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Diversity, Perception and Equality

Sameness is NOT equality: Barriers to understanding one another



I was part of a fascinating debate on whether there was 'segregation' among writers on on Newsvine, MSNBC's website. The most common comment was of people trying to look past outward appearances to appreciate others, to ignore differences, like colour, to see the actual 'person' and their 'writing' in order to appreciate them. In that way, they sought to be fair and even handed.

I have news for them. That is not equality, or fairness. And it won't help understanding either.

We all talk about respect and according it to each other, but respect is not a single word. It has seven dimensions of which sensitivity is at its core. Respect begins with curiosity. If we know all about someone already, we won't be prompted to find out anymore. It then leads to attention (they become worthy of our time), then the desire for dialogue which carries sensitivity to their needs. These should encourage empowerment and finally healing and forgiveness. I will post an article around this important subject soon, but I wanted to mention it briefly because respect is at the heart of understanding and appreciating one another.

We cannot respect, appreciate or really understand someone until we acknowledge who they are and move on from it to find points of connection. In any interaction, we have to deal with the differences first before we try to find the similarities. If we deliberately ignore outward differences, we also ignore what they cherish, what they value, how they see the world. We simply deny that person their identity and perception, and replace it with who we would like them to be to maintain our comfort levels and ignorance. If we pretend they are no different from us, then that makes it easy for us to deal with, but it doesn't make us any more knowledgeable or appreciative of that person because we cannot appreciate what we don't understand. It would be irrelevant to us. That is why there is still such a racial divide in America today despite its genuine progress on diversity matters.

A British viewpoint

I am British and I come with a distinctly British perspective to NewsVine. Even my spelling is different and I love that difference because it makes me who I am and affects how I see the world. The fact that I am Black gives an extra dimension too because I won't necessarily share the perspectives of my White British colleagues, because I am in a minority and they are the powerful majority, though there will be a lot of cultural Britishness we share. For them to treat me entirely like a White Briton would be to ignore the Black experience in the country, which is not quite the same as that of the majority.

However, by acknowledging that, as a Black Briton, I might have a different perception and voice on things, one can move away from that major difference to see what I can contribute as one of the NewsVine community. But that difference is not ignored, negated or wished away. It is always there as a reminder of my uniqueness and individuality, while mutual respect prevents it from being a barrier to fruitful integration and interaction.

Again, we don't treat men and women the same. How many men would like to be viewed and treated as women in their bid to be treated fairly and to be accepted? I cannot think of a single one. We treat men as men, and women as women, acknowledging their gender first, then move on to how they can work together, despite the obvious differences. We don't seem to have problems with gender. That noticeable difference, which dictates our behaviour, is fully accepted.

Yet when it comes to race, religion etc., we try to deny people their colour, their identity or their cultural perception, mainly by being 'colour blind'. We are never gender blind, but we tend to be 'colour blind'. We ignore those differences in our rush to treat people 'the same', but we also ignore the essence of what makes them who they are, what moulded their perceptions, and what they have experienced. We place our own expectations on their world and their life and suppress their individuality in favour of our own. In essence, if their behaviour does not match with ours, it cannot be valid or acceptable until it does. Hence we tend to ignore what separates, while we focus on what assimilates to avoid discomfort and impose our culture and beliefs.

Interesting articles
That is why there is an emphasis on 'interesting' articles being voted to the top of NewsVine without anyone noticing that most of the 'interesting' articles have the same flavour and conformity around them because they reflect the 'interest' of the White majority on the site. Interest is usually dictated by relevance and appeal and, as a newcomer, it was clear to me that the subjects that seem to carry interest for the African American NewsViners were not quite the same as for their White peers.

It really does matter whether a person is White, black, able, disabled, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual etc., because that is who they are, and most likely wish to be. Ignoring that difference so that only the similarities, the bits we allow, match with our perception, is to deny that person their life and experience and to make them conform to some yardstick of acceptance judged entirely by others. Most people, especially those weak in social and interactive skills, seek the similarities first, while they ignore the differences and negate the individual in the process. Hence the unholy mess in Iraq and other places where respect has not been accorded to the natives, only an emphasis on imposing Western values and objectives on disparate cultures. A clear recipe for disaster.

Equality and fairness begin with acknowledging difference, then moving away from such difference to take in the whole person and the similarities shared with us. Once we begin with acknowledgement of the individual, understanding their journey becomes easier. It is a short step from celebrating that difference and finding it far less threatening. Soon we are likely realise that we share much more together as brothers and sisters in a far wider humanity, yet without trivialisng that difference which emphasises our uniqueness.

The Power of Personal Perception



I was consulted to facilitate a seminar on diversity to a group of managers in the UK some time ago. With it being on human resource management and the treatment of diverse people in the workplace, I adopted my usual approach to check out perceptions. Plastic bag in hand, with a deliberate air of nonchalance, vulnerability and professionalism, I gingerly approached the receptionist at the venue. I asked for my contact and, while I waited for her, I explained that I was there for a seminar but deliberately did not say in what capacity.

The receptionist looked me up and down carefully, then pointed out that there were three seminars taking place that day. One was on diversity management for managerial staff, but that would not apply to me (she seemed certain); one was for technology staff which would not be for me, either, and the third was for local business advisors. Surprisingly, without even bothering to check whether I could have been an advisor, she naturally assumed that seminar would have no relevance to me at all. The amazing response was that she was perplexed as to which one it could be because none of them appeared 'suitable'. Had I got the right day, she queried helpfully?

