Three-Quarters of White Americans Have No Friends of Color

I grew up in a conservative culture, where I was taught — many times over — that there was no question that gender is binary. 🤯

Now I believe wholeheartedly that gender isn’t binary — what an absurd assumption to make! But it took years of listening, reflecting and being uncomfortable with the reality that what I learned growing up was wrong to reach the understanding of gender diversity that I have today.

What changed? Well, my mind.

An overlooked barrier to equity, inclusion and belonging

To “change your mind” sounds simple, yet it’s anything but. (Again, it took me years to update my understanding about gender as a spectrum.) It’s challenging to acknowledge that our parents, religion, community and/or culture misled us.

But it can be done — I see it happen all the time among clients, peers, even strangers online. But there’s a barrier that a lot of us struggle with. If we removed this barrier, I know our ability to embrace diversity with enthusiasm would accelerate.

That barrier is: Your social network isn’t diverse enough.

Let me explain: A 2013 survey found that three-quarters (75%) of white Americans said their social network was almost entirely white. By contrast, 65% of Black Americans reported their network was entirely comprised of Black people, and 46% of Hispanic Americans said their network was entirely Hispanic.

A more recent study still found that 21% of white Americans reported “never or seldom” interacting with someone of a different race or ethnicity. And even among those who did frequently interact with someone of a different racial or ethnic background, 74% said those interactions happened at the workplace, compared with 46% saying those interactions were in friendship groups.

That’s remarkable: less than half of us have friends of different backgrounds.

This is despite the fact that the U.S. is becoming much more diverse as a country. Still, many Americans have neighbors of the same race, a lasting legacy of race-based segregation in neighborhoods and schools. So even if you attended a racially-diverse school or live in a multi-ethnic city, it’s likely that your views are largely be shaped by those who look like you.

For me, exposure to racial diversity was a strong component of my early life and continues to be. What I lacked, instead, was exposure to people who identified across the gender spectrum. So, I remained ignorant about the diversity across genders until I consciously began to expand my social circle.

Take a moment to imagine your social circle. Do most of them share the majority of your identities?

How this barrier manifests in the workplace

Given the lack of diversity in our social networks, it’s no wonder then that as we climb the professional ranks we lack the cultural competency to work with peers of different backgrounds. After all, we’ve had little (or no) practice!

Sadly, we often default to stereotypes and biases to inform our interactions with people who are different from us. So when headlines like Some Black women feel safer working from home and are opting out of office life to escape workplace racism come across our desks, how can we be surprised?

Creating a truly diverse and inclusive society — not to mention work environments! — requires that we all put in the listening, reflecting and being ok with being uncomfortable so we can change our minds.

It requires us to develop our own awareness and understanding of personal and structural bias, by interacting with people different from those we’re used to — and we can’t confine that to the workplace. At its core, diversity, equity, and inclusion is linked deeply with understanding, engaging with, and collaborating with different people.

We must diversify our social networks.

I’ve seen and personally experienced many important mind shifts like the one I shared about the gender spectrum. Have you?

There’s so much negative news about inclusion. Let’s shift the narrative by sharing our stories of becoming more open and welcoming of difference!

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