An Overview of Diversity Awareness

This publication provides an overview of cultural diversity, and can help you become more aware of the dimensions of diversity, your cultural identity, and your attitudes and perceptions.
An Overview of Diversity Awareness - Articles



The demographic makeup of United States society has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, and it will continue to change. Living and working in our society will require that each of us become increasingly aware of the challenge of cultural change.

This publication provides an overview of the concept of cultural diversity. The information covered here can help you:

  • Increase your awareness of the various dimensions of diversity.
  • Examine your own cultural identity and how that identity affects your relationships with others.
  • Become more aware of your own attitudes, perceptions, and feelings about various aspects of diversity.
  • Make a commitment to increase your understanding of diversity issues.

What is Diversity?

Just what is “diversity”? Let’s start with the short answer: differences. Human diversity means differences among people. It’s each of us in our rich and infinite variety.

Why do we Need to be Concerned About Diversity?

In recent years, diversity has become a popular topic. Starting in the 1980s, Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies at all levels, and large and small nonprofit organizations have all been doing “diversity work.” Today, units on diversity are being added to elementary and secondary school curricula, and courses that focus on diversity are being offered—and required—on many college campuses.

Three powerful trends in our society have made diversity an important issue. First, the global market in which United States corporations do business became highly competitive. Second, the makeup of the U.S. population began changing dramatically. Third, individuals began celebrating their differences instead of compromising their uniqueness to “fit in.”

Let’s take a closer look at each of these trends.

Trend 1: The global market

We have all heard the expression that our world is shrinking. To a large extent, the strength of our economy depends on our ability to do business with countries in other parts of the world. To stay competitive in the world market, the United States must design products that meet the needs of people from other cultures. In addition, we must develop strategies for marketing those products to other countries. Such activities bring diverse peoples to the planning and negotiating table. If we want to sell our products and make profitable business deals with people from other countries, it only makes good business sense to develop an understanding and appreciation of their cultures—their languages, needs, wants, and customs.

We cannot afford to make mistakes like Chevrolet made when it first tried to sell the Chevy Nova in Spanish speaking countries. In Spanish, “No va” means “does not go.” Needless to say, the Nova never sold well in Spanish speaking countries. Similarly, when Pepsi started marketing its products in China a few years back, the Chinese translated the slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life” quite literally. The slogan in Chinese really meant, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

Currently, countries with the biggest growth potential are the developing nations of Asia. RJR Nabisco and Eli Lilly are building plants in China; Owens-Corning Fiberglass and IBM are doing it in India; and AT&T is building facilities in Indonesia, to name a few. Other Asian places with growing economies include Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation build right-hand driver models of the Taurus and Neon for their customers in Tokyo.

It is important to note that today four out of every five new jobs are a result of foreign trade.

Trend 2: changing demographics

  • Yesterday 3 in 4 Americans were Whites. Today, 37 percent of the U.S. population is people of color. The increase is primarily due to trends in immigration and birth rates. Today, Whites represent about 63 percent of the population. Currently, four states have majority-minority populations: California, New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii. The fastest-growing race groups are the Asian and Pacific Islander population. The Hispanic/Latino population is the largest-growing group.
  • Between 2000 and 2010 more than half of the growth in the total population of the United was due to the increase in the Hispanic/Latino population.
  • Between 2000 and 2050, the White labor force will have a slower growth rate but remain the largest labor force group. The Asian labor force will more than double, and the Black labor force will remain unchanged. The Hispanic/Latino labor force will account for 80 percent of the total growth of the labor force.
  • By 2014, the public school population will be 50.3 percent minority, and the faculty will be 82 percent White.
  • Between 2000 and 2013, 78 counties in 19 states flipped from majority White to majority minority.

Our nation’s population will grow by an estimated 98 million people between 2014 and 2060. During those 46 years:

  • The Two or More Race population is projected to be the fastest-growing population, increasing from 2.5 to 6.2 percent of the population.
  • The Asian population will be the second fastest growing population and nearly double in size, increasing from 5.4 percent to 9.3 percent.
  • The Hispanic/Latino population will be the largest growing population and is expected to increase by 115 percent.
  • African Americans will grow modestly from 13 to 14 percent.
  • Whites will be the slowest-growing group in the nation. By 2060 Whites are projected to account for 44 percent of the population. The year 2044 is when Whites are expected to comprise less than 50 percent of the population and a “majority minority crossover” will occur.
  • The racial composition of children (under 18) will be markedly different by 2060. At that time it is projected that 36 percent of children will be White and 64 percent will be children of color.
  • The foreign born are expected to account for an increasing share of the total population, growing from 13 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in 2060.

Let’s take a closer look at other dimensions of our current population.

