As a black man, born in Eastern Germany, on the former territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), raised as the adopted son of a white German mother and a white German father, with part of my childhood spent in the Middle East, diversity is integral to who I am and how I relate to others.
And yet race never defined my identity, because being surrounded by people who were different from me was the norm, rather than an exception, for as long as I can remember. When and where difference is the norm, it loses its significance; the whole person comes into focus. In fact, despite the obvious contrast, I never thought of my parents as being substantially different from myself, and though, during my childhood years in the Middle East, the people in my community came from all over the world, our’s was a community united in its differences: expatriates in a foreign land.
It was not until returning to my hometown in Eastern Germany, then and now plagued by high unemployment and for many young people an uncertain future relative to Western Germany, that this naïveté came to an abrupt and haunting end. I was chased across the school yard, spat at, and called a “n*gger”–a word that meant nothing to me at the time and about whose meaning I had to ask my parents.
Decades later, this incident has lost none of its vividness and was consequential in that it shaped the trajectory of the years that followed. Until then a carefree kid, hardly concerned with school, excelling academically became both an imperative and a sort of defense mechanism. It ensured the protection of teachers, and accomplishments in sports and music promised recognition and to some extent turned discrimination on its head, transforming it into exceptionalism. As the years passed, being on scholarships in small-town Wisconsin, at a splendid, lakeside boarding school in South Germany, and on the lavish satellite campus of a renowned U.S. university in the Middle East, race was compounded by economics.
Against the backdrop of these experiences, diversity was not something to be embraced but to be downplayed in the workplace: the mandate was to fit in, not to stand out. It was about preventing instances such as a senior leader mistaking me–seated at a desk, typing away on a laptop–for a computer technician during an internship with the German government. It was about never again being deemed waitstaff, asked to bring the next round of drinks at a recruitment dinner in Washington, D.C., hosted by a leading management consultancy. Ultimately, it was about being more than the well-dressed black guy with the flawless German, expected to cherish the popular question: “But where are you from originally?”
But this is neither a memoire nor mere lamentation. I am reflecting on my own experience with diversity to help counter what we, in attempting to make our workplaces more diverse, are all too often guilty of: accentuating rather than embracing difference. Embracing difference means not cataloguing diversity under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles, but acknowledging its impact on the bottom line. Bringing together a diverse team means leveraging unique perspectives to be more creative; drawing on a wide range of skillsets to be more agile; capitalizing on internal multiplicity to better empathize with, understand, and serve external stakeholders; and to drive employee engagement and productivity through a culture of innovation that cannot accommodate homogeneity and static routines. Diversity enables change, the constant of success.
Accentuating difference has the opposite effect. Once cultivating diversity becomes an end in itself, an obligation to meet quotas, the bottomline takes a toll. Creativity becomes self-deception, since not the best ideas, but the most powerful interest groups emerge victorious. Agility gives way to rigidity; instead of working from the bottom line backward, building the capacity today that a different tomorrow requires, we start and stop at difference with uncertain returns on investment. Similarly, in checking boxes to meet diversity targets, do we risk cultivating multiplicity in name only, making it harder to empathize with external stakeholders whose differences are substantive? And can a prerogative-first, talent-second culture make employees feel valued and engaged, while allowing for innovation and creative disruption?
There is no doubt: diversity matters greatly in society and the workplace. But cultivating diversity means embracing difference, not accentuating it. And, paradoxically, we embrace difference by looking beyond markers that distinguish us from one another; they typically account for only a fraction of who we are. This does not mean we should be difference-blind; seeing the whole person means being difference-indifferent. Only then can we begin to see any one of our colleagues, whatever mark they might bear, as exactly who they are: just another colleague. No easy task for a tribal species like ours, but a crucial one.