Diversity 101: What Not to Say to White Colleagues

Race and ethnicity are much in the news these days, propelled by the nation's first African-American president, first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court and increasingly diverse schools and workplaces. But although diversity is becoming more apparent common does not mean it's easy to embrace. Luke Visconti, of DiversityInc magazine, discusses cultural sensitivities, offering tips on what not to say to white colleagues.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, we'll talk about all that grunting on the pro tennis tour. Are the ladies taking it too far? Is it sexist to even ask? We'll ask in a few minutes.

But first, it's no secret, race and ethnicity are much in the news these days what with our first African-American president, our first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court and increasingly diverse school and workplaces. But just because diversity is more and more common does not mean it's easy.

Sometimes awkward things happen when people of different backgrounds interact, so to make things a little easier from time to time, we've been turning to DiversityInc Magazine, which has been running a series of articles about things about things you just should not say to colleagues of diverse backgrounds, and they've helped us put our own series together.

Today we're going to talk about things you should never say to your white colleagues. Joining us once again is Luke Visconti, co-founder of DiversityInc. Welcome back, thanks for joining us.

Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (Co-founder, DiversityInc Magazine): Thank you, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: And I think we should just go right there to one of the top things on your list, which is: you're not diverse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VISCONTI: This is one of my favorite ones. I was actually approached by a hospital system who said they wanted us to do an article on them, and they said well, we're 81-percent diverse. I said that's amazing. What's the other 19 percent? Do you train cats and dogs, or you have robots, and there was a real moment of confusion, and the PR person said well, that's our people of color and women added together.

Now I did point out to them that they had photographs of their board of directors and their executive staff on the Web site, and they were all white men, and I said, well, what happened to that 81 percent when it got to the top ranks of the company? And I concluded by saying it's with all charity that I'm not going to do an article on your organization because it wouldn't come out the way that you would want it to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But it does raise this point that the idea is that somehow white people are not a race or are not - somehow not included in these conversations.

Mr. VISCONTI: And I think it also discounts the amazing diversity that is included in white, just like there's diversity in black and Latino. So sometimes I understand that there's this kind of a blunt treatment given to people, and it loses the diversity with inside those groups, but because white people are the majority and define the culture in this country to the majority extent, there is this whitening of white people that really - it's negative. It's not a good thing. And white privilege, I tell other white people that it's the most amazing thing that you can give away your white privilege by helping other people gain access, and it never diminishes your white privilege.

You're born with it, and it remains with you. So it's the gift that keeps on giving.

MARTIN: There's a related thing that's on your list. You say there's another thing not to say. There's no way you, as a white person, can understand.

Mr. VISCONTI: That's a stereotype that really ends up dialing people out of the conversation. People have to look past what they're seeing to understand the total complexity of a person and everything that they can bring to the picture.

MARTIN: By that standard, then, would you criticize Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court nominee, for her comments, which I'm sure we've all memorized, that a wise Latina should, all things being equal, with her life experience, come to better conclusions than a white male without those experiences? Do you think that that was beyond the pale, as it were?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think if you read it in context, there's no doubt in my mind that having a Supreme Court that has a mix of backgrounds and certainly being a Latina in this country is going to give you a perspective that's different than a white man, and having overcome obstacles in your way, being a woman, being a Latina, is going to give you a better perspective than a person who did not have to go through those trials of life to become accomplished as a judge.

That's just a fact, and I think the fact is also that the white members of the Supreme Court, for all of the centuries that there has been a Supreme Court, certainly brought that perspective to their decision-making. We can't leave it behind.

MARTIN: But it does seem, in a way, that you're suggesting that there is a white perspective? Didn't you just warn us against that? In fact, there's another item on your list, that you're just a typical white person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VISCONTI: I think there's a white perspective. There absolutely is. You're in the majority culture. You're going to have a certain perspective. Now, is every Latina's perspective the same? No. Neither is every white man's perspective the same, but there are classifications because of the way society treats people.

MARTIN: But if that's the case, then why is this something you're telling people not to say?

