Many times diversity trainers find it difficult to connect with an audience comprised mostly of white males. Not surprising since white males who are in the majority are not used to being stereotyped like a minority – right? Kinda. While it is true that white males do not understand what it is like to be anything other than what they are – white males, they can understand what it means to be stereotyped. You – the trainer or executive – can help them remember, and in doing so increase their comfort level with and curiosity about diversity-related issues at work.
This became clear to me many years ago while working for a major international consulting firm in Atlanta. One summer evening I went to a local watering hole to socialize with several colleagues. It was always a fun scene given the sheer diversity found in midtown Atlanta. This particular evening I gave in to the hot temperature and wore a t-shirt instead of the collared shirt I’d worn all day.
The bartender approached me, took my order and asked me what I was up to that evening. I replied that I was meeting friends who had yet to arrive. When he returned a few minutes later with my drink, he said “I think your friends are here” and he pointed to a booth in the back where a group of men were being seated. They were obnoxious-looking skinheads. “Those aren’t my friends,” I replied politely and continued to wait on my colleagues. The bartender moved away in embarrassment.
Here is the punch line: I am a white male who happens to have a shaved head, earrings and several visible tattoos.
The bartender honestly thought the skinheads were my buddies. He succumbed to the power of stereotypes. He never once associated me with the idea of “prestigious business consultant” or other related ideas. In that moment I felt odd, bad really. I felt stigmatized simply because someone felt I belonged to a group which I personally deemed reprehensible. Nonetheless, it afforded me one interesting moment to be a part of a very distinct minority. In fact, a minority considered a reprehensible “out group” by most in society. I had never honestly thought of that association before, but that evening it haunted me. I wondered if everyone in the place was thinking the same thing as the bartender. When my colleagues finally arrived, I felt rescued. I knew that everyone would see me as an acceptable professional given who I was associating with – a bunch of well dressed professionals.
Then I looked at one of my colleagues, who was Latino, and realized that he probably could not shake the stereotype placed on him as easily as I had.
Copyright 2009 TVA Inc.