She was so firm in her perception of who I could be, having formed her value judgement based on my gender, colour and appearance, she did not even bother to quiz me in any way. As polite as she was, she hastily sent me to wait for my contact and got on with her business. As luck would have it, she was one of the managers in my seminar. When she came into the room later on and saw me delivering my presentation, the look on her face was priceless. I have to hand it to her, though. When I began to talk about perception and how it affects our treatment of others, she readily told the group, rather sheepishly, that, without any precedence of a Black facilitator, she did not see me in that capacity. Knowing I wasn't a member of staff, she said it did not occur to her that I could actually be the trainer. Coming from the proverbial horse's mouth, it was an unforgettable admission.

For my part, I took being a consultant trainer for granted. Having been a pioneer in the subject areas I practise in, personnel development has been an integral part of my life and thus the norm for me. Often I did not stop to think that my role would be unusual to others who hadn't experienced it because we can never see ourselves as others see us. We so easily take the mistaken belief for granted that, just because we are part of the human race, we automatically share the reality of others, share their perspectives and, above all, share their perceptions. But we don't. That woman, being White, was judging me on the basis of her background, her colour and her experience. A natural thing to do. I was doing the same from my perception and expectations as a Black woman. As they were different from hers, not surprisingly, we did not meet in the middle.

The Power of Perception: First Impressions of England



To realise just how powerful personal perception can be, how it dictates our reality, I only have to look at my youth. Before I came to Britain 42 years ago, I thought England meant Britain, i.e. that there was no separate Ireland, Wales or Scotland – just one big mass of land called England to which everyone belonged. Without adequate knowledge, many uneducated Jamaicans did not understand the subtle difference in location, ethnicity and identity.

We also thought that the streets were literally 'paved with gold', having lots of opportunities for people from the colonies who visited the Motherland. We believed that, with the British having imposed their lifestyle and values on us, we would be welcomed in their country; that the Queen was too posh to ever use a loo and that all members of the royal family were so saintly, you could almost see their halos! After years of experiencing real British life, one can laugh at these perceptions, which seem so naive and silly now, but were very serious and sincere back then in the absence of appropriate knowledge and education.

An even better story of personal perception relates to my ex-husband and how he ended up in the Armed services instead of the Civil Service. Arriving fresh from Kenya in 1966 and well qualified, he was keenly sought after by both the Civil Service and a commercial organisation, IBM. The one snag for him was that the money was not as high in the Civil Service as was being offered elsewhere, though he really liked the job. Being young, ambitious, and conscious of his worth, he tried to get them to put the money up and was very disappointed when the Civil Service did not do so. Instead, they let him go, even though they rang him a few times after his interview to see if he had changed his mind.

Conflicting perceptions

From his individual experience, culture and background, which decided his particular perception, it was a simple case of raising his entry salary to encourage him, if they really wanted his talent. His perception could not appreciate the Civil Service's cultural norm of fixing a salary range for a particular entry level and sticking to it, regardless of the need to recruit a talented individual. Being new to Britain and not yet versed in its commercial norms, this point was lost upon him – that, in the interest of fairness, the Civil Service's own system denied it the flexibility he perceived it had. For its part, the Civil Service made no room for diversity in its own policy and perception of others, treating everyone as though each person was born in Britain and understood its cultural norms and limitations.

A certain level of perceptual prejudice is thus part of our genetic make-up, one reinforced by the various faculties we have. We depend on life being what we think it is, and we accept the bias of that perception because, until it is proved to the contrary, that is all we know. Thus, throughout day-to-day existence, we recognise only what we are prepared to see, not just what we are told. We fully accept what we perceive, seeing our creation as superior to that of others. It then seems illogical, if not impossible, to do otherwise. But this natural prejudice is often based on assumptions from individual belief systems – it isn't genetic.

Our individual preferences become possible because of the way we allow our loved ones, schools, jobs, peers, society, government and our own ideas of what we think we perceive to define and interpret our lives. Thus, society owes its existence to a tendency to accept majority opinion as personal truth though, initially, we do not accept such truths without a fight. Our own perception comes into play wherever there is the slightest doubt.

That is what makes perception so powerful in our lives. What we think will filter what we see and what we see dictates how we act. How we act dictates how others define us and influences their reaction towards us, which then, in turn, affects how we think and perceive in a routinely cyclical way.

How a Mismatch of Perception Affects Our Behaviour



Perception makes it common to blame our feelings on events or people. We are likely to feel more comfortable handling events in our lives when we believe they are external to us. Thus, when we are annoyed, it is easier to believe that our faults and frustrations are caused by others. They become the scapegoats for the way we feel. But no one thing or person's behaviour ever makes us angry.

Our anger comes from our interpretation of the events in our lives; how we actually perceive their effect on us and how we choose to react in the face of that. 'Choose' being the operative word, depending on our level of confidence, esteem and sense of responsibility. The lower the personal esteem, the more we see our future in other people's hands, the more we perceive them to be in control and the greater the responsibility and blame we attach to them for the anger and frustration we feel, or for whatever happens in our lives.

