Wednesday, June 4, 2014

“Tribal” Policies Unintentionally Discriminate

How many identities do you see?
We live in a world of tribes. Everybody belongs to at least one. Most of us hold membership in several, intended or unintended. These tribes are woven into the very fabric of our society. Each has specific requirements and most aren’t written in any book. Members just know them. That can be a good thing because it can strengthen unity and forge trust. It also can lead to less than desirable conditions if unchecked.

Some tribes are obvious because they possess visual signifiers. That is, you can immediately see their identity. Uniforms and special clothing are hallmarks. Easily recognizable tribes include: armed forces personnel (Army, Navy), fans of specific sports teams (MSU Spartans, Detroit Tigers), and express mail delivery staff (UPS, Fed Ex).

Other tribes can be identified visually but may require closer inspection, verbal cues or actions. These might include senior business executives, factory workers, country club members, or the homeless.

Kool and the gang.
The interesting thing is that most of these bands consider their groups open and inclusive. But typically there’s an unspoken caveat: “you can join as long as you fit in.”

Tribes tend to communicate in specific ways. In order to be a member, you have to know the language. If you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time – and may be denied many of the privileges granted within that tribe.

What’s more, you have to understand and appreciate cultural nuances. You must walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Even then you still may have a problem. Or they may have a problem with you.

A sobering fact is that just because you want to join a tribe doesn’t mean it wants you. There usually are other conditions; some cut and dry (ex., be a resident of a place), others less so (ex., the right experience). Some requirements can be learned or developed, others are simply impossible to attain. Things like looking a certain way physically, beyond clothing and attire. Or ways of being such that if you’re are born with it, you’re in. If not well, you might still get in, but it will be made to feel second class.

Too tall, too short; too light, too dark; too small, too large; too straight, too gay; disabled, nondisabled; rich, poor. The dichotomies seem endless, and can play out in ways that usually don’t result in your favor.

Bad apple, or simply trying to fit in?
“Then don’t join,” many might suggest. Yet sometimes in order to get ahead, you have to join a tribe of which you have little understanding or apparent resemblance. What inevitably happens though is that you fail. Or flounder.

Generally, three reasons contribute to this: one, you can’t or won’t participate in the culture (ex., drinks after work) of the tribe. Two, you don't know the rules of the tribe (i.e., interpersonal politics) and no one shares with you what those rules are. The third is prejudice.

That brings us to how tribal membership can create difficult conditions for those they believe do not belong. Another way to put it: exclusion. This typically manifests when a specific group is so dominant in numbers that nonmembers find themselves being oppressed.

A particularly disconcerting aspect of this dynamic is when the dominant group can’t even recognize that its ‘membership’ requirements and behaviors are damaging. They also serve as barriers to success, whether consciously or unconsciously addressed.

In the end, dominant cultures would do well to remain vigilant against unintended discrimination that’s based on qualities that are ultimately irrelevant. Such watchfulness can help ensure equality for all.

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