Admittedly, a 60-year old white man is probably not the poster child to represent diversity and inclusion. Nonetheless, I have seen and experienced the stares, the finger-pointing, the hushed conversations and condescending treatment of bias towards “different” people.
My father was born with achondroplasia and was only 54 inches tall (we used to call people with this condition “dwarfs”). My mother was only a few inches taller. Complications during birth resulted in an intellectual disability for my youngest brother (we used to call people like this “mentally retarded”).
My parents taught us how to adapt and overcome limitations and that others’ biases were “their problem.”
Having grown up in an all-white suburb, my only interactions with African-Americans and non-Christians were with bus drivers, housekeepers or laborers. It wasn’t until college that I met, worked with and began friendships with people of color. Many of these friendships continue to this day, thanks to social media.
Having “the talk” with my teenage sons was about treating women with respect and being responsible sexually. It didn’t involve responding to others’ comments or what ifs involving the police as illustrated in a video last year by Proctor & Gamble. Nor have I experienced others’ reactions to my physical presence walking down a street or into a store like those in P & G’s follow up video, “The Look.”
As a married Christian man, the issue of equal rights for LBGTQ persons (Queer folk) was strictly an intellectual exercise when Ellen DeGeneres disclosed she is gay. And even when our congregation left the Episcopal Church a few years later, rather than supporting the first openly gay man to lead a mainline denomination, it didn’t affect me.
The issue of workplace protections, equal rights in housing – even the ability to purchase a wedding cake – became real when our younger son came out to me and my wife ten years ago. While my wife had an inkling of this, I was blindsided. Between reading several books on the subject, family counseling, and conversations with my wife and son, it was clear that nothing really had changed – he is my son, whom I love and respect.
What I’ve found is that statements of Queer folk wanting “special treatment” for “a lifestyle choice” ring hollow. Those kinds of statements are a thin veneer covering a hatred of others who are “different.” Substitute the terms “African-American,” “Asian,” “Jew,” “Christian,” “Blonde hair,” “blue-eyed,” or “women” for “gay” or “lesbian” in these kinds of conversations – and if it sounds discriminatory, it is.
About 150 years ago, my great-great grandfather faced ethnic discrimination summed up in signs posted by businesses stating, “No Irish need apply.” A century ago, American women finally won the right to vote. Fifty-five years ago, civil rights laws ensured the rights of African-American voters. Today, it’s Queer folk that is the minority group seeking equality. A common thread is that each marginalized group used or is using public relations tactics to change public opinion and win equal rights and equal protections under the law.
As PR practitioners, our job sometimes involves being the conscience of an organization. We are tasked with identifying and then communicating with a variety of publics. That’s why it’s important that we recognize unconscious bias and proactively work to ensure everyone has an equal place in our community conversations.
Our PRSA chapter has made a conscious decision to seek out speakers and programs that may challenge PR pros’ thinking and help them see and hear different points of view on issues of diversity and inclusion. We’ve done this because diversity is not a black and white issue and much still needs to be done to ensure no group or individuals are marginalized in our society. We are working with a variety of organizations who are dedicated to making Milwaukee and Wisconsin a better place to live and work. We’ve come a long way, but we haven’t completed our journey.
I hope to see you at our after-work social on Wed., August 21 at America’s Black Holocaust Museum at the corner of North Ave. and Vel R. Phillips (formerly North 4th) just north of downtown Milwaukee. You can sign up here.