Reaching Latinos: Marry marketing psychographics to multidimensional demographics

by Andrés T. Tapia – medicalhomearticle.LatFamily-300x208

(This article was originally published on my LinkedIn page:

In the last post, we finished talking about the second of three strategies corporations can use to seize the opportunities offered by the growing Latin talent pools. In this post, we’ll cover the third and final strategy.

Strategy 3: Marry marketing psychographics to multidimensional demographics

A telltale sign that there is lack of clarity about how to best reach Latino talent and consumers is that many are confused by just the most basic terminology: is it Hispanic or Latino?

The very fact that these terms are often used interchangeably in the media, but have meaningful although not-so-simple-to-explain differences in their origins and who uses them and how, is telling in itself.

But which term to use is only the tip of the iceberg. When we say Latino or Hispanic are we referring to the first-, second-, third-, or fourth generation Latino? The Boomer, Xer, or Millennial Latino? The English-, Spanish-, or Spanglish-dominant Hispanic? The Peruvian immigrant or the Honduran American born in Wichita? Or any of the other hyphenated Latinos coming from 27 different national heritages? This is the demographic part.

Then, as marketers well know, there is a psychographic part—the drivers that influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. Do they buy for comfort? For adventure? For status? For being on the cutting edge?

Latinos, like members of any other group, also have psychological drivers unique to the individual. Marketers have been able to group these individual psychological drivers to segment consumers. So even within the same demographic group they can go after segments such as hipsters, rebels, or security seekers. These are the psychographics.

The next step is to marry demographics with psychographics to create the most targeted approaches to attract talent and consumers. In other words, knowing the multidimensionality of demographic characteristics of Latinos is exceptionally important, but it is not enough without also layering in the various psychographic profiles.

This then gets us to the motivations of Latinos as it relates to cultural identity. How much do they or do they not want to identify with their ethnic roots versus how much do they want to embrace mainstream American culture as the core of who they are. Are they assimilationists? Are they Upwardly Mobile Aspirants? Are they Nationalistic in their ethnic country of origin pride?

The psychographic profiles that people will take are unpredictable to discern for individuals. But patterns do emerge. And now we can combine appealing to the demographic of the Millennial Puerto Rican to the psychographic or those who are Assimilationists or Nationalistic for example.

When the media zeros in on the undocumented (11 million) and the marketers on the Spanish speakers (34 million that is inclusive of the undocumented numbers), they are looking at important segments within the Latino umbrella but not the whole.

For example, they most often overlook the 26 million English-dominant Latino Millennials who paradoxically also tend to identify with the heritage of their parents’ country of origin (Colombian, Costa Rican, Argentinian, etc.) according to Pew Hispanic Research.

Marisela, my daughter, is a case in point. I think back just a few years ago, tiara perched on her jet-black hair, looking radiant and happy, surrounded by her friends and family. It was her quinceañera—her fifteenth birthday—a rite of passage in the Latino culture where a girl becomes a young woman. Mom, a European-American, and Papi, proud…and torn. Our daughter was coming of age and this joyous celebration with 200 people, a live salsa band, and a Peruvian food buffet, also marked one major milestone in Marisela’s passage toward independence and growing into her own identity.

So Marisela talks about being Peruvian American even though she was born and raised in the United States. She embraced becoming bilingual and multicultural as her friendships include young people who are Jewish, European-American, Black, and Latino. She spent extended time in Peru, where she found love and ended up marrying a Peruvian.

Adult choices

While Millennial Latinos are shaping their own Latino identities so are those in the older generations in the rapidly changing demographic landscape.

This was the lively topic of conversation at dinner in Boston’s North End, at the outdoor patio of Ristorante Fiore, an Italian restaurant on Hanover Street, after a successful diversity conference. A group of us Latinos sat, sipping our wine or espressos, began debating the role of accented English as it related to Latino identity in the workplace. Why is it that having a French or British accent is seen as a plus, but having a Spanish accent a drawback? And because of this, should Latinos who speak English with a Spanish accent work at reducing their accent? As the alcohol and caffeine took its effect, the conversation around how we sound dipped into a discussion about identity and success when one is in the minority.

The answers are not easy, the implications uncomfortable. Here we are a table of Latinos from different countries, different migration stories, different choices. What path should each of us take? I described facing ridicule and teasing at best, discrimination at worst due to my heavily-accented English during visits to the United States when I was young. This experience motivated me to work on my accent when I came to back to the United States to attend college.

As I did, the change in responses to my words clearly shifted toward more positive reactions as I calibrated my inflections, pitches, and tones. From that point on, it was as clear as the Peruvian brandy pisco that many English-dominant European-Americans heavily weighed their assessment of the value of words by the density of the accent of Spanish-dominant speakers.

But others around the table at Ristorante Fiore have made a different choice, equally valid. For them, how they sound, including their accented English, is part of their Latino identity. It is a marker of who they are culturally in the same way that Martinez, Ochoa, Jimenez, and Castillo are name markers of a Latino identity that is so paramount that even when offered a choice through different circumstances of a more Anglicized name, they don’t take it up. While others do.

We pick our cultural identity spots. ‘Este es quien soy’. ‘This is who I am’. Increasingly, for more Latinos, particularly Latino Millennials, the assimilation survival tactics of their parents are not as necessary or desirable.

Instead, our choices of how to let our Latino selves show up in American society are as diverse as the various peoples that make up the Latino/Hispanic fabric “en los United States de America.”

Promising future For Latinos—and the companies who hire them

I hope you have enjoyed and taken some good takeaways from this series. It takes two to tango. If Latinopalooza and corporate America can learn to dance together, the benefits of the reverberations of this multicultural choreography will be felt in the workforce and marketplace for a long time to come.

Ya! The Time Has Come for Latinos to Claim Our Place in American Society

by Andrés T. Tapia

(This article was originally published on

U.S. Capitol Dome

U.S. Capitol Dome

It’s up to us to have our power match our numbers

Power-cito, my Spanglish word for power-with-a-lowercase-p, is the Achilles heel of the surging Latino narrative. Despite our supersized growth, we have too much evidence that our power in many areas of society does not match our numbers.

As we joyfully celebrate and share our Latino roots during this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s also challenge ourselves to step it up and make our presence known and felt. Because when it comes to executive and senior leadership positions, political representation, and a marketplace that knows and meets our needs, we are not yet fully accounted for.

In leadership, according to the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, among the 1,200 executive and director positions available in its 2009 Corporate Inclusion Index, Hispanics held only 61 of those positions. That’s 7.9 percent. In 2013, it went down to 7.3 percent. Additionally, only 18 percent of Latinos work in management, professional, or similarly related positions.

