Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

How Good Leaders Fight Stupid Bias

Friday, June 8th, 2012

I recently came across an article in Diversity Inc that described racial uproar at UCLA’s School of Medicine.  A Black medical professor, Dr. Christian Head, was depicted as a gorilla as part of an annual “roast” by medical students. The racist prank ignited national attention as a petition on change.org, had collected nearly 85,000 signatures.

Being outraged by this stupid behavior is understandable, but not particularly helpful. Nor will some of the recommendations in the article—having CEOs hold people accountable with zero tolerance policies, requiring mandatory diversity training, and promoting resource groups—really change the root causes of this behavior over the long run.

I agree that accountability from leadership is absolutely crucial to fighting this kind of bias, but zero tolerance is not the way exercise accountability. Leaders have to take responsibility for being discerning about what behaviors merit the severest reprimands (censure or termination) and what behaviors can better be served by engaging the perpetrators and other stakeholders in learning opportunities. Zero tolerance can be a cop-out: it allows leaders to abdicate the responsibility for being thoughtful about how they deal with diversity in their organizations.

In addition, “mandatory training” recommendations should always be accompanied by the qualifier “good.” Mediocre diversity training can be more damaging than no training at all. It can heighten resistance to diversity and can stoke resentment toward the people who are different it was supposed to support.

Resource groups are clearly helpful, but only if they are supported unequivocally by leadership and strategically aligned. They must wholly be a part of the organization and must be both a resource for its members and a resource for the organization.

Outrage gets old. Informed, deliberate, and sustained leadership action is what eliminates ridiculous incidents like the one at UCLA.

Leveraging Difference Makes a Competitive Difference

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

The following blog was written by Robert F. Bruner, Dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business, and posted on his blog site March 5, 2012.

“Civilizations should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” — W.H. Auden

It’s challenging to find institutions today that harness the diversity of its participants really well. This should be of paramount interest to CEOs and leaders of all kinds because those who harness it well sooner are likely to gain advantage in their competitive space. Such is the gist of a special Town Hall session for students faculty and staff to be held tomorrow, “The End of Diversity as We Know It: How to Make Diversity Efforts Really Matter,” from 3:30-5:30 in Abbott Auditorium. And it is the focus of a new book by Darden Professor Martin Davidson, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed. I encourage readers to draw on both of these resources.

I see the relevance of this topic most vividly in two spheres: the management of global businesses and the education of the next generation of global leaders. In respect to both spheres, W.H. Auden got it right: success is a matter of embracing the diversity within institutions and doing so in a way that generates strategic strength and focus on the things that matter.

On the basis of results, the former Soviet Union would be a leading example of how not to leverage diversity. So would Zimbabwe—indeed, the potential list is long. Diversity was thought to be a uniquely American problem of dealing with differences in race and gender: “we don’t have a diversity issue here” is a statement I have heard in many countries. Yet, a little conversation will often reveal material divisions in virtually all countries. As I write this, I am in Ecuador, a small nation of about 15 million people, which displays classic issues associated with diversity along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language, and tribe—this is not to criticize Ecuador, but rather to suggest that leading a constituency that contains material difference is a universal challenge.

So, what is the leader of a diverse organization to do? Stop thinking of difference as a problem and start thinking of it as an opportunity; find ways to leverage difference as a strength.

At Darden, our purpose is to “improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” Leveraging difference is a conscious element of our strategy. To my knowledge, we were the first business school to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer (he is Peter Rodriguez; his predecessors were Martin Davidson and Erika James). We organized special Dean’s advisory councils on diversity and on global affairs to assess the curriculum and climate of the school in light of best current practice. We partner with a number of organizations that help us to recruit top diverse talent—indeed, for two years, I chaired the Board of Directors of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. We host a range of social events that celebrate the diversity in our community, and learning events, such as tomorrow’s session on “The End of Diversity.” We formally survey faculty, staff, and students on the climate of inclusion in our community—and based on the survey results, we adjust as warranted. I make no claim that Darden is perfect in respect to diversity and inclusion; but I do claim that by pursuing these and other activities sincerely and vigorously, we strengthen Darden’s ability to fulfill its mission. From all the metrics I follow, I conclude that Darden’s strategy on leveraging diversity is working and that the Darden Enterprise is growing stronger as a result.