Mr. VISCONTI: What, that you're just a typical white person?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. VISCONTI: You wouldn't want to be called a typical black woman.

MARTIN: Certainly not.

Mr. VISCONTI: No. That's the negative imprimatur of the majority culture, and it's not any better to be applied in reverse. It really isn't.

MARTIN: They're a couple of things on the list that are related. One is white men are automatically in the corporate in crowd, and the other is you've got all the money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why are those offensive?

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, I think that, first of all, the in crowd, it may appear to be monolithic. There's books out there that talk about how entry to Ivy League schools, for example, that many of those spots are held off to the side for children of you know, major donors who are also alumni of the school. There's pathways to power. So there's no in crowd that's automatically given to a person because they're white.

I'll give you another example. There's towns right here in New Jersey, in the horse country, where because I'm - I have olive skin, and my last name ends in a vowel, people will say, so where are you from? That's code for you don't belong here. I don't like that you're here. And please tell me how you got here. How did you break the secret code to be at this party?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How did you? Maybe you can tell us. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But they're a couple of things - I think a couple of the points you make in the article and, of course, we'll have a link on our Web site as always, but part of the argument that you make and reasons why you don't want to make these comments is that it alienates potential allies. You're already closing the door on commonalities that might allow you to form a bond or an alliance.

Mr. VISCONTI: By saying something that's negative or pejorative, I'm not going to expose myself to you. You've already made judgment on me, and I'll move on. That's how you eliminate potential allies, and you shut people down and you don't let them be themselves. One of the kind of interesting things that I'm seeing with all of this diversity work is the white men who come to me and say I'm so happy that you're doing this. My brother's gay or I'm married to a black woman, or whatever it is, that they can now bring themselves to work a hundred percent. And that's really what this is all about is enabling people to bring themselves to work one hundred percent so they could be engaged, productive, and innovative because they're heart is in it. It's about relationships.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Luke Visconti, co-founder of DiversityInc, and we're talking about things you just should not say to your white colleagues. They are a couple other things on the list. One I can hear people saying, but one I just - I'm having a hard time - maybe I'm always shocked by this, that people actually say things like this to other people in this day and age. One is another thing not to say is why is a white guy doing this? And the other is I just don't like white people. Or I don't get white people.

I mean, come on Luke. People - what? Is this like cocktail hour? After a couple of drinks, people just kind of let loose?

Mr. VISCONTI: I - look, there's people who will not deal with me in this business because I'm white. It's sad, but and I've asked - I've been asked, well, how do you deal with that? And I say, well, I just observe how my friends who are not white have dealt with it and I act accordingly because it's a great lesson in how to deal with things correctly with humility and with grace and to move on. I think that, you know, saying that, you know, any sort of stereotype kind of thing like I don't like white people or I don't get white people, it's really not a good thing to say. And you really have to reflect upon yourself why you're saying that. It's never good to treat people so as if they're a monolith, or a - you know, that's a stereotype. You're feeding into very negative things there.

MARTIN: And to that point, and as we conclude, I want to raise again the whole question of the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor. There are those, particularly on the conservative side, who have suggested that she is a quote/unquote "reverse racist," that she holds views about white people that would be deemed noxious and unacceptable if she were white. What is your take on this? First of all, do you think there is such a thing as reverse racism? And secondly, do you think that this is a valid thing to surface? What's your take on that?

Mr. VISCONTI: I don't think there's a such thing as a reverse racism, just as there's no such thing as reverse discrimination. It's either racism or discrimination. There's no such thing as reverse. So is the judge a racist? I don't think so. If you look at the body of her work and you read that complete speech, that's not in there. That's not her. And so I don't think that that's a fair assessment of her body of work, of her life's work. She's overcome a lot to be where she is. That's part of her life. It's part of her ability to make good decisions for all of us, and I don't think that that's a racist thing to say that your background will enable you to make decisions that someone who doesn't have that background wouldn't be able to make as well. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

MARTIN: Luke Visconti is the co-founder of DiversityInc. He joined us from WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. And if you want to read the article that we are talking about in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

Luke, thank you.

Mr. VISCONTI: Thank you, Michel.

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