Politically, we Latinos do not vote in numbers that the size of our population would suggest. In Arizona, for example, Latinos make up about 31 percent of the state’s population. Two-thirds (67 percent) of this population is native born, with a median age of 25 and a 57 percent home-ownership rate. These are the indicators of a potentially influential, voting-eligible population. Yet, many Latinos believe recent Arizona immigration legislation is detrimental to their community.

In the marketplace, there are still too few choices for products and services that cater to the needs, wants, and aspirations of the broad diversity within the Latino community — from the Spanish-dominant first generation Latino immigrant to the fourth generation Spanglish professional to the affluent MBA on the executive track.

The headwinds are both external as well as within ourselves. We must be vigilant about any discrimination and rally our allies in squelching it. A 2013 Harris Interactive poll found that over 75 percent of Latinos feel people with their background are discriminated against in the form of not being hired or promoted for a job and being called names or insulted.

But we ourselves also get in our own way as we seek to rise to the top. For example, many of the highly energized Latino advocacy organizations have a reputation for not being collaborative, and instead being highly competitive with one another. National origins and territoriality get in the way. A zero-sum game mindset feeds this.

We therefore have a splintering of advocacy groups — many doing insightful, passionate, committed work, but not in a coordinated, scalable way. But this splintering is what contributes to Latinos not displaying strength commensurate with our numbers.

It’s Up To Us

But it’s time we stop looking to others to hand us the power. We need to, and can, rise up to meet it. For us as individuals, it depends on our own ability and willingness to speak up for ourselves and being able to take the more calculated risks required of leaders. And collectively it’s about finding ways to minimize the differences within our own Latino ranks and being able to leverage the many things we have in common to advocate more effectively for what we need and want.

Here’s what we can stand on. Fifty-five million Latinos, and growing, are out there shopping, traveling, banking, studying, and raising families. The Latino purchasing power of $1.4 trillion in 2014, the fastest growing in the United States, is greater than the economies of 11 nations, including Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, and Indonesia.

And as companies struggle with growth, Latinos offer a marketer’s dream target audience — young, growing, and underserved. With one-third under the age of 18 and 25 percent in their 20s and 30s, the majority of Latinos are near the peak of their spending years.

As we become homeowners, we are driving growth in the household goods industry at a time when other groups are cutting back on these purchases. The familia focus leads to purchasing for the here and now. Latinos over-index compared to other groups in the purchase of toys, BBQ grills, furniture, and eating out. This is consumerism driven by a worldview of many Latinos that what matters most is hoy (today), for who knows what mañana (tomorrow) will bring.

Even with the high unemployment tied to the Great Recession, Latinos account for 13 percent of the workforce and have a participation rate of roughly 68 percent. This is a higher workforce participation rate than among whites, African-Americans or Asians. From a numbers perspective, companies unsuccessful at sourcing, attracting, and engaging this talent pool will see their talent pipeline shrivel up.

Hispanics are tasting the fruits of entrepreneurship as well. According to a 2013 Geoscape study, Hispanic-owned business have grown to over 3 million, a 40 percent increase between 2007 and 2013, outpacing the growth rate for any other demographic group. They generated over $468 billion in revenues.

In addition, Latinos made a key difference in how the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections went. And with now both major parties deeply disappointing Latinos in one way or another, we are in a position to be more demanding about what it will take to win our votes.

So here we are. According to Pew Hispanic Research, Latinos are twenty-one percent of the millennial population. This is the precursor to all Latinos expected to be one-third of the U.S. by 2050. Latino is not a niche market; it is the market. Twenty-five million eligible voters nationwide, and over 6 million in places like California is not a side constituency, it is the margin of victory. Sixty-nine percent of Latinos going to college, the largest percentage of any ethnic group including whites, is not just a student body ratio, it is the future workforce.

We have the numbers behind us, as well as our optimism, our energy, and our ambitions. But we have to stop waiting for others to make the way for us. Se hace el camino al andar, you make your path as you walk it. Let’s stop playing it safe and instead take the necessary steps to be seen as the future power brokers of how things are going to be.

We have a the rest of this month to reflect on this. From there, time to take action.

Globalization’s Good News for the U.S. Workforce

by Andrés T. Tapia —

Mixed group of nations behind the American flag.

There’s good news on the globalization front for America’s diverse talent. Increasing numbers of corporations are bringing jobs back to U.S. shores as Asian and European companies open up more plants here. Taking advantage of this good news represents challenges and opportunities for diversity and inclusion professionals. Are our workers and students of color ready for these jobs? Can CDOs step to the forefront of tying diversity to bringing jobs back home?  Read more in the November/December 2013 issue of Diversity Executive Magazine.



Race Still Matters

by Andrés T. Tapia –blkbusinessman_iStock.000011150050l

It’s a period that Charles Dickens could have written about if he were still alive today: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was an age of wisdom; it was an age of foolishness.” Or, as Rev. Jesse Jackson describes in a recent Newsweek article, “As we celebrate events that recognize Dr. King’s impact and legacy, we’re filled with both hope and hopelessness.”

Best and worst, wisdom and foolishness, hope and hopelessness are the competing dynamics of our current political, economic, and social landscape. So when the conversation predictably turns to the supposed post-racial period we live in, as some say evidenced by the election of President Barack Obama or the unveiling of a memorial to Dr. King on the National Mall, or even the wealth of media moguls Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, I simply want to shout, Race Still Matters!

Without a doubt, there has been remarkable racial progress from 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Many African Americans who were in their 60s, 70s and beyond spoke with great emotion and often with tear-filled eyes at being alive to see the nation elect our first African American president, Barack Obama. Yet Roslyn Brock, in her first speech before the NAACP as its chairman, aptly described the dichotomy facing our nation while debunking the myth of a post-racial society as she described a nation rocked both by racial progress and racial stagnation.

“Today’s civil and human rights challenges are far different from those faced by our predecessors. Yes, we can … drink at the public water fountain, but the drinking water in our homes may not be safe because of lead toxins. Yes, we can … move into sprawling multi-million dollar homes in the suburbs, but the terms of our mortgages differ from our neighbors. Yes, we can … send our children to public schools, but in some states the textbooks … are 20 years old and school boards have decided to rewrite history by removing all references to slavery and its devastating impact on our society.”

Race still matters when the current economic crisis hits the black middle class much harder than whites and other racial groups. Today’s economic mess has been described as a full-blown depression for the black middle class. In a New York Times article, author Ellis Cose said, “Instead of a middle class, we now have a median class–people who are at or above the median income level, but who, for the most part, are only a few missed paychecks away from disaster.”

