Tips & Techniques
Generations we haven’t heard from speak up about diversity and inclusion
Part one of a series
By Joel A. Brown
Diversity is a word that gained currency during the height of the Baby Boomer era—they conceived it; they defined it; they developed the field of practice.
Now as many of those Baby Boomers are retiring, younger generations are left to ponder, manage, and guide an industry that is equally fascinating and confusing: fascinating because many young people grew up against the backdrop of diversity to the extent that the idea of “diversity” seems normal, and confusing because many of us are being asked to analyze a field that developed within a social context that is almost completely foreign to the one we occupy now.
As for me, I am a bit of a sociological oddity: I am Generation “XY” diversity advocate although I really don’t know what that phrase means. But I will concede several things: 1) Age-wise, I lay somewhere in the murky divide between Gen X and Gen Y, 2) I really believe in the critical study of diversity and cultural literacy, and 3) I don’t know if the current norms around diversity fit my view of the world, one which emphasizes activism, globalism, and innovation.
Many of us in the younger generations have never taken the opportunity to engage each other about “diversity.” Two years ago, I convened a seemingly officious group discussion with a number of Generation X (“Gen X”) and Generation Y (“Gen Y”) members to discuss what “diversity” and “inclusion” meant. At that time, I think I conjured up some grand title for the discussion such as the “State of Diversity” or “Diversity from the New Perspective.”
Surprisingly, many of the attendees were astonished that anyone wanted to hear their opinion. More surprising (and more damning) was the conclusion that many of us had bought into the ageist notion that we were too young to contribute to the field or to have our ideas taken seriously.
Fortunately as the conversation progressed, that tinge of intellectual insecurity gave rise to a powerful discussion. Some openly criticized the “legacy” of diversity and whether it had truly achieved its objectives. Others argued that “diversity” meant nothing without grassroots activism and that our generation had fallen asleep at the wheel. A few said that diversity had seduced people into being comfortable with systemic oppression, and yet others decried the ideological and professional alienation they felt from Baby Boomers who were also doing this work.
But in the end, the most important revelation that occurred during that session was that no one had bothered to ask the younger generations, “How do you feel? What do you see? What do you think? Or, Where are we going?” No one had seriously endeavored to capture our opinions and feelings about this all-too-important topic of diversity and what it would mean for succeeding generations. And so I left that day with what I identified as the most important assignment there could be in ensuring the sustainability of diversity: capturing the wisdom of those generations we haven’t heard from...specifically, Gen X and Gen Y. This article begins a series of articles about Gen X and Gen Y and their beliefs about the evolution and efficacy of “diversity.”
Diversity’s legacy from the Boomers
Diversity is one of those words that suffers from an identity crisis. At one point it was the symbol for multi-culturalism before it became the scapegoat for political correctness. At one point it offered hope for social integration before it laid bare the concern over cultural assimilation. At one point it invited discussion, whereas now it signals a need for further and deeper reflection.
Inherent in these polemics is the fact that Diversity symbolizes the tension between sociological ideas and forces. No matter whether we frame it as Inclusion and Equity, Cultural Competency, or some other colorful iteration, Diversity by its very nature speaks to a conflict. The conflict involves the efforts of dissimilar groups to compete for seemingly limited economic and natural resources, organizational inclusion, social visibility, and political or electoral gain. It is an ambiguous concept describing the very real, tangible, and often times polarizing struggle of communities to peacefully co-exist with each other. The discussion about diversity represents an opportunity to re-examine our concepts and norms around “ideology” and “community.”
Ironically, the tension that is implicated by diversity work is also present in how the work is described, applied, and administered. For example, I eschew the word “diversity” in large part because it has been sullied and/or robbed of any deep meaning. Other Gen X and Gen Y members resist attempts to corporatize “diversity,” or to reduce it to sanitized workshops that merely teach us to “get along.”
For a generation, Diversity has been the brainchild of older generations that created it based on their sociological lens. Initially, diversity focused on “difference” even though difference is a hallmark of the human experience. Of course, “difference” didn’t just manifest in the 20th century, but the diversity discussion did give “voice” to those who hadn’t been part of the larger conversation. At the very least, it expanded the dialogue, even if the dialogue remained incomplete and remedial at times.
At the beginning the work focused on race, even though that was a misnomer because the only two “races” that seemed to have a place at the table were black and white.
