By A. Tonya Odom, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield

I often hear people wondering aloud about what makes a group diverse. Is it different races, ethnicities or gender? Do members need to look differently to be diverse? I recently spoke on a panel with two women discussing best practices for championing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and community. Before we started, I wanted to address the elephant in the room. At first glance, the diversity panel did not appear very diverse. However, looks can be deceiving. Although we were the same gender and had the same skin color, we didn’t speak with one voice. We were not the same. We had different experiences impacting how we view the world, solve problems, and engage and interact with others. Each of us had a unique journey that brought us to that moment, making the panel extremely valuable.

My journey began at a U.S. Military Base in the Philippines, where I learned to speak Tagalog. We moved around the world for my entire childhood, from the Philippines to the United States, then to Ecuador and Hong Kong. Would you have known that by the color of my skin?

That is not to say that identifying me as a Black woman is bad. It’s a natural and automatic phenomenon that occurs every time you see anything: categorization. Take a chair as an example. When you see a chair, you know what it is. You don’t have to wonder, ‘what is this object with four legs, a back and a seat?’ Even though you may have never seen that exact chair before, your brain still recognized it as a chair, and it fell into the chair category. Take a dog, a book or trees outside. You can’t help but know what they are the moment you first encounter them. You categorize them, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The same applies to people. If you were to see me, my hair, my figure, my outfit, you would probably automatically think “Black woman” and categorize me. And that is fine, we can’t help but see what people look like, and there is nothing wrong with simple categorization. Yet, that is also not the same thing as bias. Instead, bias happens when we go beyond simply putting someone into a category. We begin to judge or assume things about a person, think differently about them, or treat them differently becauseof the category we have given them.

Bias is systemic, historic and sometimes unconscious, but it is something we can work together to address. It is a shared responsibility and will require intentionality and collaboration between all people. To move the needle, we must:

  • Recognize that biases exist, and we must be proactive in efforts to address it
  • See categorization and diversity as opportunities for growth – go outside your comfort zone, learn something new and see the world from a new perspective
  • Look for commonalities and appreciate differences – the more you expose yourself to people who are “different” from you, the more you’ll realize how much you have in common and appreciate the differences.
  • Commit to change and do the work

Our unique journeys are what make diversity so important and powerful. Don’t let bias take away all we can learn from each other.

About the Author

A. Tonya Odom is the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. She leads the company’s continued commitment to recruiting, developing and retaining a diverse and inclusive workforce to design innovative healthcare solutions for the people and communities CareFirst serves. 

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