And the statistics bear this out. On almost every economic indicator, African Americans fare worse than any other racial/ethnic group, with Latinos running a close second. For example, while the national unemployment rate hovers around 9.5%, since April, the black unemployment rate fluctuates between 15.4 and 16.2%, which is about twice the rate for whites. Black teen unemployment is around 35-40%, while the national teen unemployment rate is around 20%.

The crisis goes beyond employment. When we look at the saving rates of various groups, race still matters. Nearly 80% of middle class Americans did not have enough savings to meet three-quarters of their regular household expenses for three months (the minimal amount needed to get through unexpected situations like a layoff or sudden hospital stay). According to research by Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy of Brandeis University, for blacks, the figure was 95% (almost all) and for Latinos, it was 87%. Race still matters.

When wealth is examined, the disparity between groups is even more startling. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black household and 18 times greater than Latino households. Let’s look at those statistics in another way. The typical black family has $5,677 in wealth, compared to $6,325 for a typical Latino family and $113,149 for a white family. Nearly $6,000 compared to $113,000. The study goes on to show that nearly a third of black and Hispanic families had zero or negative net worth, while only 16% of white families had similar levels of “non-wealth.” The report says, “These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.” Race still matters.

Even with wealth, African Americans experienced discrimination and segregation in far greater numbers than other racial/ethnic groups. A joint undertaking by Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation reported that ethnic/racial identity trumps income as to where people live. Black and Hispanic families with relatively high incomes tend to live in communities where their neighbors are of the same racial/ethnic background and with many more poor people. The study’s authors wrote, “Residential segregation is an insidious and persistent fact of American life. Discrimination on the basis of race, while on the decline according to some estimates, continues to pervade nearly every aspect of the housing market in the United States.” Race still matters.

Even in our schools, according to the Center for American Progress, spending on black and Latino students is about 90% of what is spent on white students. And when it comes to punishments, black youngsters are disciplined more severely and more often than whites or Hispanics. A study by the Council of State Governments of Justice Center found a significant disparity between out-of-school suspensions and other punishments handed out to African American students compared to students from other backgrounds. For instance, 83% of black males in Texas schools had an out-of-school suspension for an offense that the school could exercise discretion on whether to suspend or not. Roughly 74% of Hispanic males had one of these discretionary suspensions; but only 59% of white males had similar suspensions.

Even with a college degree, black grads are finding that what is a tough job market for most recent grads is an exceedingly harsh one for them. Politicians denigrate government and public sector employees and unionized workers, which were the stepping-stones to the middle class for millions of African American and other minority families, making these conduits for social mobility less available.

In practically all aspects of society–from education to expectations, from politics to prison–race still matters. It’s as if W.E.B. Dubois’ prescient statement in the early 1900s, “for the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” continues to resonate well into the 21st Century.

Researchers and pundits can debate the causes and effects of this fact of American life, but until we can have frank and honest conversations about the issues that divide us, until we can talk about the paradox of inclusion as suggested in the Inclusion Paradox, we will continue to experience the many ways that race still matters. This discussion must be a national and corporate conversation that addresses race, class, wealth, and culture.

And no one is better equipped to facilitate this discussion than diversity practitioners. Are you leading the way or sitting on the sidelines?

Much depends on your answer. Because how you choose matters.

As Economy Booms, China Faces Growing Diversity Challenges

by Andrés T. Tapia and Susan Welch,  Diversity Best Practices —

Truly homogenous populations exist perhaps in only a few tiny regions in the world–in ancient, relatively untouched cultures. Everywhere else, cultures, ethnicities, and genders clash. Here is a look at one country’s, China’s, diversity issues.

China appears, on the surface, to have relatively few cultural issues. After all, its dominant Han population accounts for 91% of all people in China. Mandarin is the official language and is widely spoken. Improvements in health have increased longevity.

Despite this somewhat rosy picture, challenges persist:

Myriad Ethnically and Language Diverse Groups
According to this Wall Street Journal analysis, China faces challenges fully integrating its Han culture, within which there are distinctions between Cantonese, Hakka, Fujianese, and others. Eight different languages make up the Han culture, and while Mandarin is officially spoken, it isn’t necessarily the language spoken at home. The other 9% of the non-Han population is made up of another 55 cultures.  And in a population of 1.3 billion, 9% is equal to 117 million people.

Brewing Ethnic Conflicts
As China seeks to expand its economic growth beyond its Tier 1 cities, minority cultures feel the crunch. In 2009, ethnic tension resulted in bloody conflicts between China’s Hans and Turkish-speaking, Muslim Uighurs. China has invested $100 billion in the remote Xinjiang region where the violence occurred, so addressing ongoing tension will be critical. Unfortunately, as the region grows in importance, so, too, grows the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Gender Imbalance
A more obvious challenge for the Chinese is its ongoing gender imbalance, which threatens to get worse in coming decades. Centuries-old cultural tradition places greater value on male children in China. Under the one-child policy, parents have abandoned or aborted girls. Today in China, 119 boys exist for every 100 girls; in some regions the ratio is 130 boys to 100 girls. It is anticipated that by 2024, some 24 million men in China will have difficulty finding wives. Exacerbating the problem, girls and young women in China are moving to urban areas for work, and often finding husbands there. Thus, the poor, rural men in China are those who will be left behind. As noted here, men in China do not “marry up.” A slew of single rural males will be a population to contend with in the future.

Caring for the Aging
As observed, health–and thus, longevity–have improved in recent years in China. This is a good news/bad news scenario, because, as fertility rates remain low, the elderly population in China is rapidly increasing. Ironically, as noted by the Population Reference Bureau, only 25 years ago China thought it faced the opposite problem: too many children. Today, in fact, China’s youth face a future described as “1-2-4: one child caring for two parents and four grandparents.” Although they fly in the face of Chinese cultural tradition, nursing homes are proliferating. Elderly citizens increasingly will need care for their chronic conditions and diseases. Today, 9 working-age adults exist for every senior citizen in China, but by 2050 that ratio will decrease to 2.5 to 1.

Normalizing Disability
For China, disability is a mixed bag. Even today, disabled people are referred to in discriminatory language: The disabled most frequently are called canji, which literally translates to “deficient/deformed and diseased.” But, according to this BBC article, China is changing, albeit slowly. According to the Disaboom disability website, 83 million people in China are disabled. A 2003 assessment, reported here, found that 84% of China’s disabled population was working. But it was only this past January that China enacted laws to ensure wheelchair access. Other laws, some addressing specific disabilities such as paralyzed or missing limbs, are in the works.