Take the perennial work situation where there is a clash of personalities between boss and worker. The worker might blame the boss for whatever is going on. He/She would be perceived as unreasonable or blameworthy in that situation. But no one forces a worker to stay glued to a post. There are all sorts of other opportunities available to affirm our worth, and staying in the same negative situation while we simply blame the boss only diminishes our confidence, expertise and appeal to others.

From the boss' point of view, she might blame her worker for something perceived to be inappropriate but, if she were doing her job properly as a manager, taking responsibility instead of leaving it up to her staff, she would not have to blame anyone. Except for violence and overt offensiveness, anger is not caused by anyone else at all but by how we interpret another person's actions towards us.

Nowhere is this perception mismatch more obvious than in a relationship. In the familiarisation stage when the two parties are struggling to come to terms with each other's perception, there will be lots of accusations and blame which will be rejected by both sides. Yet each person is right in his/her individual views because of the way each perceives the world. No one partner is ever fully right and the other wrong.

For example, a heavy drinker who gets up one morning and denies that she ever said or did anything negative the night before will be right from her perception because, now that she is sober, she will see the world in a different light from when she was drunk. Without firm evidence, she has no way of verifying what she is accused of. However, the person who had no alcohol can see both sides of the behaviour and his perception would be right as well.

The real trouble comes in trying to acknowledge both perceptions in a compromise knowing that, as soon as more drink is added, the behaviour which was denied is likely to be repeated! That is why police in America often use videos to record the activities of suspected drinkers when they are stopped. Apparently, very few people become drunk again once they see the way they behave in that state! The video actually destroys the positive perception they had of themselves.

Are People Inherently Good?



Yes, people are inherently good because they are programmed biologically to react to love, the greatest influential force in their lives. They seek love, desire it, need it and lavish it on others because love connects them to others. When it is missing from their lives the effects can be catastrophic. Babies know no evil. It is the way they are brought up, the way they are valued, the way they are treated and the respect they get which turn those young toddlers from feel-good worthy children to angry, resentful deviants.

People simply react to how they are treated. The way they are valued dictates how they perceive themselves and their world and then they react accordingly. If it is a negative perception, then there will be the behavior to match. Even the hardest hearted person will melt with kindness and love than with anything else. If they are greeted with criticism or rejection instead, they begin to question their worth, they lose stake in their environment and community and become unfeeling monsters, in some cases, wanting only to hurt and destroy. There is always a connection between a person's experience, especially in childhood, and how he/she comes to see the world they are in. They will either welcome their life and opportunities and make the most of them, or go off the rails to be vengeful or to get attention.

One of the most subtle things which change the nature of people are expectations. Many good people change over time trying to conform to expectations while others who were likely to be deviant have actually improved their lives because of the faith and trust placed in them and high expectations of them. So people are inherently good and, if we expect them to behave in a positive manner, we are likely to get that reaction than if we assume the worst of them, yet expect them to be behave differently. So long as they feel loved, appreciated and valued, we will always get the best from others.

What do you think?

Is Prejudice Inherent Within us or Can We Unlearn it?



Prejudice might be a social concept but it is inherent within all human beings from as early as possible. We begin to be prejudiced so far back in our childhood that it almost seems an innate thing to our lives. But it isn't. It is learned behaviour. So whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not, we are ALL prejudiced in one way or another. To appreciate that fact, let's look at the root of the word.

Prejudice is simply pre-judging something or someone. In any context where there is FREE choice, we have to pre-judge the options before we get the necessary information to make the right choice for us, not for anyone else. It means no matter how simple the choice, we have to pre-judge what it offers to make our selection. On that basis there really is nothing wrong with being prejudiced, per se. The problem comes only when we use the word in a negative context to demonstrate personal preferences which are linked to discrimination and power.

It means that we can unlearn being prejudiced if we really want to but, being a negative habit which we might practise subconsciously, it cannot be done instantly and has to have four key elements before there will be any real change: acknowledgement, identification, desire to change and raising awareness and education.

a. Acknowledgement
There is something important we have to do first before we can even begin to unlearn a bad habit and that is to acknowledge that there is a problem. How can we change an issue if we don't see a problem with it? We cannot unlearn what we live in denial about otherwise we would be superficially going through the motions. We would still believe it but merely act to expediency when we are trying to impress, to get approval and avoid exclusion. By acknowledging that there is a problem which could affect others negatively, we are ready to begin.

b. Identification

Having any kind of prejudice stems from our basic beliefs which are shaped by our gender, culture, religion and social background. Our beliefs then form our perspectives on life which dictate our attitude and which cements that attitude through our preferences or prejudices. It means that we cannot change attitudes with actions alone.

To unlearn something, we have to start from the base, back to the psyche and our beliefs, to untangle the reasons why we are acting like that in the first place. We need to identify what information have we acquired down the years that has formed our beliefs and made us unduly prejudicial and fearful, and then deal with the root of those fears before we can begin to tackle our actions.

c. Desire to change
Once we have tackled our beliefs we have to feel the desire to change and this is only noticeable through a readiness to challenge what we have identified and to change it. Without a genuine wish to change our attitude or perspectives, our behaviour will stay the same. By having that desire we will then take the necessary steps to engineer that change,even if it rakes us a little while. but desire for change is the motivation behind future actions. If we really don't desire change we will simply go through the motions.

d. Awareness and Education
A desire to act differently will prompt raising our awareness through further education, either formal or informal, and experiencing situations that change those old views. We would have to change the old false mindsets and information we have to something different and more wholesome, which means continuing education of our situation, especially around accepted behaviour and the perspectives of others.

