I recently attended a meeting in which the organizers attempted to spur a discussion of diversity. The way the plan was explained to me, participants at the meeting would be asked to add a label to their name tags with some interesting fact about themselves. For example, one label read, “I like pizza.” The vision was that participants would read each other’s labels, and find points of commonality and difference among themselves. When I asked how this exercise related to diversity, I was told that it captured the idea that diversity was about more than race, and encouraged people to think about similarity and difference at all different levels. While I appreciate the “ice-breaker” quality of this exercise, I would like to suggest that it could have gone much further in promoting meaningful dialogue around diversity.
Diversity is a concept that embraces appreciation of significant group-level differences in society. Diversity is indeed about labels. But, it is about the kinds of group-level labels that categorize people and support stereotyping, marginalization, and oppression based on those categories; it is not about relatively trivial individual likes and dislikes. While I agree that diversity is not just about race, I do not believe that race or any other significant social category should be erased from the discussion. And I am troubled when the term diversity, along with the often-painful experiences it encompasses, is trivialized.
In my opinion, tapping directly into people’s experiences with relevant group-level categories could better stimulate a meaningful dialogue around diversity. I offer this revision of the exercise for anyone who is interested in such a dialogue:
- Ask participants to list on their labels the social categories that they find being applied to them or that they claim for themselves. Such categories could include race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, political leanings, disability status, marital and parental status, and more. Participants can choose the categories to share based on what is meaningful to them, and they do not need to list in every category. For example, one participant might list “senior citizen, Independent, Buddhist, single parent, immigrant,” while another might list “Republican, Caucasian, gay, single parent.”
- Ask participants to think about how these various categories either give them, or deny them, access to social power, status, and privilege. Some categories may do both.
- Encourage participants to notice the labels that others are wearing as they meet and greet their fellow participants, including the categories that are shared and not shared between the participants (as in the examples, above).
- Invite participants to start genuine conversations, from a place of openness and curiosity, about the experiences each participant has had as a member of the groups each has identified, especially experiences around access to or exclusion from social power, status, and privilege on the basis of group memberships.
- Ask the participants to articulate something new they have learned about the life experience of the other as they end their conversations.
With courage and good will, imagine the rich conversations that could be had. These are the kinds of conversations that invite people to step into the lived experience of the other, that spur exploration around meaningful differences, that stimulate reflection about the process and effects of social categorization, and that foster empathy and compassion for the complexity of the human experience.