Diversity Matters' Friends & Colleagues,
On last week’s show we briefly mentioned CBS’s firing of Don Imus in our discussion about the tension between social justice and the business imperative with respect to diversity and inclusion efforts. Last week Newsweek, Time and Oprah covered the Imus story and the ensuing national dialogue about racism, censorship, hip-hop culture and the like. Judy and I received lots of emails and comments from folks saying things like “the current Imus flap gives you guys good fodder for the show.”
Then the headlines became overshadowed with another national tragedy, the shootings at Virginia Tech.
It would be easy to think, that the “Imus story” has lost its shelf life and now we’re on to the next “story.” But I don’t think these stories are only about Imus, or a troubled young man in Virginia. They are all connected. We are all connected.
At the 4th Annual Chief Diversity Officer’s Forum recently someone shared a quote that has stuck with me for weeks – “Hurt people, hurt people.”
Think about this – “Hurt people, HURT people.” I don’t know enough about Cho Seung-Hui, the 23 year old man from South Korea, but I know he hurt people. Don Imus’s words hurt people. For some it was hurting a wound that has been there for a while. For others, the hurt is the pain and discomfort of not knowing what to do to heal the hurt and make a difference.
At Diversity Matters, we are committed to providing a vehicle to share stories, resources and tools so that individuals, communities and organizations can make a difference. Our mission is about giving voice - hearing from, learning from and understanding those ideas, perspectives and experiences that help us achieve our common goals. With his comments about the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team – shock jock Don Imus turned up the heat on a national dialogue regarding diversity and inclusion.
We believe this conversation is important – an interesting and challenging “meta-conversation” – can we discuss “the undiscussable?” If so, how? Are there certain things that just shouldn’t be said in the public sphere? On today’s episode of Diversity Matters, Judy and I brought forth the voices of past guests and offered our voices to this national conversation.
If we’re here to provide voice, “diversity,” by definition means that those voices won’t all sound alike, say the same things or even belong to people with whom we agree. If inclusion is about creating a climate where everybody truly feels like they matter, how do we do that in a way that allows us to hear from, learn from and dialogue with folks whose perspectives not only vastly differ from our own, but may even “cross the line” with respect to what’s “discussable?” These were some of the questions we navigate in our work at Diversity Matters and became the focus for this week’s radio show.
Ironically, Imus made his comments about the Scarlet Knights on April 4th, the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Earlier this year, we were honored to have Yolanda King, author, actor, speaker, producer and first born daughter of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King on Diversity Matters and hear her voice as she talked about the importance of believing in and living for “the dream.”
In order to achieve the dream, she talked about the importance of “reaching across the table” – the racial table, the religious table, the economic table and with grace discover our common ground and our common humanity. She spoke about the importance of disagreeing without being disagreeable in our families, in our communities and in our workplaces. Yolanda King’s voice reminds us that we have to stay at the table, reach across it, seek to understand that different voice and uncover our common ground, shared purpose and shared humanity.
I believe we HAVE TO create a climate where differences, especially vast differences can come together for a common purpose. This coming together fuels creativity, innovation and growth. But a key component of this is FOR A COMMON PURPOSE
. In my opinion Imus’s tactic, like those of many shock jocks, overshadowed his purpose.
In my opinion this is toxic media and while I believe in the purpose of entertainment and media as a source of information, expression and the exchange of ideas, when the provocative or “shock” becomes THE PURPOSE
, I think the content of the message or art is lost. Toxicity and mean-spiritedness in the guise of entertainment is not OK.
Newsweek described Imus as “The coolest bully on the playground, the outlaw kid others wanted to be seen with …Imus made his guest feel honored to be insulted by him.”
Hurt people, hurt people. My values don’t support “supporting” the bully on the playground in this way. We must understand the bully, mentor the bully, and invite the bully to find other ways to inspire and lead rather than with fists, verbal or otherwise.
While I agree with NBC’s decision to fire Imus, I am not advocating censorship. While fired, he need not be silenced, nor will he remain silent. “The Bully” will always find a bully pulpit. Censoring costs the culture it’s artists, it’s greatest thinkers and while perhaps silencing those you disagree with, it will also silence you and me.
However, Imus’s platform was supported by millions of dollars in advertising revenue and many high profile politicians, authors and thought leaders came on the show as part of their platform. A voice I found interesting in the conversation this past week was that of editorial-page editor Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She argued that politicians and entertainment celebrities who appeared on Imus’s show were not offended enough by his racial stereotypes to turn down a little airtime. She said, “I think I know hos when I see them.”
In addressing this question of platform, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, a regular on the Imus show who has now reconsidered this decision says of himself and other guests, “Are we being hypocritical… Perhaps; for too long too many of us looked the other way when it suited our purposes. To continue to do the wrong thing because we have done the wrong thing in the past, however, is senseless, and if being charged with hypocrisy is the price of ending up in the right place, then it is a price worth paying.”
Imus’s words have re-energized the conversation, now we have to keep the dialogue going, forge partnerships - even uncomfortable ones, and move from reaction to action. New York City Council for example took action by banning the “N” word. While largely symbolic, they took a stance on the power of language. While not necessarily what I would argue as the “best action” it is an interesting one. Dr. Johnnetta Cole recently said, we must be careful not to lose our “civility” as we engage in spirited debate and dialogue. At Diversity Matters, we believe rather than drawing lines in the sand (since diversity means we all draw lines in different places), we must have the ability to talk with both CANDOR and CARE
As Yolanda King said, we must reach across the table and LISTEN to voices we don’t agree with so we can discover our common ground. We must also stand up, with courage and dignity like the women of Rutgers’ Scarlet Knights and give feedback, name our experience, and be heard. Part of the power of these young women came from their civility and grace in the face of Imus’s shock jock style. It was their deportment, especially compared to his that got the nation’s attention. Unless you’re willing to see these exceptional women as exceptions, Imus’s descriptors have to be understood as prejudicial stereotypes that disparage, hurt and function to elevate one class of people at the expense of another.
Finally, we all have a responsibility to know when our words are going to violate the ethic of care. We must get educated and stay informed by moving out of our comfort zones and staying “in the know.” Imus should have known better.
Together these commitments to live consciously, “in the know” and be skillful with the sort of connected conversation which at Diversity Matters we call “strategic discourse” are tools we can all learn and use to take action. These are the actions we should take at an individual level.At an organizational level, it also requires a type of leadership and organizational structure through policies, practices and values that support and reinforce a culture that values diversity and where inclusion thrives. None of this is easy, and it’s a process that’s never complete. Individual and organizational action takes a collective will to stay the course, as people, circumstances and organizations change. At my core I’m an optimist. I believe we can and will stay the course as we struggle together, learn together and laugh together so that we are transformed by each other’s experience to achieve our common purpose – inclusion.
Richard Friend, Ph.D.
Co-Founder & Co-Host