What About Bob?

Written by James O. Rodgers

A recent movie starring Richard Dreyfus and Bill Murray tells the story of a man desperately trying to be included as a member of his psychiatrist’s family. Whenever the doctor attempted to exclude him, his family would respond by asking, “What about Bob?”.

If a woman, disabled person, gay or lesbian person, is treated badly because of their group identification, that’s discrimination. The practice of applying the term reverse-discrimination when speaking of white men, implies that they are the sole perpetrators of discrimination against all the other groups. It is as though they stand united and single-minded on one side, while all other groups (the so-called diverse people) stand on the other side. They appear isolated with the “others” pointing, taunting, and blaming the white male for all their problems.

And, not surprisingly, white men are feeling this isolation as never before. They feel blamed, they feel distrusted, they feel unable to voice their concerns. Think about it; if a white male starts talking about feeling unempowered, discriminated against, belittled, or held back, he would be challenged and chastised by many people – and he knows it. After all, the conventional argument says that white men have 95% of the positions of power, they are the benefactors of privilege by virtue of their alikeness and affinity with the keepers of power, and they consistently perpetuate their kind in developing and selecting the next wave of power people.

So, more often than not, they choose to remain silent, preferring not to expose their fears, their concerns, their individual thoughts, for fear of reprisal. Meanwhile they are often forced to hear, acknowledge, and even validate the fears, concerns, and thoughts of all other groups. In most of our diversity awareness training, people are invited to share their (honest) thinking with each other. This exercise is often cathartic; people realize how much they have in common (basic needs and desires), and, conversely, they realize that all people have different life experiences that cause them to see others as they do. The point of this “Listening with respect” experience is not to seek agreement, but to seek understanding. And, it is important that all points of view be heard, acknowledged, and respected, without judgment.

This exercise is usually successful in getting participation from all groups except white men, for the reasons described above. It becomes necessary, therefore, to give a special invitation to white men by first showing empathy for their position, and making it OK for them to say how they feel. As a result, valuable learning is not lost. People who have held a one-sided view of white men get an opportunity to see a more complete picture and to discover ways to appreciate and work more effectively with members of this group.

The core message and the strength of the diversity movement is inclusiveness. Inclusiveness cannot be redefined to exclude one group. In fact, failure to deliberately include white men in the debate, the strategy, and the implementation of diversity management, will lead to its predictable failure. White men will respond to exclusion in natural human ways. They will ban together, they will withdraw support, they will guard the old ways, they will get even.

I do not wish to paint white men as victims. They are not. But then, neither is anyone else. All groups deserve an opportunity to benefit from a business strategy that recognizes the value of people. All groups means all groups. We cannot afford to leave any group out. Making full use of our nation’s human capital requires that we include all available talent and that we remove all barriers (including assumption of privilege) to individual achievement.

Diversity is also about treating each individual as an individual. That includes individual white men. Any thoughtful inquiry will reveal the fact that white men are individually as different from each other as are members of all other groups. It is the ability to “manage to the individual” that is the target of most diversity management initiatives.

So what must we do? The answer is simple.

  1. Remember that diversity management is critical to organizational success. Everyone must be able to embrace this strategy. That only happens when everyone sees some personal benefit from their support.
  2. Watch your terminology. Terms like “diverse people” and “reverse discrimination” need to be purged from our vocabulary. We may understand full well what they mean, but they tend to feed our subconscious mind with a vision of separateness and to imply that inclusion of some groups requires exclusion of others.
  3. Focus on the common needs of employees as well as addressing the differences, real or perceived, that effect opportunities for any group.