Anything we have learned can be unlearned, but it takes a lot of thought and action and, above all, education and awareness in the alternatives available. By teasing out long-standing fears, being aware of the information which led to those beliefs and the desire to be prejudiced, especially against someone, while widening our horizons through education regarding more engaging and affirming ways of interacting with others, we have a much better chance of unlearning our negative prejudices and replacing them with more positive and reinforcing behaviour.

Dealing with Prejudice in Today's Society



Prejudice is a natural by-product of making choices in life. We are presented with a diversity of choice daily, from which we are required to select what matters to us most, what we like best, the things which keep us in our comfort zones and anything that enhances us the most, while resisting the rest. From choosing a partner to choosing a fashionable item, we are exercising the prejudice of accepting one thing while rejecting another. So we are all guilty of exercising prejudice in some form and we all have our prejudices relating to lifestyle and culture.

However, such prejudices become an issue where those choices are made out of deliberate malice to show dislike, to stem personal fear, to demonstrate superiority, to exclude others and to denigrate or deny their presence and rights. In fact, prejudice becomes intolerable when it is applied to people who cannot change their colour, their disability, gender or sexuality. One always has the opportunity to lose weight, if one is too big, to stop smoking, if the smoke offends others, or to stop behaving badly, if it annoys one's peers. But prejudice against people who cannot change who they are, or their identities, hits below the belt and becomes unacceptable.

Dealing with such prejudice is often a traumatic process for those on the receiving end, especially if they are not supported by the system, by neighbours or the community. People affected by mindless prejudice often feel impotent to deal with it and many are left scarred by its effects. However, the room for those malicious types of prejudice is gradually contracting because of the global exposure to difference, the networking opportunities to deal with people of different cultures and communities, and the educational advantages available.

In fact, the vast amount of information available on the Internet and elsewhere, the dramatic increase in travel over the years and the proliferation of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, are doing more to break down such prejudices, and the barriers to the acceptance of diversity, than anything that has gone before them. They now make it difficult to exercise real prejudices, especially when one has been out of one's locality or is trying to make 'friends' on a global scale.

Dealing with prejudices has never been easy, and prejudices will always be there. But thanks to education, technology and greater exposure to one another, such prejudices can gradually be minimised instead of being allowed to cause real damage.

Does it mean anything when a person won't look you in the eyes?



Q. Is it embarrassment? Is it guilt? It makes me uncomfortable when someone won't look me in the eyes when they are speaking with me. It makes me think there is something I don't know that is happening. Perhaps they are hiding something. What do you think?

A. Many people put a lot of meaning into eye contact, believing that it indicates certain characteristics about the individual, but that is a mistake because eye contact between two people depends primarily on the following reasons:

Cultural background
Eye contact is mainly directed by culture. In some cultures, especially Western ones, it is a big thing to maintain eye contact. It suggests that you are honest, forthright, with integrity and with nothing to hide. However, in other societies (like Asia and the West Indies), eye contact is not usually encouraged, especially between elders and youngsters. One averts one's eyes when there are two unequal people in the interaction, when one is clearly senior, when one is being reprimanded, when one is trying to impress the other and when one looks up to the other person.

If I ever looked at my mother directly when she was telling me off I would have been clipped round the ear for being disrespectful. Eye contact is never maintained in such societies where both parities are unequal in age, status or role.

2. The people in the interaction
Eye contact can also be affected by the actual people in the situation. Often when a man or woman likes a person in a romantic way they often find it difficult to look the object of their affection in the eye because of the belief that the other person will discover their feelings through their eyes. So many people feel shy at actually looking directly at their date or partner and feel some discomfort doing so. In work situations, especially in Asian and African countries, many employees avoid looking at the boss directly as a mark of deference.

3. The situation itself

If it is a situation where one person is trying to impress, like in a job interview, many people will not engage in direct eye contact. Which is one reason why Eastern interviewees may be at a disadvantage in Western interviews where eye contact is expected and seen as an indicator of character! Those who cannot maintain eye contact are then regarded as shifty, dishonest or guilty of something, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The only way to interpret eye contact is when everyone is clearly aware of the rules and are playing to expectations. But if there is a cultural mix in the interaction, nothing can be read into a lack of eye contact simply because the parties would clearly be reacting to their own rules on this matter!

How Do We Form Stereotypes?



Throughout our lives, we constantly accept, decide and integrate thought processes of what we will believe and what we will reject. These preferences create the filters which block our awareness of what we do not wish to know. They accept a particular reality as true while rejecting other alternatives, no matter how true they too might be.

Without such filtering, we would be inefficient and ineffective, because there would be too much to concentrate on. We would be unable to decipher or decide, and to focus our attention in any meaningful way. In this way we are kept in a particular location while we largely ignore others, unless they intrude upon our current perception of reality. There is an easy answer for this.