  • When different types of impairment groups are taken as a whole, people with disabilities make up the largest minority group today at 19 percent of the U.S. population.
  • An estimated 2 to 10 percent of the population is gay/lesbian.
  • The fastest-growing age groups are those 65 and older. Between 2014 and 2060, the number of elderly is projected to grow from 15 percent to 24 percent of the population, more than doubling in size from 48 million to 98 million. The median age of the population will continue to rise as the Baby Boomer generation (people born after World War II between 1946 and 1964) grows older. There will be an increase in workers age 65 and older.
  • One in every 5 Americans speaks a language other than English at home.
  • Consumer buying power among the four primary U.S. minority groups—African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, Asians, and American Indians—nearly doubled in the 1990s and continues to grow at a faster rate than the overall U.S. buying power.

Trend 3: the changing concept of America

Traditionally, our society’s approach to diversity has been assimilation. The United States has been called the “melting pot” society. Newcomers to this country were expected to adapt their “old world” values and culture to fit the values and lifestyles of the “new world.” Cultural differences were metaphorically placed into a big pot where they were “melted” or blended together. In theory, the “melting pot” would result in one culture, language, and lifestyle for everyone in this country.

The problem with the “melting pot” approach is that it equates difference with deficiency.

Today, the terms “mosaic” society and “tossed salad” are replacing the “melting pot” concept. In a “mosaic” society, individuals maintain their own cultural patterns, such as language, lifestyle, and religious practices. Differences are valued and appreciated, as when countless colored stones join together to form a mosaic, or when carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers, and tomatoes maintain their shapes, color, and taste in a tossed salad. As a result, individuals can be proud of their cultural heritage and uniqueness instead of being ashamed of their differences.

In fact, with the wide variety of people now living in this country, it is difficult to identify a single distinctive American culture. It may be more appropriate to think of the United States as having a giant multiculture.

Dimensions of Diversity

Diversity includes everyone, because people differ from one another in many ways. In other words, there are many dimensions of diversity. The following are just a few dimensions of diversity:

  • Gender
  • Religious beliefs
  • Race
  • Marital status
  • Ethnicity
  • Parental status
  • Age
  • Education
  • Physical and mental ability
  • Income
  • Sexual orientation
  • Occupation
  • Language
  • Geographic location
  • Veteran status

As you can see, diversity is very broad in scope and it includes all of us.

However, some dimensions of diversity have more impact than others on the opportunities people have. The major dimensions of diversity can be categorized as primary and secondary dimensions.

The primary dimensions are unalterable and are extremely powerful in their effect. The secondary dimensions are important in shaping us, but we have some measure of control over them.

How Important Are Various Dimensions of Diversity?

In her book The 4 Minute Sell, Jane Elsea lists the nine most important things noticed about people in our society, in order of importance. These are:

  • Skin Color
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Appearance
  • Facial expressions
  • Eye contact
  • Movement
  • Personal space
  • Touch

When we see another person, we notice, make assessments, and make decisions about how to interact with that individual based on these nine factors. These reactions, based on split-second assessments of others, influence our relationships.

Take a few minutes to think about your own community or workplace. Consider each of the following dimensions of diversity. How important is each of these differences to the people in your community or workplace? Are people treated differently based on these factors? Are decisions made about people based on these factors?

  • Gender
  • Physical makeup (appearance)
  • Ethnicity
  • Physical and mental limitations
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Income level
  • Geographical location or region
  • Occupation
  • Religion
  • Education

The Past/The Future

We tend to have a natural affinity with people who share many of our own dimensions of diversity. Likewise, we tend to feel less comfortable with people who have few dimensions in common with us. When you think about your closest friends, are they similar to you or very different from you?

In the past, it was pretty likely that the people who lived in our neighborhoods, the children we went to school with, the people we worked and did business with, and the people we worshipped with were people who shared many of our own dimensions of diversity. In most aspects of our lives, the people we interacted with were very similar to ourselves.

However, as our communities become increasingly more diverse, understanding the perspectives of diversity will become more important. Some of the changing demographics in Pennsylvania are summarized below:

Table: Pennsylvania Population by race for 2000, 2010, and 2014 estimated

2000 #2000 %2010 #2010 %2014 #2014 %
Total Population12,281,05410012,702,37910012,787,209100
Whites Alone10,322,45585.410,094,65279.59,961,23577.9
African Americans Alone1,224,61210.01,327,09110.41,483,31611.6
Asians Alone219,8131.8349,0882.7421,9773.3
American Indians Alone 18,3480.1 16,9090.1 38,3610.3
Two or More Races142,2241.2178,5951.4230,1691.8

The population in your community may not be undergoing dramatic changes. However, today’s youth are more likely than previous generations to face the challenges of interacting with and working with people different from themselves. It may happen when they go to college, or join the armed services. Perhaps the job that best meets their needs will not be located in their home community—indeed, it could even be in another part of the world.

The ability to accept and value human differences will help us relate more effectively with others in almost any circumstance.


It is difficult to have a discussion about human diversity without including the concept of culture.

What Is Culture?

