A sore thumb

The topic Diverse hit a nerve with me. Warning: This post is long and rambling. I understand if you give up on it.

We live in a world where we need diversity. We need people who do different things, and  some who do the same things in different ways. Every day we learn more about the importance of bio-diversity for life, all life. We need sunny days and rainy days, summers and winters, mountains and oceans, bread and roses. In financial planning you are always told to diversify.

There was a picture I didn’t take this last trip to China. I was on a bus headed to the International Kite Festival. The picture would have been of my plump, pinkish-white hand holding on the the pole beside the weathered, much darker hand of a Chinese woman beside me.

Something about her hand was beautiful to me. It was a long bus ride and I spent a lot of it looking at that hand, I wanted to remember it. My hands are not those of a twenty year old who gets manicures and uses lotion faithfully; they show that I forget to put gloves on before I wash dishes and sometimes before I work in the yard and my nails are short, feeble and irregular. I think of my hands as reddish and weather beaten, yet, beside her hand, it was the pasty white product of an easy, sheltered life.

China is not, to my eye, diverse. Even though they have “ethnic minorities” they do not differ much from the majority in appearance, beyond the choice of apparel. However, I am an outsider. Their perceptions of difference, based on what I cannot see, create bias just as skin color does in the US. I stand out like a sore thumb in China.

It intrigued me when I read an article about facial recognition and saw that Baidu, the Chinese answer to Google, outscores every other company in facial recognition. The US companies have much higher error rates. I wonder if that is not a result of our diversity: we look at less subtle differences to identify folks: skin color, overall face shape, general nose shape and general eye shape. At a guess the Chinese need to use more specific measurements in their algorithms as there is less variation in those more obvious characteristics.

The US is pretty diverse, but that varies quite a bit from place to place, both in how diverse and what ethnic groups are represented. It is diverse in its diversity.

The past few years have seen a lot of turmoil and violence because our police forces don’t reflect the demographic profile of the communities they serve. This has created tension. Some of it may be perception, but many studies have determined that there is real bias in how those who interact with the police are treated.

One effect of this is that the negative perception of the police in minority dominated communities turns people away from that career path, making it impossible to create a police force that matches the community. This is just an observation, solutions need to come from the communities themselves. Sometimes the answer can’t come from outside, it is a sense that the person presenting the solution is like you, understands you. I am the wrong color to help solve that problem.

I felt that way also when working with an NGO in Africa. That village was not diverse. We stood out too much, heck, even someone from a different, neighboring tribe stood out. There were some things wrong, really wrong, at the school we were trying to help. But an outsider cannot come in and do certain things and have a successful outcome. The community needs to make the change for itself. The most you can do is to try and support the people who are in a position to make changes. At times even that can be too much interference. I was very sensitive to that and it contributed to my decision to back away from that group even though they were-and still are to my understanding-doing some worthwhile things. I just was not comfortable with how things were handled on  our side and not in a position to make changes.

“Diversity” has taken on a loaded meaning over the past few years. “Diversity in the workplace” has become the goal replacing “equality of opportunity”, which replaced affirmative action.

As a woman coming out of college in the early eighties with a degree in Civil engineering I may have benefited from those programs. I sure got hit with the resentment of co-workers who thought I had, even though I never got a job for which I was not fully qualified, and at which I did’t excel. If there was any benefit to me it is was that they couldn’t disqualify me for a position because I am female. Sadly, that doesn’t stop harassment and at times is the excuse for it.

Unfortunately this focus on trying to make a workplace “diverse” has created a backlash of people saying that qualifications for a job are taking a back seat to demographics (trust me: this is a perception that can’t be dislodged by statistics once someone has bought in to it). The perception is that if you were born with skin of a particular color you have an advantage. Ironically that is pretty much what affirmative action/equal opportunity/diversity-in-the workplace was supposed to eradicate. How you see it depends on whether you got the job or someone else did, and, if you did not, whether you have the humility to recognize that the other person may be as well qualified.

When there aren’t enough good jobs to go around resentment becomes more acute. The recent recession created a great deal of rancor. Will we recover from that as the economy perks up?

I have some doubts: With the computational capabilities and robotics available today many decent jobs have gone away forever. Last week I read an article about “dark factories”, where the work was all done by computers and robots so they don’t need to have lights on. What will be left for human beings who need to make a living? The future doesn’t look all that bright to many, because of that fear*, for some, “diversity” has become a dirty word.

And yet:

We live in a world where we need diversity. We need people who do different things, and  some who do the same things in different ways. Every day we learn more about the importance of bio-diversity for life, all life. We need sunny days and rainy days, summers and winters, mountains and oceans, bread and roses. In financial planning you are always told to diversify.

 

*In my opinion this fear is part of what is driving the bizarre presidential campaign. The source of both extreme left and extreme right viewpoints is the same: people seeing that the same ole, same ole isn’t working and fearing the future. Some wanting to go back to a seemingly golden age when there was less diversity and others wanting to move forward to a totally new order.

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