The Diversity Code

Unlock the Secrets to Making Differences Work in the Real World

The Diversity Code

Author: Michelle T. Johnson
Pub Date: September 2010
Print Edition: $19.95
Print ISBN: 9780814416327
Page Count: 256
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814416334

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INTRODUCTION: So What Is the Diversity Code, Anyway?

Dear Diversity Diva:

What exactly is this book going to do for me that all the mandatory

diversity seminars, workshops, and training sessions that I’ve been

required to go to as a manager haven’t already done? And what the

devil makes you a “Diversity Diva” in the first place?


Book Paid for on Credit Card

What this book will do—differently from any other diversity talk you’ve

ever had to sit through or diversity brochure you’ve been required to read—

is tell it to you straight. I’m not going to sugarcoat diversity and make it

palatable. I’m also not going to surround it with a political agenda or explain

it in a way that makes it nothing more than sociological cough syrup.

As you read this book, you’ll get mad at some things I say. Sometimes,

you’ll chuckle to yourself. But most important, you’ll be spurred to start

thinking a little differently, which is the key to managing diversity issues.

Giving you a list of do’s or don’ts would be an exercise in futility, so

I’m not going to do that.The women’s magazine Glamour ends every issue

with pictures of fashion do’s and don’ts, based on pictures of real women

walking around. Seeing a picture of someone looking like a hot mess indirectly

tells you what not to wear.

That’s great for a monthly magazine and particularly great for illustrating

the changing winds of fashion. But diversity isn’t so cut-and-dried.

That’s why I said that it’s about thinking differently.When it comes to managing

diversity issues, it becomes really important to think a little differently,

because if you view the world differently, you show up in the world differently,

which impacts how you behave and how you treat others. That’s

more than half the battle of getting diversity “right” in the workplace. At

the very least, you’ll come a long way from doing it wrong.

This reminds me of the analogy we’ve all heard about how a brilliant

idea is symbolized by a light bulb going off over your head.Well, I don’t

know about most folks, but in my house, when I’m dealing with the dark

because of a burnt-out bulb, a new light doesn’t just appear. Getting a new

light bulb requires me to visit the storage cabinet, and if the right kind of

bulb isn’t there, then I need to drive to the closest open store.Then I have

to come back home and fiddle around in the dark to find the socket to

screw in the new bulb. In other words, enlightenment requires effort. It

doesn’t just happen.

And that’s what thinking differently about diversity requires—effort.

Not necessarily work or strain, not always discomfort, but good oldfashioned


Anyway, you have probably figured it out already, but the title of this

book—The Diversity Code—is a twist on the title of the best-selling novel

by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. I got very excited when I came up with

the title because for most of us, trying to figure out diversity in the workplace

feels like trying to break a big encrypted code where someone—we

never know who—is the keeper of the big book that holds the key to figuring

out all the mysteries and puzzles that getting a good grasp on diversity

requires.This book will help you move toward solving those mysteries

and puzzles.

Oftentimes while reading this book, you’ll understand the spirit of a

quote by Walt Whitman that I love:“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then

I contradict myself.”Authentic and practical diversity is not about rules and

regulations that put you in compliance.You can legally comply with the law

but still be really, really lousy at promoting diversity in your workplace,

whether you are a manager or a regular employee.

Divas and Diversity

I became a “diva” after I dubbed myself so (and also because the word diva

and the word diversity begin with the same three letters).

It may sound a bit corny, but I’ve had to deal with diversity my whole

life—even when there wasn’t a name for it, let alone practically a social and

educational movement about it.My first diversity lesson came when I was

a little black kid going to a predominantly white Catholic school, when my

family lived in the “hood” and thought a rosary was a place where you kept

flowers. Since then, I’ve negotiated multiple worlds a multitude of times in

my life.Throughout, I have managed to use the skill of being myself while

trying to understand everyone else around me. Sometimes, that’s all real-life

diversity is—being yourself while allowing others to be themselves, too.

For several years, I practiced employment law as an attorney, primarily

working for prominent law firms in Kansas City, Missouri. I represented

some major national and local companies that got slapped with discrimination

lawsuits and employee complaints. The thing that was particularly

interesting about having that role is that I’m a black woman. It’s interesting

because when I would show up for depositions, people would often get

confused and think I was the plaintiff, the court reporter, a witness, maybe

the plaintiff ’s attorney, and sometimes—even if I was wearing a suit—a

delivery person showing up in the wrong conference room. Usually, no one

expected the part of the attorney for the “da Man” to be played by an

African-American woman. And let’s not talk about how much more people

got surprised and confused after I began wearing my hair in dreadlocks.

Long before I became an attorney,I was a journalist and a writer,and when

the opportunity to write the book that became Working While Black came

along, I was in heaven. I had found someone to pay me to do the two things I

most liked to do—write and educate others on issues regarding diversity.

I continued to work as an attorney but felt disenchanted with the law.

Once I started getting an increasing number of chances to write and speak

about diversity, I found myself becoming even more disenchanted with the

practice of law. Employment law is oftentimes about trying to resolve a

problem and fix blame long after the problem is over rather than trying to

anticipate and avoid the issue before it begins. Even in employment law, the

stereotypical image of the ambulance chaser isn’t too far off—one where

too many lawyers get caught up in assigning blame and fighting about liability.

After a while, I just got to the point where all I cared about was figuring

out how someone could have stopped the metaphorical car accident

in the first place.

As part of my journey on the road to diversity, I realized that average

people don’t have a natural tendency to put themselves in the shoes of

other people or even at the very least attempt to understand why other

people are wearing moccasins or Prada pumps in the first place. So, I

observed that a lot of clashing took place because the world was getting

more complex and diverse, but no one—and I mean no one, not just whites

or men—was bothering to learn new ways of looking at situations.

And as my eyes begin to see differently, I seemed to attract more kinds

of opportunities and work experiences that led me to becoming an expert

on diversity. One of those opportunities was the column “Dear Diversity

Diva” that I proposed to the Kansas City Star. The column has run in the

newspaper’s Business section since January 2008. It’s a question-and-answer

column where anyone can write in a question about how to handle a specific

issue or problem in the workplace involving diversity.

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