The Role Of White Men In Diversity Discussions

Luke Visconti, founder and CEO of DiversityInc, argues that from religion and politics to education and geography there is a great deal of difference among white men. They play, he says, an important role in conversations about diversity.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Many companies educate their employees about diversity. Some bring in consultants or schedule a series of workshops and awareness training, other hire executives specifically in charge of diversity management. Either way, a major problem arises when white males feel like they're portrayed as the problem, maybe the problem, which is among the topics that are tackled in Luke Visconti's column on diversityinc.com called "Ask the White Guy." He joins us in just a moment.

So are white men part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to diversity? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Luke Visconti is founder and CEO of DiversityInc and says, yes, as the title of the column suggests, he is a white guy. And he joins us from member station WBGO in Newark. And nice to have you with us today.

Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (Founder and CEO, DiversityInc): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And so, people would say or a lot of people would say, when it comes to diversity, the problem is the concentration of power of any sort with white men.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, I think if you look at the culture in our country and you could look at Congress, you could look at the number of presidents who have been white men, you could look at Fortune 500 CEOs and, without a doubt, the overwhelming majority of them are white men and, I would go further, white Christian, heterosexual men with no ADA-defined disabilities.

CONAN: And so, yes, in that definition, I guess, they are part of the problem.

Mr. VISCONTI: I don't know if it's, you know, a problem so much as it is a situation in which - for example, if you look at Fortune 500 CEOs, only 3 percent are women. And yet, of the people who are the age of the average CEO, more than half of those people are women who have a four-year degree. So we've sidelined 47 percent of the talent. There's a problem there. It's called not making as much money as you could.

CONAN: And you argue strongly that diversity training has to come along with the idea that this will work hand-in-hand with profits.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, I think, yes. So training's just a part of it, though. You have to be able to set goals and accomplish them, and you have to be able with leadership, to have a clear vision, communicate it effectively and hold people accountable.

CONAN: Yet, don't you find that there is some defensiveness among white men when you say your organization needs to be more diverse?

Mr. VISCONTI: You know, it depends on the organization. If you look at the organizations on our list or the DiversityInc top 50, you'll find mostly white men running those organizations. But they very enlightened as to the powerful benefits, the business benefits of having an inclusive organization that's full of diversity.

CONAN: If that's true, why aren't those organizations more diverse?

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, they are more diverse than the average organization. If you look at everything to do from every level of management to workforce to promotions, the organization on our list - on my list is much more diverse than the average U.S. corporation.

CONAN: Well, they've brought you in, but I guess all the corporations bring in somebody along the way.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, you know, I don't know that bringing somebody in is the answer. It's not the answer for supply chain management. It's not the answer for marketing and sales. These are things that if a company is going to be good, it has to develop its own competency and different CEOs have different emphases. And that's why, if you look, for example, at the Fortune 500 list, in the 10 years between 1997 and 2007, half the companies have gone away. So there's different emphases on different things by different CEOs. This is one part of a big mix.

CONAN: So what do white men bring to the table when we start to talk about diversity?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think the biggest thing - and it's something that most white men don't even know they have - is they bring a white - there is a privilege of - you know, there's a perspective of being in the majority culture that gives you a power that you have that you didn't ask for. You didn't earn it. You were just born with it. But that power can be used to accomplish really great things for people. And that's the perspective, I think, that most people - most white men - don't even understand that they have but they do have it. And when they realize it, it actually can be leveraged for good.

CONAN: Do we also oversimplify when we say white men?

Mr. VISCONTI: Oh, yeah. You know, I was recently asked to speak to a group of 900 police and fire chiefs in Oregon. And the organizer, when he told me this, I said, that's going to be 97 percent white men. And he paused, and he said that's exactly the right number.

And so I went there and I pointed out to the white men in the room that, you know, that there are white men who grew up wealthy and white men who grew up poor and white men who grew up in large families and white men who grew up with a single parent, all sorts of different experiences. And there's incredible diversity amongst even a group that you would think as homogenous by looking at them.

And I pointed out to these police and fire chiefs that if their mission is to save lives - that's what they do - then it's their obligation to listen to the diversity that's in the room, so they can get all the different perspectives, to find the best possible solution. At the end of my talk, I asked the organizer how I did. And he said, well, you did great. I said, well, how could you tell that? He said, none of them walked out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VISCONTI: He said they're chiefs. If they didn't like what they were hearing, they'd go outside and make a cell phone call, and some of the speakers lost half of their audience while, you know, they were talking. I was glad he didn't tell me that beforehand.

CONAN: It's good to get - hear some things after the presentation. We're talking with Luke Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc media corporation. And he writes the column Ask the White Guy. We want to hear from you when it comes to the diversity: Are white men part of the problem or part of the solution? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll get to calls and emails in just a minute.

But Luke Visconti, I'm sure this is not the first time anybody has asked you this, but how is that you, a white guy, have become an authority on diversity?

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, you know, it was one of the serendipitous things where I was a Navy pilot and I wanted to get back to the States, it was the end of the Cold War, so I asked for recruiting duty. And I'm from New Jersey, but I didn't ask to go back there because I really don't like the winter. But the Navy said - well, they pointed out to me that nobody who's not from New Jersey is asking to go there, so they sent me to New Jersey. And my boss happened to ask me to be the minority officer recruiter. It was a voluntary job. I took it.

And when I got to the district, there was a black pilot named Tony Kato(ph) there. And he asked me if he - if I wanted his help. And I agreed. It was a generous thing, he didn't have to do that. And in the process of just traveling from event to event, he would tell me how he was discriminated against. And at first my reaction was, oh come on, Tony, it couldn't have been that bad, or they couldn't have meant it that way, or it couldn't have been more than a one-time occurrence, until it finally dawned on me that I - Tony is a great guy. He's, you know, he talked about being married in a way that you wanted to be married. He talked about his kids in a way that you wanted to have kids too. And he's a great pilot and a great officer, Naval Academy graduate.

