X-Expats’ Open Talks Series: Casual Conversations with Ruth Van Reken – Part 3

Casual Conversations with Ruth Van Reken
PART 3/3: Diversity and Inclusion Programs

Ruth Van Reken is a second generation Adult Third Culture Kid* (ATCK) who has raised three TCKs herself. For more than twenty-five years, Ruth has traveled nationally and internationally to help others understand why a cross-cultural childhood matters. She is co-founder of Families in Global Transition and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.

X-E: More and more public and private organizations are committed to develop and maintain global diversity and inclusion programs. What are your recommendations for these initiatives to be rewarding for both the entity and the individual?

RVR: First I would ask, “How are people defining ‘global diversity’ and ‘inclusion’?” Are we talking about programs more akin to the traditional USA ‘diversity’ programs that focus mainly on race and equity issues, or are we talking about diversity and inclusion at every level – including thought, cultural, and economic diversity? If it is the latter, how does the idea of ‘inclusion’ work when people at these deeper levels of diversity may have radically different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, values and beliefs?

For any program on global diversity or inclusion to be successful, these hard questions must be addressed. Dr. Gary Weaver, founder and director of the Intercultural Management Institute at American University, Washington, DC, likens culture to an iceberg. He speaks of the surface and deeper layers of culture and how what we can see on the surface has traditionally been an expression of the values, beliefs, and worldview that we don’t see at these deeper levels. Dr. Weaver uses the analogy of the iceberg because situations such as the sinking of the Titanic occur when ships run into the invisible layer of the iceberg even while they successfully avoid a crash with the visible section. Years ago, Weaver predicted that the great challenge facing our globalizing world would be that as the visible parts of all cultures – e.g. the dress, the food, the media – became more alike, we would assume that the unseen or deeper levels of culture – our values, beliefs, and worldview – were now also more alike. People would forget that while it is relatively easy to change things the surface layers of culture, it is an infinitely slower process to change deeper layers – the beliefs, values, and worldview. In the end, Weaver predicted this erroneous expectation of likeness at the deeper levels of culture based on assumptions made because of increased similarities in the visible layers could lead to unexpected intercultural clashing.

This is why I believe no program for global diversity or inclusion (GD&I) can be successful for either the organizations or individuals involved if it is based on the visible aspects of diversity alone. Obviously, these visible factors must be addressed as they are, in fact, where discrimination often begins. But our approach to diversity and/or inclusion cannot, and must not, stay there. Programs will fail if they are only about fixing ‘the look’ of an organization by filling carefully constructed quotas to represent each type of defined diversity, while never giving thought as to how the unseen layers affect how this diverse group will or won’t function together successfully. Until there is a way to have ‘civil discourse’ so we can understand one another’s potentially significant differences in beliefs, values, and worldview, we are left with what was, to me at least, a particular irony of one D&I program I saw featured on the web. There, one corporation’s statement on inclusion lauded their commitment to include people of all diversities in the workplace. Because of that, their employees had to sign a statement saying they would include everyone regardless of their specific diversities. If employees or perspective employees wouldn’t sign for whatever reason, they lost their job or weren’t hired. In other words, they were excluded in the very name of inclusion.

What I wondered, however, was if those people had a chance to explain the reason behind their refusal to sign before they were dismissed or not hired? Could it be that some of what these people were being asked to accept went against deeply held religious beliefs or their own cultural values? If so, how do their ‘diversities’ become included in the total package? Can they be? Some would ask, “Should they be?” If the answer is no, then on what principle is that conclusion based? In our polarizing world, it is easy to judge quickly by a particular action rather than seeking to understand the reason behind that action and the more global we become, the more effort we will have to make to understand these deeper layers of culture in ourselves as well as others.

Medical ethicist, John Patrick, speaks of “the myth of moral neutrality,” making the point that no one is value free, but often because we see our values and beliefs as the norm, we don’t understand the worldview that lurks behind them or how this shapes our vision of the world just as much as how a different worldview shapes someone else’s vision of how things ‘should’ be in ways that are quite different from our own. When I read the above mentioned company’s position on inclusion, I wondered if there was ever a time or place where those who designed the company policy could recognize or explain their own beliefs, values and worldview (or government mandates!) which had shaped this statement? If so, was there a time when and where those who objected to these policies could explain their beliefs, values, and worldview which might be in conflict with the policy? In other words, at this most basic place of promoting ‘diversity and inclusion,’ who had made a way for dialog about this topic rather than a polarizing ‘either/or’ position? Finding a way to promote such dialog is, I believe, one of the great challenges facing us as we seek to incorporate diversity at all levels and include those who do not see the world exactly as we do. If we do not find a way to dialog about our true beliefs and values in the deeper layer of culture, people who may see the world a bit differently from how their organization or company tells them they must think or be are either forced to lie and sign the statements in order to get or keep their jobs, or they are simply excluded. The insights and perspectives they might have added to what is going on in our globalizing world and solutions for how to respect very opposite views and still work together are lost.

