Although he’s fluent in four languages, finance professional Dean Hezekiah still faces bias. He shares his experience and thoughts on diversity in the workplace.
A few weeks into my time in Australia I was asked a question I would come to learn is asked quite frequently.
“How long have you lived in Australia?”
“A couple of weeks,” I replied.
“And your English is already so good. Wow!”
I stood there perplexed. To be clear I’m black, and the person who asked this question is white. In the four or so years I’ve lived here, I’ve met people of various backgrounds, more varied than I’d met in my entire life prior. Australia has such rich cultural diversity that it’s often a struggle to take it all in.
This sort of richness comes with some challenges though. It can be confusing — an area most people’s education doesn’t prepare them for. I’ve learned that as a nation we’ve made huge, commendable strides. But much remains to be achieved on inclusion and equality. It takes time to get from public intent to a shift in social values.
I’ve met many Australians who truly live and embody the beliefs of inclusion, equality and humanity. I’ve learned so much from them. They are my heroes.
But I’ve also met another interesting group. They acknowledge these ideals but struggle to live by them. They say these values are noble but can’t seem to own them.
I want to talk about these people for a moment. You see, they interest me a rather great deal. If you engage them in conversation, you’ll find they are very normal. They speak intelligently, they’re forward-thinking and hard-working They are decent people, but I’m not sure why the values of diversity and inclusion have escaped them?
While I don’t have expertise in psychology — I went with a finance career — my interest in the subject and my personal experiences have led me to make two observations that I’d like to share.
1. The notion of diversity is part of the problem
In our bid to tackle social ills like discrimination, we’ve created a system that effectively differentiates individuals on dimensions unrelated to their individuality. If you’ve ever filled a form where you had to describe your origin, you’d appreciate this point.
And what if you’re mixed race? I find these forms mildly irritating because they don’t acknowledge my uniqueness and seek to put me in a box. Yes, I’m proud of where I come from, but when I look in the mirror I see myself as an individual, not a member of a group.
I say this to illustrate the point that the very notion of diversity — while well intended — could yield the adverse consequence of promoting an understanding of the other person through a set of labels that don’t entirely represent who they are.
Quite simply, labels create distance by describing people in terms that other people cannot relate to. In this sense, diversity is a double-edged sword to be wielded with great caution and greater wisdom.
Here’s a thought to form a balanced view of each other, we should examine what makes us different from each other alongside what makes us alike.
2. Diversity is partly a matter of education and exposure
Let’s return to the conversation I described in the opening paragraph. The person in question seemed to genuinely believe that a couple of weeks in Australia had remarkably enhanced my grasp of the English language. My point — and concern — is that there’s no shortage of misconception in our understanding of diversity and each other.
The topic is fraught with one-sided narratives, biases, and outright ignorance, all of which have been internalised to shape people’s view of other people. No one holds an unconscious bias intentionally, let alone proudly. But, unchecked, a limited viewpoint becomes the lens through which one sees and experiences the other.
I’ve observed that people who don’t hold the common misconceptions have had some specific exposure that’s given them clarity. Quite often they’ve travelled widely and interacted with people of diverse backgrounds. To mimic the effects of this exposure, I suggest we inform ourselves and read widely. Despite all the ways we’re different from each other, the human condition is the same for all of us.
Being in Australia, I’ve learned that (as a migrant) landing a suitable job in line with your skills can be challenging. Recruiters would advise you to accept short term work to enter the market, but not so much that your ability to hold down a job is questioned. While navigating this tricky market I landed a unique opportunity through a contact I met during a professional networking event. A remarkably kind gesture from an unlikely source on the other end of the diversity spectrum. This time the lesson was for me. But I’ll share it with you:
“People are different, so don’t let your experience with one person inform your view of another.”