Moreover, the work also seemed to employ a “numbers” game. Although this wasn’t the intent of the foremothers and forefathers of the movement, somewhere along the way diversity got reduced to these notions of “majorities” and headcounts” and quotas.” And in the end, the only numbers that seemed to matter were within the confines of the continental United States. There wasn’t a perceptible global focus, and diversity was construed to be incompatible with academic excellence and workplace ingenuity. For all of its promise and its successes (and there were successes), diversity seems to have lost steam, purpose, and clarity, particularly with succeeding generations who are supposed to inherit its legacy.
Due to the fact that diversity was initially coined by older generations, and since Baby Boomers have been the primary proponents and practitioners in the field, they have been able to mold “diversity” to fit their sensibilities. Baby Boomers had a greater appreciation for “integration” as opposed to “inclusion;” they weren’t as focused on innovation as much as they were on informing the discussion.
Yet, some 40 years later, we are finding that not only are people from Generation X and Y resistant to some of the earlier definitions regarding diversity, they also see a remarkably different landscape–one where a new wave of marginalized groups have emerged and petitioned for greater socio-political efficacy, adding to the cultural mosaic of people who visibly represent America. When President Clinton commissioned a dialogue on race, he casually remarked that “America is becoming a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society…”(1) The statement was seemingly harmless, but to a discerning eye it was rather alarming. Even in 1998, America was not becoming multi-ethnic and cultural; it was multi-ethnic and cultural. It wasn’t as though Latinos and Women and Asians were transported to the United States overnight. The only thing that had changed was America’s attitudes and perceptions about its diversity.
This is the one glaring difference between Baby Boomers and Gen X and Gen Y: Gen X & Y have never observed America as being transformed or changed by its diversity. Rather, America was created because of (and sometimes in spite of) its diversity. Whereas some Baby Boomers may have viewed diversity as a revelation, Gen X and Gen Y have always seen it as a constant reality.
America’s diversity is no longer a portrait defined by racialized minorities: it has incorporated undocumented workers, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and People With Disabilities, to name a few. These groups are no longer ensconced; they are unveiled, self-determinative, and vocal. This is not a new America, but an America that is no longer deluding itself as to what it has always been.
Diversity in today’s world
Diversity is important now not only because of the new ethnic and cultural dynamics that have emerged, but because the diversity issues that manifested themselves initially (e.g. race, gender, etc.), while somewhat improved, have hardly been resolved. As long as we have people who are living at the fringe of America society, there will always be a diversity question that must be explored, engaged, and ultimately accounted for.
The problem is that diversity, in a philosophic framework, poses a very simple and basic question that is ill suited for a pluralistic society. That question, “Do we recognize difference?” doesn’t challenge the individual to do anything more than be a passive observer. The idea of “recognizing difference” is as old as human existence. Society has always recognized “difference,” and that recognition has many times led to war, factionalism, ethnic strife and conflict, discrimination, and the like. So if diversity is asking us to simply recognize people who are different from us, it is hardly elevating us beyond the capabilities we possessed as a child, or the behaviors that we as a species collectively possessed at the first stages of evolution.
Diversity requires more because our society requires more. Diversity shouldn’t be about what we see, but about what we perceive. It has to start with the internal components to examine the individual’s understanding and worldview of diversity, which is what Loden and Rosener referred to when they spoke of “otherness” (Loden & Rosener, 1991). It is not what we recognize, but how we behave towards others in a multicultural environment.(2) It is not what we focus on, but what we leverage, and how we use the skills of diverse constituencies to move organizations and communities forward. None of these concepts is new, and many Gen Xers and Gen Yers would agree that these aspirations remain as key objectives.
To be fair, integration is not one of those objectives. When civil rights leaders spoke of “integration,” the implication was that they were not only seeking equality but “access.” They wanted access to better schools, better housing, and better employment opportunities. They wanted access to the lofty promises of this nation and the full legal protection afforded by the Constitution. And to many observers, integration worked. David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Cal-Berkeley, argued strenuously in a 2012 op-ed piece for the New York Times that educational integration benefited not only minorities, but whites as well. “By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. Schools systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated.”(3)
But did the fate of white and black students really become intertwined? Has integration led to greater acceptance of minoritized populations in larger society? Some would say yes. Others will say no. The majority of people, if being honest, would say the results are inconclusive at best.