According to scientists, the subconscious mind regularly absorbs over a billion pieces of information per second. Add to this figure a recent finding that the average person today perceives 65,000 more bits of information and stimuli per waking day than his or her foreparents did a century ago, and it is not difficult to see that our brains are being bombarded at a confusing rate.

That is why less than one per cent of what comes in ever reaches the conscious mind. Within a fraction of a second over 99 per cent is filtered out. What directs the filtering process is individual perceptual preference, based on culture and choice. Sometimes we overdo the filtering process by blocking out more information than we need to. We then become almost blind to the reality of others, which locks us into various stereotypes of ignorance and bigotry.

Due to social conditioning, whatever is automatic, even from infancy, can be altered, expanded, enhanced or changed along the way to adulthood. That is why children have the least amount of learned preferences blocking their true perception. Lacking adult experience, they confront situations directly, not bothering with any tact or diplomacy. The fable of the emperor's new clothes is a case in point. While the adults were reinforcing the emperor's pretence by fawning over his new invisible attire, it took an innocent child to point out that the new clothes were actually non-existent. The emperor was, indeed, as naked as a jay bird!

Creating personal reality
Personal perception and social conditioning control everything we do and defining perception seems easy on the surface. We perceive the world through our physical senses and therefore create a reality where we can function. This reality has certain basic rules upon which society is agreed, like up is up, down is down and humans walk upright on two legs! As everyone depends on their five senses (taste, sight, sound, touch and smell) to guide their emotions and physical needs, they create a world which is familiar and has rules each person can rely upon to actually work. Our ability to perceive is thus like a sixth sense which unifies all the others. But this sixth sense only works through our personal filters.

These individual filters feed our reality and strengthen our perception of ourselves, but they tend to isolate us emotionally from our world. In effect, we deceive ourselves of our worth while we derogate others, which is how we formulate stereotypes. In our own ignorance and lack of knowledge around a person or subject, we develop stereotypes to cope with it until actual reality and experience tells us otherwise. Thus, like the youngster in the crowd yelling at the emperor and speaking the truth others chose to ignore, we benefit when a fresh viewpoint is offered and a new challenge is met which takes us out of our comfort zone.

We need the reassurance of mutually accepted beliefs, from ourselves and our peers, since these very preferences (and prejudices) help us to develop the right level of social skills. In time we become aware of our personal filters (i.e. our own accepted beliefs) and periodically re-evaluate them to decide whether or not each one is still operating in our best interest. With confidence and maturity, we may find that some perceptions we have are not only outdated, but they were never really necessary to begin with, or could even be very harmful, to achieving our objectives.

Why do people use stereotypes?



Stereotypes are used to deal with the unknown on a macro level. When we fear anything, we don't understand it, lack information on it or we wish to feel superior to it, we identify observable characteristics of a few representatives (e.g of a group) and apply them to the whole. It makes everyone in the group seems less threatening or overwhelming and makes the person using the stereotype feel more comfortable and powerful. It is often racist, but it can be sexist, ageist or applied to people with specific political and religious labels like Liberals, Conservatives, Catholics, Muslims etc.

Stereotypes reflect flat, one-dimensional caricatures of people which bear little resemblance to the variety and diversity inherent in any group or race. But they surface all the time in many interactions for easy categorisation and comprehension of social and cultural behaviour. We hear a lot about stereotypes and why we should not use them, but there is nothing wrong with stereotypes, per se. We tend to judge each other by generalisations in order to understand every aspect of life, especially when faced with difference for the first time. It's a kind of shorthand way of addressing new groups without having to note every minute detail about them every moment of the day.

The brain, like any computer, works from the macro to the micro when absorbing information, seeking coherence and order by using the information it already has to sort items and people in the fastest, most stereotyped and efficient way until more data becomes available. At the first, or macro, stage, the only effective way to view people of all ilk is to focus on their similarities, what they are perceived to have in common from our state of ignorance, especially what links them together, whether positive or negative, in order to appreciate their culture/behaviour/perspectives/values, etc.

When more information becomes available, sorting switches to the micro, or individual level, to focus on the differences that set the person or group apart in their own right, and to establish the level of familiarity and comfort in dealing with the strangers/new situations. This automatic second stage process by the brain uses the diferences to assign individual characteristics to a host of original 'sameness' features. Once we appreciate the uniqueness of that individual, we begin to feel more comfortable with them and there is no further need for stereotypes. We tend to accept them as they are and tend to respect their individuality.

Generalised Labels
We are all guilty of using stereotypes at some point because, as a rule, when we have only heard of something different second-hand, and never been exposed to it, we tend to approach it in stereotypic form because we have little data to change our perception until we experience it. We tend to start with certain assumptions about it, based upon our limited knowledge of its background and origin, which then turn into generalised labels to help our understanding of it. These would include the primary differences relating to gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability, religion and nationality - the more readily observable characteristics. There's nothing wrong with that state of ignorance until we are educated about it. However, for those who wish to be prejudiced or discriminatory, or who lack confidence in themselves, this is where the process stops. They would then catalogue the group or person into a 'rigid box of acceptance or rejection', dominated by stereotypes and feelings of fear.

