The Great Diversity Divide

The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River
The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River

There’s an ongoing war of words between the anti-oppression, diversity and inclusion and intercultural competence camps. It can be nasty sometimes. All sides have the same goal of eliminating discrimination, racism and creating inclusive workplaces, but their approaches are very different.

After attending an anti-oppression conference, a few years ago, a diversity and inclusion consultant declared, in surprise: “That the last place I expected to feel so oppressed was an anti-oppression conference. If you didn’t support the anti-oppression approach, you felt quickly and harshly silenced by the speakers.”

At a recent event in Toronto, writer Tim Wise, told an audience of mostly social workers that diversity is “often about everything and nothing at the same time.”

What’s missing, he says, is “the interrogation of power and privilege” that white people take for granted.

That’s a pretty broad and provocative statement. Inequality and discrimination are not only a “white problem.” 

The theories and concepts of anti-oppression– and ironically diversity —  grew out of the social justice movements in the United States of the 1960’s. But the many critics of  diversity and inclusion (D&I) point to the lack of sufficient diversity — people of colour, women, etc. — in positions of authority in business and politics as proof of its utter failure.

Other critics describe the practice of developing cultural or intercultural competence as the “new racism”  because the dominant group’s culture is accepted as the norm and diversity is identified as anything outside of those norms.

Rustic Wooden Footbridge at Acadia - Powdersville, South Carolina,
Rustic Wooden Footbridge at Acadia – Powdersville, South Carolina,

However, Dr. Marie Gervais, an intercultural communication expert, says culturally competent people are able to “stand on the edge between (their) own group and someone else’s group and become a bridge to connect the groups.”

Dr. Mitchell Hammer the  developer of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) simply states it is  “the capability to shift cultural perspective and adapt behaviour to cultural commonality and difference.

The reality is that these approaches are not mutually exclusive and have many things in common: a desire to end all forms of discrimination; an acknowledgement of the imbalance of power among disparate groups and individuals and a recognition of the powerful impact of inclusive workplaces and structures.

An attempt to bring all three approaches together is “interculturalism.”

The Baring Foundation in the UK produced a handbook and suggests interculturalism is “the recognition that culture is important and of equal value to all people. ”  It recognizes that forcing people to subscribe to one set of values can create tension between individuals and groups. It understands that human beings are multi-dimensional in nature and that cultural fusion has been, and will continue to be a by-product of human interaction. It requires negotiation to accommodate our expression of culture in the public domain, using the principles of human rights to shape shared entitlements.

Regardless of which approach you subscribe to, each has a vision of a world where all people are valued — regardless of colour, culture, race, gender or any other dimension of diversity. And that is an ideal worth striving for.

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