I’m sitting at the conference room table. It’s surrounded by my peers, most of which are white, one other, besides me is black, sprinkle in a couple of females, welcome to corporate America. We’re here because the white folks want to talk about how diversity is important. The entire time this conversation is happening they just keep staring at me and my black face. I do believe they think diversity is important.
I agree, diversity is important. We need to do something about it at our organization. But, I’m not who they think I am.
Yes, I’m black. But, I’m not diverse. In fact, the color of my skin is the only diverse thing about me!
I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb. Not an upper-middle-class black suburb. An upper-middle-class white suburb. So, most people would actually call this a rich suburb. I was classically trained as an opera singer. I didn’t play basketball. I was a great student. I work in a white collar profession. I eat at the Olive Garden with my wife and three kids. I drive a Toyota SUV, the big one.
I might be more ‘white’ than the other white people at this table, but I have a black face. Apparently, because of my black face, I should be chosen to ‘run’ diversity for the organization. Apparently, I understand the ‘struggle’.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a black person living in America. The white female CEO of our organization walked past me on the first month on the job. I recognized her immediately and said a jolly, “Good Morning”. She said nothing and walked past me. Not an hour later she realized the black man she rudely walked past wasn’t some random black guy, but a mid-level executive in her organization, and she stopped by to give me an excuse and a jolly good morning back. I know she wouldn’t have walked past a white peer of mine without a greeting.
So, my black skin does present a challenge, but it does not make me diverse.
I ask the group, “why not Tom?” Tom, you see grew up in the inner city. Blue collar environment, with a single mom. Tom walked past a GM plant every day on his way to school. Once in a while, he would the workers selling dime bags out of the trunk of their cars in the GM parking lot. Tom played basketball and went to school on a scholarship. It was his only chance to get out of his neighborhood. Tom’s friend network has more black faces than mine, by a lot!
Tom grew up poor. Grew up surrounded by black people, Hispanic people, Asian people, people on the fringes of society, people I didn’t grow up around. Tom saw things I only saw when I went to the movies, which my parents paid for. Tom went to Baptist church, not because he was close to Jesus, but because the black women would cook a hot meal each day for the kids in the neighborhood. Tom has lived a diverse life.
“Tom!? Tom can’t lead up diversity, he’s…”, they stop before stating the obvious, like somehow saying “he’s white” out loud will change the color of his face.
Tom is diverse. Tom actually is passionate about diversity. The only thing Tom doesn’t have is my black face.
It’s decided, I’ll take on diversity. I’m better “suited” for it, they say.
(Before you lose your minds and wonder why a white guy wrote this, understand that this came from a friend of mine. A friend with a black face who doesn’t have this platform. He told me the story, I wrote it. It was a story that needed to be told. Diversity isn’t about color, yet most organizations still make it about color. It’s the sad state of diversity in organizations in America.)
Diversity comes in many forms Tim, not just skin color. As HR pros we need to recognize that. Some of the most passionate people I know about diversity aren’t diverse in the traditional sense.