When working with people different from you, should you acknowledge those differences? Should you treat everyone equally? I recently posed these questions to the students in my Organizational Behavior course.
The questions came from my personal reflections on the relationship between individual differences and striving for equality. Many years ago I read the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. It opens with an intriguing premise: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.” Anyone with an exceptional gift or ability is brought down to average by handicaps. Dancers wear bags of weights, beautiful people wear masks. A character with above average intelligence wears a radio earpiece that emits sporadic noises to keep him from “taking unfair advantage of [his] brain.” While certainly not a prophetic portrayal of the future (at least I sincerely hope not!), the story left me questioning the concept of human equality.
My students have no such qualms. Their answers to the quiz questions resounded in a beautiful chorus: Yes, acknowledge differences. And yes, treat everyone equally. Period. I felt a wave of relief and clarity as I read their responses. Several of them elaborated with themes of respect and emphasized that we are all part of the human race. One student summed up the take-home message: You don’t have to treat everyone the same, but you do have to treat them equally. The students’ responses helped me conclude that the equality is in the value of the person, not in the specifics of interactions.
For the second question on the quiz we watched this TED Talk by Stella Young about how a physical disability does not make her exceptional. She is tired of seeing motivational posters of people with disabilities that come across with the message of, “However bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.” I asked my students how Stella Young wants to be treated. The consensus was that she wants to be treated as “normal.” But one of my students phrased that in an interesting way that I believe demonstrates how careful we have to be about ingrained, implicit biases. He said, “Stella wants to be treated like a person without a disability.” I can see how the feeling behind this statement might be the same as saying she wants to be treated like a normal person, but I do not think that was the message Stella was trying to convey. She was trying to expand our definition of normal to include people with disabilities. She would like to see a world in which disabilities are part of the diverse spectrum of “normal.” In her own words: “I want to live in a world where a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne high school is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.”
The final quiz question was about Mellody Hobson’s TED Talk on being color brave, not color blind. Students commented that Ms. Hobson wants a world in which people are comfortable with uncomfortable conversations about race. She points out that when we imagine executives around a table in a Fortune 500 company, is it normal to see all white men. But if it were all black people, that would be “weird” (her word, not mine). She wonders if there will be a time where all white will seem weird, too. I believe she would agree with Ms. Young about wanting a world in which we expand our definitions of “normal” or “expected” to include people of all races.
My students already see the world as one “human race,” at least in theory, based on their quiz responses. They also acknowledge their own weaknesses and some biases. In our class discussion many shared their experiences on the receiving end of discrimination, then described situations in which they inadvertently discriminated against others. (I would love to share their stories but don’t feel comfortable openly posting too much personal detail shared in the safe space of the classroom.) While the students clearly value equality, they also recognize that there are times when they don’t live up to their own standards.
My background is in cognitive psychology, and an important theme in cognitive psychology research is that our expectations about the world come from experience. If a person grows up in a white family in a predominantly white neighborhood, goes to a predominantly white school, etc., their mental image of a typical person will match all of the input from their environment. They have less information about people of other races and they don’t expect to encounter someone who is not white. This bias towards a narrower definition of “normal” compared to the diversity of people in the world comes from our brain making efficient mental concepts based on the data it receives (i.e. input from our environment). Our brains are incredible at finding patterns and forming expectations that help us quickly and smoothly navigate future experiences. However, this can lead to judgment errors when we encounter anything less prevalent in our own little sample of the world, such as a person in a wheelchair or someone of a different race. Situations in which we don’t know what to expect are uncomfortable. What can we do about this? Perhaps the only way to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and expand our definition of normal is to seek exposure to people who are different. Awareness of how experience shapes our expectations can be a reminder to consider our assumptions and identify situations in which we need to reach out for additional information, to collect more data. Thanks to talks streamed over the internet my students were exposed to leaders who allowed them to think critically about their concept of “normal.” I hope that collectively we can expand our definitions of “normal” and “equal” and avoid Vonnegut’s vision of perfectly average monotony.
This piece was originally written in 2018.