Evelina, Dog Owner. Why Labels Suck.


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work

I usually like to start my day off with reading news stories from around the world, hoping to capture a balanced view of what is actually happening.  It is not always so easy to piece it all together.   One thing stands out for me for sure. The presence of labels: when, how and if they are used to describe protagonists and antagonists in the stories.

We are uncomfortable with applying specific labels when we see large groups  doing nasty things.  You are more likely to see an avoidance  of labels  with Canadian television broadcasters or more socially oriented European media.   The concern is about stereotyping, backlash, and creating fear.  On the opposite side of the spectrum when the media, social movements, governments and others want to draw negative attention to a group – the labeling comes in really handy.

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My Twitter feed was laden with sexist and racist exposés from journalists covering the Olympics in Rio. I also read about the hateful interactions of Arab athletes against the Israelis.  Clearly, “Israeli” or “Jew” a divisive label, was preferred over a more conciliatory one of  “fellow-athlete”.   How sad!

Labeling is tricky.  Gabby Douglas, the American Gold Gymnast had her share of labels thrown at her during the Olympics.  A lot of them weren’t very nice.  It was interesting to note how Gabby’s “blackness” was plastered around Twitter by black groups.  Then to my surprise, I saw again in my feed an article about how Gabby Douglas credits her Jewish upbringing with helping her to succeed.  Two cultural/racial groups wanting to make her their own and confer their label as a celebration of membership.  For individuals who judge people on one-dimensional characteristics: where does someone like Gabby fit in?   Since she is Jewish, does that mean she fits into the white privileged category that oppression activists would categorize, even though hatred against Jews is now considered to have reached the levels of pre-Second World War times? Or is she black?  Here lies the problem with looking at human beings so simplistically.  We are not one-dimensional.   It is time to reconsider the limitations of dangerously divisive thinking.

Labeling has been on my mind for a while, and more so now as I connect with Americans. My race seems to always come up.    Along with that, it becomes important for them to tell me their race when we are speaking over the phone.  I don’t understand it, maybe I will in the future.  In my opinion it is irrelevant, and so I wish my race was too.  I don’t think there is a universal “white” or “black” way of thinking.

I am Evelina: a multi-dimensional human being and so are you.  If it makes you happy to label me, why don’t you categorize me as  Evelina,  dog owner? I much prefer that.

 

 

 

What the Brits’ Telly Can Teach Us About Diversity Dialogues


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Evelina Silveira,  President, Diversity at Work

When you think about British television, what comes to mind?  Well, if you are not British most of us would probably say Coronation Street  because it has been around forever on Canadian televisions. But there is so much more to discover!  Deciding to join the cable cutting crowd, I have opted for YouTube instead, for my nightly viewing. And British TV is it!

I have been so impressed with the wide range of British television programs devoted to social experiments in the form of reality TV.  To their credit, it appears the Brits are sincerely trying to understand “the other” through their programs of cultural exchanges of various sorts.  They’re not your regular run-of-the-mill low budget reality programs but thoughtful, out-of-the-box productions that are not afraid to ask the tough questions.

Why do I find the programs to be so remarkable?  Because the participants in the social experiments get a chance to “walk in the other person’s shoes” and freely ask questions without being afraid of a label of “homophobe”, “racist”, “islamaphone” “xenophobe” etc.  You get to see the good, the bad and the ugly.  Nothing is held back and I like that.  At least, when everyone has their preconceptions on the table you have something to work with instead being terminally superficial and polite.

What I began to notice in British television was delightfully refreshing.  The Brits actually engage others in a conversation about diversity.   I don’t see that happening in Canadian television.  All  we ever see is one side of a story and you either accept it or you don’t.  There is rarely an opportunity for two groups to come together and learn about one another and gain sensitivity, empathy and insight into the other group’s world.  The Brits seem to love programs devoted to “social experiments” and I have to tell you as a lover of sociology and anthropology — these types of programs score high for me.

It must have been a television genius who came up with the subject matter.  I have watched at least one  episode with the following themes:

  • A small group of Brits who have to live like a Muslim for a designated period of time.
  • Six men from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles who go to live in a Benedictine monastery and must follow their rules
  • Nasty British teenagers who are sent to live with an American Amish family to help them reform their ways
  • Bad behaving British teenagers who are sent to live with another family in a foreign country which is known to be “very strict”
  • Several English citizens who feel they have been negatively impacted by immigration are matched with immigrants to challenge some of their assumptions

What so good about these experiments? What do participants often learn from the experience?

  • There is greater understanding that can come from honest and often challenging conversations. You might either become stronger in your conviction or  more empathetic to the other’s experience.
  • There is value and meaning in learning about other people’s rituals even if they seem far off.
  • We can be enriched by others’ experiences and might find adopting aspects of their lives to our own.
  • Having your assumptions challenged is not a bad thing and it contributes to your own personal growth.  You can also help others grow by letting them express their biases/stereotypes and prejudices and work with them.
  • You can’t live in a liberal democracy without expecting to be offended occasionally: a price of freedom of expression.

