Diversity Advocate Explains What Not To Say To White People

In an interview with NPR's Michelle Martin, Luke Visconti of DiversityInc. explains his "9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues." Are his tips helpful, or do they minimize the difficulties minorities have in dealing with white coworkers?

The first objectionable phrase Martin and Visconti discuss is, "You're not diverse." Visconti tells an anecdote about a hospital system employee who told him that the system was "81% diverse." She really meant it was 81% women and people of color, and Visconti uses her words to talk about the assumption that white people are not a part of a diverse workplace. Obviously diversity means including a wide variety of different groups, and if one of those groups is white men, the entire community isn't necessarily less diverse. However, this is more of an issue of language than Visconti makes it out to be — measuring the company's "percentage of diversity" is misleading, and calling a single person diverse or not diverse is just bizarre. The assumption that white people can't be included in diversity at all is a bad one, but we're not sure how often people actually make it.

Visconti also has some odd things to say about the concept of white privilege. He tells Martin,

White privilege, I tell other white people, is the most amazing thing. You can give away your white privilege by helping other people gain access, and it never diminishes your white privilege. You're born with it, and it remains with you, so it's the gift that keeps on giving.

Throughout the interview, Visconti comes across as someone who genuinely wants to work toward a more equal society. However, his idea of white privilege as a "gift" that whites can bestow on others is somewhat paternalistic. It promulgates a view of race relations in which white people "give access" to minorities, rather than everyone working together to create equal access. It also assumes that white privilege is something you can give away, when the idea that it "remains with you" is probably closer to the truth. Helping a person of color does not make that person white, and does not confer upon them all the unconscious benefits that society gives to whites. All people can work to reduce the influence of privilege, but that involves a widespread change of behaviors and attitudes — not individual "gifts."

That said, Visconti does have some good ideas about race relations. He says no one should ever say the phrase, "There's no way you as a white person can understand." He should have mentioned that people of color do have experiences that white people probably can't fully understand (similarly, a man can't really know what it's like to be a woman, nor can a woman know what it's like to be a man). However, he's right that by focusing only on differences or on what is incommunicable, "you eliminate potential allies, and you shut people down."

Many in the past have said that white people have no place in creating equality, or in erasing the wrongs they themselves have perpetrated, but Visconti makes a persuasive case for including whites in the drive to end discrimination. He mentions the many white men he has known whose lives were affected by prejudice, perhaps through an interracial relationship or a gay family member. Many of these men want to work against the discrimination they have seen, and Visconti argues that their help is valuable. Of his work for diversity, he says, "what this is all about is enabling people to bring themselves to work 100%, so they can be engaged, productive, and innovative, because their heart is in it." Despite his missteps, Visconti's heart seems to be in it too, and his message of inclusion deserves a hearing.

Diversity 101: What Not to Say to White Colleagues [NPR]
9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues [DiversityInc]