And if it is true that some beliefs and values are mutually exclusive, then, it seems to me, we must not be afraid to acknowledge that rather than claiming universal ‘inclusion.’ If we admit this reality, we can dare to dialog with others quite unlike ourselves because we can listen and learn fabulous things without being afraid we will have to become the ‘other’.

So how do we begin to do this? One way is to recognize what we talked about in the earlier part of this discussion on the cultural complexity many in today’s world already know personally. Often the talent and expertise they need to succeed in today’s market place is already in front of them if they learn how to recognize the ‘hidden diversity’ of those who may have already grown up and/or lived among many different cultural worlds. Paulette Bethel and I defined it this way: Hidden diversity – a diversity of experience that shapes a person’s life and world view but is not readily apparent on the outside, unlike the usual diversity markers such as race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. When those designing programs understand that some of the simple facts listed on the applicant’s c.v such as place of birth, particularly if different from their passport country, how many places and where they lived in as a child, languages spoken, etc, some of this hidden diversity is not quite so hidden. Sometimes, however, there are not enough questions on the form to bring out some of these facts. If asked to check the statistical boxes on many forms, I wonder what it means to the person reading this if I mark the spots that would identify me as a 67 year old Caucasian female who lives suburban USA? How can I explain that the truth also is that I was born and raised in Kano, Nigeria, playing with African and European children as well as US American friends every day of my life? When I went through cultural orientation classes in the US before moving back to Africa as an adult, no one resourced any of that experience or history. All our trainers presumed we had each been born and bred in the USA. After many cautionary tales from others about life in Africa, I wanted to tell them that long before they read their first book on cultural competency, I had been living as part of the very culture they were talking about! When they used us/them terms, I wasn’t sure if I was an ‘us’ or a ‘them’. Of course, such attitudes are why those who grow up among many cultural worlds can sometimes come across as arrogant but truly, there are helpful insights we can often add to a situation when this part of us is recognized.

Fortunately, I know that many individuals, GD&I programs, and intercultural trainers are already attempting to deal with both the surface and deeper layers of culture. I met the late Patrick McLaurin, an adult TCK and Former Director of Booz Allen Hamilton’s Global Diversity Department. He was an impressive man who was developing a global diversity program that included ‘thought diversity’ in significant ways before his untimely death in 2007. Perhaps as one who himself grew up globally, McLaurin knew how important it was for any group or organization to use the rich resources available in the global talent pool rather than only local talent. He knew the importance of getting different perspectives on the what they planned to do if they wanted to succeed in a globalizing world.

When another adult TCK, Sidney Taurel, became CEO of Eli Lilly & Co, he brought leaders from the company’s offices around the world to live in Indianapolis so they could be at the corporate meetings taking place in the company’s headquarters. Taurel believed that for Lilly to succeed, he, as the CEO, needed the global wisdom of the best talent he could find present at the heart of decision making moments for the company. Taurel helped start the International School of Indianapolis so those he sought to recruit from other countries would be able to educate their children in ways that allowed them to repatriate one day.
Incidentally, this approach also led to an amazing amount of visible diversity as well. I attended a party at a friend’s house who happened to work for Lilly and felt as if I had gone to a meeting of the United Nations. People were there from what seemed to be ‘every tribe and nation.’ Another friend of mine who used to work for a different pharmaceutical company that had been bought out by a larger one told me that the reason Eli Lilly & Co. still existed when so many others had failed was simple: “They thought internationally before the rest of us did.”

And why is all of this also good for the individual? Each person in the world needs to be part of a community yet also recognized for the unique person he or she is. As our life stories are heard, affirmed, and then given a place to be used, the richness and sense of living fully as we were intended to live can only grow. Surely, to me, this is the wonder of my story. From the moment of my birth, I have lived among people from many places and cultures. Because of that, the usual questions of identity dogged me in my earlier years. Some of my viewpoints (maybe even some here!) came across as radical because they didn’t adhere to the ‘common wisdom’ of the current world around me. Like many others, I often tried to hide my ‘real self’ and be what I thought I needed to be to fit in. But now I realize that before there was thought of any GD&I program, I already found delight in meeting people of multiple cultures, races, and nationalities who often didn’t think anywhere close to the way I thought or do things like I did, but all were interesting to me. Each time I heard their stories or they shared their beliefs or worldviews, I expanded my own awareness and understanding of how the world works. I also found among all the differences between us the wonderful commonality we shared as humans. To then be given the opportunity as an adult to continue living among many cultural worlds as I travel to share my thoughts on raising children cross-culturally is a matter of joy to me. I’m still not sure how I would fit in most formal GD&I programs, but I am incredibly grateful for the many groups, schools, and organizations who have let me share what I have learned in my eclectic life and continue learning from them in this ever changing world. And I am grateful to have this opportunity to share a few thoughts on these matters with you!

Comments are closed.