What Exactly Is Diversity?

By Twumasi Duah-Mensah

This is a somewhat misleading question. The definition of diversity isn’t necessarily hard to understand. Anything that makes your perspective different from another—be it gender, race, nationality, language, social roles, skills, income, sexual orientation—makes you diverse. When you apply diversity to real-life scenarios, however, you could traverse through thorny territory.

Theoretically, everyone is diverse in one way or another. There’s some characteristic about everyone that’ll differ their view of the world from someone else. Being a child of immigrants from the West African nation of Ghana, my behaviors and perspectives will be different from a guy whose great-great-great grandparents emigrated to America almost two centuries ago. What if we’re having a conversation about diversity, though? Will my perspective matter more than his?

Some will say mine does: immigrants face more barriers to success than naturalized citizens do, so the playing field is shifted out of my favor. Others will reject such a theory: no one’s barriers are too tall to climb if you work hard, nor should anyone’s struggles be invalidated because they scored too many privilege points. Now we know what’s wreaking havoc: that word “privilege.” You can’t discuss diversity without discussing privilege and power, and that’s where the discussion turns into an argument. Why does that matter so much, though?

Let’s take this conundrum out of America and into a backyard familiar to me: Ghana, a nation that can’t be talked about without talking about its people. Not merely a plot of land blessed with holy waterfalls and mesmerizing hills, Ghanaians pride themselves on their friendly approach to foreigners and are exuberant in flexing how much they know about their homeland. Usually, though, it’s not a Ghanaian who will get the chance to shape a foreigner’s view of Ghana.

If the foreigner lives in the West, it’ll most likely be a big charity like UNICEF painting the picture of Ghana. That painting won’t be as beautiful or accurate. It’ll be depicting a barren wasteland where nothing ever grows. The children don’t slide down any slippery rocks at the waterfall; they lick the few tears streaming down their cheeks to lessen their thirst. Hopefully, the tears reach their tongues before they evaporate under the burning sun.

Before I started working with Operation Wisdom, I followed the same “look at these poor African children” narrative the nonprofit seeks to erase. Of all people, even Twumasi Duah-Mensah, whose parents were from Ghana, didn’t even realize how flawed such a stereotype was! If I couldn’t see through it, then no legion of Ghanaians could combat the bastardization of their country without targeting the perpetrators: international aid organizations.

Aid organizations have much more power to inform the West about Africa’s issues. Africa? Not as big of a piece of the pie. Aid organizations have the hard power to provide Africans the help they indeed need while possessing the soft power to warn everyone of the horrors aid recipients would face if not for their intervention. Aid recipients (i.e. Africans), however, know they must learn to fish for themselves to eat for more than a day, and raise concerns about organizations like TOMS, who offer for free the shoes African-owned businesses sell to make a profit, screwing African shoe manufacturers and retailers in the process.

Without the perspective of someone who knows a different Africa from what UNICEF ads tell the West, international aid organizations, as well-intentioned and good-natured as they are, will continue to hurt African nations where they think they’re helping. To stop providing bad aid, they could use some experts on their Board of Directors who understand the unique problems on the African continent and how aid organizations fit into the solution. It’d be preferable to bring experts who’ve lived through and, thus, possess a natural understanding of Africa’s plights.

Organizations never want to fall behind the curve and witness their service become more burdensome than beneficial. To prevent such disservice, they’ll need leaders who see the world differently from each other and use their background to provide insight into what’s working and what doesn’t. Management teams at top American companies, according to a 2012 study from Columbia University, have already learned their lesson, so why is giving power to underrepresented groups so controversial?

Think back to the aid organizations I called “perpetrators” earlier. Not looking so charitable now, huh? It can’t be forgotten, however, that their volunteers, employees, and leadership come with the best of intentions, even if they’re not always helping. They have good reason to maintain their current model, too: why would people donate to the less fortunate if they didn’t feel sorry for them? If using African children in a sob story is dishonest, then what else can an aid organization do?

As disheartening as it is to see my country incorrectly portrayed as a helpless shantytown, when I give my perspective, I must stay focused on the common goal: providing a quality form of aid to developing countries. That might mean a change in how the charity asks for donations. That might mean a total reformation of the charity’s strategy towards giving aid. Whatever the case, when diverse perspectives present their input, all parties may never lose sight of their common goal.

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