Wrestling with Granting LGBT Rights
Gay rights represent another mixed bag for China. For centuries, relative tolerance existed, but from the 1950s onward homosexuality was forbidden. In 2004, an estimated 5 to 10 million Chinese men between ages 15 and 49 reported being gay. And yet, this analysis projects that 90% of LGBT people in China will marry a member of the opposite sex, due to familial and societal pressure. More than 60% of gay Chinese men had not “come out.” As described in The Guardian, it was only in 2001 that homosexuality was removed from China’s list of state-approved mental illnesses.

Being Equipped to Manage Global Diversity
As Chinese companies go multinational, they’re falling into the same ethnocentric traps other economically expansive countries such as Britain, the US, and Spain have experienced throughout the centuries. Anthropologist Chan Wan, who is also assistant professor in the Department of Chinese at Lingnan University in Hong Kong says that China not tending to encourage or even acknowledge diversity hinders its business growth. “I think it is a barrier to actually operating in the world,” says Chan. “The Chinese find it difficult to expand overseas because they don’t understand foreign cultures. … I think the advantage of [engaging] diversity is when an economy starts to expand outwards and do business with overseas countries.”

From this quick audit of diversity issues in China, it’s evident that despite China’s booming economic strength, and now more because of it, it too must seek to effectively manage the inclusion paradox in order to optimize its ability to create a sustainable  society and sustainable economic growth.

Do Immigrant Workers Hurt or Strengthen the Economy?

illegal-immigrant-signby Andrés T. Tapia

OK, so there are tons of polarizing debate on documented and undocumented immigrants in the US and whether they have a positive or negative impact on our national economy.

While tempers simmer or boil over around both sides of  the Arizona SB1070  debate and other similar legislation targeted at deporting those who are undocumented, there are some recently released studies that show that immigrants – both legal and illegal – actually strengthen the U.S. economy.

First, a look at the estimated number of undocumented workers. A recent Pew Hispanic Center study says that although 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants were estimated to be living in the United States, the growth of undocumented immigrants had actually stalled after 2006. According to the US Census, by 2008, there were 8.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce. Based on this data, unauthorized immigrants make up 4 percent of the U.S. population and 5.4 percent of the workforce.

At the heart of the immigration debate is the concern that immigrants — undocumented as well as documented — take jobs and benefits from government and community resources meant for U.S. citizens, and further weaken an already ailing economy.

Let’s see what recent studies say.

The Benefits of Immigration to the Economy

A new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, by Giovanni Peri, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, and a visiting scholar at the Fed, points out the scarcity of evidence that proves immigrants take jobs from native-born workers. And instead of draining our financial system, immigrants may actually help grow our economy, stimulate investment, and encourage productivity-boosting activities like specialization.

In coming to this conclusion, Peri compared productivity per worker and unemployment statistics in states with a steady influx of immigrant workers to those states with few immigrants. States with growing, active immigrant populations actually have greater productivity, pay higher wages, hire more workers, and create more jobs than states with few immigrant workers. Each time a state’s employment increases as little as one percent due to immigration, the result is an increase in per worker income of .4 to .5 percent. In other words, more money in workers’ paychecks.

Immigrants Give More Than They Take

The Pew and Peri’s findings are not isolated results — there’s other evidence to support their claims. Research by Francine Lipman, Professor of Law at the Chapman University School of Law, found that despite widespread belief to the contrary, undocumented workers contribute more to our economy than they cost in social services. Along with boosting the economy through the purchase of consumer goods and by filling essential worker positions, immigrant economic activity ends up creating jobs, increasing productivity, and lowering the costs of goods and services for all of us. Furthermore, their contributions to Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance programs often go unused adding to the pool of money available to legal residents.

As hysteria reigns, some data to consider. I’m just sayin’.


For more stats on immigration, see Diversity Research: Immigrant Workers — Contradictory Trends in a Debate That’s Getting Hotter.

Corporate Boards Continue to Miss Out on Diversity

by Andrés T. Tapia –

silhoutte.boarddirectYou would think that by now we would still not be hearing the  clichéd excuses of “we can’t find any,” or “it will take too long to find someone,” or “is it even that important?”

What the excuses are defending is the lack of diversity on corporate boards. Unfortunately, we’ll probably hear these excuses even more as explanations to Janell Ross’ article in the Huffington Post where she reports that  “white men’s already dominant control of the boards that oversee the nation’s largest corporations widened during the last six years,” according to a new report issued by the Alliance for Board Diversity.

For the Fortune 100 between 2004 and 2010, white men gained 32 board seats while African American men lost 42. According to the report, there are nearly 900 companies in the Fortune 1000 that do not have a single Hispanic board member, and of the Fortune 100 only half have a Latino board member. This growing homogeneity is occurring at the same time as the Hispanic population is exploding and the country grows even more diverse. Such an increase in white male representation defies not only common sense but also business sense.

As diversity and inclusion (D&I) champions understand, but the reluctant CEOs and board members in this report don’t seem to realize, the business and financial benefits of diversity can intensify an organization’s competitiveness, innovation, and connection to customers. Just look at these stunning findings on gender diversity on boards:

A 2007 Catalyst study examining corporate finances between 2001 and 2004–a period of boom and bust–found that companies with women on their boards outperformed those without women in several key ways. Among the study’s findings: Fortune 500 companies that ranked in the top 25 percent for female board member inclusion produced on average a 53 percent better return on equity, a 42 percent difference in profits, and a 66 percent difference in return on invested capital when compared to companies with the least gender-diverse boards.

So the low diversity on boards not only causes dismay from an inclusion perspective, but companies with little board diversity make themselves vulnerable to blind spots to threats plus they may be limited in seizing economic opportunities.

Perhaps a key issue concerning board diversity, according to Lissa L. Broome, a professor at University of North Carolina School of Law who researches the issues of diversity on boards, is the tendency for key players to ignore or at least avoid talking about difference. Such hesitancy represents the underlying issue in the Inclusion Paradox, which provides ways to lean into and make the most of that discomfort.

If we don’t find ways to do this, our companies will be forfeiting a major trump card in high stakes global competitiveness. Launches More than 250,000 African American Historical Records

by Andrés T. Tapia –

Who are we? Where do we come from? What surprises exist in our family backgrounds?

These are the questions that, the online family history resource,  promise to help people answer. And in the spirit of inclusion, they’re ensuring their research casts a wide net to find the historical records of different demographic groups.

Recently the company launched more than 250,000 new historical records that document African American family history. These official records go back to the Civil War and include more than 3.2 million slave records, and thousands of accounts from former slaves. I love this outreach as captured in the following commercial to current and potential African American subscribers that comfortably and inclusively lives out the inclusion paradox of calling out differences.

More than black families will have their eyes opened. According to, one in nine Americans has African roots. And nearly 35 million Americans could find a slave ancestor in their family background. Rest assured, not all of those who find one in their background will be black.