For example, in the BBC documentary a young British-born  worker is matched to a Polish immigrant who owns his own construction business.  The young man contends foreigners are taking all of the jobs.  He gets to meet Mariuscz  a business owner and notices that his whole shop is full of only Polish workers which fuels his negative perception.   However, when he has a conversation with Mariuscz he realizes that these workers have a starting wage which is much lower than he would accept.  Mariuscz says he started at a low salary and worked his way up in a shop and finally decided to open his own business.  Mariuscz however is challenged to see that hiring only Polish workers is discriminatory and that he could benefit from English-speaking employees.  He is open to accepting this criticism and comes to see that his workers would learn English if there was someone around who would be prepared to speak it.  The result of this dialogue?  I would say a win-win for both participants.  Each was open to hearing the other’s point of view and challenge their own thinking.

British television shows me how much we Canadians have in common  However, I would have to say a few programs that I watched momentarily would never survive in Canada.  They are just too mean! Programs like Fat Families and Life on the DoleLife on the Dole  does not seem balanced at all.  Most of the cast consists of drug addicts, people who don’t want to work and ex-cons.  We don’t see many examples of the working poor.  If the purpose of Life on the Dole  is to make working people angry about the poor, than it succeeds in that regard.  If this program was filmed in Canada the slant would be different.  It would be aired to bring about empathy and awareness of the poor and set in a more compassionate light and with less of a classist tone.

All in all, British television rocks!  I need to run —-  Wife Swap UK is on!

 

 

Political Correctness: Haven’t We Gone Too Far?


By:  Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work

“Evelina, I don’t know how to say it, because I don’t want to sound bad or offend anyone but…”   “Just say it!”  I declare.   “You don’t have to be politically correct with me, if I don’t know what the problem is, I can’t help you!”  The tension automatically dissipates; and a looser more relaxed tone settles in and then the client begins to tell me an uncensored version of what is happening.

This happens regularly to me when I receive a call from a client. Usually they are stressed about a situation and they want answers but they don’t want to be judged.  They have learned they cannot criticize certain groups because they will have a label hurled at them or get slapped with a human rights complaint –-the biggest threat and silencer of all.

I am writing this article because I believe in truth and fairness. I believe in a balanced approach to diversity and workplace inclusion.  Political correctness is not always “correct” when it comes to truth and fairness.

Politically correct language is not a bad thing. I don’t want to be referred to as a “girl” “chick” or “bitch” but a woman.  Using the “right words” is positive.  It demonstrates the progress we have made in our understanding of the equality of human beings.  I like that!  Perhaps we should have left it at that.

Political correctness is responsible for:

  • Creating animosity amongst different groups and perpetuating all of the “isms” where none have existed.
  • Suppressing the truth.
  • Removing ourselves from our moral obligations to help marginalized groups.
  • Perpetuating a double-standard when it comes to acceptable  behaviour.
  • Preventing us from talking to one another.

 

How Political Correctness Creates Animosity Amongst Groups

The Christmas holidays are a prime example. I have never met a Jew or a Muslim in Canada who was “offended” by celebrating Christmas in the workplace.  Yet, each year there is a rush to plan a holiday festivity which sounds like a Christmas one – but  it isn’t supposed to be. Or the gathering is cancelled altogether because the organization has just hired a Jew or a Muslim, or any other non-Christian.  The end result: dislike for those of minority faiths and the cancellation of a celebration which would have otherwise brought employees together. In our effort to please everyone –we please no one. Instead, “well-meaning”, “religiously-sensitive”  gestures spring into micro-aggressions in the workplace where none has previously existed.

How Political Correctness Suppresses the Truth

It’s seems like it wasn’t that long ago when CBC’s Marketplace made a formal apology  for publishing inaccurate test results  about vitamin supplements.  But I am unaware of any such apology with the Fifth Estates’ problematic reporting of the incidents which lead to the death of little Aylan Kurdi.  His precious life could have been saved. Instead, they aired a report which infers that the Canadian government was responsible  for Aylan’s death since his family’s application  wasn’t approved in time to immigrate to Canada!   Around the same time, European and Turkish papers had reported about Aylan’s father’s disregard for his own son’s life (did not give him a life jacket but wore one himself) and that he was actually a human smuggler who was trying to get to Germany to get the State to pay for very expensive dental work. And to make matters worse, Aylan  wasn’t the only member of his family who perished as a result of his father’s negligence it was also his mother and siblings. The last I read his father was going to prison.  I don’t recall a correction notice on the Fifth Estate or any other media sources for that matter. It’s not politically correct and it certainly wouldn’t fit in with Liberal politics.