Faculty, staff, students, and the extended Darden Community are supporting our efforts to leverage difference. As a result, we are creating more compelling learning experiences for our students. We are preparing them to prosper and lead in a world that is only growing more diverse. And we are responding positively to the needs of the business profession that we serve. This is creating a legacy with long positive impact into the future.

How ESPN Could Have Avoided the “LinSanity” Diversity Crisis

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

I like sports. I like competition, winners and losers, and displays of excellence. But I also like sports because they have been a rich context for talking about differences.  There are iconic stories about racial integration, gender parity, cross-national growth, and making the most of disabilities.

Now enter Jeremy Lin.

For those not especially tuned into the professional basketball world, Lin is a player for the New York Knicks team who has performed exceptionally well the past couple of weeks, earning him mad media attention.  He is also one of a very small number of Asian or Asian American players to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Adding these two elements together—heavy media attention and Lin’s ethnic background—created a nightmare for the multimedia sports network, ESPN, last week. The company issued an apology for a series of racist actions  (probably unintentional, but still racist) related to coverage of Jeremy Lin.  They noted “three offensive and inappropriate comments made on ESPN outlets during [their] coverage,” the most infamous of which was the headline under a picture of Lin making a mistake on court that read “Chink in the Armor.” You could argue this was simply an isolated mistake (or actually three) that just happened—essentially the explanation ESPN adopted. But if you did, you would be plain wrong.

The ESPN/Lin story underscores how challenging it can be to build what I call a “Leveraging Difference Capability.” In my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I describe this as what happens when an organization becomes so diversity-savvy that everyone in it develops processes for (and habits of) dealing with differences skillfully, even unfamiliar differences. Errors like those ESPN committed are evidence of an organization that lacks the Leveraging Difference Capability. If they had it, they would have created processes and procedures to prevent these mistakes. For example:

  • All of the eyes that reviewed any headline would have sensitivity to language and idioms that could be even remotely racist;
  • There would have been red flags, thanks to that awareness, followed by channels for information gather and discussion
  • There would have been lines of communication with people who would understand the experiences of Asian American professionals
  • There would be have been consultation with  people who are “firsts” in their industries and organizations

No reputable news outlet would describe a Mexican baseball player’s bases-clearing double as a “Spic ‘n Span” hit. Nor, as one radio commentator I heard suggested, would you likely see an outstanding run by a white football player who barrels over opposing players as a “Cracker Barrel” guy.  The reason these would be unlikely occurrences is that most people know better.  And if a writer misses it, her editor will pick it up.  It’s not about one person being vulnerable for making a mistake.  Rather it’s about an organization not knowing how to institute the checks and balances to make sure that mistake just does not happen.

By the way, the corollary here is that the punishments of those involved (firing the headline writer and suspending an on-air broadcaster) were probably too harsh. If this really was about a systems breakdown and not some rogue headline writer, it’s wrong to punish only the writer. That doesn’t properly deal with the cause of the problem (meaning it will happen again). Moreover, it sends the message that “We’re OK; we just had to get rid of the bad apple.” No, you’re not OK.

An Asian-American as a budding star and as media phenomenon is unprecedented in NBA history. There is no good roadmap for what to say and do and what not to.  But those are precisely the best reasons to develop a Leveraging Difference Capability, especially in a globally diverse world. People and organizations will constantly be faced with new differences and new challenges.  Having a way of operating—a mindset—that skillfully deals with those differences will prevent the kinds of public relations crises that ESPN is dealing with right now.

And it will make for much better sports reporting.

