Tired of all the fuss about diversity? Try living without it.
For many, the word ‘diversity’ conjures up thoughts of affirmative action programs, quota systems, and giving an advantage to someone with less merit. Being angry is understandable when you work hard to achieve your goals only to see someone seemingly jump the line.
We can dismiss these attempts to increase diversity as some lofty liberal snowflake-out, or we can examine our lives and explore the meaning behind the word. Here is what I found.
When I was a teenager, diversity meant a good day fishing at Waushacum Pond, where I never knew what I would catch; Pickerel, Perch, Trout, maybe a Large-mouth Bass!
As a young adult studying marine biology, diversity meant awe-inspiring scuba dives on tropical reefs. Did you know that nearly 25 percent of all ocean species spend part of their lives on a coral reef?
As I got older, diversity meant looking out the kitchen window as a dozen different species took turns at the bird feeder. In all those moments, I saw diversity as variety — the spice of life.
When I go for a walk, I always bring my earbuds to listen to Rock’n’Roll and Country — two music types with diverse family histories. We can debate who was the father of Rock’ n’ Roll, Chuck Berry or Elvis, but we all agree its roots were a melting pot of jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues.
Likewise, Country Music began when working-class Americans living in Appalachia blended English ballads with Celtic fiddle songs and Cowboy music.
Country music even has African influences. Did you know the banjo came to the United States from West Africa? Rock ’n’ Roll and Country music were founded by many peoples — just like America.
When I go out to eat, I’m an adventurer, always looking to try new types of food; Dingle Pie with a frothy Guinness, Torta Ahogada with a crisp Modelo, Ahi Nigiri with a cold Sapporo. My only regret? Ordering Octapodi Kokkinisto in a Greek restaurant in Detroit — better to have thrown the beast onto the ice at a Red Wings game!
We all enjoy different dishes from dozens of cultures. We ‘fuse’ ethnic tastes to produce new combinations to please the palate. Thank the diverse cultures around us for the wonderful food choices that make our lives enjoyable.
When I weed my garden, I’m reminded of how diversity affects the way we grow our food. Unfortunately, it’s heading in the wrong direction. More and more, farming is moving to monoculture, where the same crop is grown on the same plot year after year. This practice allows farmers to reduce costs, increase yields, and make higher profits — in the short term.
The long-term dangers of single crop, non-diverse agriculture are soil depletion and vulnerability to crop diseases. The threat is real, as when the blight of 1970 ruined more than 15 percent of corn crops in North America because 70% of the crop was the same high yield variety making it more susceptible to disease.
Ever notice these days, Banana’s are smaller and bruise more easily? That’s because the variety we grew up on, the Gros Michel or “Big Mike,” was wiped out by Panama Disease, a fungus that found the perfect home in monoculture plantations.
Big Mike’s replacement, the Cavendish, now comprises 95% of the worldwide banana crop. History seems destined to repeat as three different diseases are now threatening the Cavendish.
And, we should never forget the potato famine when 1 million Irish people died of starvation. The devastation on the Emerald Isle traces back to reliance on genetically identical ‘clones’ of a single variety of potato. Non-diversity in agriculture can have catastrophic results.
When I go to the bank, I’m confident I can get my money. That wasn’t true in March 1933 when banks closed during the Great Depression. The October ’29 stock market crash may have kicked off the Depression, but the economy’s reliance on only a few industries and the lack of a robust middle class caused it to drag on for a decade. Thank today’s diverse economy for helping us weather 14 Recessions since 1945 without another Depression.
Diversity is a mantra in business. Corporations diversify to create stability; financial advisors tell us to diversify our portfolios; mutual funds were literally invented on the concept of diversity.
If you go to the Harvard Business School, you can learn all about product diversification, concentric diversification, horizontal diversification, conglomerate diversification. I prefer to keep it simple, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
When I grew up during the Cold War, the Soviet Union thought they had it figured out when they rejected free markets in favor of a centrally planned economy. The result was a dramatic shortage of basic consumer products, like, um, soap.
This lack of consumer choice is the subject of a hilarious scene in Moscow on the Hudson starring the late Robin Williams as a Soviet circus musician who defects during a visit to New York City. William’s character enters a supermarket to buy coffee and has a nervous breakdown when confronted with the overwhelming choices on the shelves.
The problem wasn’t a joke in the Soviet Union, where leaders feared a rebellion due to long lines and empty shelves. Some say it was Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars bluff that won the Cold War. I think the secret weapon was diversity — in the form of Levi’s jeans.
When I visit my dermatologist, she reminds me to use SPF 50 to protect my pale Irish skin from cancer. It wasn’t always that way. About 70,000 years ago, when my ancestors began their migration north out of Africa, they had dark skin to protect them from the ravages of the equatorial sun.
