The brain and our current behavioural neuroscience help explain why structural racism and oppression continue to be perpetuated and upheld. While we cannot remove the personalization or greater responsibility at hand, in order to progress forward one must be able to separate the shame of the past from the potential of the future. As we discuss diversity blindness, I encourage you to adopt Maya Angelou’s impactful quote, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.”36
As a greater society, Canadians uphold that it is important not to be prejudiced or racist. In fact, the National identity upholds that Canadians are multicultural and inclusive. Educational institutions teach the importance of acceptance and inclusion, leading to a prevailing belief that prejudice and racism are bad and do not occur within our country. The undercurrent of this false belief is registered within the brain of many, and ultimately societal behaviour, is then given permission to deny its existence.37 Racism and prejudices are global problems, Canada is not exempt.
The global pandemic was not the only factor to significantly change how the world is thinking, perceiving, and reacting to fairness and equality. Each country shares its own contextual elements that shape understanding and action (or inaction) towards change. For example, globally the pandemic provided a fury of disproportionate hardships for marginalized women. Social distancing amplified the awareness of inequality bringing world events into living rooms and dinner tables, forcing families across the globe to abruptly pay attention to prejudice and racism. While outrage ensued, the lack of awareness and understanding of oppression and structural racism, brought a sense of shame, that further amplified the privilege of silence. People watched in horror, but their lack of context so avidly baked into the cycles of socialization kept the majority from action and urgency. These are the environmental pressures organizations are now being called to understand and take action upon. Many recognize that diversity is what separates us from meaningful action and incredible advancement, however, the recognition of past behavior, thoughts, and language directed towards diverse and marginalized people are also what prevent much needed change. To further contextualize diversity, I turn back to neuroscience.
The brain, when looking at a rainbow, relies on mental concepts to see the discrete stripes of color that do not actually exist in nature. Why does the brain register stripes if they do not exist? Because of categorical perception. Categorical perception is the process whereby the brain will downplay variations of colour, magnifying the differences between colour categories and causing the perception of bands of colour. The same process occurs with language. Speech is a continual stream of sound, yet the brain picks out discrete words for relevance and meaning. The words someone hears, the colours seen, the smells that produce memories and transport the imagination to another time, are all represented by concepts in the brain. Without learned concepts, (provided through experience and learning, and filed for context), one would be experientially blind.38 While the world is not experientially blind, many have diversity blindness.
Diversity blindness is the inability to see, hear, recognize, or contextualize differences and their value due to a lack of language, wording, and experience. Diversity blindness enables a continual downplaying of the significance and importance of another person’s distinctive experience and perspective. Diversity blindness helps explain why equity, inclusion, and belonging, are so elusive to many. Figure 2. depicts this notion as it relates to hiring diverse talent. In order to manage, understand, and change context, one must first learn the language, words, context, applications, and perceptions to provide an accurate reference for the brain to draw on. The cycles of socialization, however, have enabled diversity blindness to continue. Contextually, when people begin to study the phenomenon of oppression, they begin to appreciate that each person is born into a separate set of social identities. These identities predispose people into unequal roles that continue to repeat, especially when blind to their occurrence.39 The decision to interrupt the cycle and stand up for change does not guarantee context or discernment. It is through language, words, context, applications and perceptions that come from actively participating and engaging with diverse people and viewpoints that allow your brain to learn and grow contextually, synchronizing collective learning with other brains, while categorizing new awareness for future use.40 Diversity blindness upholds collective intentionality. To break diversity blindness, organizations can turn to belonging. Belonging through five elements; comfort, connection, contribution, psychological safety, and wellbeing shifts collective intentionality into seeing and including diversity. Belonging allows diversity blindness to dissipate by providing the brain with context, language, words, and perspectives. It is this process that allows diverse perspectives to be valued, appreciated, and recognized that they belong by others.