Covid-19 and The New Diversity Challenge

One devastating side effect of the crisis we are living in is the xenophobic attacks against Asians and Asian descendants. Examples are ranging from some people calling it the “China-virus” to microaggressions such as people moving up their masks to cover their faces when an Asian is on sight. The attacks take it to worst forms yet in Social Media, land of cruel verbal offenses. Reading about those scary reactions makes me think about the day after, and how this may impact our progress towards a more diverse world.

My perspective in this piece is an attempt to keep an open and live discussion about increasing awareness. Looking into our past, we may observe that it is not something different than what happened in previous pandemics. The plague and cholera were associated with Asia, but we don’t need to limit our examples to Asia. In more recent events, such as the HIV pandemic, gays, and later Africans were the victims of our prejudice. It feels comfortable when we find someone to point fingers as if this would make us immune to the real enemy.

It is curious to notice that the COVID-19 crisis just became a concern for us two months after China imposed the lockdown in Wuhan — Jan, 23rd 2020. However, we shouldn’t be surprised because we don’t seem to give much importance to events unless they impact us. Let’s go six years back in time when the Ebola outbreak erupted in Africa in March 2014. We observed a spike in the news in the week that Dr.Craig Spencer tested positive in oct, 21st, 2014. Fortunately, there were just four cases with one death registered in America, and as a consequence, the media interest went down as quick as went up.

While we can think of that as a natural decline given the virus didn’t seem to pose a tangible threat to us, the xenophobic reactions to Africans last much longer than the media coverage. The danger was associated with African immigrants, even though they have arrived in America a long time before the virus outbreak.

I am a business consultant with a particular interest in diversity in the workplace. One of the first things we do when promoting diversity is to work with teams on their unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are not on the surface, and that’s why it is difficult for us to realize that we all have ours. It is generally associated with social stereotypes about specific groups, usually minorities, and are triggered by quick judgments through associations that happen in our brains without us noticing. The first step to overcame unconscious bias is by acknowledging them, which takes us to a dive inside our minds, and to be effective, we can’t be afraid of showing vulnerability. As the unconscious becomes conscious, we can then start applying some techniques to deal with our bias and revert certain behaviors.

I am optimistic that we will emerge from this crisis, and we will be able to learn and embrace the changes that we will face with an open mind. Hence, I want to remind you that we have been evolving when it comes to diversity, and to avoid going back two or more spaces in the game of life, I ask you to think about what diversity means. Think of how the world has become closer and more prosperous when we can learn about each other’s culture or understand and accept each other’s beliefs.

Diversity is about Identity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Identity — We must celebrate who we are, and have the same sentiment about others that are different than us. In the workplace, as in life, we should show respect. Respect for who our coworkers are, what they have to say, and listen to their point of view. More than an obligation, this is a privilege.

Inclusion — What is the point of a push for diversity if we don’t invite everyone to participate in everything we do? Ensure engagement and foster an environment where all voices are equally important and active is the secret sauce of a successfully diverse organization.

Belonging — We can just form a real community when the members feel that they belong. In the workplace, it is the same. Earn the trust and increase engagement is only possible when a member of your team feels they can be who they really are, and therefore they feel safe to take risks, contribute, and make mistakes.

As I circle back to my initial point, I’d like to leave you with a final thought. We are all on the same team against a virus that we know very little about. As we fight and try to learn, we will make mistakes, take wrong routes, and have frustrating experiences. At some point, we will have more knowledge about our enemy and will be able to win this fight. If we let this enemy influence us and increase our sentiments of prejudice against each other, we are giving the coronavirus an extended life. The virus may not kill us by pneumonia anymore, but it will still be living among us and stopping us from growing as a society.