What was an advantage under the intense African sun became a disadvantage in the North, where winter days are shorter, and colder weather requires more clothing. Because we need sunlight to penetrate our skin to create vitamin D for healthy bones, teeth, and muscles, these Northern descendants gradually evolved lighter skin to let in more of the vital beams.
Every day, weather reporters announce the day’s UV index so we can be careful when going outside. If we look at average UV indexes worldwide, we see a direct correlation with skin color. Areas with high UV have darker-skinned populations. Locations far from the tropics with lower UV have lighter-skinned peoples. Isn’t it amazing how humans adapt to the diverse environments on the planet we all call home?
Genetic research shows every human has slightly different versions of the same genes that go back to our common African ancestors. The visible differences between peoples are historical tweaks, reflecting how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure and not much else.
We now know the concept of race is a social construct that could be similarly miss-applied to redheads, blonds, and brunettes. There is only one race — the diverse human race.
When I go to church, I am reminded that diversity is a gift from God. In the Christian faith, the Bible tells us, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Likewise, the Jewish faith has many tributes to diversity. My favorite is this passage from the Midrash “A flesh and blood king mints coins bearing his likeness and every coin is exactly the same as the next. But the King of Kings mints coins bearing the Divine likeness and each one is entirely unique; and yet each is in fact a perfect image of the Divine. That means that every human being is sacred and deserving of being treated with respect, love, kindness and compassion.”
In the Qur’an, the term for diversity is ikhtilaf. As Professor Liyakat Takim of McMaster University explains, “Differences of language and race between human beings are seen in the Qur’an as a sign of God (Ayat Allah), just as differences between the heavens and the earth and between night and day are also signs of God. The implication is that such differences are signs of God’s overwhelming powers of Creation.”
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out, even diversity among the world’s religions is a gift, “Look at the major world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, different Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Jainism, Daoism, Confucianism, and so on — each of these has its own specialty. Therefore, through close contact, we can learn new things from each other; we can enrich our own traditions.”
I think the great evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky said it well, “People need not be identical twins to be equal before God, before the law, and in their rights to equality of opportunity.”
When I look back at the different forms of diversity, I see it as the special sauce of Creation that allowed us to grow beyond that tiny strand of RNA floating in a warm pond 3.4 billion years ago. The question is, if diversity is so baked into our world, why do we need artificial constructs like affirmative action and the voting rights act?
The answer is, we need them to offset another human-created artificial construct — racism. The plain truth is, if the latter did not exist, we would not need the former. Leave it to humans to mess things up.
We have a long history of screw-ups; Slavery, Eugenics, Colonialism, Ethnic Cleansing, Jim Crow, Apartheid, the Holocaust, White Supremacy. All these evil constructs come about when humans think they are smarter than God and Nature.
The costs of these mistakes have been high, including a Civil War, World War II, and the deaths of 1.8 million Africans on slave ships. You think we would have learned our lesson, but we haven’t.
I am a lily-white man who will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, but I do have a story to tell. A few years ago, I drove to Dunkin Donuts to get my morning fix of java. I handed a $10 bill to the cashier and waited for my change. I was embarrassed when she returned the $10 and said sorry, it was counterfeit. I apologized, handed her a new bill, and went on my way.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a black man, paid for a pack of cigarettes with a suspected counterfeit $20 bill. Within 30 minutes, he was dead from a police officer kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I doubt the difference between $10 and $20 explains why one of us is still alive.
Deaths of black people at the hands of racists are mortal sins that also bring to light the uncountable impacts of racism occurring to millions of people every day.
I recently attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in a nearby town. As I listened to the experiences told by people of color, young and old, a picture of systemic racism emerged that equates to death by a thousand cuts — emotional, financial, and physical.
The list of sharps is long; racist remarks by an elementary school teacher, traffic stops without reasonable suspicion, continually being followed inside stores, disproportionate incarceration, and a mother’s worry that her son will die a violent death. That is, by far, an incomplete list.
I have heard people respond to complaints about systemic racism by describing how hard they have worked in their own lives. I believe them. The one thing I would ask of those same hardworking people is to imagine themselves having to also carry the weight of racism on their backs. If life is a game of inches, would they have missed reaching an important rung in the ladder of success?
As I count the blessings diversity gives us, I am hopeful we can learn from nature, culture, economics, science and religion and bring the love of human diversity into our hearts. That love will open the door to all we can become.
As Michelle Obama said so well, “Here in America, we don’t let our differences tear us apart. Not here. Because we know that our greatness comes from when we appreciate each other’s strengths, when we learn from each other, when we lean on each other, because, in this country, it’s never been each person for themselves, no, we’re all in this together. We always have been.”