Inclusion and ’discrimination’ – and a new paradigm for diversity management

Recently I attended a conference in Copenhagen focusing on inclusion of diversity within the arts scene in Denmark. The numbers are very clear; the majority of the visitors as well as the artists are ethnically speaking white Danish people. The conference was an attempt to start a debate that would help focus on the fact that the arts institutions or its’ audiences are not representative of the population in the country.

During the conference I spoke with a number of people, all of whom seemed to operate from a similar logic: Discrimination had to be eradicated in favor of a higher level of inclusion within the arts and that way obtain a composition of employees and customers that would be reflective of the society that presently has around 6% migrants with other ethnic roots than Danish.

Inclusion vs discrimination

Inclusion has often been made for a contrast to discrimination – so much so that these two concepts often are considered in debates about equality and diversity to be opposite concepts where discrimination mostly refers to the unfair judgment and treatment of minorities and inclusion on the other hand describes the attempt to embrace and accommodate the differences that are usually overlooked by the majority.

However, there is reason to dwell on these two concepts. Are they really opposed views of the same reality? I believe that the debate has become blindsided in its own attempt to make sense of a complex situation where clarity is much desired.

It is my belief that these two concepts are not opposing concepts but equally problematic for a number of reasons. Let us start the discussion by nuancing the ideologically motivated views that too often have been born from the perceived polarization of the concepts of inclusion and discrimination.

But before indulging in these two positions – let us establish the common ground that these two concepts share. First and foremost, they each relate to the ways we as human cultural beings make sense of differences in society. It is important to realize that we never see ‘a difference’ in itself, – it always  appears together with its own contrast. E.g. edible/inedible, good/bad, black /white. Every time we observe something, we are forced to observe it by giving value to the phenomena we encounter. The meaning of what seems to be ‘natural’ / universal is always already embedded in our cultural reality. common sense is therefore always – the cultured sense!

If we for a moment dwell on the substance behind the words like discrimination and inclusion, it is quickly evident that they are both embedded and born out of a long socio-cultural history. Ranging from anti-semitism, through apartheid to women’s liberation, these concepts have been used to create an ideological ‘us / them’ position. Even though they can be interpreted differently and may not have to be perceived as polar opposites – our culture seems to have negotiated these concepts that way.

But what is really behind these concepts? Let us for a moment release the accelerator and reflect for 5 minutes.
The way I understand it, discrimination means to distinguish. Being able to make many discriminations is the same as having many categories available for one’s observations of differences. This is for instance what Webster’s online dictionary writes about discrimination:


1. Marked by the ability to see or make fine distinctions; “discriminate judgments”; “discriminate people”.

2. Noting distinctions with nicety; “a discriminating interior designer”; “a nice sense of color”; “a nice point in the argument”.


1. Recognize or perceive the difference.

2. Treat differently on the basis of sex or race.

3. Distinguish; “I could not discriminate the different tastes in this complicated dish”.

There are of course different ways of discriminating where some are highly limited and others are very sophisticated.

Actually, making distinctions is the only way we are able to give meaning to the world around us. Without the ability to make distinctions, the world would appear infinitely complex. Discrimination in other words, reduces complexity by distinguishing between different categories of phenomena in the world. However, when placed in an ideologically charged debate, discrimination is often disfavored due to the historical developments and thus making the act of distinguishing between differences a potentially risky endeavor.

Inclusion can mostly be perceived as a moral standpoint that tells us something about what we should do instead of behaving in a racist or xenophobic way. However, to be inclusive says something about what we should do, but nothing about how.

The concept of inclusion on its own therefore turns out to be everything and nothing at the same time. When used ideologically we run the risk of minimizing significant cultural differences. Even when the attempt is to distinguish and deal with the differences in practical terms, significant and meaningful differences can easily be called out as too categorical, limited or even racist and stereotypical.

The bottom line is this: The distinction between discrimination and inclusion is a false polarization and therefore, it is time to renew our conceptual repertoire.

Drawing a distinction

Firstly we have to acknowledge that differentiation / discrimination lies at the heart of any attempt to become cross-culturally competent.

Constructivism has since Niklas Luhmann’s use of Spencer Brown’s imperative (“draw a distinction!”) made it obvious that we cannot say anything meaningful without first having distinguished. This means that we distinguish everytime we observe something in front of us.

The challenge for the multi-ethnic and multicultural society is therefore to find a new framework within which we are able to observe each other. A part of this challenge is probably to cover the trenches between ideological positions and instead realize that racism is just as subversive for a debate as resisting to differentiate by including everything and nothing.

That is the reason why the real issue is a question about how we distinguish! Excactly how do we discriminate? How do we make sense of and room for each other in the multicultural society that we have chosen to live in?

It seems that we, as a society, need to acquire a higher level of consciousness in relation to distinguishing between cultural differences. A competence that can only be acquired through constant practice and a willingness to remain open, inquisitive and flexible to other cultures whether they are rooted in identity differences, sub- or national cultures.

As the above figure shows, the challenge is to escape the ethnocentric corner and move into a more ethno-relative paradigm where us/them distinctions do not make the agenda.

The next step forward?

In my view, the next step forward is to define inclusion as the need for acknowledging the differences among us while at the same time learn to navigate these differences effectively. The only way of doing this is by developing cross-cultural competence.

At this point it would be fitting to lend an ear to Andres Tapía who defines cross-cultural competence as:

“the ability to discern and take into account one’s own and others’ worldviews, to be able to solve problems, make decisions, and resolve conflicts in ways that optimize cultural differences for better, longer lasting and more creative solutions.” (Tapia 2009 p.84)

in other words, we are now moving away from this either/or mentality and embracing the difficult task of both including and perceiving cultural differences at the same time!

In this context it means that we must transgress the politically motivated false polarizations that seems to haunt the debate about integration. The environmental debate suffered this type of false polarization during the 70’ies and 80’ies. Then it was either progress or sustainability until we had our backs against the wall and we had to learn that there could be a viable business case for green industries.

Diversity management has been caught in an old sensitivity paradigm that the past 25 years focused on creating awareness and including more differences in our organizations at large – not just the arts institutions. However the way forward is to realize that we all share the responsibility of being cross-culturally competent – no matter who we are or where we come from. It doesn’t mean that active steps shouldn’t be taken to include more differences in our organizations. It just means that the new era of diversity management  without a doubt will be focused on our routes (i.e. where we are going) rather than our roots (i.e. where we come from)!

We must start perceiving diversity and cultural differences as the potential resource we can all learn to dig and cultivate. We all need to realize that ‘my culture’ is not by definition better than ‘your culture’, but equally complex and equally worthy. That we actually need each other’s differences to survive as a people. Let us hope that it won’t last a decade before we realize that politically motivated positions will make it difficult for us to move forward together. Perhaps this is particularly a challenge for the predominant part of the Danish national culture that is either blind to the cultural differences or prone to making us/them distinctions.

We simply need to become better at creating a more nuanced picture of the many cultures we meet on a daily basis and be better able to see the world with multiple perspectives in mind – not just our own!

Please contact PontiConsult for more information on diversity management and cross-cultural competence development


Ole Thyssen: Værdiledelse

Andres Tapia: The Inclusion Paradox



2 Responses to “Inclusion and ’discrimination’ – and a new paradigm for diversity management”

  1. Clint Cora, Speaker/Author Says:

    In order to reduce discrimination, people need to be educated on the benefits of diversity. Only then will people truly embrace it.

  2. ptemature ejaculation treatment Says:

    Yet another great post. Really happy I subscribed to your site a couple of days ago, and I would recommend that other readers now do the same. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

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