The Difference Between Diversity and Discrimination
I was recently on a panel at a leadership event at a girls’ school, and one of the questions these bright young women asked us was: “Have you ever been discriminated against as a woman?”
“Yes.” was the answer. Unsurprisingly, all three women leaders on the panel said we had faced discrimination, to varying degrees, at one point or another.
Have I been discriminated as a woman? Yes. Of course, I have. For and against being one. I was discriminated ‘against’ every time my mother, concerned for my safety, would ask me to be home earlier than she would ask my brother to be home. I was discriminated ‘for’ every time a man opened a door for me or carried my bags or offered me a seat.
Were these good things that happened to me, or bad? Neither. It’s just the way things were. I could (and did) argue with my mum about my ‘curfew’, and I could argue with any man whoever does anything nice for me (because, of course, he is only doing that because I am a woman and he sees me as less able, right?).
And of course, at various points in my career or my life, I have also experienced discrimination in the form that we commonly understand it. Assumptions have been made about my abilities because of my gender, my race or my age. But discrimination, in itself, is not damaging to us.
We will all experience discrimination in big and small ways in our lives. I have been told I was too fat. I have been told I was too skinny. (Neither was true). I have been told I was too polite. I have been told I was too rude. (Both were true). I have even been told by a guy that he wouldn’t date me because I was always well dressed! We have all felt ‘targeted’, singled-out, excluded, differentiated against, or told-off for something or the other. But discrimination only means something in our lives when we make it mean something about us and what we can and can’t do.
Here’s the other, and deeper truth about discrimination that is not often talked about: We discriminate against ourselves.
More than anyone else has ever discriminated against me, I have discriminated against myself. I have assumed limitations about myself because of my gender, or my age, or because I didn’t speak a certain language or didn’t have a certain qualification. I have excluded myself from opportunities and refused to allow myself to do things that I would have loved. I have told myself countless times that is how I need to be, to be a good daughter, a good girlfriend, a good friend, a good employee, often at the expense of what I would have loved to do. I have often made up my mind that current circumstances or perceptions are how things are and that they are too hard to change, nothing will ever be different, this is how it has to be. And in doing so, I have held myself back from expressing my heart, my true self in the world.
Every time we allow an incident, a perception or a circumstance to mean something about us and limit us, we discriminate against ourselves.
Every time we say the words: “it’s a man’s world” or “men can’t be trusted” or “you have to be tough to succeed”, we are joining the discriminators’ brigade. We exclude ourselves from opportunities, or we teach ourselves that being our natural, authentic selves is not good enough, or worse: we make assumptions about and judge other people, too! Every time we think, speak or act based on a bias (even if we are putting our energy into proving it wrong), we are fuelling that bias.
Diversity, by its very nature, also points out differences.
But diversity looks at people and all of their differences with curiosity and wonder and possibility, and instead of putting the attention on disproving or fighting bias, it focuses on creating the world we would love to live in. It focuses on utilising the unique gifts and power of each person, rather than debating them.
Diversity is not a denial of differences, but a desire to further understand, to support, and to create something bigger, greater, more colourful and magical as a result of the differences and variety available.
Diversity includes an awareness that not only are our physical characteristics different, but also our gifts, our hopes, our dreams, and our fears make us who we are. Whereas discrimination would judge me for some of these inner traits and fears and behaviours, diversity proceeds to accept me as I am, and allow me to bring my unique take to any situation in line with a shared vision.
Diversity and authenticity go hand in hand. Diversity can only truly exist when you are being yourself without fear, and I am being myself without fear.
Diversity acknowledges differences and sees opportunities. Discrimination assumes limitations.
Diversity says: this is what is. Discrimination says: this is how it should be.
Diversity is open and curious and questioning. Discrimination has its mind made up and is afraid to ask, question, discuss.
And we all know this one: Diversity includes. Discrimination excludes.
Diversity is when I acknowledge that I am a woman of a certain age and a certain background and a certain nature, and take all of that and say: “How can I create something from all of this that reflects who I am and what I can bring to any situation that will add to the greater good?”
Discrimination is when I believe that I cannot have the life that I would love, or live my purpose in the world because of who I am.
And no matter which of the two philosophies the rest of the world lives out, whether I live out my life with the fearful limitations of discrimination or the endless possibilities of diversity is up to me.
Whether I go for that job, despite voices of doubt, and showcase my fitness for the role is on me. Whether I let age become an excuse to not do something is on me. Whether I take that remark referencing my racial heritage to heart and let it depress me, or express myself in what I love to do anyway is on me. Whether I let my current level of physical fitness dictate what I can or can’t do, is on me.
My destiny is down to me.
Women in the 1900s discovered radioactivity, fought for human rights and ruled the world. Children aged 10 and 12 have created million-dollar businesses. Men and women with no arms or even no limbs have painted, driven, married, had babies and even led successful careers on stage. What’s my excuse?
Sure, I will never stand up and ‘relieve myself’ the way a man can, and thankfully I will not have to worry about the hair in my ears growing out as I age. But that is one of the many things that makes me a woman and what allows me to be one.
Discrimination only serves its fearful purpose when we allow it to be a limitation. Everything else is just an acknowledgement of the beautiful, fat, rich, skinny, pimpled, male, female, old, and young multi-coloured and multi-abled diversity that is humanity.
– Stuti Singh
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© Stuti Singh 2019 (firstname.lastname@example.org)