And it dawned on me that I would trust him on anything. And because he was a black man and I was a white man, I thought I could deny him his very experiences that he was having. And when that hit me, when that revelation hit me, it changed the whole trajectory of my life, and that's how I'm here speaking with you today.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Again: 800-989-8255. Diane is calling from Columbus.

DIANE (Caller): Hi there. I'm so happy to hear this program. I was telling the screener that I think that it's not an either-or proposition, your question. I think the answer to both is yes. And I think for exactly the reason that your guest actually just said, that when we who have the power and privilege in whatever situation we're in recognize that, if we take the responsibility of that power and privilege that, you know, was not earned, then we can do a lot with it.

And when I'm doing the diversity workshops that I conduct, I just tell them straight up - this is not about white guilt. This is not about white male guilt. Because I think that allows a person to become defensive and then not have to really do anything about it. I just kind of deal from the perspective of, okay, this is what is, what are we going to do now?

CONAN: Hmm. Is that a useful attitude, do you think, Luke Visconti?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think it's a great attitude. And I'll tell you that the problem that you'll face - everybody in this work faces is people can get defensive quickly. Because when you look at this situation clearly, you understand that, hey, our society, which is - really the goal of our society is to have a meritocracy. And we do better at that here in the United States than anywhere else on the face of the Earth, but we're not perfect. And admitting that imperfection is painful.

And I think that if you get past that and understand that everybody is not so much worried about what's in the rearview mirror as what's ahead of us, and so that starting today we can all be working together to continue this American experiment and bring in everybody so that we could all work hard together, it sort of lessens that guilt and you can move forward together. I think that's the way you do this.

DIANE: Exactly.

CONAN: Diane...

DIANE: Exactly.

CONAN: ...thanks very much.

DIANE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Email from Greg in Springdale, Arkansas: White men are not the problem, he writes, because diversity is not a goal. Diversity is interesting, but the goal needs to be excellence.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, excellence - unless you're willing to tell me that there's something really special about white men, then I could tell you that Congress has a lot of people in it that are under qualified to be there, because it's not 50 percent women. I mean, it's just that simple. Excellence - if human beings are created equally, excellence means diversity. You cannot have quality without diversity. And so excellence without diversity is meaningless.

CONAN: Let's go next to Gary, Gary with us from Tucson.

GARY (Caller): How are you, gentlemen?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

GARY: Hey, I just wanted to share something. You know, listening to NPR, as I do on a daily basis, I found it interesting that Lincoln, back in his presidency, even though he was not for slavery and thought that slavery should be abolished, he had stated that the white men would never accept working side by side with the African-American people. And understanding - I am Caucasian - I had visited my mother down in Alabama years ago, and my mother is very colorblind. She does not see color. And we actually went to an all-African-American church and it as interesting the looks that you get when you're on the other side of the fence.

CONAN: When you are the minority, in other words.

GARY: I was definitely the minority, my mother and I, yes.

CONAN: Okay. And so white men, are they the problem or part of the solution?

GARY: I'd say, well, I think we're quite a bit of a problem just because of the fact that we don't accept them as human beings, as equals.

CONAN: Well, if people, Luke Visconti, do not accept different people as equal, that is a problem.

GARY: Correct. And we are all different, so you know, realistically, white, green, blue, red, whatever, I mean we are all different. And we should - you know, diversity is in every white person, in every African-American, in every - you know, in every person there is diversity. We just don't look at it that way. We look at the skin color instead.

Mr. VISCONTI: I think you're right. A reader put it to me in a really great way. He said, I'm not different than you, I'm different like you. And I think that that's a fine way of looking at things. If we could respect each other's differences as they are, it's okay, we can move forward, but you have to respect those differences. And we're all different. You're absolutely right.

CONAN: We're talking with Luke Visconti of DiversityInc.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Nathan, Nathan with us from Minneapolis.

NATHAN (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NATHAN: I have worked with the YWCA for a number of years and have continued to volunteer through their racial justice program and diversity training programs. We held our It's Time to Talk events last October. It's either typically October or November and it gives people an opportunity to come in and bring in their Fortune 500 company or their church group or whatever it is to kind of get a touch, a taste of some of things that they can incorporate into their programming.

CONAN: Uh-huh. And what have you learned about the question we're asking - are white men part of the solution or the problem?

NATHAN: Well, as a white male, I have learned that it's - that we have been part of the problem in the past and we can exhibit that even now. And we are definitely part of the solution.

Having been a trainer since 2003 and working in this field has been great, because I've been given the opportunity to walk into a room and set the tone for what happens. Because depending upon how I speak, that is exactly how people will mirror what happens. So...

CONAN: Luke Visconti, is that your experience?

Mr. VISCONTI: You know, I do think that you can set a tone, but that's not just white men. Everybody can do that. And you know, I get a kick out of, you know, the local news site, for example, in New Jersey is nj.com and sometimes I'll just respond to somebody who's spouting off something ridiculous with the one word: bigot. And I've done that a number of times and to my perception the dialogue has gotten a lot more civil, because nobody wants to be associated with that word, unless you're really a hard case.

And when you're confronted with the reality and your behavior is expected to be to a certain level, then most people respond very well to that. Once they understand where the bar is, that they're fine with it.

CONAN: All right. Luke Visconti, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. VISCONTI: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Luke Visconti, the Ask the White Guy columnist on DiversityInc.com.

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