Of all the bumper stickers that kept the fender of my old VW bug from falling off when I was in college, my favorite was one that read “Question Authority.” To this day, it's something I live by — don't accept anything just because someone says, “This is the way it is.” Probe it, dig into it, rip it apart and put it back together if that's what you have to do to get beyond the surface to the real deal.
It's actually fun, in a strange kind of way, to live life as a professional skeptic. But it's different when the authority I'm questioning is my own cultural baggage as a middle-class, middle-aged, liberal-leaning white American woman, as I found myself doing while researching this issue's cover series on how diversity issues play out at meetings. The more I dug in, the more I began questioning my own biases, both conscious and unconscious.
For example, by seeking out people of different races, ethnicities, and religions to interview about what makes them feel excluded at meetings, was I creating a magazine version of what one person called the “panel of marginalized people” who are only asked to participate when it comes time to talk about their particular culture, race, physical disability, or religion? After all, I normally don't give a thought to the cultural or religious background of the people I talk to for a story, nor do I have a clue what it might be in most cases. Should I be actively looking for nonmajority folks in other articles as well? Am I guilty of asking a select few people to speak for their entire race, religion, sexual orientation, or culture?
And where are all the people who think this diversity stuff is a bunch of bleeding-heart, politically correct hooey? I know that they must exist, but I couldn't find any who were willing to speak either on or off the record; Google wasn't much help with that one, nor was cold-calling a bunch of association meeting planners.
But the biggest question I was left with was whether all this emphasis on accommodating the differences between us, rather than the humanity we share, serves to pull us together or push us further apart. I'd bet every human on the planet has felt excluded, denigrated, alienated, or just “other,” at some point. We all know how that feels, and it isn't good.
That's why, ultimately, I don't think embracing diversity means embracing religions, or races, or cultures. It means embracing each person for who and what they are. It means taking a long hard look at where we come from and how it affects our world views. It means learning, learning, learning about people who are different from ourselves. It means pulling everyone into the circle of your meeting and making them feel that they belong.