What I learned from the Diversity Day episode of The Office

The Office is one of the greatest sitcoms in history. It is brilliantly written and acted. It’s endlessly quotable. It has also been remarkably influential on television shows made after it. Occasionally, the show managed to be thought-provoking and insightful on top of everything else. Let’s talk today about one of these instances. It occurred in the second episode of the series, “Diversity Day.”

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What the episode is about

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with The Office, it’s a workplace comedy in which all the employees work in the (you guessed it) office of a paper supply company. The regional manager is Michael Scott (played masterfully by Steve Carell). One of the key elements of this show is that Michael is a terrible manager. Just awful. Especially in the 6-episode first season. He is reprehensible and irredeemable in those first few episodes. Thankfully, by season 2, the writers figured out that Michael needed to have some goodness, as well as the capacity to grow and evolve. But again, in Season 1, he’s just horrific. In almost every episode, he commits a fireable offense. 

The worst of these offences takes place in “Diversity Day.” Michael has done an impression of a Chris Rock comedy routine. It is a routine about Black people. It is full of repeated uses of the N-word. Being that Michael is a white man, this is deeply uncomfortable for his employees. Someone files a complaint with Corporate. They send in a consultant from an organization dedicated to helping companies understand the value of diversity. This consultant is named Mr. Brown. He is played by writer/producer/entertainer/genius Larry Wilmore. Mr. Brown leads a 1-hour seminar on the topic of diversity. Michael derails the presentation at every possible opportunity. Mr. Brown’s presentation takes up an extremely brief portion of the episode. The show does not preach to the audience in any capacity. Yet somehow, this part of the show has stuck with me for over decade.

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What I learned

In light of everything going on in my country right now, I have spent great deals of time pondering issues of race, police brutality, mass incarceration, as well as my own prejudices and biases. I decided to re-watch this episode of the show. The message was just as powerful (if not more so) as it was when I first watched it.

At the beginning of the presentation, Michael says that he refuses to see his employees as black or white. He says he doesn’t see color. Mr. Brown stops him. He indicates that this approach is trying to fight ignorance with more ignorance. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. A lack of knowledge can change exactly nothing. Mr. Brown offers a solution: Celebrate Diversity. 

What does this mean? It means that all cultures, races, countries, and backgrounds have value. We can choose to learn about other cultures, instead of pretending they don’t exist. When we learn about them, we can look for the elements which have beauty, meaning, and value. We can appreciate these elements. We can honor and celebrate them. We can learn from them.

The easiest example of this to understand is food. Food is one of the purest expressions of a culture. And food is delicious. It is one of the most fundamental pieces of the human experience. It is how we share our culture with others. Food tells a story. You can watch any number of food-based travel shows to see what I mean (the two I’d recommend to start with are Somebody Feed Phil and Bizarre Foods). 

What do I mean by the suggestion that food tells a story? Let’s look at barbecue. Real, American barbecue is meat that is cooked slowly over a low fire for many hours at a time. This imbues marvelous smoky flavor, and it provides impossibly tender meat. American barbecue originated in the South. It was created by slaves. Slaves had little access to good food. If they obtained meat, it was usually the toughest, most flavorless cut of the animal. They had to find a way to make this food edible. So they developed a method of slowly cooking this meat over a fire to make it not only edible, but delicious. This evolved over the decades and centuries to become what we know of as barbecue today. This is worth honoring and celebrating!

I don’t say this to suggest that slavery was a good thing in any way, shape, or form. But slavery has defined the culture and cuisine of Black Americans from the very beginning. And just like a desert flower, something beautiful managed to survive and even thrive, in spite of the horrific conditions it was born into. 

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What value does diversity have?

“That’s fine Jordan, but what does that mean for me? What possible benefit does diversity have in my life besides giving me good food to eat?” I’m so glad you asked!

Imagine you own a business. You are a middle-class, middle-aged, white man. You received a college degree at a university. You decide (consciously or unconsciously) to hire people just like you. You hire white men in your same age group that all received a degree from the same school. You are all equally brilliant and qualified to do your jobs. You do them well. But one day, your organization faces a completely new challenge. It’s a problem that has never existed before. No one has a solution, because no one has ever thought of this scenario before. So you all gather together and put your minds to solving this problem. 

But here’s the thing. You all have the same backgrounds. The same qualifications. The same education. The same life experiences. You are all going to approach the solving of this problem in the same way. And you might come up with a wonderful solution! That is very possible. But you may not. 

Now imagine that instead of hiring people just like you, you hired a diverse group of people. People of different backgrounds (both cultural and economic). People with different levels and sources of education. People with different job and life experiences. If you bring together a team like this, your team will be able to see the problem from many more angles. You will identify solutions of which you could never have dreamed alone. The probability of you solving this problem will have skyrocketed. 

And that’s just one, tiny example! People of varying backgrounds can bring unquantifiable value to any number of situations. And we should celebrate this! We should honor this! We should be grateful that there are people in the world and in our lives that can share their perspective and experience with us. 

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So what now? What happens next?

For you, I do not know. But I can tell you what I am going to do next. I am going to learn. I am going to challenge my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I am going to ask if I am contributing to a system that oppresses and squashes diversity, rather than honors it. I am going to seek out knowledge from Black people, as well as people of other skin colors and backgrounds. I will donate to causes and organizations the directly benefit minorities. I will make a concerted effort to see the world from the perspective of other people. I will read articles and books. I will watch movies, documentaries, and television shows. I will wake up. I am going to celebrate diversity. And I will oppose anyone that fights against it. 

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