Canadians have been led to believe that we are saving thousands of people from Syrian refugee camps, but sadly we are not. According to the April 13, 2016 edition of Hill Times confirms that “very few are coming from refugee camps”.  Rushing to bring in thousands of people into the country without a good plan and then saying we are saving lives is deceptive. Stop leading Canadians to believe that we are helping more people than we actually are  — we are not!

My friends from former communist countries have noted that the CBC is no different than the propaganda they had to put up with back in their country of origin. It seems that our media on the whole has a disdain for simultaneously broadcasting opposing points of view.  There’s a name for that:  media bias.

Internationally and at home, journalists, police officers, and government officials are not allowed to report what is going on because they are afraid of an uprising and backlash against refugees and migrants. Since when is censorship a part of living in a democratic country?  I ask myself: What must it be like to be a muzzled journalist these days?

Yet the sexual abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests seems to be okay to broadcast around the world. Christian-bashing has becoming so acceptable in our modern society that we hardly notice it.  Rarely do you ever hear anyone sticking up for Christians. So who makes the decision of what truths can be disclosed and which will be suppressed? Political correctness does.

Political correctness slaps a “xenophobe” or “racist” label whenever you disagree with a leftist mentality. Very strong words, improperly used when citizens start asking questions about the politics of their country.  I would argue by using these words so regularly  actually takes away from the experiences of those who truly live them each day.

How Political Correctness Removes Us From Our Moral Responsibility

Where are the voices of Western feminists when it comes to advocating for the rights of women globally?   In some ways, today’s feminists haven’t evolved much from the 1960’s.  Female genital mutilation, child marriage and honour killings are off-bounds.  I would encourage any feminist who thinks it is culturally insensitive to challenge the violent practices of other cultures to meet the women who have endured them.  In my work with immigrant women, I have met those who have suffered these horrendous, traumatic practices and who have been marred physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives.  If we don’t try to help our sisters globally we are making the statement that their lives are less valuable.  Is the life of a Yemenite, Sudanese, Indian girl or other any less than a Western life?  Of course not. It is not racist to advocate for the rights of people who are often voiceless. It is the right thing to do!

How Political Correctness Makes Us Accept Intolerable Behaviour 

When we accept poor work performance or belligerent behaviour from a person of a designated group we are being unjust.   We are telling  ourselves that we cannot expect better behaviour because of “x” number of reasons and consequently we reduce them to a lower level of expectations. Translation:  we don’t feel they can attain our standards.  Isn’t this kind of like the “racism of lower expectations”?

What would happen if you walked naked down the street? There is a good chance the police would be called and you would be arrested for violating the public decency laws.  Most people I say don’t really care if there is a Pride Parade, but they do care if there is nudity involved.  Why do the Toronto police turn a blind eye to nudity at the Pride Parade when it is unlawful?  Since when does one group of people get to break the law without consequence and others can’t?  No one can argue that the LGBT community has a lot to celebrate and they have had a long history of oppression but that does not give them the right to be naked on the street.  One law for everyone, please! No exceptions.

Political Correctness Prevents Us From Talking To One Another

Many years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to bring Jewish and Arab-Muslim women together for a dialogue group. These forward-thinking women through mutual learning wanted to “create a pocket of peace” in the city they lived in, by reducing hate and stereotypes.  It was one of the most difficult and rewarding groups I have ever facilitated as it  was so emotionally charged.  At the outset, these women denounced “terminal politeness”.  We all understood what it meant:  no phoniness and no political correctness.   Consequently, these women spent many weeks together, shared meals and prayers of peace.  As the facilitator, I can recount how the women expressed similar feelings about the impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It was interesting to know how each group felt the newspapers were biased against them.  Did long-lasting friendships happen?  Not really, but respect did.  These were bold woman who were willing to ask and speak without judgment and fear and consequently they got the answers they were seeking.  This wouldn’t have happened if they had been politically correct.

What can we do as individuals?

1. Accept diversity of opinion. With embracing diversity comes the expectation of accepting  differences of opinion, even when it doesn’t suit you. . You cannot have one without the other.

2. Don’t accept one truth only. There are different sides to every story. Challenge bias when you see it. Whether it’s the media,  the authors of your children’s textbooks, or institutions and even yourself.

3.  Stop the silence and take a chance and speak out against political correctness.  I can guarantee that you’ll be a hero.  You won’t be alone.

 

MAINSTREAM MEDIA AND ABORIGINAL PEOPLE — DECADES OF BIASED REPORTING


The Idle No More movement has been successful with raising awareness of aboriginal issues in Canada, and engaging the country in a conversation it rarely has.  Although I have to say, reading the comments posted about Chief Spence and aboriginal people in general, have shown me a side of racism I often don’t see and tells me that the conversation must continue.Dream catcher silhouette

Racism is often rooted in misinformation.

