Diversity Myth #2 - ‘‘We treat everyone as individuals: we don’t discriminate."
After more than 20 years of working in the field of Diversity and Inclusion, I have come across a whole range of preconceived, often implicit, ideas which stand in the way of making progress towards more inclusive workplaces and societies. An important part of my role is to try to debunk them.
These “myths” may be just that - erroneous ideas and misconceptions - but their effect on individuals, communities and organisations is very real, and detrimental. The more that all of us make a concerted effort to understand our assumptions in relation to Diversity & Inclusion, the greater the likelihood that genuine inclusion for everyone will become a reality.
I have selected a few of the most frequent and harmful ‘diversity myths’ for this article. I expect that some of you might recognise a couple, or even understand some of your own preconceived ideas. If so, I hope that analysis of these commonly held but inaccurate beliefs will help to explain where your assumptions might come from, why they are not backed by evidence, and why it is important for all of us to challenge ourselves on the ideas we perpetuate.
Ultimately, I hope that by surfacing these myths you will be inspired to, with confidence and genuine commitment, promote Diversity & Inclusion.
Myth #2: ‘‘We treat everyone as individuals: we don’t discriminate."
You might well think to yourself: “I don’t discriminate. I just treat each person as an individual. I don’t pay attention to the colour of people’s skin, their sex, age, sexual orientation, social class or anything else. We are all individuals and should be treated the same, regardless of our background.”
It all seems to make sense. Indeed, people who take this view are often genuinely well-intended and open-minded. So why should we encourage you to pay attention to people’s backgrounds and socio-demographic characteristics? Are we not all equal before the Law?
Let’s take the example of skin colour - though the same would be true of other personal attributes. If you think that it is rude, mean, racist and dangerous to take note of people’s skin colour in the workplace (and in society more generally), then you might describe your ideology as ‘colour blindness’. That belief system is based on the idea that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to culture, skin colour or ethnicity.
The thing is, in almost all societies, there are entrenched social, economic and political hierarchies built on skin colour. The colour of one’s skin has a very serious impact on access to education, health care, housing, justice and so on. In the workplace, the colour of one’s skin affects the likelihood of getting a job, of being promoted, of accessing Continuous Professional Development programmes, of having a good salary and receiving nice bonuses, of socialising with certain colleagues and not others.
It is impossible to tackle these inequalities if we deny that these inequalities exist. To address injustice and inequity, we first need to notice them. We need to be able to talk about them, measure them, and devise targeted and tailored plans to eradicate them. We need to acknowledge that skin colour continues to have a significant impact on life chances. We cannot shy away from it.
So let’s put aside the myth of ‘colour blindness’. It only helps to maintain the status quo and to forget the historical and current harms of institutional racism. We must be honest and unflinching about the world we live in if we really care about equality.
Keep an eye out for the other blogs in the ‘Diversity Myths’ series. While each piece stands alone, we believe that a powerful and coherent case emerges when all seven myths are considered as a whole.
Once we understand these myths, it becomes impossible to think of Diversity & Inclusion as being the sole responsibility of the Human Resources Department, the Corporate Social Responsibility Department, the Marketing and Communications Department or the Innovation Department. It becomes everyone’s responsibility - whether you are leaders, managers, supervisors, employees or serving customers - to play a role, every day, in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace that benefits all.
If you recognise these myths at work, please get in touch. We’ll be able to help you address them and transform your organisation.