through which interactions happen create invisible distances between people, make interactions amenable to the risk of misinterpretation, misunderstanding and worse. Understanding diversity and how to deal with it can help us manage this risk. If we aware of and understand these layers in ourselves and others, if we can be sensitive to them, we can eliminate the effect of opacity from these layers, bringing back transparency (not the same but close to the one we experience with kids) because we can be free in our interactions without the fear of misinterpretation, focusing energy on something more constructive than second-guessing each other. This can enable us to enjoy the benefits of diversity while steering clear of its pitfalls, definitely making interactions easier, faster and more effective.
Invisible distances created by layers of diversity, if not understood well, can become magnified and visible, developing cracks in the people fabric of companies, communities, societies. When that happens, people on one side feel constantly misunderstood and not respected, while others feel they don’t need to understand diversity others bring in, and might even resent it. When there is a majority of one type of people (type can be any form of diversity), it could thus make the other side feel excluded, disrespected and not valued. Irrespective of whether it happens in a family, community of organization, it can only have negative repercussions, and can sometimes create permanent fissures between people. Human history in all parts of the world has ample examples of this. Newspapers even carry stories of this same phenomenon even in today’s world. If diversity be understood well and managed proactively and consciously, it can help more assimilation and positive interactions, with everyone feeling included and respected for who they are. As human beings, we owe this to ourselves and to others. Being inclusive to the diverse people around us, I believe, is our fundamental duty and being included despite diversity a fundamental right.
My personal understanding of diversity & inclusion has been a journey – from my being a skeptic to being a passionate believer and advocate that I am today. My work, research, learning in this area for over a decade has been largely in the corporate context but it has been transformational for me at a personal level, helping me become a better person. I claim to be not an expert in the area, but rather an avid student of it and one who has come to firmly believe that understanding of and respect for diversity can have a positive impact at a personal and professional level, in every interaction one has, every conversation one makes, every relationship one share. It is with this belief and passion that I am attempting to demystify “Diversity & Inclusion” (D&I). So vast is the scope of this concept, that demystification can only happen in steps. This article is the first step, to help establish how and why D&I is relevant to each and every one of us.
So, yes, I better be bothered about D&I – if I do, I can be a better person, if everyone does, the world can be a better place.
~ Musingly Yours.