Posted on November 15, 2004

Diversity Forum Urges Whites To Join Dialogue

Dana Knight, Indianapolis Star, Nov. 12

Mark Waycott experienced a strange feeling Thursday. He was a minority.

Surrounded by women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, he was one of just a handful of white men in a room of nearly 100.

Not only that, he was sitting through a ruthless workshop that pointed out some of the stereotypes that dog white men.

Attendees at the annual conference of the Diversity Roundtable of Central Indiana were asked to shout out the first thought that came to mind when they heard the words “white man.”

Power. Can’t jump. White collar. Ego. Dominance. Good old boys. Redneck.

Each shout was followed by a laugh.

“I don’t feel picked on,” said Waycott, who works for Managed Health Systems in Indianapolis. “Because most of what people are saying is true.”

A white man’s culture dominates the workplace, said Tim McNichol, leader of the session dubbed “White Men as Full Diversity Partners,” which focused on engaging white males in the diversity effort.

McNichol described the white man’s culture as one of individualism, not collectivism. A culture that has a low tolerance for emotions in the workplace and looks at status and rank rather than connection with people. Something everyone knows exists — except the white man.

“Being in the white men group often means living in unconscious incompetence,” McNichol said.

White men must become aware because diversity efforts in the workplace are entering a new era, he said.

For years, such efforts focused on hiring people of varied ethnic backgrounds and races. At many companies, that initiative is well under way.

Workplaces now are trying to figure out how employees can get along and communicate in the diverse workplace that has been created.

Indianapolis’ work force has seen a sizable jump in the number of minorities. In 1999, just 18.5 percent of Marion County’s employees were minorities, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The percentage rose to 20.4 in 2002, the latest year for which numbers are available. Of that, 14.3 percent were black and 4 percent Hispanic.

Still, Indianapolis lags the nation, whose work force is nearly 30 percent minorities.

To increase diversity, many local workplaces roll out training or assign a group of employees to serve on diversity councils, McNichol said.

Most often women, minorities and gays are the ones asked to serve. White men are always left out — something that has to change, since they are often the ones in leadership roles, McNichol said.

Whites often are scared to talk about differences, because they don’t know what to say that isn’t offensive, he said.

“That kills me,” said a frustrated Nissy Stetson, a black who attended the workshop. “It’s normal and natural to notice the differences (in races). It’s when you use that difference to discriminate — that’s when it becomes a problem.”

Stetson, assistant director of multicultural affairs and coordinator of the Women’s Center at DePauw University, said the white man’s culture isn’t bad in itself but if taken to the extreme can breed stereotypes.

Most companies work hard to diffuse the pervasive culture, McNichol said, including Irwin Mortgage, headquartered in Fishers.

The company sends a quarterly newsletter called the Diversity Journal to all employees, has a diversity Web site and lunch meetings called the Diversity Cafe.

Nearly one in four of Irwin’s 1,800 employees nationwide is a minority. At its Fishers office, 18 percent are minorities.

Roger Lyons, Irwin’s vice president of diversity, said his company’s efforts are not about being politically correct but about building a solid business strategy.

“With demographics changing in the housing market, we need to understand how to maintain a sensitivity and awareness of other cultures,” he said.