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October 24, 2020
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Teachable moments – Diversity

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
September 11, 2020

This week’s article takes a deeper look at the topic of diversity. One reason to do that, is that too many folks have misconceptions about what diversity means. For some, they think diversity is just a code word for affirmative action or other efforts to combat illegal discrimination. It’s not, yet having a diverse work force that includes women, folks of color, from different cultures, with different religious beliefs and unique perspectives that come from being differently abled, or other factors is important.

Let’s again lead with a definition. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “diversity… is the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, variety, especially the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different race or cultures) in a group or organization.” When your dictionary uses races or culture as an example of diversity in their definition, you can understand why some folks think the word only applies to civil rights or equal opportunity. 

That’s why I prefer this description more: “The term diversity includes an understanding and acceptance of the fact that people have individual characteristics, which make them unique from each other, particularly when comparing individuals in a group. These characteristics may include race, ethnicity, gender, religion, political ideologies, sexual orientation…” Even this description relies on what are called primary diversity factors. My guess is because explaining secondary diversity factors are harder to point to. But at least in this description the definition is based on characteristics that make each of us unique.

What are primary diversity factors? Basically, they are those factors easily identifiable by seeing or hearing. Gender and sometimes gender identity, color or race and sometimes ethnic heritage, age and sometimes being differently abled are a few examples of a primary factor. And, we all have a combination of one or more of those factors. But we must be careful too, because our perceptions and assumptions based on those primary factors may be stereotypical or simply wrong. And then there are those secondary factors, that we don’t see or know until they’re shared with us.

Secondary factors include things like education, religion, economic or marital status, sexual orientation and sometimes gender identity, political orientation, personality type such as extrovert or introvert, work experience and even nationality. Often, we may get clues to a secondary factor. The wearing of a yarmulke, a cross, or turban might signal a religious factor. Wearing of jewelry such as a wedding ring or mom’s bracelet might give us a hint of family status. How a person dresses might give a perception of nationality, political orientation, or economic status. But just like with primary factors; we must be careful with our assumptions until we know if our impressions are accurate. For example, I may now be divorced or widowed yet still wear a wedding ring.

There are also what are called tertiary dimensions to diversity. These are much harder to identify. They include things like beliefs, attitudes, values, feelings, perceptions and assumptions individuals have. In our day-to-day life, these are the things we tend not to share easily with each other. Either we lack trust, fear conflict, or just feel it isn’t any business of our employer, the government, or casual acquaintances to have that information. Therefore, you might not discuss politics, religion, or sexual preferences in public. An example of conflict would be Colin Kaepernick and his taking a knee during the playing of our national anthem before his football games. How you saw his action is probably based on these tertiary dimensions. Was he protesting police brutality and racial inequality in the United States or was he disrespecting our flag and the military men and women who fought for that flag? 

It’s unfortunate that we forget there is more that unites us than divides us. If we accept the fact that each of us are unique, that we have many diversity factors which make us who we are, and that we have more in common than what we think; perhaps we can see diversity in a new light. Do you love music, the theater and the arts? How about sports? Do you value being kind? Are you spiritual or religious? And so much more. Whether it’s our military or our police departments; our community groups or social circles; our employers or government representatives; having diversity is important. Being different and bringing differing viewpoints, strengths and perspectives is a good thing. 

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. She is also a member of the Transgender Journalist Association (TJA). The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.