The SHRM 2012 Diversity & Inclusion Conference kicked off Monday in Chicago with 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist. Under her leadership, both Christian and Muslim women came together as part of a non-violent movement that helped to put a stop to the civil war in Liberia in 2003.
Her message was simple as it was powerful: It’s human nature to tend to go about categorizing people —“angry black woman,” “brutal black man,” “weird white man,” were some examples she provided — but when we inherit such stereotypes as truth, we do ourselves a disservice by focusing on our differences rather than our similarities.
“Stop looking at Muslim head scarves and look at their faces, stop looking at beards and look at their faces, stop looking at crosses [on women’s necklaces] and look at their faces,” she said.
And that, to me, speaks volumes. Because guess what: From my own personal experience, the first thing people see when they look at me is the color of my skin. Then they deduce (or attempt to infer) my ethnicity and often base the conversation on what they think they know about me or my culture. Gbowee shared similar experiences based on some of her travels and speaking engagements in the U.S., where in some instances children — I repeat, children (that’s how far back some stereotypes are ingrained in our society) — would look at her and ask whether she lived in a jungle or rode a donkey to work every day.
That may be laughable to you and me, but the matter itself is the furthest thing from laughable. Yes, diversity leaders, let’s roll up our sleeves, because there is much to be done in our field. And the day we can all put aside our superficial differences and look each other in the face and really see other people for who they are and embrace them, maybe that day we can consider our journey complete.