From birth, we are separated: boy or girl? Green eyes or brown? African or asian? We are put into boxes; categorised. We are taught to identify ourselves by our differences from others. As we grow, we are encouraged to stand out from the crowd, define our individual identities, promote our unique skills and compete.
In our eagerness to differentiate ourselves, we sometimes trample on our fellow humans, our ‘adversaries’, to get to the top – or wherever it is we think we need to be. We grab for resources, terrified that there aren’t enough; we fight for space and to be heard because now is our chance; we elbow out each other’s eyes to make sure we’re not left at the back of the line, missing out on the goods.
And what do we fear, besides shortage of resources? We fear what we don’t understand. I am programmed to stick with, and look after, ‘my own’ and protect them against ‘the other’.
How far have we got with this approach? Humanity is in a race against itself to see if we can survive the chaos our greed and selfishness has wrought – and we haven’t a hope in hell unless we can work together.
Working together means looking at ‘the other’ – whether that’s a different sex, race, hair colour, body shape, set of cultural values, sexual orientation – and trying to understand that person. We are all human. I, to someone else, am that ‘other’. Do I want to be feared, persecuted, ignored, looked down upon? Hell no. I want to be valued and respected as a human being with feelings, opinions, strengths and flaws. How can I be my best and contribute my talent if I’m seen as ‘other’?
South Africans are as versed in diversity as any other population: the only undisputed fact is the status of the KhoiSan as the first locals; beyond that, there is some muddiness around what it is to be South African, and this is not exactly propelling us into a glowing future.
For a community to thrive, we must work together to understand each other and break down barriers. A community might be a country, a village or an organisation. What we miss by not capitalising on and uniting individual skills is years – decades – of progress. That might not seem so important in the bigger picture, but it might also come to light as the cause of our demise.
We are all human, all animals, all living beings. We are all stardust. Differences between us worth celebrating and leveraging are our different skills and ways of solving problems. And these are worth celebrating only because we can combine them to be truly great and tackle the big challenges.
Cultural diversity in an organisation is a gift: it gives us a chance to learn about people who come from other beliefs and behaviours, to open our minds and challenge our own ways of thinking. The chance of me approaching someone on the street and asking them about themselves is slim to none; and if I were to do that, the person might be suspicious to the point of heading in the other direction, or at best might not reveal much of themselves.
But when you spend 40 hours a week in a space, you are given the right to talk to someone who shares that space with you, especially if you need to work together.
When a previous colleague and I were partners in crime – she the Xhosa Experience Designer; I the British Research Lead – we’d spend hours in a small room, poring over Post-Its, debating the meaning of the data, zooming in, backing up, trying to empathise with people. Naturally, our conversations sometimes turned to personal topics: my kids, her approaching wedding ceremony, how folks do things in my home town in North Wales, her church community. We were both genuinely interested in the other’s experience and point of view, and while we had differing approaches to life – learned from our families and communities – there was always something for me to learn.
This person was a gift – an opportunity for me to learn about other ways of living life. And I didn’t have to do anything to find her. She just walked in. And she fit because we found something to get excited about in the work we do; and we welcomed her because she had skills and ways of thinking that made our team better.
That’s the beauty – and the necessity – of a culturally diverse organisation: it allows us to learn about each other and open our minds without having to try too hard; and we should grab every opportunity with both hands because if we can celebrate and build on our differences, then we might just have a hope in hell.