The Magazine

Where Everybody Is Disadvantaged

Postcards from the diversity follies.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By MATT LABASH
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Orlando

In a normal year, I wouldn't hop a plane in the middle of a Swine Flu outbreak to attend the Ninth Annual National Multicultural Business Conference, even with the extra leg room that a recession/pandemic affords. It's not because I don't value pluralism, inclusion, and celebrating our sameness through our differences, or our differences through our sameness, or whatever it is diversity disciples like to celebrate. With my attraction to Halle Berry, my love of Mexican food, and my willingness to give friends "Chinese cuts" when standing in long lines, I'm pretty sure my multicultural credentials are second to none.

Because of my affection for round numbers and faux anniversary stories, I'd just have as soon waited for the Tenth Annual National Multicultural Business Conference. But with the news rife with tales of massive bankruptcies, soaring unemployment, and CFO suicides in corporate America, it seemed time to hit the diversity-in-business conference while there are still any businesses left to confer.

The conference is at Disney's Contemporary Resort, and on the surface, everything is Disney-riffic. The hotel rises up like a tourist ziggurat in the shadow of Space Mountain and Cinderella Castle. Its modernist, the future-was-yesterday, Jetsons-style interior has all the warmth of an Icelandic disco. But Mickey Mouse topiary stands sentry in the courtyard. The check-in clerk draws ballpoint-bubble Mickey ears which he asks you to sign next to. The hotel staff, after affirming that a fruit compote comes with the Mickey-shaped multigrain waffles, invites the fanny-packers and their overfed children to "have a magical day," which most do, boarding the monorail that runs through the hotel to explore brighter Magic Kingdom horizons.

Even this hermetically sealed world, however, is not immune to the travails that afflict the country at large. Bellhops complain their tips have been halved since the economy cratered. The guys in the Pluto and Donald Duck suits seem to act more like Droopy and Eeyore, going through the motions when leading diners in song at Chef Mickey's. Other conferees, like the chartered financial analysts of the CFA Institute, attend wrist-slashing lectures with titles such as "Assessing Valuation Levels in Times of Uncertainty" and "Managing Through Challenging Times: Market Crisis and Short-Term Risk Management."

But there is a throwback sort of peppiness as I hit the conference registration desk of DiversityBusiness.com, the sponsor of the event. They seem to hark back to more carefree times--let's call them "the Nineties"--when we were fatter and richer and could afford the luxury of worrying about whether the guys in accounting were at least 0.8 percent Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, reflecting the population of the United States.

At check-in, we're given name tags, expensive-looking leather legal-pad carriers, and an official program, the cover of which is festooned with smiley children in rainbow-colored T-shirts, gleefully holding their hands up as if they are passengers on a thrill ride. They are so wholesome looking, that if they were cookies, they'd be oatmeal with no trans fats. I count a black one, an Asian one, a white one, a white one, a white one .  .  . For a moment, my spirit sags. It's clear that no matter how far we multiculturalists have come, there are still high mountains left to climb.

Even taking note of diversity initiatives in business can seem a Nineties-era story. We all treasure memories of those early days, how the substantive civil rights activists of the Fifties and Sixties gave way to more opportunistic social-science dabblers, the gender-studies Ponytailiban, and the encounter-group enthusiasts who were too underqualified to find employment as pet hypnotists or Dollar Store cashiers, and so hung out their shingles as diversity consultants, gouging corporations for thousands of dollars a day. They'd herd confused employees into games of "access and legitimacy" Dodgeball or have them make entries in their White Privilege journals or lead consciousness-raising singalongs of "Everyday People" with the diversity trainer accompanying on autoharp.

Diversity training became the corporate equivalent of a flu shot: Nobody was sure it worked, but it made bosses feel accomplished and proactive. Attendance was often mandatory, particularly if your company, like Denny's or Texaco, had faced discrimination litigation. If they hadn't, they'd have diversity training anyway, as indemnification in case they later did.