Brazil’s Economic Future Depends on Education and Diversity

by Andrés T. Tapia —

Brazil_kids-recifeSAO PAOLO – As the focus goes to the implications of  Dilma Rousseff’s election on Sunday, as I left Brazil a few days ago I thought about how much of its promising future depends not only on macro and microeconomics and globalization, but also on the education of its children.

With a growing economy, increasing political stability, and a renewed national sense of hope, Brazil now faces one of its most pressing challenges – educating its youth. A World Bank report concluded that unless the country addresses its current state of education, Brazil will likely fall behind other developing countries, threatening its plans to be a dominant player on the world’s economic stage.

The numbers are, indeed, troubling. Brazilian students score among the lowest on international tests for basic skills in reading, mathematics, and science. They trail other Latin American countries like Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay. Brazilian 15-year-olds tied for 49th out of 56 countries on the reading portion of the Program for International Student Assessment. And more than 50% scored in the bottom reading level of the test, performing even worse in math and science. And according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Brazil has one of the highest high school drop out rates for students in its region.

Underneath these stats exists a yawning gap between more-affluent Brazilians and the country’s poor citizens. The educational achievement of students who are descendents of Indigenous people, Africans, or youngsters from poor rural areas is even worse than the national stats indicate.

To its credit, the Brazilian government has taken aggressive steps to address this situation, most notably the Bolsa Família initiative, a subsidy program that, among other things, requires school attendance. More poor students are in school and staying longer, as a result. And according to a New York Times article, education has become a burning issue for departing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who sees the issue as an important part of his legacy. But is it enough?

Let’s overlay the education statistics onto a peek at Brazil’s economic situation. The Brazilian GDP is more than $2 trillion and, according to Forbes Magazine, continues to grow thanks to new oil discoveries and its exportation of minerals and raw materials. The government is investing heavily in its IT sector and the national infrastructure. And yet, companies are facing the challenge of finding workers with enough basic skills to fill even manual labor jobs, exacerbating the country’s extreme gap between wealthy citizens and those in dire poverty.

All together – the need for skilled workers at all levels, a growing economy, and a struggling educational system – this situation represents a formula for future troubles. There simply won’t be enough adequately educated youth prepared to take their rightful places in the Brazilian workforce to sustain its national goals. And that’s the real threat all the crianças ( kids) I see on the streets of San Paulo represent.

This scenario cries for a diversity intervention – one that enables the entire Brazilian society, particularly its elite, to put as much effort in educating its marginalized and poorer citizens, not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s an economic necessity. As I suggest in the Inclusion Paradox, it will take Brazilians understanding the differences within their country’s various ethnic and marginalized social groups, building on common cultural touchstones, and then, finding the Brazilian way to navigate those differences. A tall order, but one, I believe that Brazil which has shown the energy and political and social will to address its earlier challenges, can certainly accomplish.

Brazilian Particularism – The Ying and Yang of Going With the Flow

by Andres T. Tapia —

Brazil_-_Rio_de_JaneiroMilton really had me. As my driver in Rio for a full day of sightseeing, attending a futbol match, and then taking me to the airport, he had me fully enthralled by his stories, carioca philosophy, humor, and ability to tap into my Latin sense of solidarity. And by the end of the day he also had me in that he cheated me out of an extra $50.

Or maybe he didn’t. And it’s in the ambiguity of what happened that doing business in Brazil is often like.

So, to understand the rest of the story, a rapid explanation of two contrasting worldviews in how fairness is interpreted: Particularism is a worldview that is comfortable determining what is fair based on circumstances vs Universalism which believes that what is fair is based on rules that apply to everyone equally.

The day had unfolded in a comfortable particularistic way for this Peruvian who also comes from a spontaneous society. On a whim here and there, I had Milton stop there and here. The beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer). We stopped to see a samba school practice on a side street. I got out and walked on the malecon along the coast with azure waters to the East and lush green mountains to the West.

Near Copacabana he convinced me to check out an exclusive jewelry sale where, if he dropped off someone he had “recruited,” he would get a “drop off” commission. I was willing to help him get some extra cash because I saw it as a good opportunity to journalistically experience one of those exclusive sales where smartly dressed women and men pull out thin drawers of the most exquisite and expensive jewelry. Half a million dollars worth of jewelry were paraded in front of me with the salesperson’s promise that my wife would love me forever if I succumbed to their rubied and topazed enchantments.

After extricating myself from the hard sale hiding behind a veneer of upper class feigned detachment, I found Milton waiting for me, engine running to scoot me over to that famed soccer temple, Maracana Stadium, where two of Rio’s archrival soccer teams were playing against each other. The elite’s favorite, Fluminense, and the passion of those living in the impoverished favelas, Botafogo. Thanks to his connections he helped me get last minute tickets to the sold-out game where the torcidas, fan sections, shashayed for 90 minutes to the samba rhythms drummed out of the baterias.

As he dropped me off, the easy camaraderie that we had developed was reinforced as he pumped me up with fascinating stories of the long standing soccer rivalry. He gave me explicit instructions about leaving the game 5 minutes before the final whistle no matter how exciting the game was to ensure we would not get caught in the sea of jubilant and dejected fans from the two different teams and where to find him so he could whisk me off to the airport to catch my flight in time.

And true to plan, there he was in the designated spot. I hopped in, he shook my hand, and we celebrated the eventful game. He had listened to the game on the radio so we easily shared in the replays of the great moments.

The day had been fun and joyous, and I gotten to do all that I had hoped for during my last day in Rio. As we neared the airport and I was pulling out the cash to cover the agreed-to fare for the full day with multiple stops, he had “unfortunate” news to share with me. While waiting for me outside the stadium, he had had to take a risk and had parked in a no-wait zone and a policeman had fined him $50 and could I include that in my fare since he had risked it just for me? Hmmmmm…..

One of Brazil’s greatest assets, as well as challenge, in consolidating its position as the fifth largest economy on the world stage, is a cultural trait of being able to flex to whatever gets put in front its people. Whether it be unexpected events, laws, circumstances, Brazilians are adept at going with the flow, a trait caricaturized by the brilliant soccer metaphor of joie de cintura, game of the waist, full of flourishes, feints, dips, knee bends, and hip throws.

What Is Right?

For Americans and other cultures that are more universalist, this can be challenging. I realized then that Brazilians were even more particularist than the particularist Peru I had grown up with. But was this truly a particularist situation where Milton was asking me to partake of the risk and rewards of going with the flow that sometimes included bending the rules? Or was this a con?

