Workplace Diversity Is a Poor Substitute for Having It in Your Real Life

A man shows something on his laptop to four other people.
The office isn’t exactly a space conducive to tough conversations. rawpixel/Unsplash

A joint study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic released Tuesday presents a rather bleak portrait of American ambivalence toward pluralism—not just living alongside difference but actively engaging with it . The findings follow on the heels of two years of increasingly panicked discussion about the danger of the filter bubbles that we are all supposedly trapped in, engendered and bolstered by the polarization that has come to define our national politics. But the PRRI/Atlantic study, which sampled more than 1,000 respondents, suggests a much more nuanced, if still depressing, outlook.

First, the good news. As Atlantic staff writer Emma Green writes, “Most Americans do not live in a totalizing bubble. They regularly encounter people of different races, ideologies, and religions.” And in fact, most of them do not hate those encounters or at least they feel positive to neutral about them. The bad news is that a substantial minority lives in the exact opposite way. According to the study, “About one in five Americans say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity (21 percent) or religion (22 percent), nearly one quarter (23 percent) say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their political party, and nearly one third (31 percent) say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their sexual orientation.”

The divides fall along the lines that we’ve come to expect: Higher proportions of white people, older Americans, and Republicans report seldom interacting with people of different races, for example. Younger, religiously unaffiliated, and more liberal Americans are more likely to report frequent interactions with those with different sexual orientations. Americans are relatively consistent across party affiliation and age in “how frequently they report interacting with someone of a different political party,” although there are substantial differences across racial lines—black and Hispanic Americans are less likely to say they’ve interacted with someone of a different political party in a given week than whites.

Among those Americans who say they have some interaction with people of different backgrounds, one point of unity stuck out: When asked where they frequently interact with people who do not share their political party or race or ethnicity, nearly three-quarters of this group pointed to their workplaces. Less than half indicated that they had people different from them in their friendship circles, and even smaller numbers say they have “diverse” interactions at a school that their child is attending, in their family, or at local civic and religious gatherings.

Of all the findings in the study, this one might be the most concerning. There’s little doubt that workplace diversity is important. But the fact that most people only interact with those who are different from them at work—a space where there’s little choice involved in the matter—makes those interactions particularly burdened.

The theoretical and lofty goal of diversity is that encountering and interacting with people who are different from you will challenge any preconceived notions or bias that you may hold due to growing up in a society that privileges certain characteristics and maligns others. There are a few problems with that paradigm, the primary of which is that it forces marginalized people to act as representatives for their race or religion or other identity category. It also suggests that marginalized people exist in these spaces for the benefit of the majority rather than for, I don’t know, their own livelihood or education. It suggests that pursuing diversity is just about including difference, rather than an attempt to right centuries of institutionalized advantage for straight cisgender white men. And it positions diversity as something that can be experienced passively, as the result of a hiring manager, rather than as something we should all be seeking in all the spaces we move through in our lives.

Workplaces, it should be said, are not exactly conducive for the sort of magical and life-changing conversations that diversity is supposed to produce. Not only are most people just busy doing their jobs, but they also aren’t exactly disclosing their most intimate sociopolitical views by the water cooler. The concept of professionalism that rules most American workplaces makes difficult the kind of relationships that give room for us to challenge one another. Not to mention the fact that marginalized people are rarely empowered enough in hierarchal workplaces to actually challenge anyone’s preconceived notions, whatever they may be. Conversations with friends and family can be fraught—but at the very least, there’s little concern that you’ll be left without a paycheck should it take a wrong turn.

It’s great that the majority of Americans are not in as much danger of suffocating in their bubbles as some feared. But the fact that Americans mostly only seem to encounter those different from them in a space where the larger societal benefit is partially negated by the rules of HR is a problem. The solution here is not to weaken the boundaries of the workplace—work-life balance is in enough peril as is. No, the solution here is what it’s always been: to seek out people different from you, in spaces where their honesty won’t compromise their livelihood.