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Lessons from Anthropology - Diversity & Discrimination

Participant Observation

As I've mentioned before, anthropology teaches us how to expose a culture's logic, by figuring out how to read people's behaviours and the rules they follow. This makes anthropology a perfect tool for understanding and promoting diversity awareness.

What Do Behaviours Tell Us?

A number of years ago, I led a workshop for a company, together with a colleague, Caroline, who represented the company’s union. We entered the room, and sat down, waiting for the event to begin. The men whom we had sat next to moved away. The men chatted amongst themselves, but pointedly ignored us. When we began, there was complete silence. The men, about thirty of them in total, sat with crossed arms, legs planted widely apart. They stared at their shoes, and made remarks under their breath to each other. This continued for the entirety of my colleague’s part of the workshop. They refused to engage, answer questions or look her in the eye. When my turn to speak came, I asked the men, “Have you met Caroline before?” They shook their heads, gruffly. “Have you met me before?” Again, the barest acknowledgement that, no, they had not met me. “Why, then,” I asked, “are you being so rude?” There was a shocked silence. And then, the complaints started pouring out. They felt that the company didn’t listen to them, and because they didn’t listen, the training provided did little to meet their needs. These all seemed reasonable enough.

Behaviours Expose Values

Yet, instead of giving us a chance, they presumed that we, brought in by the management that they viewed negatively, would also have the bad traits that they deplored. In other words, they discriminated against us individually for our presumed membership in a group that they didn’t like.

Diversity & Discrimination - it's about you...

When people talk about diversity and discrimination, they are usually addressing ideas of gender, race, age, disability, and sexual orientation, among others, in terms of their individual experiences.

... but it's also a Group Thing

But, even though we experience any kind of discrimination on an individual level, we must address the fact that discrimination has its roots in group culture.Discrimination starts with assigning an individual to a group (whether that individual wants to be in it or not, and whether the person doing the discriminating is correct or not), and then assigning the traits of the group to the individual. This can be positive or negative, but either way it involves making assumptions that don’t take the individual who is being discriminated against into account.

Two Sources of Discrimination

Discrimination comes from two sources. In the first instance, we feel discriminated against when we’re assigned to a group that we feel we don’t belong to and to which we assign negative values. For example, imagine a Canadian being confused for an American or a Scottish person being confused for an English one. The misidentified individual takes offense because of the negative values he or she identifies with that other group. Being put in the wrong category (if you like your own country or have negative associations with the other) can cause you to feel resentful at being mistaken for the wrong nationality. Of course, if you yourself feel that your nationality has negative associations, being mistaken for another nationality might make you feel pleased.The second source of discrimination arises when we’re assigned to a group that we do feel we belong to, but we feel that it is assigned negative values by others. I don’t mind when people assign me to the group “women.” But I do mind if they associate values with this group that I see as negative, like “she’s a woman, therefore she’s not as clever as a man,” or “she’s a woman, therefore she really does want me to treat her in a sexual way.” This then becomes sexism.

Let me tell you who I am!

The point is, other people pigeonhole us and it might cause offence though it is innocent enough (imagining us to be from where we’re not, for example, is usually anodyne), but it becomes problematic if we’re made to understand that the pigeonhole is assigned values we see as negative (telling us who we are because of where we’re from).Either way, we don’t want to be told who we are: we’d rather do the telling.

But please feel free to ask me who I am...

The solution, of course, is to start asking other people what groups they see themselves as belonging to, and what their boundaries are. This is the only real way to have clarity and not make mistakes..

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