Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee lead out the National caucus after their selections as leader and deputy. (Photo by Robert Kitchin-Pool/Getty Images)

Why diversity matters (and no one should need to write this headline in 2020)

People have been writing about what diversity can add to an organisation for literal decades, and yet we find ourselves with two major political party leaders that either can’t or won’t accept some very easy-to-grasp concepts. Gerry and Judith, this is for you.

New National Party leader Judith Collins announced on Wednesday that she would “not be distracted by people’s gender or ethnicity” when looking at a possible reshuffle of her shadow cabinet.

Later that day she repeated a now-infamous question to RNZ: “Is there something wrong with being white?”

The comments came after weeks of scrutiny of National’s all-Pākehā front bench.

Newly-minted deputy Gerry Brownlee doubled down: “I think it’s very interesting when people call out for diversity but at the same time demand competence, and sometimes balancing the two is not easy.”

This supposed trade off is a false dichotomy and, in my opinion, completely racist. It equates white monoculturalism with competence. There’s no other word for it.

The idea that you can’t have both is monstrously easy to disprove.

National has since appointed Dr Shane Reti as its new health spokesperson (replacing the beleaguered Michael Woodhouse) and reinstated Simon Bridges, ensuring that accusations of an all-white front bench can no longer be levelled at them, but neither can accusations of tokenism.

Those appointments make no difference to what I’m about to say. Diversity matters, and it’s a goal to strive for by any means necessary. I’ll break it down as simply as possible.

Why it matters

To quote The Spinoff’s Sam Brooks in a recent piece about National’s lack of openly LGBTQI+ MPs: “If you see yourself represented, whether it’s onscreen or in parliament, you believe you have a right to exist, a right to be heard, a right to be seen.”

This is, fundamentally, the function of representation. To represent. The more diverse the representation, the more people recognise their right to exist. If you have all cis white men on your board/front bench/panel, it’s an implicit endorsement that they are the only ones with authority.

So far, so easy to follow, right?

Diversity is about attraction

The thing about representation in a meritocracy is it’s not just about who you choose but also who you attract. Got no POC, disabled or LGBTI+ members? Then why would they trust you? Why would they choose you?

Gerry Brownlee voted against the Civil Union Bill in 2004, and the Marriage Amendment Act in 2013. At the reading of the former bill he said:

“The question is why one would want to recognise in law a group of people who have said for so long that they want to be recognised as different, but are now saying they want to be treated the same as other people. In my view, the sad fact is – although some will find this difficult to take – they are not the same.”

It’s safe to say Brownlee doesn’t believe the queer community deserves the same rights as everyone else – a community who are already lower in most wellbeing measures than the total population (which, of course, gets worse when you’re talking about trans, POC or disabled people). So where does that leave a smart, talented, ambitious young person with centre-right political aspirations who also happens to be gay? Would they choose a party with an anti-LGBTQI+ leader and no openly queer party members? Probably not. Sure, being gay might not be the thing they most strongly self-identify as (one can’t abide identity politics of course), but few would choose to put themselves in harm’s way either.

Congratulations, you’ve successfully reduced the number of capable candidates that might be available to you.

Equity versus equality

Most of us have seen this very simple, viral cartoon by now, created by Craig Froehle in 2012.

Some people have adapted the visual metaphor, adding a third scenario where there is no fence at all, or where the ground is lower rather than the people being different heights (implying the deficit isn’t in the people but in their circumstances).

Whichever way you look at it, it’s a very simple concept to grasp. So let’s extrapolate into some real word scenarios.

Let’s say the fence is education, and the game being played on the other side is employment. The boxes the kid on the right is standing on might be support in the form of a scholarship, perhaps a Māori liaison or student support group, a grant for new reading glasses from her iwi rūnanga. Her boxes however, keep getting removed too, by the extra hours of study needed not just to meet but to exceed some of her teachers’ low expectations. Another box goes because her family can’t support her financially while she does an internship so she works another job while studying and trying to gain work experience. Another one gets taken away every time her CV goes straight into the ‘no’ pile because she’s a woman or because of her Māori name.

What does that have to do with diverse inclusion? When that kid gets a glimpse over the fence, what’s equally important is what the players on the other side see (or don’t see) – someone who worked twice as hard to get over the fence. And every time they take a chance on that kid, fewer boxes get taken away from the kid coming up behind her.

Everyone loves a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative, but what that actually entails is very different depending on your privilege (which does not mean “born into the lap of luxury'”, it just means that of two people born into poverty, the white privilege of one person will still be an advantage the other doesn’t have).

For one of the best explanations of privilege ever, I also refer you to the now-famous Toby Morris comic On A Plate.

Perspective is an asset

Collins referred to the fact that she preferred “diversity of thought”, arguing it was more important to “be representative rather than look representative”. I agree how you look is irrelevant. How the world treats you, based on how you look, is an entirely different matter.

A producer on a video production I worked on once took a similar attitude to diversity within the crew we were assembling. When we expressed a desire to hire as many people as possible who weren’t Pākehā men, she told us that we would hire “the most qualified person for the job” and it didn’t matter what their gender or background was.

I’ll tell you now all the things I wish I’d said to her then. Experience gives perspective. Perspective is one of the greatest assets you can bring to a job or a project. No two people have the same perspective. Take two camera people with the same qualifications and professional experience. If one is a cis Pākehā man and one is literally anyone else, their experiences in life will have been very different, as will their understanding of what motivates people. This can make all the difference to what will be the focal point in a frame, or the most sensitive way to film a vulnerable scene, or how comfortable the on-camera talent feel in their gaze, or access to certain communities, or how to behave appropriately in different cultural settings.

Shut up and learn

This is very simple – everyone else knows something you don’t know. A “diversity of thought” is not created by people with similar upbringings, who went to similar schools, had similar career paths and speak the same, single language. People who speak another language don’t just know words that you don’t – as every bi-lingual or multi-lingual person will tell you, different languages can express ideas that can’t be expressed in another. It’s a reflection of cultural understanding. Language literally shapes thoughts and ideas, as well as vice versa.

Understanding different cultural models for civic leadership and pedagogy can only make both those systems stronger too. Much like our stubbornly monolingual culture, the Victorian legal and education systems we live under have remained essentially unchanged for 200 years. The world is much bigger than that and the Empire no longer has to dictate our cultural values – but we have to listen to people who aren’t like us to learn how to grow.

How not to do it

This thread describes a scenario many minority activists and academics are familiar with: people contacting the most visible member of a marginalised community they can think of and asking them to be involved in a project they have no experience or knowledge of, so they can say they included a diverse range of voices.

A common outcome when this is the approach is ‘I tried to make my event diverse but everyone I asked said no, it’s not my fault!”

It’s not a box ticking exercise. Being an active Treaty partner or an inclusive organisation takes time – years even. Whether you’re a CEO, the head of a media empire or a political party, diversity needs investment. If you can’t hire diversely for your board or your senior management, then you sure as hell better be investing in internships and development. The returns on that investment (I’m talking about creative and cultural returns) are many – wider appeal, better perspective, access, variety and crucially, wellbeing.

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It doesn’t take a genius to understand all of these very basic tenets, but it does take a brave person to readjust a lifetime of monocultural thinking.

Lazy slogans like “I don’t see colour” translate to “it’s too much work for me to recognise that your experiences are different from mine”. It erases hard won battle scars, pain, and most importantly, valuable mātauranga. There’s nothing wrong with being white. There is everything wrong with dismissing people’s differences as meaningless when they are the very reason for many unique and wonderful qualities.



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