I was conflicted. I felt the twinge of this being a set up, but on the other hand Milton had truly provided me with an extraordinary day. Was this a way of him making sure I tipped him? Was it an indirect way of recoupping the low ball day fare he had offered me before he realized how many places I would ask to go to? Was there a real fine in the mix or a bribe he had to offer the police officer to get his driver’s license back? I had no idea. And there I was in the back of the seat of Milton’s cab, door open, next to the TAM Airlines departures entrance.

So I split the difference and said, l didn’t ask you to park illegally but since you did it for my benefit, I’ll pay for half of that fine. I added $25 to the total agreed to amount for the day. Milton’s mood darkened as he took the money. We said our tchaus (goodbyes), and I had many obrigados (thank yous) to shower on him, but the spell had been broken. And so with my carry-on to my side, I lingered standing on the curb, as I watched Milton drive away. The Brazilian saying, “to a friend, everything; to an enemy, the law” scrolled through my mind.

As I have written in The Inclusion Paradox I believe that every culture has the virtues of its worldview plus the shadow side of that worldview that, when left unchecked, leads to less than ideal behaviors. Is the shadow side of particularism that with ever changing rules others can be more easily manipulated? Is the shadow side of universalism mercilessness when not considering individual circumstances in the imposition of the law?

To this day I don’t know what Milton had intended, if anything. I just know that I was uncertain in the moment of the ask, and in my response. I simply did not know what was below the waterline. I just knew that I could not rely on what I felt.

And that did not feel good.

Fusion: Creation, Creativity, and the Flight of Diversity

by Andrés T. Tapia —

Daniel Bernard RoumainWith his waist-length dreadlocks, silver nose ring and energetic playing style, Haitian-American violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain doesn’t fit the image of a classical musician. And his music – an eclectic fusion of jazz, rock and hip hop that he describes as “dred violin” – doesn’t conform to traditional or even modern classical music. Except all kinds of new audiences are finding something in his compositions that touches them, whether they are Mozart or Eminem fans.

Speaking of which, consider Eminem’s (Marshall Mathers III) latest CD, where his usual rebellious urban outbursts are toned down by a fusion with a more suburban anthem-like chorus. The white rap artist is entering a phase that has been described on the NPR Culturetopia podcast and blog by the seemingly oxymoronic term, post rebellion rap.

rocknrollArtistic fusion is not a new phenomenon. Whether we’re talking about classical or hip-hop, traditional and popular art genres have always sought ways to innovate. In fact, that great American gift to the world, rock ‘n’ roll, can thank US diversity for its intoxicating fusion of full-throated gospel levitating from the choir lofts of  African-American churches and the rhythmic strings rolling from the hills of Appalachia. This musical hybrid has generated fans not only in the US, but in practically every corner of the earth as it’s now become the longest standing pop musical form spanning from the mid-20th century to, so far, the early 21st Century. When Mom, Dad, and teen can blast the same song from the car radio and sing to it, wow, that’s a killer multi-generational app! Diversity fusion brings down multigenerational barriers.

When cultures come together, the encounter of diversity can create violence and destruction, even a desire for annihilation. But it can also lead to acts of creation, from the multiracial couplings of human beings that create children with new variations of beauty, to novel and distinctive art forms, to surprising solutions, to never-before-seen societal and business challenges. Diversity fusion creates new art forms, new ideas.

Newly fused art forms also bring together communities that, in all likelihood, probably would not have come together.  For my birthday this past summer, my wife, Lori, took me to the Earth, Wind and Fire concert at Ravinia Festival, the 100-year-old outdoor summer concert venue outside  Chicago. This 70s all-black band had the sold-out, integrated, and diverse audience of mostly blacks and whites couples, swaying to what the lead singer referred to as “making babies music” as they relived the music of their courtship by belting out the well known lyrics to “Serpentine Fire,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “Shining Star,” and many more hits. Diversity fusion opens up new romantic avenues.

sinfoniettaFusion and diversity are also vital to keep musical forms surviving by finding new audiences. About a year ago I presented at the League of American Orchestras with Maestro Paul Freeman of the Chicago Sinfonietta. There was a palpable concern that symphony orchestra audiences of aging white Baby Boomers are literally dying. Fusion artistic organizations – like the ones I write about in The Inclusion Paradox in the chapter titled, “The Power of Diversity through the Arts,” such as the Chicago Sinfonietta that performs Carmen with the Chicago alternative rock band Poi Dog Pondering, or the Luna Negra Dance Theater that fuses Latin dance with ballet and modern – are very successfully attracting new and diverse audiences. Diversity fusion can bring new life.Luna Negra

How to attract new audiences? Bring cultures together. Seek excellence. Bring yourself dreadlocks and all. Take a page out of dred violinst Daniel Bernard Roumain’s song book.

Fuse. Create. Excel. Diversify. Soar.

Busting up One of the Biggest Lies in Society — Walgreens’ Disability Game Changer

by Andrés T. Tapia

m1701865_4_2_1_Article_DisabilityInclusion_HowWeDidIt_1[1]This is a story of busting up one of the biggest lies in society.

People with disabilities are among the most shunned diverse groups in society. They are often kept invisible in society and few make it into the workplace due to the spoken and unspoken beliefs that they can’t do the job. This creates a 44% unemployment rate, the highest of any demographic group.

Walgreens is resoundingly disproving the lie. At its Anderson, South Carolina distribution center launched in 2007, 40% of their 700 team members have a disability. Disabilities that are visible and invisible, physical and cognitive. There are people with Down’s syndrome, developmental disabilities, autism, cerebral palsy, missing limbs, schizophrenia, and other special needs.

And this unique talent mix not only “is good, it’s better,” says the leader behind the idea, Randy Lewis, Senior Vice President of Distribution and Logistics for Walgreens. The distribution center in Anderson, as everyone at Walgreens knows, is number 1 in productivity compared to all of Walgreens’ distribution centers. 20% better.

So what does it mean to be disabled? I think we need to talk instead about being differently abled.

In a speech to people at an industry conference, Lewis showed a picture of all the workers — with disability and without — in Anderson. “In this picture,” he said, “everyone can do the job. This was not about charity. We did not lower our standards, we did not lower the expectations of the quality and output. We offered same pay for same work.”

Not only is this diverse mix of team members achieving enviable business results, but they are doing so by living out diversity and inclusion values in pragmatic and substantive ways. Yes, said the various leaders interviewed in a Walgreens video about their efforts, we expected this to change those we hired who had disabilities since they are isolated from society. They have a job they are good at and love. They feel loved and supported.

But the surprise was how it changed the employees without disabilities.

One team member talks about how he is a better father to his children because of the character building that has happened within him as he has learned from the tenacity of those with disability he is surrounded by.

