Green Book’s insights into a deeper diversity

Abraham Lincoln had a simple approach to achieving diversity: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Recently, my wife and I saw the movie Green Book, which has since won an Oscar for best movie of the year. The movie presents the true story of an episode in the life of Dr. Don Shirley, a talented African-American classical/jazz pianist and composer. Its focus is on a concert tour Dr. Shirley chose to do in 1962 in the southern states at a time that segregation was very much a part of the cultural ways of the Jim Crow era. Knowing he would need a strong and street tough driver and bodyguard for this eight-week tour, Shirley hires Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a working class Italian from the Bronx whose work history includes several stints as a New York City night club bouncer.

It’s an unlikely duo for modeling how to accomplish diversity, and both characters let the audience and each other know that right away. They don’t hesitate to state and display their negative views and thoughts about each other. Their dialogues reflect the biases they have and the assumptions they have made about each other and their respective ethnic/racial backgrounds. Their starting point is one of not liking each other and not respecting each other. But they do recognize that, at least for this eight-week tour in which the two of them will be traveling in a car together, they need each other. Vallelonga needs the work, for which he will be well paid, and Shirley needs the presence and protection that someone like Tony can provide him. At the beginning of their road trip, the extent of their hopes and expectations is probably limited to doing what it takes to work together and get along.

They could have gone about their business and done their jobs, tolerating each other and they started out doing just that: Tony did his job and Shirley paid him for his work. At the end of the tour, they could have both come out and made a statement about practicing diversity, and then gone back to their very separate and distinctly different lives and environments. Shirley could have said that hiring Vallelonga was an act of racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity. Vallelonga could have come away from the assignment making a similar claim about working with Shirley.

But Tony and Dr. Shirley don’t stop at just doing their jobs. They choose to go further. We might see this as the deeper level of diversity. It causes us to think about what the goal of diversity is; what interest(s) does this kind of effort serve? Ironically, the week before I saw the movie, a group of dispute resolution colleagues were discussing doing a presentation about the role and impact of diversity and bias on dispute resolution efforts and the question came up: What do we mean by diversity? Is it about taking steps to hire or include more members of historically disadvantaged groups into the mainstream of a profession or group? Or does it go further, urging us all to inquire further about people who are not like us; to learn about, appreciate and respect those who have been subject to recognized discrimination. Can it ignite within us the desire to explore – with a curious mind and heart – the realities of other lives that are different from our own?

To their credit, Shirley and Vallelonga went beyond just bringing one into the other man’s world. The beauty of this movie was not the minimalist goal that these two men were able to tolerate each other for eight weeks and carry out a challenging task. It was more so that they chose to embrace the next step – building a relationship with each other despite their differences and maybe because of their differences. To do that, they had to challenge each other, peel away and look behind the other’s assumptions and their own assumptions, and be willing to get to know and appreciate the other person’s reality better. They were able to break down the mental, physical and emotional barriers. While this diversity exercise may have been forced upon them by circumstances in the beginning, at some point they intentionally chose to engage and seek to understand what it was like to walk in the other person’s shoes. When they did that, they could truly feel empathy for one another, go beyond what was “required” of them and step up to caring about, respecting, appreciating and including one another.

Nelson Mandela offers this kind of roadmap for achieving diversity: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” When we go beyond the step of “working in the same company or profession” to really working at mutually getting to know each other better, appreciating the richness of another culture, we can melt away prejudices and prevent discrimination. If we can create environments that allow for these inquiries to happen organically, we help nurture the spirit of diversity, the interests behind the position. That would seem to be the deeper, transformative goal of diversity as well as dispute resolution, not only helping us resolve discrimination-based disputes, but eliminating the underlying discrimination itself.

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