Diversity, a problem of visualization, not just numbers

I’m 22 years old — a young cat without much experience in the real world — so it’s assumed that people like me don’t know as much as someone older. Those who think that might be right, but there is one thing I do know and I’m sure you could agree with me on: that we all go through this phase of life when we’re just supposed to figure it out, make a decision, and contribute magic to life. But we tend to neglect the phase that comes before that which shapes who we become even more than we think. I call it the exposure phase — the phase where you’re exposed to a variety of faces that look like you and represent potential paths waiting for you to walk down.

This phase is huge, and we fail as a people sometimes to give it the nourishment and attention it deserves. That’s why when I read about the tech industry’s diversity problem — the numbers and what they’re doing about it — I just shake my head.

So when I read a piece (http://gizmodo.com/mark-zuckerberg-ceo-of-a-one-percent-black-company-sp-1793236982) criticizing Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to North Carolina A&T something within wouldn’t allow me to be silent any longer. Although the harsh tones of the article portray an attack on Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook, the article is more about accountability, not only for Mr. Zuckerberg himself but also for us as readers. Most importantly, it’s about promoting understanding and keeping us from believing our own bullsh*t that we walk around with in our heads. So first let’s dismantle the mainstream definition of diversity and inclusion and rebuild it, and just maybe we’ll start to develop a coherent understanding.

See, diversity is not solely about numbers, representation, gender, race nor any other metric we want to track. All of those are meaningless without a firm foundation of how they stem from visualization — yes, what we see within the environments we are a part of.

I would like to make the assumption that we all understand the power of images. Therefore, I would like to also assume that we understand why events in history like the Civil Rights movement, the OJ Simpson mess, and even the growth of our beloved social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat were due to images and their ability to help people make sense of the world WE live in. When speaking of images, I’m not solely talking about the ones we capture, but also, the ones formed by the people we interact with on a daily basis. Yet, we all understand the power of images, but we ignore the following truth: one seeks what they see and what they see they become within the boundaries of the power of choice and constraints of life. I would even argue that most of us did not consciously make a choice when forming the images in our head of the variety of people we have encountered. Don’t believe me, well then what are the first things that come to mind when asked the following:

1. When you think of black people and their roles/occupations within society, what immediately comes to mind?

2. When you think of women and their roles/occupations within society, what immediately comes to mind?

3. When you think of White people and their roles/occupations within society, what immediately comes to mind?

4. When you think of White men and their roles/occupations within society, what immediately comes to mind?

5. When you think of Asian people and their roles/occupations within society, what immediately comes to mind?

I would bet that the answers become even more interesting if we ask high school kids, better yet, our high school selves. The point being that we all have biases and may not understand how they were formed or their consequences. The important consequence being the opposite of the truth above: one will not seek what they don’t see, what they don’t see is what they will not become. That is a consequence that we as a people have not confronted, a consequence built up from years of harsh history, a consequence we must confront and solve together.

So bringing things full circle, I would argue Mr. Zuckerberg was not aware of this consequence — most aren’t. That’s why I wrote this article. Because if Mr. Zuckerberg was aware, I would argue he would have brought a black engineer to speak with him at North Carolina A&T State University. But he didn’t and that’s a problem.

I commend Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook, along with others seeking to improve diversity and inclusion through various programs such as unbiased training, however, those things are solving symptoms and not the pain points we as a people are dealing with now. So, Mr. Zuckerberg, you’re being held accountable, along with everyone else who thinks it’s about what we measure — the numbers.

I leave you with this: how might we change the focus of diversity to visualization? More importantly, how might we unlock its power? Lastly, when moving forward and confronting diversity issues, ask yourself, “If I were in someone else’s shoes — someone of a different race/ethnicity, sex, or position — what would I not see that I (in your own shoes) see today?” Then challenge why that may be.

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