Back at the industry conference, Lewis tells his audience,”There is something about this experience that evokes all that is good in people. There is more of a sense of purpose, more teamwork, more patience. Disability can either be a source of pride or shame. It and it’s a choice we must make.” Then he adds, “Disabilities plays no favorites. It affects rich and poor alike. White and black, yellow and brown. We’re all broken and it helps to realize the united humanity we all have.”

The Power of Independence

Not only is the Anderson distribution center Walgreens’ most productive, but some of the top individual productivity stats in the whole Walgreens distribution system are held by people with disabilities. “People with disabilities don’t expect charity nor pity. They expect to be treated like others,” said a co-worker. “There are no different safety, accuracy, productivity standards.” The main difference other than the universal design of the center is how training is done.

In the video above, there is a quote by Winston Churchill that Walgreens has taken to heart, “The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” The stories at Walgreens are remarkable in what this opportunity has done for the confidence and independence of team members with disabilities. There were some people who would not even talk, and were assumed not to be able to talk, or look at people in the eye, who today are quite talkative with each other and with the camera.

A Mom says about her son, “He feels good about himself every day now.” Another Mom added about her daughter, “It feel like she’s got a life now. She’s gone to new levels we never expected. Now that she’s independent…that was one of the pieces of the puzzle that was missing.”

This place changes everyone, Walgreens likes to say. “It changes how you look at people differently,” explains a manager. “Why are people doing and saying what they are doing? It makes us more cognizant of people’s feelings. The focus is the people and this has made us better managers.” One team member’s favorite sight is seeing mixed groups of co-workers go together to the local rib place for meals.

This myth-busting story creates a unique atmosphere that goes beyond the feel good. It also fuels heroic business stories. Lewis, who has three children including a son with autism, tells of how when the distribution center was going to roll out, in order to meet the deadline to go live, workers came in and worked every Saturday from July to November. “When I came in to spend time with them, I expected a lot of  them were going to be  asking me ‘when are you are going to get this equipment working’ and ‘when are we going to stop working overtime?'” Instead I got two questions: ‘how are we doing,’ and ‘what can we do better?'”

“Those with disabilities are waiting for us to discover their gifts, abilities, and contributions,” says Lewis. “This work is about extending that opportunity and that’s precious.” For example, here’s what happened for Angela Mackey, a manager at the distribution center. She has cerebral palsy. She got straight As in high school and college. When she graduated she sent out hundreds of resumes and interviewed fewer than 40 times. She got zero job offers. Today she is one of Walgreen’s highest rated managers.

“My biggest regret is that it took me so long to do this earlier,” sighs Lewis.

Only the Beginning

Walgreens is on track to hire 1,000 people with disabilities by the end of 2010. And they aren’t stopping there as they work toward a self-imposed goal to fill 10% of all production jobs at its distribution centers with people with disabilities. Toward this end, in 2009, Walgreens opened up a new distribution center based on the same universal design principles in Windsor, Connecticut and plans on opening up more.

What did it take to belie the lie that people with disabilities can’t do work? “It was not about the technology,” says Lewis, even though the plant indeed utilizes all kinds of cool and practical accommodating features. “That’s what every one thinks was the key.”

So what was it then? Listen to his answer, because it’s the most important answer you will ever hear about what it takes to make diversity and inclusion happen:

“It was about the decision to go forward.”

Talent Has No Boundaries: Workforce Diversity Includes People with Disabilities

by Andrés T. Tapia —


October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) – a month-long event that takes aim at the barriers to employment that workers with disabilities still face and the workplace discrimination that continues to exist. Each year, NDEAM develops a theme and a poster that promotes awareness of the topic and emphasizes the many talents, skills, and viewpoints that employees with disabilities bring to work.

This year’s theme, Talent has no boundaries: Workforce diversity includes people with disabilities, and poster highlight the work of the well-respected artist, writer, and activist Laura Hershey. In addition to writing, performing, and creating imaginative computer generated compositions, Ms. Hershey has spinal muscular atrophy. As a registered artist with the VSA – The International Organization on Arts and Disability, her work is available to a broad audience. For the 2010 NDEAM poster, the VSA website explains that Ms. Hershey “addresses themes of disability and discrimination; illness, health, and healing; love and intimacy; the life of the body; personal power; and mythology,” and often incorporates poetry in her art pieces.

In her poem, Ms. Hershey asks, basically, what people see when meeting her for the first time, and what fear do they “unlearn” by getting to know her. The Inclusion Paradox’s chapter, Disability: The Diversity Issue We Fear the Most, suggests that what we really see is our own vulnerability.

Her words bring me to the central question at the heart of her poem, “What do we see when we look at each other?”  We seldom “see” or “think” of artist, performer, or writer when meeting someone with a disability. In her vocational choice, Ms. Hershey defies that misguided conventional wisdom.

In Diversity, India Seeks to Rise Above Caste, Color

by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research


If, as defined in The Inclusion Paradox, “diversity is the mix, inclusion is making the mix work”™, then India has much to both celebrate and wrestle with as it determines its mix and focuses on how to make it work.

India represents a large swath of people. Roughly three-quarters of its roughly 1.17 billion people are Indo-Aryan, and Dravidians make up another large chunk. But the remaining 3% is divided among 2,000 ethnic groups. Hindi and English are two of the 18 recognized Indian languages. India hosts 15% of the world’s population, and of those, 70% are agrarian, living in villages and farms. India’s median age is a youthful 25. According to Department of State data, India is only one-third the size of the United States. So by being three times as populated, but one one-third as big, its population density is 9 times that of the US.

In India, discussing race relations involves inherent difficulty, particularly because there is no word for “race” in Hindi. The word “jaati” refers to a person’s caste. Or, “varn ka rang” means color of one’s skin. Thus, one can get close to a discussion of race, but it takes a bit of finesse to get all the way there.

Here’s a quick view of other parts of the mix and how it’s working.


Overcoming the ancient caste system in India is one of the country’s difficult challenges: How can a country uproot a system that predates the Bhagavad Gita? The varnas, or classes, consist of Brahmans (priests/teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers/soldiers), Vaisyas (merchants), Sudras (laborers) and a group not named but known as achuta, or untouchable.

This system today is outlawed, but still embedded, particularly in some regions. Today, untouchables are known as Dalits, and represent 200 million Indian citizens. Crimes against them, sometimes including rape and murder, but more frequently less violent crimes, can go unpunished. India has refused to consider caste as an international human rights issue.

Through Indian eyes, an understanding of the caste system goes far deeper than what is described in most Western literature. It was, for centuries, a useful mechanism for absorbing nomadic populations from Central Asia providing peaceful, stratified socio-economic order. While India recognizes that the system no longer applies, the societal movement away from it has been moving slowly.

