April 04, 2007

Defining Diversity


A few weeks ago, I was invited to a technology conference in the famous windy city of Chicago. Nearly 900 people attended, mostly North Americans but not exclusively, brought together by the prospect of stumbling upon that next great idea, and to hear from experts what the future may hold.

In the opening address, the host paid respect to the diversity of the crowd. And looking around, there certainly was a lot of variety; many colours and shapes, from the East and the West, and I certainly wasn't the only Muslim around. Browsing the guest list as I reached the hotel, I found at least a couple dozen Muslim names, mostly South Asians but a healthy dose of Arabs as well. And in that crowd of people, at the heart of corporate America, I actually felt like I fit in.

That feeling didn't last long. Surveying the audience, I noticed the uniformity of the participants. Yes, there were black people and Hispanics and Indians and Chinese people, but somehow they all looked the same. They all sounded the same, and they all dressed the same. There was an almost robotic feel to the crowd. In spite of the multitude of traditions and customs that their ethnicities may have been known for, in this forum, everyone followed a single custom, portrayed a single personality. Even as I first reached O'Hare Airport prior to the conference, I was able to easily identify others who were attending the same event simply by their appearance and gait.

At the end of each day, the inevitable alcohol would come out, and I would disappear off to explore downtown Chicago. I was saddened to see that a number of those participants with Muslim names gracing their nametags would be drinking along with everyone else, likely out of a desire to fit in with that crowd and make key connections with industry leaders. I was often told about how important it is to network with the senior people in the industry, and networking in corporate America invariably means sharing drinks with a person. In spite of all the ethnic diversity, social interaction was limited to the practice of only the corporate West. There would be no sipping tea with these managers, and no Tim Hortons to discuss all the issues of the day; alcohol was the fuel that built relationships in this world, and I had no interest in taking part.

As I wandered through Millenium Park (pictured above), I kept thinking that the diversity that was being applauded earlier was entirely superficial. Ethnic diversity means little if one loses all the uniqueness of that ethnicity, and religious diversity means nothing if there is no accommodation for religious difference. Of course, one can't please everybody, and what is a restriction for one may be an obligation for another. So where does that leave those who won't trade their values for the sake of fitting in? It usually leaves them on the outside looking in, and that will always be their personal challenge to overcome.

I've had the honour of working with a number of outstanding people who have seen diversity beyond the superficial recognition of its existence. I've been a part of some fantastic teams that embraced diversity not just in words, but in practice - and that definitely strengthened our effectiveness. But those appear to be exceptions, and on a large scale, whatever diversity exists in the corporate world still remains shallow.

It remains a challenge, and perhaps it should remain a challenge. Perhaps our strength lies in our ability to overcome societal norms. After all, few have ever achieved anything by simply following the course. Let the current flow as it may, we must hold our place.

Update 4.5.2007: More pictures here.


  1. Assalaamu’alaykum

    Interesting insights. I’m reminded of M. Asch’s famous study on conformity. It demonstrates, very simply, how we compromise our good sense to fit in (probably also related to our insecurities and a bunch of other things).

    I think critical thinking has a part to play in this. Society tells us if you want A, you must do B. But this isn’t necessarily true. Sure B may get you to A, but there are at least 24 more simple options ranging from C to Z (never mind the possible infinite combinations). And if there are no other value-abiding options, it takes some strength, as you said, (which I think I can, in part, come from families and rationally astute upbringings) to walk away and find a way that works. This is life, and life is a test. SubhanAllah. In the case of the Muslims sipping their alcoholic drinks, I think it may go back to taqwa and missing the point in life altogether. Allahu’alim.

    These days we have cookie-cutter homes. A whole neighbourhood will look the same. Back in the day, the houses were all pretty unique. Old neighbourhoods have character that the new ones can’t even compete with. I guess it’s the ways of the world today.

    Completely off topic, the picture reminds me of 3D sidewalk art. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it before. If not, take a look.

  2. Regarding cookie-cutter homes ... I don't know if that's the way of the world, but it's definitely the way of Ontario. You don't see neighbourhoods like that in Montreal yet, and certainly not Vancouver. Though Ottawa is like that, but to a lesser extent than Toronto.

  3. thank you for posting this. i feel like this at times, and have felt like this many times in the past. esp when i was working in 90% male environments. you stick out a lot more being young, ethnic, hijabi and female. oh having a personality really makes you stick out as well. *rolls eyes* I had a sort of opposite experience the other day as four of us workmates went for lunch. I chose not to post about it coz itmade me look corny, funny coz lately i'm all about the corny on my blog! :)

  4. lol. You removed the other post... :D. tsk tsk...

  5. Farzeen: Wa'alaykum assalam,
    Yes, it seems ingrained that there's only way to achieve certain results. I always like seeing people, whether Muslim or not, who do things their own way and still achieve the results they're aiming for. And you're probably right, that family upbringing is important in terms of how effective your resistive capabilities are.

    The cookie-cutter home thing is a classic example of why much of the rest of Canada doesn't like Toronto; it lacks an identity. I like some of the older areas, but the modern suburbs are lifeless.

    I've seen those 3D sideway art things before somewhere; it's quite amazing, really.

    Maryam: Thanks for visiting! Yes, I imagine things are even more challenging for sisters, though one sister I know from work believes the social pressure is more on men than women, because her hijab basically tells the world, "I'm off limits", whereas we don't have that sort of warning. It really all comes down to one's own strength, though, and we all need to help one another in abiding by our principles.

    Saira: Yes, I know... I was embarrassed after the loss. The sting isn't as bad anymore, but it was painful to watch.

  6. Great post. You're right in that multiculturalism is a slogan that isn't practiced too much. Politicians use it to win votes. Educators use it to secure their jobs. Everyone is so concerned about accommodating and understanding people of "other" faiths and backgrounds, but no one is actually doing it.

    And every time you feel like you finally fit in with the crowd, you just don't. The only way you ever will is to strip yourself of everything that means anything.

  7. Assalamalaykum,

    I dont know how this wining-and socializing culture works, out of curiosity I ask , why didnt you have some non-alcoholic drink like orange juice instead?
    there must be quiet a number of people who can't drink alcohol for health reasons too, what about them?

  8. Asmaa: Assalamu'alaykum,
    And every time you feel like you finally fit in with the crowd, you just don't. The only way you ever will is to strip yourself of everything that means anything. This is why I think the visible aspects of being Muslim are important. Some people argue that image is meaningless, it's all about what's in your heart (which is true, to an extent), but I think being visibly Muslim helps differentiate oneself so that we don't just fall in with the crowd. I know it helps me, anyway.

    Aisha: Wa'alaykum assalam. I don't think orange juice was available, but it's just as much about the environment as it is about the drinks themselves. I don't know about others, but I feel terribly uncomfortable in these types of loud social gatherings where there's lots of alcohol; I don't like being anywhere near them. I can't even raise my voice enough to make myself heard when there's hundreds of other people around, schmoozing and laughing. As for people who avoid alcohol for health reasons, they still partake in the environment, and often will at least have one small drink regardless.

  9. assalamu alaikum

    wow, what's that egg like thing?

  10. Anonymous: Wa'alaykum assalam. The "egg" is the side of the "Cloud Gate" at Millennium Park in downtowon Chicago. See here for more details.