So, while it may be wrong to assign something negative across a whole group of people, it becomes offensive as a stereotype ONLY if we know better. When we are more aware of the uniqueness and individuality of the group, yet still persist in classifying those people in stereotypic ways, we are saying a great deal about ourselves. It is also the negative nature of stereotypes that makes them offensive because we really cannot accept a positive stereotype like, "Many African Americans are great athletes"(which appreciates and applauds their prowess), or that "Asians are good academic performers who end up in high status professions" (something which enhances that ethnic group by increasing its social and economic appeal) then react in an aggrieved manner when negative stereotypes are used as well.

The main thing to note about stereotyping is that, If the original perception of difference remains unchanged, despite added knowledge to the contrary, that's where negative stereotypes become damaging and prejudicial. Any further assumptions would be deliberate and used for a particular purpose that is rarely ever meant to be complimentary to that person or group, and is designed mainly to make the perpetrator feel superior - in effect, becoming their own personal derogatory power tool.

Equality Myths - The MERIT Concept



Why do women need to eternally justify their presence in the workplace through the concept of 'merit'? Is it a tacit acknowledgement that they are, in fact, 'inferior' and, if any woman actually makes it her gender has been done a great favour and they all should be grateful? Are women not entitled to be appointed or promoted without any undue enquiries as to their worth?

Perhaps such justification seems to be important because even the women themselves appear to have accepted that only men should get certain jobs, particularly in politics. Thus, if a woman qualifies at all to fill their shoes, there has to be much hullabaloo to convince everyone that the male 'standards' haven't slipped, neither will they be lowered and the 'fortunate' woman truly merited carrying the baton of male authority.

Incredibly, the act of always linking women with the word merit has not been seen as a gross insult by anyone, especially when many men have been appointed or elected to the highest offices because of their gender through the ubiquitous 'old boy' networks. On such occasions, the question of merit never seems to have any relevance at all. But women do have it in their power to change perceptions of themselves, especially if they take the initiative.

For example, in its first few years, the prestigious British Booker prize for the best book of the year mainly went to men, and mainly male authors were shortlisted. Few women writers seemed able enough to even be in that final list. Their writing was never perceived to be up to standard. When, in 1991, not a single woman was shortlisted, the Orange prize exclusively for women was introduced soon after that with an even bigger prize money than Booker, precipitating an indignant debate around its merits and rationale. It raised hackles to the roof because, suddenly, women no longer had to wait forever to have their talents acknowledged by a virtual all male club. Naturally, there were the most enormous cries of anguish about women being 'specially favoured' which was not a good idea, and how no one would want an award for men.

Anomaly and Inequity

Yes, no one would have wanted an award exclusively for men because, up until that moment, despite half the writers being women, only men were recognised in reality. So it was, de facto, an award just for male writers, regardless of what the fine rules and regulations said. All the awards up to then favoured men, so they did not need any special help to get them. Thanks to the Orange prize being there, the Booker prize is now genuinely recognising worthy writers of each gender, but it took another award to help it to see its early anomaly and inequity.

The female writers who have benefited from the Orange prize now have more publicity for their work; the public has had the chance denied them in the past to see more writers of quality and the good news for women all round (who make up 51% of the UK) is that they have been exposed to far more writers of all ilk than ever before. That has to mean greater literary benefits all round.

The notion of equal opportunities have a long way to go before women ever become truly equal. Perhaps we need a change of terminology to recognise the diversity of people and talent and reward that important difference, not expect everything to conform to the male standard. If we all accepted that each person is different, but equal, we would already be half-way along the road towards creating a situation where the diverse workplace (one which values men, women, minorities, people with a disability or different sexual orientation, for example) is not only essential to personal, professional and corporate growth, but one established as the norm.

Work would be a place where both men and women played key roles and be individually developed not because any one person specially merited it, or because of any particular gender or colour, but because each person is recognized as having a skill or perspective which is crucial to the economic development of the unit. True diversity would then become the framework within which each individual is able to contribute to the whole from an equitable standpoint, being able to develop their potential without fear or favour.

In such an environment, merit would cease to be of relevance because everyone would have a fully appreciated value, thus automatically 'meriting' anything they earned. It would also be acknowledged that both men and women are essential to reflect the community being served, to the interest of balance and for providing role models. Every worker, regardless or race or gender, would then be able to experience true equality of opportunity, not granted to them by anyone, but justly earned through their own varied talents, unique contributions and appropriate hard work.

What makes some countries excellent in particular sporting events?



There is no easy answer to this because it depends on so many factors, especially cultural and competitive ones, but the following are crucial to success in any sport:

1. Having the facilities and providing the resources for sports training.

2. Dedicated competitors who want to devote lots of time to reaching that excellence.

3. Utilising all the talent, which means BOTH male and female, not just male.

4. Encouraging youngsters as young as possible to take up sports.

5. Having other successful achievers in the sport who give motivation and inspiration to new competitors.

6. Desiring to have the accolade and reputation that goes with that sport, for example baseball for America and soccer for the UK.

For example, America, China and Russia have been at the top of sporting challenges and events because they put the resources into training, they identify talent from as young as possible from both genders, they have lots of former winners who can act as motivators and they push their team members to perform at the highest level There is also nothing like winning a major sporting title on the world stage, like the FIFA World Cup football, to empower others in the future to repeat the achievement.

Naturally, any country fulfilling the stated criteria above has a far better chance of excelling at sports than countries that lack them, especially smaller countries without the resources, and religious countries which exclude women from such activities.