The good news? When India has risen above caste, the results have meant an economic boon. In southern India, lower castes have been struggling toward equality since the early part of the 20th Century, focusing particularly on education and business success, as noted in the New York Times. According to the article, a key factor in India’s economic success–particularly in the south–was its ability to neutralize issues of caste.

Whiter Shades of Tan

More recently, skin color has become a basis for subtle discrimination in India and other Asian countries. Skin whitening products in India generate $500 million annually, with most of the popular Bollywood stars endorsing one or another whitening product. Earlier this year, Hindustan Unilever, which markets a Vaseline-brand whitening product, created an uproar when it launched a Facebook app that digitally lightens photos to be posted in social networking sites. As NPR describes, even men are feeling compelled to whiten their skin in India.


Women in India struggle not only for equality, but in some places for a chance to be born. Sex-selection abortions are on the rise in some parts of India, with some women choosing to abort female fetuses. Although it is illegal, some estimate that up to one million unborn girls are aborted every year in India. The real culprit isn’t necessarily a belief that girls are inferior. Rather, tradition requires expensive dowries from the families of brides, making girls an economic burden. On top of this, wives typically live with their husband’s families, and so can’t even be accountable for caring for their own aging parents.

But with the growing numbers of women attending college and with that finding their economic and social power rising, at least in modern India the lot of women is improving. But even here, women face a very visible and strong glass ceiling for management and leadership positions.


Unlike many of its Asian counterparts, a rapidly aging population is not a critical concern for India. Although the population is aging, India remains youthful. For example, among developed countries, Ireland has the oldest mothers, at an average age of 31. By contrast, neighboring Bangladesh has the youngest mothers among developing countries, at an average age of 25, per The Times of India. In fact, India’s working age population will grow by 240 million in 20 years, compared to China’s working age population, which will grow only 10 million in that same stretch.


India’s disability act, originally instituted in 1995, provides for children and adults with disabilities. Disabled children, for example, have a right to free education in integrated or “special” schools. In India, 3% of all government jobs are held for people with disabilities. Affirmative action prescribes land allotment such that appropriate facilities for disabled people can be developed.

That said, inadequacies exist, and attempts to broaden disability law as recently as February 2010 have failed. Civil rights, in particular, are minimal. Basic guarantees, such as protection from cruel and inhuman treatment, the right to marry, and the right to own property, currently are not addressed.


Gay rights in India took a giant leap forward last July, when India’s high court decriminalized gay sex. Ironically, the original law against homosexuality was implemented under British rule in India, but in recent years was defended as a way to preserve “traditional Indian sensibilities.” The Indian high court’s ruling specifically noted that the law against homosexuality conflicted with India’s “political principle of inclusiveness,” clearly establishing an optimist path–not only for gay rights, but for all diversity and inclusion issues in India.

The explicit issue of diversity in workplace is starting to pop up more in corporate India with some organizations even appointing diversity leaders. There is also a growing interest in the media on diversity topics. But as this quick survey piece shows, plenty of diversity topics are stirring in Indian society but its all prologue right now.

How Pop Culture Helps Normalize the “Other” in Society

by Andrés T. Tapia

times-square-1024x768Pop culture has been on my mind lately as evidenced by my recent blog posts on pop culture icons Archie Comics, Barbie, and Dora the Explorer.

Not only do I love pop culture for it’s own fun sake; but what pop culture does or doesn’t do — and how it does the doing or the not doing — tells us a lot about the state of diversity and inclusion in society. This is because pop culture — the good, the bad, and the ridiculous — is a sign of what has become, is becoming, or could soon become normal in mainstream cultural behavior and beliefs.

Why is this nerdy, unsexy concept of what is considered “normal” in mainstream society so vitally important to the work of diversity and inclusion? It’s because, ultimately, the work of diversity and inclusion entails normalizing what mainstream society considers “other.” Opponents of affirmative action or diversity often attack the work as giving unfair advantage to people due to skin color or some other otherness. In contrast, our message is that we don’t want whatever it is that makes us different to be considered a deficit, an aberration, weird, or not-of-this place. We are not seeking to make difference a super power. We just want to make it normal. Our work is to normalize the difference —to make its presence an accepted part of the social landscape.

And what does normalizing mean? For sure, it does not mean minimizing the differences. Our differences are real, and we must know how to constructively call them out and manage them. Normalizing is about the differences, and the work it requires to make them into just another part of life. They are not impositions that people can choose to ignore. Our work is to make managing diversity as normal as the hard, but important, work of raising children or managing people or having good interpersonal relationships with the people close to us.

So let’s look at my three recent pop culture Inclusion Paradox sightings examples. Not too long ago, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals were so relegated to the fringes of society as to be invisible. But then in the mid-90s there was Ellen, the first network sitcom with a lesbian main character. The show’s historic 1997 coming out episode, of the character and the actor, moved gay issues into the mainstream, like nothing else before. Pop culture with its glitz, big name advertisers, and in the case of Ellen, great comedic writing, has the power to transform the taboo or marginalized into the “this-is-how-life-is” category.

After the Ellen breakthrough, came other pop culture advances where different shows, artists, and ads rode Ellen’s coattails. So Elton John came out, as did Melissa Etheridge and Ricky Martin. Then Will and Grace arrived with a diversity of gay characters, while Ellen is now a mainstream talk show host. And finally, in the tamest of platforms, the pop culture comic book, Archie, the quintessential purveyor of American mainstream culture, introduces Kevin Keller, Archie Comics’ first openly gay character. This is not just a cute incident. Normalizing events, such as creating a mainstream gay character to hang out with Veronica, Betty, Jughead, and Archie, go a long way to foster a more inclusive environment on the part of the straight community and, as a result, have a positive impact on gay teens, whose current suicide rate is four times higher than that of heterosexuals.

Let’s look at another example: the black Barbie. It used to be that little black girls could only play with white dolls, because there were no black dolls. Now, when I see a little white girl carrying one of the many black or Hispanic or other ethnic dolls available in stores, I know this is progress, even on a doll-house small scale, toward acceptance of the “other” as normal and even desirable. Toy manufacturers are no longer creating such products just for the niche market that can identify with it, but are banking on it being attractive to consumers from other groups.

Finally, there’s Dora the explorer. As we watch the ugly headlines about the shifting winds against the “otherness” of immigrants and, in particular, Latino immigrants, we see Latina Dora enchanting and educating children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, while Mom sings along. As vicious as the immigration and SB1070 debates are in today’s polarized politics, and as predictable as the backlash toward the outsider becomes in tough economic times, our children will look at the Latinos around them and instead of seeing “aliens,” they will see amigos. That’s the power of Dora. And Barbie and Archie. That’s the power of pop culture.


For the five stages of normalizing otherness, click  here.

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