Diversity and Vulnerability (Part II)

My parents were both refugees. In 1945, when my mother was five and my father thirteen years old, they both left their homes in what were villages near Kaliningrad and Wachlin, and started moving west. Eventually they both ended up in a small town near Düsseldorf where they met in the sixties. I’m told it wasn’t as bad as it is now for refugees by far, but they never felt very welcome. Thinking about their lives, it dawned on me rather late that one of the crucial driving factors in their conduct was the constant attempt to avoid attracting attention at all costs. “What will the neighbours say”, was a repeated phrase. While the phrase is rather common, I guess the intensity of the shame behind it will vary. For better or worse, it didn’t stick with me too much. But the issue of shame and hiding oneself is another one that keeps coming back when I think about diversity and what blocks it. – In what follows, I don’t want to speak out against diversity. Quite the contrary. But I want to reflect on what needs to change if we really want at least some of it.

So what has shame to do with diversity? – One of the assets of a fairly diverse team is that, at least after a while, people take fewer things for granted, ask more questions, and get to see things they hadn’t expected to see. In one word, multiple perspectives. But even if the members of a team are diverse (in whatever ways), this is hard to achieve. The reason is that, for this to occur, people have to be open. People have to make themselves visible. Being open, not as in calling a spade a spade, but as in showing your perspectives with all their possible shortcomings, that kind of being open is hard even among friends. Showing yourself like that creates great potential but leaves yourself vulnerable.*

Obviously, the vulnerability of people from “diverse backgrounds” or “underrepresented groups” (of whatever kind) is infinitely greater than of those who conform to perceived majorities. That shouldn’t be surprising because the very fact that someone stands out with ‘diversity markers’ puts them on the spot. Now in professional contexts, we are trained to conform as much as possible. Despite all the talk about fresh ideas people will call you “weird” (rather than “inspiring”) before you finish your sentence. Of course, it’s fine to be weird, but only if you’ve got tenure. So you’ll rather do and talk as everyone else does. And if you try otherwise, see what happens. Perhaps you get to be the token weirdo and people put you in a nice bowl and keep you on an extra shelf in the department, but it’s more likely that you just created more space for the next conformist. The reason is quite simple: academia is a competitive environment; the expectation is that you excel in common features, not in something no one else does. Accordingly, hiring committees look for “fit”, not for fun or something they need to look at or think about twice.

Now what’s going on here? I think that employers should stop pretending to be looking for diversity. What employers actually do when they pretend to look for candidates from “underrepresented groups” is attempting to circumvent common discriminatory behaviour. That is not a particularly noble end but a political necessity. In such cases, people are not sought out because one wants to diversify teams, but because discrimination is unjust and unlawful (in some places at least). Of course, discrimination is still a thing, and it should end. But ending discrimination is not the same as implementing diversity.

So how do we implement diversity? While discrimination can be countered by amending formal procedures such as hiring processes, diversity is something that is not or not necessarily owing to the fact that someone is from an underrepresented group. Of course, this can go together but it doesn’t need to. A diversity of ideas, approach or method is something that anyone might have for whatever reason. The crucial step to enable such diversity is a climate in which people trust each other. Trust each other sufficiently to be open and make themselves visible in their vulnerability. That would be a climate in which even strangers would feel welcome to share their views. That is something we need to work on all together. For the shame and pressure to conform is a thing for all of us. They more we let go of it, the better for everyone involved, not least for those from “underrepresented groups”. It’s a matter of solidarity, not a policy.


* On vulnerability, I learned a lot through Brené Brown’s talks (here’s a ted talk) as well as the work by my former colleague Christine Straehle (here’s a collected volume).

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