Can We Talk About “Diversity of Thought”?

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Any discussion around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion must start with a shared understanding amongst practitioners on what diversity is and why it matters. Diversity means difference and diversity dimensions are all the ways in which we are different. Diversity dimensions that impact the workplace include, but are not limited to: race, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, ability/disability, beliefs, sex (being different to gender), socio-economic status, education, politics, nationality, age, generation, HIV status, marital status, pregnancy / family responsibility, and geography.

Acknowledging difference can be incredibly frightening and is often assumed to be a divisive exercise in the workplace. In my experience, three main discomforts are raised when discussing diversity within the workplace. I present these discomforts from the most benign to most egregious in an attempt to address them so that we may avoid the pit-holes that often derail diversity discussions

“Why are we focusing on that which makes us different and not the ways that we are the same?”

Focusing on our differences or diversity does not preclude the finding of our commonality; our differences are beautiful. Diversity forms part of every individual’s identity and attempts to forget about differences and focus on similarities only, feel like an erasure of identity. This quickly becomes a way to avoid discussing the historic difficulties and lived experiences of marginalised identity groups; a way to avoid the discomfort of how people’s differences have been used historically to privilege or disadvantage another.

“I don’t see colour. I am colour blind”

Similarly, the proposition of “being colour-blind” is an ode to the aspiration of a non-racial society; a fantastic goal in theory. In reality, it becomes a tool to avoid the tough questions around differing lived experiences. It easily allows us to ignore social injustices that still run along racial, gender and class lines. When we “don’t see colour”, we are not forced to look at our society through the lens of our history. In short, we try absolving ourselves of the sobering reality that opportunity and access are still very much linked to one’s race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, education and any number of intersecting identity markers.

 “When will we move away from discussions around race and gender and start focusing on diversity of thought?”

Oh, diversity of thought, you sneaky thing! It is the use of this narrative that we are seeing more and more as a strategy to side-step having tough discussions around equality, diversity, inclusion and identity. It notes the importance of discussing difference, yet wishes to leapfrog the difficult conversation on identity (diversity of body) and focus on the less contentious (diversity of thought). 

We must tackle two assumptions that diversity of thought proposes: firstly, that our thought is separate from the body that manifests that thought and second that all thoughts are created equally.

Thought Being Separate to Body

One cannot discuss diversity of thought without understanding how our diversity of body affects, moulds and influences that diversity in thought. We think differently because of our different backgrounds and these are inextricably linked to our identities. We cannot meaningfully discuss diversity of thought without unpacking diversity of body.

All Thoughts Are Not Created Equally

Many times we hear women lament that only when a man says the same thing that they have been saying does it get any notice (with no credit to the women, of course). This is not the imaginings of women and diverse identity employees across the world, but a reality of our workplaces. 

“All thoughts are created equally, but some are seen as more equal than others”

Despite our need to recognise diversity of thought over all else, we need to understand that the validity, legitimacy, gravitas and authority of a thought is largely determined by the body from which that thought emerges. In other words, a body that is privileged (or automatically seen as trustworthy) does not have to fight as hard to have a thought meaningfully considered or considered at all. 

The value judgments we attach to certain bodies, through historical and social conditioning, affect how we hear the voice and whether we deem that voice to be of value before the thought is even considered. Diversity of body does not impact the relative value of the thought itself but absolutely impacts whether that thought is seen as valuable or not. 

The value of a thought cannot be separated from the value of the body from which it came. And in a world that arbitrarily dishes out value, based on visible elements of race, gender, ability, class, colour etc., no thought is non-racial, nor a-gendered.

Our diversity dimensions intimately and categorically affect how we navigate the world, relationships and organisations. Discussions around “that which makes us different” and the lived experience attached thereto are crucial if we are to fully harness the benefits of diversity. And while diversity of thought may seem like an evolution in how we understand diversity within organisations, for me, it is obfuscation and dereliction of our responsibility to continue to have tough conversations around diversity of body, identity, power, rank and privilege.

Roy Gluckman