And while Kirp’s piece will invoke considerable debate from educators and student advocates, what’s understated in his column is his recognition that “mixing” by itself didn’t improve the lives of people of color. And for many Gen Xers and Gen Yers, “integration” suggests mixing for mixing sake: a goal that seems empty, hollow, and culturally precarious.
Within the political context, integration suggests affixing the goals of one community to those of another so that a marginalized community won’t be left behind. Unfortunately, it also creates the risk that one group will be seen as the inferior and one as the superior. Whether out of social necessity or curiosity, integration creates a mindset where something external to one’s culture is seen as more valuable, and no matter the original motivation for the social exercise, it creates a result that is potentially harmful and castrating to one’s cultural identity.
To illustrate, let’s revisit the example of education: the desire of African Americans to attend better schools may lead them to attend predominantly white schools, but it may also create the impression that white schools are in fact better simply because they are white. Although some students may increase their academic performance by attending white schools, it may also create a mindset among millions of minorities that who they are is not good enough.
While advocating for “access” and integration was laudable in the 60s, it seems to have extended its reach into the diversity field and with it, created a set of expectations that are no longer heralded. Integration came with a price and brought with it an assimilationist dynamic where groups seemingly had to lose part of their identity in order to find acceptance. Although Gen XYers have not explicitly rejected the notion of integration, I also don’t hear many of my contemporaries touting it either, just like we don’t hear modern-day Americans using the Queen’s English. It’s simply an outdated concept for us, a historic relic: it was important for a time, but it doesn’t seem to hold sway with today’s generation.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, I believe the reason why many Gen Xers and Gen Yers are more apt to talk about “inclusion” rather than “integration” is because it is more culturally egalitarian. Inclusion creates space for dissimilar groups to participate fully in a society without them having to forego their distinct cultural sensibilities. Further, inclusion is not borne of cultural co-dependency but out of cultural inter-dependency, which sees all cultures as having intrinsic beauty, power, and value to contribute to society as a whole. To understand the appeal of inclusion, let’s apply it to the earlier example: Blacks wouldn’t seek out White schools for greater educational opportunities. In fact, Blacks wouldn’t seek out White schools at all and conversely, Whites wouldn’t seek out Black Schools either. In an “inclusive” world, each community would seek to create schools where everyone (even those who were not Black or White) would be fairly represented, valued, and leveraged. This is the promise and hope of inclusion from the Gen XY perspective.
This article doesn’t begin with any conclusions; it doesn’t presuppose some ideological divide between Baby Boomers and younger generations (although distinctions do exist), nor does it seek to discredit the work of Baby Boomers (although some of it may have been myopic). To suggest that Gen XYers have rejected the pioneering work of their predecessors would be false and self-serving. However, Gen XYers are doing two important things that are worth highlighting: 1) they are re-examining the precepts that serve as the foundation for diversity work, and 2) they are creating innovative approaches to advance the work and to create a more comfortable intersection between creativity, diversity, organizational strategy, and success.
And yet, despite much of the work that has been done over the past 40 years, diversity still seems to suffer from this misconception that diversity wants people to recognize a cultural mosaic. Part of the reason why many Gen XY leaders have become disillusioned with diversity is because it stubbornly clings to this very elementary notion.
In some ways, it seems that Gen XYers are having to re-introduce diversity to an increasingly complacent and skeptical public, such as the one referenced by the Boston Globe when it cited a Harvard study to suggest that diversity causes harm to the national’s social fabric.(4) In other ways, Gen XYers are carrying the torch forward boldly and creatively: the BrownBoi Project in Oakland focuses on dismantling traditional gender norms as a way to increase educational outcomes in urban communities. The most intriguing aspects of the shifting perceptions regarding diversity are the “who” and the “how:” 1) “who” in terms of who should be included in the diversity discussion, and 2) “how” as in how should this topic be engaged. The answers are both familiar and illuminating.
Approaches that resonate with future generations
Inclusion is a step forward: it not only recognizes difference, but creates an environment where everyone is accepted in celebration of their difference. But even the notion of “inclusion” has its shortcomings. While it is important to appreciate difference, there is also some danger in simply appreciating multi-culturalism as a goal in and of itself.
As an employer, if I create a welcoming and inclusive environment for Latinos in my organization, I could still have an organization that has numerical diversity, but lacks true structural diversity. A target population may be appreciated and solicited, but their cultural sensibilities may be misunderstood and their talents may be under-utilized.