“The End of Diversity as We Know It: How to Make Diversity Efforts Really Matter”

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

This event will feature conversation and audience involvement. Because of its novel design, the event will provide 1) an opportunity for intellectual engagement on this important topic, and 2) a venue for members of the larger Darden community and business community to collaborate on ways to further diversity and inclusion.

Martin will facilitate the discussion and includes panelists:

  • Ed Freeman, Darden Professor and academic director of the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics
  • Jeanne Liedtka, Darden Professor of Business Administration and author of The Catalyst: How You Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader
  • Charlie Hill, former Exec Vice President of HR, Landmark Communications and former member Darden Corporate Advisory Board
  • Rhonda Smith, Darden ’88,  Founder at Breast Cancer Partner and President of Rhegal Consulting

March 6 from 3:30-5:30 in Abbott Auditorium at the Darden School, 100 Darden Blvd., Charlottesville, VA. Open to the public.  The discussion will be followed by a book signing and reception.


Drive Toward Oneness

Monday, January 16th, 2012

On August 24, 2011, I first posted this blog that I had written for The Washington Post‘s On Leadership series, on our perversion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. As we celebrate Dr. King today and this week, I feel like this message is worth sending again.

Our perversion of Martin Luther King’s dream

In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy.I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around.The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.

 Nearly 50years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

 Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision.  They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.

 But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.”   Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it.  First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences.  People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.”  But a lot happens on the way down to deep.  Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.”  And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.

Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day.  A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percentof whites and 85 percent of blacksthink civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment.Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities.And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably.  On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

 The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference.  It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached.  We hear things like, “We are post-racial.”  “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.”  “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”

 This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive.  And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised.  The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world.  It becomes bad to be unique.

 Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution.  Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are.  King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.

Getting to King’s“content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field.  This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences.  It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.

 

A Conversation on Diversity

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Please join the Darden School of Business for a conversation on diversity in honor of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. This discussion will explore the challenges and opportunities for fostering diverse and inclusive communities in educational institutions, businesses and larger society. Conversationalists and audience members will address the ways in which we can build on our accomplishments as well as overcome our obstacles as we work towards creating energizing, generative, and just communities.  The point of departure for the conversation will be Darden professor Martin Davidson’s provocative new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed.

For more information and to register, visit http://www.virginia.edu/mlk/DardenPanel.html

Five Myths That Doom Diversity Efforts

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Greater diversity does not easily translate to greater performance. It takes work to make that happen. Yet many leaders are content in the illusion that symbolic activities and underfunded training classes will turn their increasingly diverse organizations into world-class performers. Understanding why diversity is so often mismanaged requires debunking five strongly held myths about diversity:

Myth 1: Having diversity will increase performance and profits

Why it’s a myth: Having greater diversity in your team and in your organization only helps if you understand what to do with it.  Bringing together people of different ethnicities, genders, or sexual orientations and saying “go to work” is a blueprint for failure and several studies bear this out.  The key is being strategic about what kind of diversity you need to get the job done and going after it.

Myth 2: If you increase the number of women and people of color, you have increased your diversity

Why it’s a myth: Of course gender and ethnicity play a role in the way people see things. But the value of diversity doesn’t come from the appearance of a person.  Rather, it comes in taking advantage of diverse perspectives to create business results. You can have a group that very much looks like the rainbow, but thinks pretty much the same.  In that case, you haven’t increased your diversity at all.

Myth 3: Diversity efforts always benefit women and people of color

Why it’s a myth: White males are the generally the dominant group in the U.S. workplace and often believe they have the most to lose—jobs, promotions, status—when it comes to diversity.  But women, people of color, and other people who are different also resist when diversity rhetoric and norms of behavior single them out and put them under a microscope.  If diversity is only about counting heads, neither the organization nor “diverse” employees benefit in the long run.

