Don’t trust illusions

The arbitrary assigning of specific ethnicities to a couple of politicians recently has reminded us that some care is needed, training required and probably a bit a pause for thinking about it all. The perpetrators, both excellent people forced into quick thinking on the fly, made assumptions first about their own knowledge and secondly were caught into a no-win situation getting into a discussion about diversity.

Early in my time as a secondary school principal I learnt a little about my own knowledge. Having arriving at a school directly from teaching (in a teachers college) courses about Multicultural Education, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and suchlike I thought I knew quite bit about cultural difference etc. But this turned out to be to an embarrassing trap.

One day a distraught Pasifika mother arrived at the school upset about examination fees. I was out and about the school just then and was summoned to the office. Yes, she was greatly irritated and with justification. There was a group standing with her in the foyer and I invited them all into my office to talk it through. I knew how to handle the situation, I was experienced with Pasifika situations, I knew that the basic tenant was to first seek to understand and then be understood. And over perhaps 20 minutes we had sorted it all out.

I then thanked the group that was with the Mum, assured them that I valued the support they had given and invited them to speak. I sat back with some satisfaction that I had done well. But I was not prepared for the response. In a gentle voice one of the group said “We do not know her, we were standing by the office and you made us all come into your office!” I later was told, which rubbed a little into my wounds, that the group did not share the same ethnicity as the troubled Mum

A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing.

I have a feeling that “diversity” is not quite as helpful as a concept as perhaps “cultural inclusion” might be. Targeted cultural inclusion programmes that first address issues of personal knowledge and skills in a diverse setting are then able to move to issues of implementation, and strategy, and performance and outcomes based on the specific needs of whatever the area of desired impact is – the market, a business, a school, a community, a church and so on.

Diversity is not in the eyes of a beholder but exists in the minds and feelings of real and different people who will not be undifferentiated in their views and needs and who will require different things if their growth, wealth and happiness is to be nourished.

So getting back to the politicians, the issue is not a head count because that will not in itself guarantee outcomes. But if the issues, policies and outcomes are built in an equitable and collegial fashion by a group that can bring different perceptions, different aspirations and sound responses that reflect the communities they come from, we can expect their impact to be visible and life enhancing.

But we need to watch our own role and the quality of the knowledge and skills we personally bring to the task.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope

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