Cultural competency is a concept that invokes a greater degree of cultural awareness and utility. It approaches diversity not as a business by-product, but as a business necessity, and views culture and inclusion as “organizational catalysts” and not just institutional acts of appeasement. Cultural competency doesn’t require assimilation of employees, students, or community members. Instead, it assesses how an organization can blend the talents and perspective of its members to move forward.
Whereas diversity may still alienate a group, and inclusion may only pacify a group, cultural competency fully integrates minoritized populations into an organization.
This distinction highlights the evolutionary journey that diversity must take if it is to be relevant to Generation X and Y. Too much of the diversity discussion has been mired in regurgitating pain, and many Gen XY members see a risk in Baby Boomers being “haunted by the past.” While it is important for people to share their perspectives and tell their stories, the old diversity model doesn’t seem to offer its proponents a path forward.
Role of Gen X
At first glance, Generation X holds the balance between two generations (Baby Boomer and Gen Y) whose views can be myopic or polarized. Gen X understands the past, but is not beholden it. The idea is that Gen X has the motivation to sustain diversity initiatives given their social proximity to historical events, while also having the ability to visualize a new reality based on the progress that has been made in the interim. In other words, Gen X stands as a bridge between two worlds: one that is motivated but perhaps wary or cynical (Baby Boomers), and one that is progressive but naïve or lacking urgency (Gen Y).
Despite this notion, we still must be mindful of the contributions made by Baby Boomers. Baby Boomers did what they were expected to do (an in many instances, the only things they could do) and should be commended: They created literature, policies, expectations, and practices to carry integration further. However, their work created a new set of problems, for which they don’t have solutions.
For example, many Baby Boomers pushed for integration in education, but they couldn’t foresee the problems that would develop with educational tracking. They couldn’t anticipate that urban schools would lose most of their white population, or that with a dwindling tax base, urban school districts would have difficulty providing resources for their students. Add to the fact that the urban schools often serve as “reform schools” for troubled students and the issues continue to mount, especially as urban schools are expected to compete with suburban schools when there’s an uneven playing field. Approximately 1.3 million students drop out of high school annually, and more than half of those students are students of color.(5) Baby Boomers couldn’t have anticipated these problems, and it is now up to Generation X and Y to create solutions for this vital economic, community, and societal problem.
The Gen X focus is to create a more positivist notion for diversity, one that more explicitly touts diversity as an integrated discipline. For so many years, diversity was seen as a stand-alone field. As a result, organizations created “diversity officers” and “diversity departments” which became expendable as soon as budgets were cut and/or diversity allies lost political favor. Gen X sees diversity as part of a unified stream running through all aspects of a business, organization, educational institution, or society. As one Gen Xer who manages diversity initiatives for a major retailer told me recently, “When people ask what I do, I tell them I focus on people, performance, and strategy. When I describe my work in that fashion, people get it, and I think it behooves our industry to market diversity that in that way.”
In other words, diversity is seen as an energizer, a catalyst, or an innovative force that propels an organization forward. To rephrase the slogan made popular by BASF, diversity doesn’t provide the tools; it teaches people how to use the tools they have more effectively and equitably. What resonates with Gen X is the idea of diversity being more pragmatic and less dogmatic and abstract.
Gen Y’s challenge and perspective
In contrast to Gen X, some would argue that Gen Y has been able to move beyond the pain and appreciate diversity, but they don’t seem to fully understand the historical significance of diversity and why diversity can’t be a superficial exercise. As one Gen Xer elaborated to me: “A lot of millennials point to examples of individual success and believe that diversity is no longer as critical an issue as it once was.” Although we have examples of trailblazers like Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, or Barack Obama, these people represent outliers. Of course, they broke through institutional barriers to attain success in life, but their stories shouldn’t overshadow the structural inequalities that exist for millions of Americans.
Additionally, some Baby Boomers and Gen Xers believe that millennials are apathetic about diversity because they have grown up in an era where the idea of diversity seems normal or ubiquitous. As one Baby Boomer commented, “No one can argue that they [millennials] know or can readily regurgitate “diversity” concepts or that they have friends who look different from them. But I worry that they view diversity as a foregone conclusion…that they believe diversity and inclusivity is easily and readily manifest or that it is some permanent fixture in the socio-political landscape. The [diversity-minded] environment they live in was the product of a lot of struggle and without agitation on their part, society could easily slide backwards and become less tolerant.”
