By Kwabena A. Appenteng – Ogletree Deakins

During a recent trip to the local state courthouse for an initial case hearing, I was confronted by an agitated pro se plaintiff. While some of the plaintiff’s agitation was apparently attributable to his presence in court, his inability to stop fidgeting and stand still seemed to be caused by something else. Doing my best to ignore my adversary, I introduced myself to the judge and summarized the case. About 15 seconds into my synopsis, the plaintiff began intensely staring at me, as if in disbelief. Minutes later, after being asked a question by the judge, he worriedly disclaimed: “Your honor, forgive me. I am somewhat confused. It seems that this gentleman is speaking with a British accent, but he is … well, I just did not expect him to sound like this ….”

The word that the astounded plaintiff was looking for was “black”—which I am. The accent he picked up is British, courtesy of Leeds, England, where I was born and raised. Like the judge, I first found the plaintiff’s apparent amazement at my existence amusing. Upon further reflection, however, I began to understand his quandary: He was not familiar with this type of diversity.

When we speak about diversity, we often speak about one type: racial diversity. Our offices, communities, and social groups are constantly challenged to embrace those who look different than we do, and create environments in which people of all races can harmoniously coexist. But what about cultural diversity? This presents different challenges that, I believe, flow deeper than those presented by racial diversity—particularly when they converge with racial diversity.

Take me, for example: I represent two cultures—the British culture and the Ghanaian culture—and I am black. My cultural diversity presents unique challenges to my ability to assimilate; my beliefs, the way I interpret things, the way I carry myself, are all a byproduct of my British-Ghanaian upbringing. They frequently differ from those around me, and cause me to stand out in some way. But my racial diversity presents challenges to others accepting me, even within the enlightened field of law. Together, they present challenges to both me and those around me, from my coworkers to my adversaries in court.

Unlike racial diversity, mere “tolerance” will not work with cultural diversity. Instead, a willingness to learn about and understand other cultures is needed. Why, for example, does your coworker from North Africa dress the way she does? Eat the foods she does? Or how can you effectively ensure that your coworker from the Middle East feels comfortable at work each day? These are not things you can merely be tolerant of because, at some point, they will force you to change your behavior or way of thinking. These are the challenges that cultural diversity presents which we, in turn, must be willing to take on.

Although I may be biased, I deem cultural diversity to be attainable:

• Ask questions. By asking questions about a person’s culture you not only get to learn, you simultaneously show that you are interested.
• Be sensitive. As I have been frequently reminded over the years, it is easy for people to forget that not everybody around them is from the same country and culture, particularly (oddly enough) when they are familiar with you. By being sensitive to the existence of cultural diversity, we create an air of acceptance, which in turn makes the task of assimilation much easier.
• Be open. The world is more globalized than ever, and having culturally diverse coworkers is no longer unusual. Be open to this fact, and to learning about the world’s vast array of cultures and the diversity that exists within these cultures.

The inherent beauty of cultural diversity is what it represents: the world coming closer together and our cultures blending as a result. Although we may not all sound the same, we all stand to benefit from cultural diversity—as was pointed out to me during my court hearing.

Kwabena A. Appenteng is an associate in the Chicago office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management.