Recently, I realized a few things in a conversation with a friend, who acts as an aboriginal advisor in his workplace. We have incredibly different perspectives.  My friend lived some part of his life in an aboriginal community and spent a good part of his early years in residential schools.  Despite some upheavals and hardships he managed to get to college and have a successful career in the public service. I like to play devil’s advocate with him to see how he will respond to different contentious issues that I raise. I think you will find some of his responses surprising and informative.

1.   Why is so much of the aboriginal housing dilapidated and looks like no one cares for it?

He responded that the band will have homes built for people on low incomes.  He gave me a couple of examples of families he knew who were on social assistance and could not afford to maintain the home that they were given let alone heat them.  Furthermore, he spoke of split level homes that were equipped with electric heating way up north.  How can the average person afford an electrical heating bill in a northern climate? Much of the housing is not built to withstand the low temperatures, causing huge maintenance problems in a short time.   It just doesn’t  make sense!  It’s also poor planning.

2.  Why can’t aboriginal people maintain some of the infrastructure that has been  paid for by taxpayers?

My friend explained to me how a water treatment plant was set up in a community where they had previously had to rely on the river for water.  The government came in and set it up and trained one person.  Everything was great until that person left, leaving the community with a void.  They trained another person to treat the water but he did not know how and so they went back to relying on the river.

Government projects usually don’t have any sustainability built into them.  Sustainability in itself is a huge issue when it comes to aboriginal communities.  If you have a federal government that changes every 4 years and a band administration every two, you have some real challenges. A lot of money goes down the drain, aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike get upset.  There are a lot of expectations and little when it comes to return on investment.

3.  Why do aboriginal people get so defensive when we ask them to be financially accountable?

He did not deny their need to be accountable but then said that the government had not done their job, checking up on their books earlier. He said that the government could have taken a different approach and offered to send in some of their people to train them in accounting practices instead of accusing them of waste.

Approach is everything when it comes to working with aboriginal communities.  Instead of “this is what you have to do”, a less patriarchal approach such as “what do you need from us to help you get these books in order”? could go over better.

If we rely on the media solely to help us form our relationships about “the other” we will undoubtedly have a very biased opinion.  If you look at the responses my friend gave me, did you ever hear any of these in a newspaper, or on the news?  Of course not!  We are only getting a snippet of a big picture – filtered through hundreds of lenses before it reaches us, sometimes with only a speck of truth left to it.

Could this also be the experience of aboriginal people who may not have much exposure to non-aboriginal people to talk about these issues?

Evelina Silveira. President Diversity At Work

Cross Cultural Differences Exist. Period


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Climate, language, history geography, spiritual beliefs, politics, kinship groups,  and ways of knowing  will be different cross-culturally. Why then is it so difficult for some people to acknowledge that cultural differences do exist?  The research on cross-cultural differences abounds, albeit some of it has been racist, ethnocentric and conducted with poor methods and funded by eugenics organizations to advance their agenda of creating the perfect race.  Unfortunately for some, their negative exposure to the former type of research is what remains embedded in their psyche, unable to explore the possibilities that good research on cultural differences can offer appreciation for one another and  maintain positive  international relations.

After working for over 20 years with various ethno-cultural groups, and having learned to navigate through my parent’s culture of origin and the Canadian one, I know for a fact that cultural differences do exist.  This doesn’t mean that one is necessarily better than the other, it just means that differences occur because of the myriad of reasons that were noted in the introduction.  Cultures are formed by differences and similarities.  The similarities in their experiences makes them a culture; this is what distinguishes them from people whose experiences are different.  The formation of cultural groups helps them to keep the characteristics that make them unique.

Indeed, when we speak about cultural differences there is the possibility of us making assumptions and creating stereotypes.  From our early years we are taught to separate and categorize for instance blocks of different colours  to help us order things in our mind and to make sense of them, and to understand their unique properties.  Yes there will always be “blocks” or “people who don’t fit so nicely into these categories but it is natural for us to want to try to make sense of large amounts of important information especially when it comes to understanding the human race..

I know that my contentions will probably deviate from those of my diversity consultant colleagues; but I believe that there is some merit to making generalizations about cultures when there is solid research backing  them up, while keeping in mind that there will always be those people that do not “fit into the box”. Ethnographies have come a long way since the days of Malinowski’s,  ‘The Sexual Life of Savages”, and cultural anthropologists are constantly improving their research methods.

Exploring cultural differences can give us not only great insight about others, but a better understanding of ourselves as well.

Just because we are afraid of creating cultural stereotypes or making assumptions is no reason for us to contend that all cultures are the same and not talk about them.  Instead, through dialogue and exploring the potential differences and the pitfalls with making some assumptions will we truly learn from one another.

Evelina Silveira, President Diversity At Work in London

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