In every context there are characteristics which tend to confer advantages or disadvantages – what I have previously referred to as ‘privileges or penalties’. I often think of contexts having a ‘flavour’ – like a stock which provides the background flavour in a soup – eventually everything tastes of it. The characteristics which confer privilege and penalty are part of this stock. Usually the full range of privileges and penalties are not written into any ‘rule book’. They are certainly not part of ‘official policy’. They may not even be talked about. When you join a new club, association, workplace, or even marry into a new family, it’s rare that someone will sit you down and say “If you want to get on here you need to talk like this, dress like that, or make these kind of jokes, but not those”. If they do you might feel a sense of foreboding – particularly if the behaviours they are describing do not sit well with you. You won’t find this information in the marriage contract, staff handbook, rules of association or job description. But when you find yourself dunked into the cultural ‘soup’ of a new context, the change in flavour is unmistakeable. The converse is also true: when you have been immersed in the ‘soup’ for a long time, or forever, you probably don’t even consciously notice it’s there, it seems so natural. I often wonder in idle moments whether fish really notice water until, that is, they are deprived of it…
Whilst characteristics such as gender, colour, social class and disability seem to be highly relevant to peoples experience across many countries and contexts, they have different meaning and potency in each. There may be other characteristics which individuals actually experience as being more salient to their opportunities and life chances: a particular type of education and way of expressing oneself, for example; body size and appearance; intellectual attainment; ability to display the trappings of financial success; a certain sense of humour; a particular attitude toward work (eg first in, last out)… No doubt these characteristics often stem from, or relate closely to, ‘headline’ diversity characteristics such as race, class, disability and gender. But they are not the same as these characteristics, and should not be simply conflated with them. If we are to make groups, communities and businesses more inclusive and less oppressive, we have to understand the culture, or cultures, which live in and through them, and how those cultures tend to include or exclude, express or suppress, fulfil or destroy those in and around them.
It’s the age-old paradox – in order to change something you need to see it for what it is; you have to understand it and at some level accept its existence. Only then can you be fully effective in being a catalyst for change. Through tasting the soup with full awareness, you develop the skill and insight to assist those immersed in it to improve it, reform it, even revolutionise it. You need the art of wise observation to tease out of a culture features that – to those who are immersed in that culture – feel ‘natural’. That is the terrain of the truly effective external consultant, and the truly effective internal activist.