Why Diversity And The Public Services are Incompatible!



I have been extolling and promoting diversity for a few years now, being one of the main pioneers of the subject in Britain. However, one thing that has occupied me for a while, is why the public service has made such slow progress in good diversity practice, or has made little comparative real headway in both serving and uniting our communities. It just didn’t make sense when so much money to promote equality is being spent by the police, for example, and the councils – in particular – with mainly trickle down effects, and no dramatic changes, especially in perception or behaviour.

While I was waiting to see a member of staff in my local council in Maidenhead some months ago, on a personal matter that affected the quality of my life, I felt terribly frustrated at the lack of any resolution. Dealing with a constant sea of unchanging white faces, and feeling entirely invisible, it was easy to accuse staff of cultural bias or racism, if I didn’t understand what was happening. Instead, their actions being fodder to my expertise, I had one of those Eureka! moments in history. I suddenly realised why diversity and the public service are incompatible with one another and will remain incompatible if not addressed.

Most public service organisations trumpet the benefits of diversity, especially with their written documents. They have adopted its jargon like ducks to water, covering themselves in the glow of equality objectives in a way that suggests they care deeply about getting it right. Yet, despite all the money being spent on diversity development, the results have been slow, at best, and confusing, at worst. The reason for this diversity of outcome could be attributed to one main factor, in particular.

Public service organisations shout about diversity but actually practise equal opportunities.  In their perception, that’s the only way they can simplify their service and make it work ‘fairly’ for all. Let’s explain the difference simply. Diversity is about acknowledgement of difference and sensitivity to that difference, to individual needs and to uniqueness.

For example, we don’t pretend that in admiring a red rose it is exactly the same as a yellow rose. They might share the same genre, but the fact that they have different colours is very important to distinguishing their properties. We don’t ignore that colour and lump the roses together pretending both are a popular shade of red. We acknowledge their beauty through their intrinsic difference while accepting their similarity in simply being roses. That is the essence of true diversity: noting the difference while seeking similarities, not ignoring that difference in order to make the person or item more acceptable to us.

The Nature of Equal Opportunities
On the other hand, equal opportunities is about helping everyone to reach the same level of acceptable sameness so that no one person is really different from the other: a futile social construct that goes against the very laws of nature. In equal opportunity parlance, the roses mentioned would be leveled to being just roses, or the yellow rose would be required to undergo some form of change to make it an acceptable shade of red, what a true rose should be! Thus, in essence, equal opportunities is about generalities and acceptability while diversity is about individuality.  Only respect and appreciation of that difference make a person truly ‘equal’ and the service appropriate.

However, as far as councils are concerned, catering for a vast public as they do, for their service to work everyone has to be treated ‘fairly’, and that means being treated ‘the same’ to avoid accusations of injustice. The same amount of money applies to everyone, regardless of their individual need, the same guidance rules apply to everyone, regardless of whether they are appropriate or not; the same laborious forms apply to every circumstance, whether the applicant is good at filling out forms or not, whether they speak a different language or not and whether their need is simple or complex.

Everything put out by these organisations must apply to everyone ‘equally’ for it to work. So we might have the situation where a 58 year old approaching retirement and on income support is expected by the job centre to have the same keen motivation as a 25 year old trying to establish himself on the occupational ladder or to be welcomed in the same way by prospective employers!

Unintended Consequences
The public services one-size-fits-all approach fits everyone in a straitjacket of ‘fairness’, with matching delivery, to avoid charges of ‘favouritism’ – an approach that causes great pain and distress to the unsuspecting and the unprepared. The unintended consequences of this equal opportunities approach is that everyone who is familiar with the service jargon being used, who can fill out a long form adequately, who is articulate enough to shout loudly to be heard and who can fit neatly into all the little boxes that matter to public service staff are served well by the system.

Those who fall foul of such sameness are penalised, patronised and even pulverised. That is also why the same agencies get the funding, the same projects get the attention, the same businesses get the public service contracts, the same types of people get the promotions and the same kind of recruits come through the doors.

Public service organisations do not cater for difference because that flies in the face of their desire to be ‘fair’ to everyone by subjecting each of their users to the same levelling procedures. But in such an environment, diversity and equal opportunities cannot sit side by side comfortably. In fact, the practice of one easily negates the other because sameness and true diversity are a contradiction in terms, being mutually exclusive!

For example, many local authority councils believe that the best way to deal with minority concerns is to facilitating their access to mainstream services, rather than providing for them separately. A laudable aim in theory, but one that would negate that diversity through loss of specificity – a denial of their diversity! The problem with such integration is that groups have to fit with the mainstream requirements to have their needs noticed, let alone fulfilled, a reason they were separate in the first place!!

Any kind of uniformity comes out of genuine understanding, appreciation and value. Where there is no real understanding of the benefits of a given action, or appreciation of its value by the individuals concerned because of their own beliefs and fears; when everyone is not singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, there will be fragmentation and disunity. Those involved will be speaking different languages of diversity with different priorities.

So whatever your council is really practising at this moment – whether diversity or equal opportunities – it will explain the quality of its service delivery, the stubborn nature of its staff make up, and the level of inclusion within its client community.