I certainly have felt that way at times. To illustrate, I remember sitting on the board of a regional organization dedicated to creating LGBTQ inclusive workplaces across the globe. At one point the conversations were focused on changing corporate and HR policy, however, within a year the conversations eventually devolved to where we were planning parties every quarter for company ERGs, and most of the people pushing that agenda were millennials. It was almost like our organizational mission had given way to creating space for intercultural ‘Happy Hours.’ And since I realized I was in the minority, I resigned my position from the Board, but it seemed like some of the millennials had no clue.
On the other hand, millennials would counter that Baby Boomers and Gen X are too focused on “trainings” and “workshops” instead of “right action.” Based on a number of interviews with Gen Yers, their focus is on advocacy, in marrying concepts to concentrated, well-coordinated activism. They worry that too many of their generational predecessors are focused on making speeches or making haughty social predictions instead of seriously addressing social problems. As one Gen Yer remarked, “We are doing the work. A lot of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are just about lip service. Gen Xers just want to ‘get paid’ and have a lavish lifestyle and Baby Boomers just want to talk about marching and the ‘struggle.’”
Millennials are also interested in expanding the diversity conversation to include underrepresented groups. One exasperated millennial said to me, “I can’t believe that people can’t see that sexual orientation is a ‘civil rights’ issue, or that people don’t understand that the whole he/she distinction when discussing gender identity is so antiquated and ‘ole skool.’ A lot of these diversity dimensions are no longer useful; they’re labels that create more problems than they solve.”
Additionally, some millennials believe that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have been derelict in transferring their knowledge to young people. Some believe that Gen Xers have been corrupted and only care about personal wealth or social trivialities, while others see Baby Boomers as out-of-touch. As the sentiment goes, “Even if we were to find Baby Boomers who were gracious enough [to mentor], how much of it would really be relevant to today? They have a hard time crediting us with having any knowledge, and most of what they share seems imprisoned in a time warp.”
Where do we go from here?
It’s fair to say that there are misconceptions on all sides. However, all would agree on this salient point: for diversity to evolve, it must become more of an integrated discipline and actually address the structural inequalities that still exist. In many ways, diversity remains too abstract, one-dimensional, and superficial. As Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz, a Generation X thought leader posits: “People use diversity “pedagogically but not operationally. Educators will only use diversity to create calendar celebrations, but not to affect educational outcomes. Consultants will metaphorically change the colors on the house, but allow the house to retain the same structure of inequitable treatment.” This thought seems to ring true for many rising diversity proponents and practitioners.
To be sure, the foundation for diversity work has been laid, but the ground remains unsettled; the underlying question or conflict remains. Where we go from here will depend on entertaining the opinions, experiences, and assertions of a new generation of people we haven’t heard from: intellectuals, activists, consultants, educators, and just regular people who might not even fashion themselves as “diversity-minded,” but are leading the charge for societal and global change.
Generation X and Y are primed, ready, and already mobilized to move this movement and industry forward. This series of articles is dedicated to telling the stories, sharing the perspectives, and illuminating the journeys of Gen Xers and Gen Yers who are inheriting the mantle. It is not a great logical leap to say that diversity has reached a critical phase in its maturation. It is no longer a revolutionary idea, but it is hardly a resolved issue. How it will be addressed in the next 20 years falls to the next generations. Generation X and Y would argue that no matter the approach… whatever we build…we must not erect a white flag. The structure of the house is changing.
(1) A Dialogue on race with President Clinton. (1998, July 9) PBS. Television transcript.
(2) The Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR) was founded in the United States in 1974 to strengthen the practice of intercultural communication and to promote intercultural understanding.
(3) Kirp, D. L. (2012, May 1). Making schools work. New York Times. SRI. Print.
(4) Jones, M. (2007, August 5). The downside of diversity. Boston Globe.
(5) Editorial projects in education. (2010). Diplomas count 2010: Graduating by the number: Putting data to work for student success. Special issue, Education Week, 29(34).
Loden, M. and Rosener, J. (1991). Workforce America: Managing employee diversity as a vital resource. Business One Irwin.
Joel A. Brown is an attorney, management consultant and coach based in San Francisco. His work with Fortune 500 companies, local, state, and city governments, and civic groups illuminates how greater cultural competency can engineer an organizational breakthrough. You can contact Joel on Twitter: @joelabrown7, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org