Some people squawked about it. Isn’t that always the way? No matter how good the program is, there are always some folks who complain and whine about having to attend. Once there, sometimes they pipe down when they realize the value of the message(s), and other times they continue to sigh (loudly) in boredom, roll their eyes, and in general act as if they’ve been asked to attend a conference on the value of planting blueberries in China.
On this particular morning about forty years ago, the faculty and staff had been assembled to listen to a couple of presentations on cultural diversity. Many were looking forward to it. After all, it was a topic we needed and wanted (most of us) to know more about. The times they were a-changin’, and while my friends and I welcomed the changes, we soon learned that others resented and in some cases, feared them.
After an initial meet and greet period, the first speaker began her presentation. Right away, there was a negative reaction from a few in the audience—mostly men. What, after all, could she, a woman, say about cultural diversity that they didn’t already know? A lot. Seriously, as a person who managed to keep up with sociological trends, I’d somehow missed the hard and true facts of gender wage inequalities. At that time, I knew that females made about 70 percent of what males in similar roles and occupations made, but I didn’t know how deeply that affected my salary then and in the future. If things didn’t improve, my retirement would be minuscule compared to my male colleagues. Maybe not minuscule but substantially less.
While I was pondering my possible bleak retirement years and my current situation of working the second shift (the one women worked in their homes after eight hours on the job), I began feeling a tad resentful. How could this be happening right before my eyes, the eyes that had read and studied data about gender inequities for years. Did I not think the stats applied to me?
Another person joined the primary presenter and introduced another factor, that of race. Being raised in the South, I had seen this factor played out time and time again. In my hometown, for instance, in the 50s black Americans were allowed to work for one of the city’s biggest employers as long as they (1) worked in separate areas and (2) performed lower level tasks (whatever that might mean to you). After a number of years and the passing of Civil Rights legislation, the situation improved.
Back to the day of the cultural diversity training. One of the men who had made his discontent and annoyance known throughout the morning became so obnoxious that one of the presenters asked him if he would like to add something. You bet he did. A paraphrase I’ve never forgotten: “I just don’t understand what all the hullabaloo is about. I mean, I never wake up in the morning thinking I’m a white man.”
You could have heard a pin drop. After a few seconds, a colleague said quietly, “You’ve never had to.”
I don’t recall how that specific exchange ended, but I do know a lot of hearts and minds were changed that day. My colleague who’d been so feisty and irritated didn’t know how it felt to wake up black, female, Asian, disabled, or anything other than what he was–a white man in America.
That was about forty years ago, and although people are more “woke” today, many have a hard time imagining another’s perspective. Recently, a friend of about sixty announced in an upbeat voice that he could see the world from the viewpoint of a white sixty-something year-old. “I know what you mean,” I said. And I do. I see the world through the lens of an older white woman who’s still sometimes caught off guard by the changes around her…and this is despite studying and pondering societal change throughout decades of living and observing.
Still, I try. I earnestly try to look at behavior, choices, and beliefs of others from their perspective, not mine. It’s challenging, yes. But is there any other way?