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Diversity and Inclusion is not just black and white

April 23, 2014

By Darlene Slaughter

Diversity and inclusion issues have always been controversial and complex, but as a quick glance at the headlines shows, the opportunity to start a D&I firestorm with just a few clicks on social media has never been higher. The reality is that any insensitive/offensive remark, action, or regulation, etc. (not just racial slurs) can inflict major damage on your own and your organization’s reputation.

Take what happened when Mozilla hired a new CEO, as reported by Becky Hayes at the Huffington Post. Needless to say, headlines like “Mozilla’s Anti-Gay CEO Hastily Resigns Amid Controversy” are not good for business.

“Just weeks after the announcement was made, newly named Mozilla CEO, Brendan Eich resigned from his post amid impassioned outcries from the LGBT community and its allies,” Hayes writes. “The controversy began when news spread that Eich had contributed money in 2008 to the California initiative attempting to ban same-sex marriage.

“Eich’s views on gay marriage motivated two Mozilla developers to boycott the company until something was done. Although Mozilla tried to brush the issue under the rug with a public statement emphasizing the company’s support of marriage equality, others were not so convinced.”

The question becomes how do companies manage when this type of controversy happens all the time and when these controversies get started even though the intention is the exact opposite of how the event is perceived? The recent #cancelcolbert controversy, Andrew Peng reports in “Power to the Hashtag Activists,” is a case in point.

“In the internet age of today, it is simply impossible to deny the power of online activism,” he writes. “Countless debates over racism, sexism, homophobia, as well as other widespread social concerns have been provoked over the years, with stinging words and calls for action being waged like bullets on a global battlefield of social concern…

“…It was just another Wednesday, and just another day for millions of Americans to watch Comedy Central’s ‘The Colbert Report’ to get their daily dose of biting humor. Host Stephen Colbert…aired a segment lampooning Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his decision to launch a nonprofit foundation designed to ‘help address the challenges that plague the Native American community.’

“While the creation of the foundation may appear as a heart-filled gesture, the Native American community has in the past taken issue with the word ‘Redskins,’ which is viewed as a corrosive ethnic slur…Dan Snyder’s move to name the foundation the ‘Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation’ has rightfully angered many Native American activists.

“…Colbert, in his usual loud-mouthed conservative character, stepped in, declaring that he was inspired by Snyder’s actions and announced that he would be launching the ‘Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.’ He then aired a clip referencing his fake Asian stereotype character, ‘Ching-Chong Ding-Dong,’ in which he engaged in satirized mockery of Asian dialect.

“[Colbert] was taking a public and vocal stand in support of the Native American community. So what went wrong?”

And then there’s the recent controversy that Amanda Terkel’s story titled “Black Female Lawmakers Object To Army’s ‘Discriminatory’ Ban On Certain Hairstyles” in The Huffington Post explains:

“The 16 women in the Congressional Black Caucus sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter Thursday objecting to the Army’s ban on certain hairstyles, which has been criticized as racially biased against black women.

“The Army recently released Regulation 670-1, which contained rules on tattoos, hairstyles, grooming and uniforms for soldiers…

Part of the letter reads:

“Though we understand the intent of the updated regulation is to ensure uniformity in our military, it is seen as discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their natural hair.

“African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace. […]

“Army officials have responded to criticism of the regulation by saying it applies to all soldiers regardless of race, and that they are meant to protect their safety. However the use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased…”

These and many other stories illustrate how easy it is to land on the wrong side of a Diversity & Inclusion situation even when you’re trying to support a minority group. Paradoxically, we live in a society where the line between “political correctness” and “authenticity” can be blurry, and the fact is these situations can easily derail any organization. That’s why Diversity and Inclusion work is more important than ever. It gives you the space to have the necessary conversations to skillfully and compassionately work through all manner of D&I situations.

So let’s hear from you. How do you navigate our increasingly changing and digitally connected world? Has anyone said something offensive to you? Or have you ever said the “wrong thing at the wrong time”? How did you deal with both situations? Share your thoughts with us.

Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diversity and Inclusion is designed to help you have the sensitive conversations that will make a difference in your organization.

Slaughter_DarleneDarlene Slaughter is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. She leads the development of Linkage’s Inclusive Leadership and Advancing Women Leaders practice areas. She also serves as Chair for Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diversity and Inclusion. Formerly, she was Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Fannie Mae. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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