By Frank Blechman
Living in the middle of ethnically and socially diverse Northern Virginia has some advantages. We have a lot of choices of cuisines, both in restaurants and in our grocery stores. We don’t have to go very far to learn ‘how other people live.’ The range of expertise nearby is extraordinary.
Yet after 40 years of growing up from our status as a ‘white-flight’ suburb, we still don’t know how to deal with this diversity. We appreciate the benefits, but don’t know how to handle the challenges.
The Diversity Dilemma. Imagine that you run (or sit on the Board of) a small social service organization. It is easier to believe that deep down all people are the same, especially if we are part of a dominant majority. Everyone must want and need the same things. One service will suit all.
If we are open-minded, when we recognize that not all people are culturally the same and recognize that there is some significant minority in our community, we might suggest that we need to hire ‘one of them’ to serve that other population. You know, somebody who looks like them and speaks their language, to make ‘those people’ more willing to use our services. That’s a great idea, but then we recognize that there is a third group. We can’t afford to hire another full-time person, so we hire a part-time one, and hope that works. Good enough. Shows we’re trying. But, what happens when a fourth, fifth, sixth, or (yikes) tenth group appears? We can’t possibly translate our services into that many variations. What can we do?
Most small nonprofits faced with this dilemma (which is not uncommon here) throw up their hands and declare that they are doing the best that they can. They serve the larges minority and stop there.
Having learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” in 150 languages, few doctors ask, “I’m wearing a white coat. What do you think that means? What do you expect me to do?”
The very largest institutions buy access to tele-translation services. Particularly in law enforcement and health care (hospital emergency rooms), agencies use translation services to at least make some communication possible. Both recognize that misunderstandings in these settings can have very expensive consequences. But having learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” in 150 languages, few doctors ask, “I’m wearing a white coat. What do you think that means? What do you expect me to do?”
The Plurality Problem. On the political side in America, we have a similar challenge. We are a ‘winner-take-all’ society in which we are accustomed to the idea that the majority rules, and everybody else just has to live with that. I have written before how managers of public institutions recognize the limits of this approach. 50%+1 cannot give me the right to do whatever I want. The 50%-1 group must have some rights, or maybe I should give them something they want just to keep them quiet.
Thirty years ago, I was working with several schools in Fairfax County with diverse student populations. They were getting challenges over everything from the music at school events to the sports programs to the food in the cafeteria to the recognized religions holidays. Principals tried to negotiate their way through this maze while defending the idea that “we have to have rules around here”; we have to maintain order. They feared managing a ‘majority-minority school’ but were absolutely bewildered by the idea of a school with no majority. What if the students were 40% group A, 30% group B, 20% group C, and 2.5% each groups D, E, F, and G? If there is no majority, how can you make rules for everybody that will have any legitimacy? Don’t there have to be lines in the sand to have order?
In countries with parliamentary political cultures where it is much more common that no group represents 50%+1, coalition governments are more familiar. That largest minority group (the plurality) gets to organize the coalition, and then has to wrestle with the competing demands to keep it together. In the USA, we don’t have much experience with the idea of a plurality, much less the practical skills needed to work with the complexity of a no-majority society.
The Diversity Solution. Once we recognize that we live in a complicated, pluralistic neighborhood, the first thing we need to accept is that our approach (no matter how open-minded and wise we might think it is) won’t work for everybody. The second thing we must understand is that it is OK if different groups want to accomplish the same goals by different methods. Instead of saying, “I think we should do X in this situation. Is that all right with you?”, we need to take a step back to ask, “What do you think is going on here? What do you think we could do about it?”
Sometimes the agreement will be to do something that wasn’t on the initial menu at all. In almost every case, however, the end product will be better (not only more harmonious in the short term, but more satisfying and stabilizing over time) than an imposed one.
Maybe instead of trying to choose one way, there can be many ways. For example, most of us have learned that instead of arguing over what kind of pizzas to order for the party, we can have one with a lot of meat, one with all veggies, and one with extra cheese. Sometimes we don’t have the resources to ‘order one of each.’ In that case, instead of saying, “Well, it might not be everyone’s first choice, but I think we should do X. Is that OK?”, we might want to say, “We want different things here. What should we do now?” Maybe, the agreement includes a commitment to do something different in the future. Sometimes the agreement will be to do something that wasn’t on the initial menu at all. In almost every case, however, the end product will be better (not only more harmonious in the short term, but more satisfying and stabilizing over time) than an imposed one.
We don’t all need to be PhD anthropologists with certified cross-cultural competency to recognize and respect the real diversity around us. When we do, we may discover that others will become more willing to tolerate us, too.
As the great British political philosopher Michael (Mick) Jagger wrote 52 years ago), “You can’t always get what you want. No, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you find, you get what you need.”