Myth 4: A diverse workplace is ideally a harmonious and integrated workplace

Why it’s a myth: When diversity is working at its best, people are constantly bumping up against new ideas and perspectives that challenge long-held beliefs about how they see the world.  I don’t know about you, but that activity usually unsettles me.  A workplace in which differences are being leveraged is dynamic, energized, emotional and rarely boring.  If you think that the ultimate vision for true diversity is constant harmony, think again.

Myth #5: Corporate leaders who want to increase race and gender diversity will make it happen 

Why it’s a myth: Leaders constantly juggle the need to meet business goals with the need to meet diversity goals. That causes them frequently to make choices between a focus on either increasing race and gender diversity, or focusing on corporate performance.  Because diversity is not well-linked to perfromance, they have to choose which will take precedent and diversity efforts almost always fall by the wayside.  And an added cost: these leaders—who really want to do the right thing—end up worried that they will be seen as biased because they aren’t making progress with diversity.  The only solution to this is to make diversity efforts and corporate performance one in the same.  Leveraging difference, not managing diversity, can do just that.

How I Learned to Be Black (Part II)

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

(This is the second of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)
Lesson Two: On not being black

One day, in a land far, far away, I realized that I was not black.

The pivotal experience for me was a trip I took to Shanghai several years ago. I led an MBA class abroad and that was the occasion of my very first trip to Asia. On my first day there, I was walking down a busy street and seeing the many Chinese people of all walks of life along the way. Some were curious to see me, others polite, but most were indifferent. As I walked, I noticed myself becoming mildly uncomfortable for no apparent reason. I just felt uneasy and the feeling intensified with every step. At one point, I came to a crosswalk and on the other side of the street I saw a tall white man standing there. He looked to be about 35 years old, around 6 feet tall with straight brown hair and pale chalky complexion. As soon as I saw him, my heart leapt. I thought to myself, “Look, someone just like me!”

In that moment I laughed in delight. At no other time in my life had I instinctively identified with a white man like that. Just like me? That experience shifted the way I thought about myself as a black person. So strong and unyielding was my sense of myself as black that I could not have conceived of viewing myself like a white person. Don’t get me wrong. I can understand intellectually the commonality I have with white people. Truth be told, some of my best friends really are white and I love them deeply and profoundly. And in my younger days, I may have tried to fit into white environments by acting like a white person. But I have never been under the illusion that I was ever one of them. In China, though, I experienced this instant of being the same as that white stranger and it captivated me. It spurred me to ask the question of what if my existential certainty that I was black was not as steadfast as I had thought. Hell, I was in China for one day and I thought and felt (if only for an instant) like a white guy. And by the way, I have no idea if that guy was an American. He was just a Caucasian from somewhere. Who knows, maybe I was identifying with a German white guy.

Prior to this trip, I had lived a life in blackness. Like being a fish in water, it never occurred to me that there was life outside of my color. Intellectually, I guess I could imagine it, but why bother, when it ain’t ever gonna happen. I had traveled to Africa, Europe, and to different parts of the Americas and everywhere I was in the middle of a race/color story of some kind. As the backdrop, all of those places had black slavery in their cultural stories. In addition, my experience in each region had a color-coded flavor. In Europe, I was the exotic black American, beloved for my creativity and my insights on oppression. In Africa, I was cautiously engaged by black Africans. They saw me as similar in skin tone and in experience related to it, but very different by virtue of my national origin (which was usually far more problematic for most of those I talked with).

In the South America, remnants of color bias were apparent, too.
But in China, I felt racially irrelevant. I was unable to tell if anyone cared that I was black and they really didn’t seem to. And in that moment when I lost my mind on the street corner when I was so very surprised I had to laugh? That was true liberation.

How I Learned To Be Black (Part I)

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

(This is the first of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)

Lesson One: How I Discovered I am More than Just Black

I gave an informal talk last month to a group of leaders on what I have learned about myself and my leadership over the past seven years. I reflected on how I have used the tools and techniques I learned from attending leadership seminars facilitated by Learning as Leadership (LaL), a San Rafael, California-based leadership development organization. There, I participated with managers and executives from all over the world to learn how to grapple with my unproductive habits and behaviors and how to institute new ones.

