Learning what diversity really means

"Diversity" growing up in the Bronx

Growing up in an all-Italian neighborhood in The Bronx, my view of diversity was limited to “different degrees of being Italian”. It was the kind of neighborhood where you shopped at salumerias that hung cheeses and meats from the ceiling. Where people made their own wine in the fall and carefully cloaked their olives trees in canvas every winter.

As I became more educated and saw more of the world, my understanding of diversity expanded. Now, decades later, I might finally appreciate what it really means.

Racial diversity

When I was in elementary school, there were no black kids in my class (“African-American” came years later) and very few who weren’t white. If black kids walked into our neighborhood, teenagers would chase them away. And when a neighbor was rumored to be selling his house to a black family, someone set the house on fire.

At 13, when I went to a wonderful high school in Manhattan, I made friends with kids from around the world and we learned that you could and should respect people of any ethnicity. For a long time, that’s what diversity meant to me.

Gender diversity

After college, I started working at Bell Labs, a respectful and ethnically diverse place. And there I was introduced to my first diversity training.

One helpful videotape taught me about the “3-second rule” in which a man shouldn’t touch a woman for more than, well, 3 seconds. A dramatization at another firm showed how it always seemed to be the woman who took notes, opened the conference call, and did other secretarial duties. Though the training sometimes felt forced, the broader message was that you should be mindful of the subtle and not-so-subtle signals of disrespect in the workplace. We learned to treat everyone equally no matter their gender or race, and that was diversity. 

LGBT diversity

More recently, I’ve learned about differences you can’t see. Some of that came from researching what makes for a more humane workplace. And this past year, I became active in our firm’s LGBT community and listened to stories of the challenges people face at work. I was able to take part in events like “Out on the Street” where I could learn more about the issues and what we can do about them.

It seemed clear that diversity really meant being sensitive to what other people might feel. About being respectful of everyone whether you could see their differences or not.

And then, finally...

And then, just this week, my understanding of diversity expanded yet again. I was watching a TED talk filmed in 2003 on the diversity of the world’s indigenous cultures. Wade Davis described how, when most of us were born, there were 6000 languages spoken in our lifetimes but that fully half of those aren't spoken by children and will be extinct within a generation.

“So what?” I thought. “Is that really such a bad thing? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we had fewer differences?”

Simpler, maybe. But poorer. 

In story after story, he described people who were so different from me that just knowing they existed expanded my view of what it means to be human. His talk made me appreciate that it wasn’t just 3000 vocabularies and grammars that were disappearing, but 3000 distinct ways of interacting with the world and each other. “Every language is an old growth forest of the mind,” he said, “a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”  And I came to understand how the extinction of those languages and cultures was, indeed, a loss.

And then he described a choice we have that applies not just to languages and cultures but to all aspects of our lives:

“Do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony? Or do we want to embrace the polychromatic world of diversity?

Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said before she died that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic worldview, not only would we see the entire range of human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought but that we’d awake from a dream one day having forgotten that there were even other possibilities.”

I thought about that. About how a desire for simplicity and sameness can blind you to other possibilities. And I started to appreciate that diversity isn’t just about the differences we see in people or the differences in how they feel. It's also about our different languages, food, and environments. Different experiences, values, and world views. The different ways we think

I started to appreciate that diversity means more than not diminishing others. It means being open to all of the many differences in a “polychromatic world” and how that leads to a much, much richer life.