A colleague recently asked me, “Is it just me, or is everyone talking about diversity?” Interesting question and I guess it depends on who you ask. People have been talking about diversity for decades: the lack of it, the need for it, and the problems with it. I think my colleague is hearing an old conversation that has gone mainstream, perhaps even “viral”, and is gaining speed in our workplaces and communities.

Allow me to digress for a moment. As a black women and even as a black child, I have always felt it was my job, perhaps even my duty, to make my friends comfortable with my blackness.  Why?  Well, the answer really starts with How? I enjoyed sharing the trials and tribulations of dealing with the kink in my hair, ashy skin, and what I now call the ‘rules of engagement’ when visiting the homes of the black families from my community. Discussing differences made me feel understood – less different. I would share the funny and not-so-funny stories about the customs, expectations and what made me ‘different’ and, in turn, learn about my friend’s uniqueness and family customs. As a child, I was not weighing the psychological and sociological motivation for sharing myself in this way – I just knew it felt good. It was easy for me to talk this way – I didn’t perceive any risk in the conversation.
Clearly the conversation around diversity isn’t always so simple. Consider Starbucks’ recent attempt to stimulate the conversation. Race Together “…is an opportunity to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time,” according to CEO Howard Schultz in a statement on the company’s website. The campaign encouraged Baristas at the coffee chain to start a conversation about race with customers by writing the words “Race Together” on their disposable cups, and offering conversation starters. A bold, well-intended initiative that went down in flames with a public backlash in social media so negative they decided to pull the campaign.  

How did the best of intentions go so far off the rails? From my perspective, there are a few reasons. First, customers didn’t understand, or perhaps didn’t appreciate, the motive. The sincerity of the initiative was in question. Not surprisingly. Diversity and Starbucks are far from synonymous, and spokespeople for Starbucks admit they are not as diverse as they would like to be at the executive level. Another problem was the executive assumption that all Baristas are comfortable initiating and navigating these conversations. The pressure created by making this delicate conversation a job expectation was highly problematic. And lastly, the conversation starters displayed at the register seemed more like measuring sticks than the impetus for connecting and conversation. For example, some of the conversation starters included: 

  • In my Facebook stream, ___% are of a different race. 
  • In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times. 
  •  ___ members of a different race live on my block or apartment building.

In the defense of Starbucks, while poorly executed, the initiative did stimulate conversation. And I strongly believe that conversation is still a critical component in improving diversity and inclusion in our communities and our workplaces. Perhaps we can all learn from their misstep. Conversations about diversity require a few critical ingredients to create the kind of understanding that Schultz asserts Starbucks sought to achieve.

A safe space – The public forum of a coffee shop with a complete stranger isn’t the ideal scenario to initiate a diversity conversation. A safe space may not be a physical place at all. Whether it’s a phone call, a discussion on skype, or a face-to-face meeting, it’s less about the place and more about the environment created by those involved. 

Authentic motivation – Just as people object to a campaign that smacks of self-promotion, people take issue with conversations that seem motivated only by the need to check boxes as a part of a workplace diversity initiative. When conversations are motivated by a sincere desire to connect, learn, and create understanding they are infinitely more successful. 

Positive interaction without judgement – I would like to thank the Barista who shared a chuckle with me when I asked if he’d like to have a conversation during the Race Together campaign. But if his eye roll was any indication, I can safely say my attempt at a Race Together conversation was doomed from the start. In fairness, we both knew this conversation wasn’t going anywhere. Positive interactions require two consenting parties prepared to take the time to connect, which cannot be achieved while making my skinny latte or with preconceived notions about where the conversation will go or fear of judgement.  

There is no question that the conversation around race and diversity can become complicated. But seeking to create greater understanding despite our differences is too valuable to be avoided. With the right intent, an open mind, and sensitivity – I believe we can discuss, share, and be seen for what makes each of us unique and individual. Simple.