How Ignorance and Fear get in the way of Appreciating Diversity



As one who has spent the last 16 years promoting multiculturalism from the rooftops in the UK, through a pioneering book on the subject and two annual national diversity awards, I have been pretty saddened to hear government ministers and others in the media trumpeting that ‘multiculturalism isn’t working’ or we ‘cannot celebrate diversity because it encourages difference’ and keeps us separate. But both statements are based upon ignorance and fear which does not really help a diverse community to move forward together.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating diversity or encouraging multiculturalism. What has been terribly wrong is a marked absence of respect on both sides of the cultural divide which makes appreciation difficult. The word ‘respect’ is glibly shouted by everyone in times of crisis, but it seems to be only in connection with our own needs and viewpoint and very little to do with others. We all seek respect, we feel we are denied it, we accuse each other of not giving it. But in reality, we are simply in love with the idea of the word itself, not its implementation. This could be because we really do not understand the meaning of this important word. Let’s take some glaring examples of disrespect.

Origins of Disrespect
1. Exclusive labels: October has a special significance for minorities in Britain. It is usually Black History Month to celebrate Black heritage and culture. This is not just a showcase but an educational opportunity for the White majority to learn about their minority neighbours. It also empowers Black people to take pride in their identity and thus a wholesome cause for celebration. There are also many pointedly ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Muslim’ organisations which were created to encourage a positive identity and to guard against isolation, primarily because of their exclusion from the mainstream. Nothing wrong with that at all.

However, how would members of minority groups feel if they suddenly saw signs and promotion for a ‘White History Month’, ‘White Women Forum’, the ‘White Professional Association’ or the ‘White Entrepreneurs Club’, labels which are clearly racist and exclusive? They would rightfully be up in arms. Where is the sensitivity (respect again) for the pointedly White exclusion in those labels? Yet, in a diverse society, such cultural sensitivities are very important if we are to learn about, value, and appreciate one another. Do we really still need such exclusive labels in the 21st century?

2. Negative media coverage

Black History Month emerged because of a lack of positive attention (respect again!) to minorities by the media. Minorities in Britain are virtually invisible in every aspect of life except crime. We hear about them ad nauseam in relation to terrorism, guns, gangs and street crime but hardly in any other dimension. The only time you hear about minorities is when something negative is being reported. Black History Month was introduced to counteract that media exclusion, to give much needed positivity and visibility.

Yet, there should be no need for a Black History month at all because there is just a flurry of activities in October (and February in the USA), a month saturated with events where everyone tries to be heard, to be significant and valued, and then nothing else for the other 11 months. Like tragic cuckoos, they coo loudly once, then go back inside their clocks for another year. What minorities need is to be treated ordinarily, like the majority community, with balance and value.

For example, the focus on celebrities is pervasive in our society. But where are the minority celebrities and achievers? The ones well known in their communities but are ignored by the mainstream press? Where are the minority guests on chat shows? On discussion panels? On entertainment programmes? Where are the minority writers to give alternative viewpoints? Such an exclusive and racist approach keeps minorities in the public eye as extraordinary and non-contributing beings who are simply taking from society.

It uses them in situations that bolster national fear (immigration and crime) while ignoring the vast majority of law abiding, legal citizens quietly playing their part in their communities and boosting the countries economic and cultural worth. Minorities are also used in a cynical way to show national pride abroad, as with getting the Olympics, when multculturalism was suddenly cool and essential, but are largely excluded from the preparations, the promotion and the service contracts.

Lack of Recognition
3. I recently visited the website of a top British newspaper and, of its 24 writers paraded for the public view, only one was Black. I won’t even mention television and radio because commercial radio, in particular, is dismal when it comes to representation of their diverse audience among radio staff. Is it any wonder that the views in the media are so skewed against minorities when there is a basic lack of recognition for them, with hardly anyone speaking with any cultural knowledge?
That is why there is very little sensitivity (respect again!) to minority views and feelings. Being on the negative end of any reporting, they are fair game for people seeking sensational headlines without any responsibility for the divisive consquences of their actions. The flagship of the nation, the BBC, is as non-representative as ever when it comes to presenting minorities in a credible and fair manner.  That is very sad today. The real worry is that if the BBC is still lagging behind in its own objectives, a service which is supposed to be serving, and representing, the whole community, what can one expect of lesser organisations?

Diversity and multiculturalism can work harmoniously when all parties are prepared to compromise, and accord each other respect. We cannot simply demand respect for ourselves while giving none because no country can thrive with a divided nation. If we really love our country, we strive together to make it a great place to live. However, we cannot respect what we don’t understand or appreciate.

Starting from that base, Black History Month should be scrapped, for example, and minority heritage and culture celebrated all year round, just like that of the White majority, but under a diversity label. For example, what about Our Diverse Music in January, Our Diverse Literature in February, Arts and Crafts in April, Dance in May, Diverse Foods in June?…You get the drift. It means that, instead of just focusing on minority crime and negative issues around minorities, the White media can actually begin to pay some proportional attention, throughout the year, to the positivity of being a minority, and the rich diversity of our nation, through the cultural exchange of knowledge, particularly encouraging involvement and patronage by White sponsors and patrons. That is the only way to make all people feel included, to engender loyalty and pride, and the main way to change White perception of their Black neighbours.

It is also the only way for all British citizens, whatever their origins, to feel significant, appreciated, valued and included. In effect, to feel respected.