On this day, I was inspired to talk about being black. I was one of only a handful of black people in this largely white gathering, but this was important, I thought. I had always taken comfort in the fact that I’m a black man. Even though being black in the U.S. is challenging, seeing myself that way has provided a source of clarity. When I needed that boost of self-confidence, I could remind myself that I was an intelligent and strong black person. When I needed social support, I knew I could rely on other black folks—even those I didn’t know—to offer it. When unjust events happened to me, I could explain them as a consequence of the intentional and unintentional racial bias that permeates this country.

But the comfort of my blackness has also held me back. When I undertook this leadership training, I entered with the goal of deepening my understanding of myself and of diversity. I expected the exercises and reflections to help me with this. To my surprise, though, over the course of the 12 months in which I participated, race came up infrequently. I found myself much more preoccupied with new concepts like “desired image” which captures behaviors I’ve taken up—both consciously and unconsciously—to try to get others to see me in a particular light. Or the “driving idea” or prevailing anxiety I hold that deep down, I’m really a fraud and not as capable or competent as I think, and worried that others will figure it out and I will be exposed. This was very weird stuff that may have been affecting me in my work and my relationships. With these kinds of things on the table, race fell into the background for me, important, but not central. Had being focused on myself racially kept me from attending to these other really important issues?

The real “aha” emerged when I learned about my “mattress.” That is the term for the psychological habit of preparing ourselves for failure in the activities we undertake. In short, we all have ways of thinking that protect us from the painful thoughts and feelings that emerge when we fail at something we really want to succeed at. A mattress, like a soft landing surface, does just that. One of my stronger mattresses is that that the odds were so stacked against me because of my race that I just couldn’t succeed this time. In fact sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. At times, I am the victim of systemic biases that favor others and disadvantage me. And sometimes I just didn’t prepare well enough. And sometimes (heaven forbid) I’m just not good enough. The beauty of the mattress is that these more ego-based, painful options disappear in the outrage of the blanket assertion that I could have been successful if factors outside my control weren’t conspiring against me. In other words, “it’s not me, it’s you. Or him. Or them. Or the system.

My insight that I have these habits does not negate the fact that real discrimination happens and that I and other black people suffer when it does. For me, that is a fact of life and if you don’t believe it, I have a long list of resources to help you with that one. What I realized was that I was not always skilled at knowing when the real discrimination was happening (and needs to be fought) and when I was protecting myself from feeling pain that had little, if anything, to do with my race. This was not about “playing race cards” or any other such nonsense. It was about learning to be skillful in separating my authentic but incorrect belief that I was suffering because of discrimination from really suffering from discrimination.

I felt like I was beginning to have an experience of myself as larger that only being a member of my racial group. I realized that with expanding and deeper understand of history and culture, my blackness was becoming a huge and nourishing vessel in which to live. And as I said, it helped me in many ways. What I was beginning to explore was that there may have been an even larger, more nourishing vessel in which I was embedded. I was beginning to understand in a much more profound way that I was more than my race. That was lesson one in learning to be black.

The Drive Towards Oneness

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Timed to the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, this week’s Washington Post‘s On Leadership roundtable explored King’s leadership legacy and where we stand today in fulfilling his vision for the nation. They asked me to write an opinion piece.

In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy.  I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around.  The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.

Nearly 50  years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision. They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.

But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.” Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it. First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences. People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.” But a lot happens on the way down to deep. Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.” And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.

Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day. A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percent  of whites and 85 percent of blacks  think civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment.  Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities.  And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably. On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference. It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached. We hear things like, “We are post-racial.” “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.” “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”

This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive. And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised. The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world. It becomes bad to be unique.

Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution. Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are. King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.

Getting to King’s “content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field. This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences. It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.