April 29, 2016

Diversity is a Habit

It was a huge culture shock moving to Sydney from New York all those years ago. Five minutes on a street corner in New York sees more diversity of life than a year in Sydney. At the time I thought it was just weird.

Then something interesting happened at a very deep level. I got used to it. 

I started to notice when non-white people were in my line of sight. It occurred as difference.

In New York there were so many different types of people I didn't even pause. Now when I go back for a visit, it occurs as an explosion of difference.

This is exactly what happens at a brain level. 

Researchers have found that our experience of racial difference starts with an emotional reaction.

That response lessens as the diversity of our environment increases.  

I know in my case I felt relief - coming home again to normal.

But for people used to racially similar circumstances, it occurs as a threat.


That's a problem. 

We attribute our emotional response to external causes, not to the inner workings of our brain. You see someone different, feel a threat and think it's because of them. That's where racism begins.

As a default, we tend to prefer people who look like us, think like us and act like us. It's that feeling of settling in with someone who's "on the same page".  It feels good!

It's why diversity in organizations will continue to be an issue for some time.  The brain craves certainty and predictability which comes from what we know and who's like us.

Diversity requires us to feel uncomfortable, uncertain and maybe a little scared. 

It's about taking a chance on someone who is sometimes so radically different to who you think is right for the job but who brings change, innovation and disruption.

It's finding a way to balance out that gut instinct that pulls you towards safe with a new filter that looks for the right kind of difference. 

It's a conscious, deliberate re-wiring of your mental filters and that's hard work. You're fighting that inner voice craving sameness, security and comfort. 

The good news is, do this often enough and you'll find different is the new same.


For more information:

Allen J. Hart, Whalen, P.J., Shin, L.M., McInerney, S.C., Fischer, H., and Rauch, S.L. (2000). Differential response in the human amygdala to racial outgroup vs ingroup face stimuli. Neuroreport, 11 (11), 2351-2355.

Lieberman, M. D., Hariri, A., Jarcho, J.M., Eisenberger, and N.I., Bookheimer, S.Y. (2005). An fMRI Investigation of Race-Related Amygdala Activity in African-American and Caucasian American Individuals. Nature Neuroscience, 8 (6), 720-722. 

Olsson, A., Ebert, J.P., Banaji, M.R., and Phelps, E.A. (2005). The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear. Science, 309, 785–787.