A few days ago, the American public was shocked with the news that Rachel Dolezal, a 37-year-old woman heading a local NAACP chapter in Washington, had been misleadingly portraying herself as a black woman, her mother revealed.
I remembered then a short paragraph of my book, “¡Hola, amigos! A Plan for Latino Outreach” in which I discussed the question title of this article: Can a White person be a diversity leader?
“Regardless of race or ethnicity,” I said in 2010, “people from different backgrounds have a genuine interest in promoting diversity. However, White people might experience exclusion by some people of color, who may distrust the motives of a White person who promotes diversity or feel the person does not have the credibility to be a diversity leader—I have personally experienced this issue because I’m a White Latina from Argentina” (Baumann, page 36).
For clarification purposes, my background of origin goes back to Switzerland and Poland on my father’s side and Italy –all “spaghetti” – on my mother’s side: Comotto, Comini, Bellatti, Bellini.
“Country of origin or nationality might be another obstacle to diversity leadership,” I continued to say. “Some people of color might consider themselves natural diversity leaders because they have resided for a long time in a community or because they feel they have seniority in diversity issues.”
Belonging to a particular race or origin does not instantaneously turns you out to be a qualified diversity leader, nor does your country of origin. I have heard some diversity leaders of main academic institutions who identify themselves as “brown” refusing to admit that I was Caucasian. “You are ‘brown’, I was told.”
Does it really matter?
I had also the same situation at a conference, where the speaker was pointing out diversity issues related to “brown” people. I had to bring up again my “whiteness,” which made me somehow uncomfortable and put the speaker in an embarrassing situation.
I am unaware of the motives for Dolezal to publicly lie- if that is the case- about her race. Was she trying to gain an advantage in her career or was she confronted with the same situation, her “whiteness” being a major obstacle in her advocacy efforts?
For sure, such convoluted situation can bring frustration and discouragement to anyone who truly believes in advocating for diversity. When this type of situation happens in the workplace, it is necessary to review the elements that make us all diverse, which are not limited to race, color, or national origin. Gender, age, abilities, religion, sexual preferences, and other variables make us all diverse in many ways.
Most importantly, becoming an advocate for diversity does not disqualify any race or ethnicity. Moreover, being White is just another shade in the diversity rainbow.
However, the dominance and privilege of certain race over others is the matter of discussion, and diversity competency in the workplace should be a number one priority in ensuring a fair game.
“Acquiring diversity competency in the workplace not only has to do with recognizing issues of disparities, but also with issues of equality,” I said. “You need to find out how you can bring everybody to an equal playing field so all have the same opportunities. Discover the issues in your workplace, and bring them to an open discussion in the training context.”
A productive way to promote diversity leadership and support your staff in becoming diversity leaders is to encourage them to participate in the community they serve, no matter the race, ethnicity or any other diversity qualifier they might carry. Companies must mirror the communities they reach out to, and that mirror needs to be reflected at all levels of the company.
Anybody can advocate for a more open, equitable society if they sincerely believe and live that truth every day.
What is your opinion on this matter? Is Dolezal right or wrong?