Diatribe: Diversity Bonanza

The language of discrimination is fascinating in the way it changes so swiftly over time. Where once there was ‘coon,’ ‘handicapped,’ ‘spastic,’ and the dreaded N-word that no whitey dares speak, we now have ‘African-American,’ ‘disabled,’ ‘intellectually-disabled,’ and, well, ‘African-American.’

Then there are words that went out of vogue for a time but have been reclaimed – but who is allowed to say them? Being raised partially by lessies, I’m quite a fan of the resurgence of ‘queer,’ and ‘dyke’ and I’d love to see the return of old 90s playground fave ‘gaybo’. See what I did there though? Could I say any of those words in public if I didn’t preface it with ‘some of my best family are gay!’

I got in big trouble once at a dinner party as a not-so-young adult, when I said ‘retard’ in front of a G, a mental health and disability worker, who smartly challenged me on it. Although I take pride in challenging people on attitudes and unexamined beliefs, and did so even then, I was so frustrated that she couldn’t understand that I didn’t mean a literally ‘retarded’ person, it was just a word. I now realise that that word which was so prevalent in high school and even university has essentially left my vocabulary. I don’t think it happened on purpose, I just realised subconsciouly that as an adult professional who tries to think and act both logically and with empathy, it was an inappropriate insult. Plus, there are much better words, like ‘twat’ and ‘slutface’ and ‘douchebag.’ Oh wait, now we’re bagging vaginas.

In general New Zealanders are extremely sensitive about labelling people, at least in part due to our cultural sensitivity about being a colonial outpost, and the guilt or indignity that goes along with that, depending on your ancestor’s ‘side’. One positive societal legacy that was handed down from our forebears from the Old World is that most who abandoned their lives in England did so with the desire to try new ways in a new place. This has left us feeling very pompous indeed about being first to give women the vote, the recent landslide first reading of the Marriage Equality Act, and other such anti-discriminatory practices.

Despite our own horrible race relations, we often call Australians racist because, for example, we only stopped Maori speaking their language for a couple of generations, we didn’t steal an entire generation of Aboriginal children from their families. I have to admit that I have thought some Australians racist when listening to the way some speak of ‘Abbos’ (another word that I’m not sure is okay), but I have to remind myself that being a little better isn’t being right.

Away from the Antipodes, the thing I’ve noticed is that discriminatory language doesn’t just change over time, but also across space. A diversity monitoring form at my work shocked me with the categories that people were put into, and the words used to describe them. I, personally, would have had to enter myself as ‘White – Other’, when I would usually feel uncomfortable at referring to myself as ‘white’. A pal who is Indian-Zimbabwean would have had to toss up between ‘Black-African’ (which he is not) and ‘Asian’ (which he is also not), as Brits lump India under the wider continent. While the entire African continent had only one tick-box, the West-Indies had about 5 options, showing that these forms are really catering directly to the population of London, rather than giving as broad a mix as possible.

Because my first reaction to this list was to find it offensive, I a) asked if it was standard (it was) and b) thought about what the options would be in NZ. At a guess, I’d say any standard NZ form would offer

  • NZ European / Pakeha
  • NZ Maori
  • Pacific Islander
  • Asian
  • Indian
  • Other European
  • Other (please specify)….

I’m really curious to know if this seems offensive to people from other countries. I realised immediately upon writing this list that even my approximation places ethnic groups in the order of largest to smallest population in NZ. It also excludes massive swathes of the world, such as the Americas and West Indies, the Middle East, Africa, and those who don’t quite fit in the categories, such as Scandinavians and Russians. I’d guess the reason for this is the lack of space on a form matched to the lack of population in NZ, with the handy ‘other’ option as a stand-in.

I’ve never been involved in HR at home, so I don’t know what we do with this information gathered, but in the UK, diversity is closely monitored. We will be reporting on the categories of people as we receive applications, narrow them down for interview, and finally hire. All of these stats will be available to the public, with such ‘transparency’ that the purpose of the exercise is not especially clear. If all those successful in gaining an inteview are of the same demographic, will they throw some different types of people in the mix? No, of course not – that would be positive discrimination in the extreme, as all other applicants were assessed blindly. If the successful candidates year after year are of the same type, will that cause some sort of quota to be introduced – this many of these, that many of those – in the workplace? Again, that seems to go entirely against the insistence that the best candidate for the job must get it.

The only place I can see an appropriate use of the data is in considering the pool of applicants versus the mode of advertising. For example, if advertising only in the hard-copy Sunday Times is pulling only a shuffle of elderly upper-statesmen, then perhaps a different medium (e.g. an online paper with a younger demographic) would call a wider group of applicants.

What I would really like to know, is how Diversity is managed in your workplace, and whether it seems to be effective – do your diversity policies actually result in a more diverse workplace? Is this even the end goal, or is it just to appear to be proactive?


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