Reflecting on the last few years, it occurs to me that we spent quite a bit of time thinking and talking about how people differ and how diverse people provide color (pun intended) to our world. While that is something we need to think about, I think it might be worth spending some time focusing on how similar we really are.
Contrary to popular belief created by the protestations highlighted in the media, melanin-enhanced people really just want the same things as those who are melanin-challenged. And many of the challenges faced by melanin-enhanced people face are the same as those who are melanin-challenged.
In 1943 Herman Maslow posited that human needs are arranged in a hierarchy which he called the “Hierarchy of Needs” (shown at left). It describes the types of needs everyone has and creates a framework for how one need builds upon another. The lower two levels focus on quantity of life (i.e. whether or not we live at all). The upper three levels focus on quality of life.
Maslow said that every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. While psychologists now believe that you don’t need to totally fulfill a lower-level need them in order to work to address a higher-level need, contemporary research by Tay and Diener (2011) indicates the general framework is valid. My own experience is that this model resonates with people regardless of race, creed, color or any other personality dimensions used to define diversity (see the Gardenswartz and Rowe Diversity Wheel, above and to the right).
Maslow also said that, unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by a failure to meet lower-level needs. In addition, life experiences, including divorce and loss of a job, may cause an individual to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy. People of all personality dimensions experience all these challenges.
What is unique for those who are melanin-enhanced people is living in a White Normative society where products, services and attitudes favor those who are melanin-challenged. And we tend to focus on those White Normative challenges rather than focusing on the successes. Why? Because White Normative challenges are akin to discrimination which is considered, rightfully so, negative. And negativity sells. In the Huffington Post article “Negativity Sells,” Melissa Heisler quotes an advertising executive as saying, “Research in neuroscience and human behavior has determined that — while we may not be consciously aware of it, or even want to admit it — we humans are more influenced by bad than good.”
How should we think about similarities going forward? Why do we prefer to focus on differences rather than similarities? Because humans are tribal. We have Affinity Bias — a bias to prefer people who look, sound, think and act like us. A mindset probably built into us when we were living in caves millions of years ago to help us survive (think the lower three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy). Our society (controlled by those of the dominant culture — straight, white males through history) has evolved, consciously and unconsciously, to reinforce that bias through discriminatory systems. And that has and created other biases in us to maintain the status quo of division. It has created a society that is unjust.
So, how do we move to celebrating our similarities more than our differences? First, perhaps we should look back at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and realize we have more in common than we are different. We all share the needs at all five levels.
Then, we might look at how society addresses difference and works to eliminate discrimination. In his recent article “Is It Time to Replace Race with Class in Affirmative Action?” Ian V. Rowe, founder and CEO, Vertex Partnership Academies and Senior Visiting Fellow, The Woodson Center, invites us to consider replacing “race” with “class” with respect to Affirmative Action. This recognizes that, as Isabel Wilkerson so deftly describes in her book “Caste,” racism is really a caste system which has just as much, if not more, to do with class than skin color. This kind of thinking gets us out of the coarse discussion of physical characteristics and into the more nuanced discussion of individual circumstance.
Finally, I encourage you to contemplate these questions posed by Steve Knight in his Be Human Project article “Are Humans Naturally Tribal?”
How many tribes do you participate in?
Are you a network connector?
Is there a way to expand the diversity of your affiliations?
When was the last time you listened to and seriously considered an uncomfortable idea from an outsider source?
Answering these questions will help you see that we are more similar than different.
This article is featured in the spring 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.
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