Culture is the totality of values, beliefs, and behaviors common to a large group of people. A culture may include shared language and folklore, communication styles, and ideas and thinking patterns—the “truths” accepted by members of the group. Members of a culture have similar expectations of life.

Culture can be further defined as the body of learned beliefs, traditions, principles, and guides for behavior that are shared among members of a particular group. Culture serves as a road map for both perceiving and interacting with the world.

Another way we can define culture is to say that culture is the behavioral software “that programs us all.”

  • Culture determines our behavior and attitudes.
  • No one is culture-free.
  • Most cultural rules are never written.
  • We interpret other people’s behavior through our own “cultural software.”

Culture Influences Our Lives

Psychologists say we are, to a large extent, “culturally programmed” by the age of three! Let’s look at this simple symbol. What does this symbol mean to you?

Some thoughts that came to your mind may have included:

  • happy
  • smile
  • good
  • correct
  • satisfaction
  • pleased

These meanings are a part of your cultural programming. Culture plays a big influence in our lives.

What If You Belonged To A Different Culture?

Take a few minutes to imagine that you woke up tomorrow morning and found that you belonged to another culture, another ethnic group, or some other dimension of diversity. You might be Hispanic, Asian, African American, or White. You might have a physical or mental disability. You might belong to a different religious group—perhaps you are Jewish or Muslim. You might be a teenager or a very elderly person. You might live in the deep south or in Alaska. Consider the items below with your new culture/group in mind. These are just some of the areas in your life that might be affected.

  • The friends you associate with
  • The social activities you enjoy
  • The foods you prefer
  • The religion you practice
  • The clothing you wear
  • The neighborhood you live in
  • The job/position you hold
  • The vehicle you drive
  • The music you enjoy
  • The language(s) you speak
  • The political party you belong to

Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • What parts of my life would remain the same?
  • What parts of my life would be different?

Are you surprised to see how many things in your life would change if your culture changed?

Where Did We Receive Our Cultural Programming?

Where did we learn our values, beliefs, attitudes, and patterns of thinking and acting? Each of us is born into a culture. Our beliefs begin with those of our family, but they continue to be shaped by all of our experiences after birth. For the most part, family attitudes, beliefs, languages, and other behaviors are accepted without question.

Where did you receive your cultural programming? Take a few minutes to list on a sheet of paper the various influences on your cultural programming.

You probably listed some of the following:

  • family
  • economic status
  • ethnicity
  • neighbors
  • church
  • media
  • travel
  • age
  • education
  • work
  • spouse
  • friends
  • geographic location
  • other relatives

Examples of Cultural Programming

What are some examples of your cultural programming? Think about the family or personal beliefs or values you hold, or rituals you perform based on the cultural programming you received. The following are a few examples that others have shared:

  • “The marriage will be more successful if you say your vows while the clock is on the upside of the hour, not while it is on the downside of the hour.”
  • “Your hair will grow back if you cut it on the full moon.”

Most of us can finish the statements below.

  • You can’t teach an old dog…
  • Big boys don’t…
  • You can lead a horse to water, but…

These commonly recognized statements represent cultural attitudes that are, in some cases, inaccurate.

Cultural Filters—“On Automatic”

Because each of us is different, we see and interpret behavior through our own cultural filter. One effect of our cultural programming is that it puts us “on automatic.”

When we were children learning about the world, some of the messages we received about people who are different from us were misinformation. Some of these messages came from our parents, friends, teachers, and others. These people did not intend to feed us misinformation. They were simply passing on the messages that had been passed down to them. Some of the messages we received came from people. Some of the messages came from media, such as television and textbooks.

Some of the misinformation constituted stereotypes, like the sentences you finished a few minutes ago (“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”). These stereotypes became “mental tapes” that affected what we thought and how we felt about people who were different from ourselves. Those tapes also affected how we responded to people who were different from us. Those responses became automatic. As adults, most of us are still on automatic.

Let’s look at some examples of being on automatic. Read each word or phrase below one at a time. For each one, note the first thought that comes to your mind. Don’t spend a lot of time thinking—just note the first thing that comes to mind.

  • politician
  • homeless person
  • lawyer
  • black male teenager
  • professor
  • police officer
  • man in a wheelchair
  • farmer
  • Californian
  • 300-pound woman

Some of your responses will likely represent stereotypes. You did not take time to think about them; they were automatic responses. Some of the responses that have been given by different groups with different cultural filters include:

politician: liar, government, white male

lawyer: evasive, expensive, snake, someone who compromises

professor: absent-minded, intelligent, educator, lifelong learning

man in a wheelchair: weak, helpless, dependent, pity, suffering, asexual

Californian: surfer, physically fit, blond, tan

homeless person: irresponsible, dangerous, drug and alcohol addicts, unfortunate

Black male teenager: good athlete, drug dealer

policeman: power hungry, helpful, trust, fine, beater/abuser, risk-taker

farmer: hard worker, unsophisticated, country bumpkins, American

300-pound woman: motherly, lacking in discipline, lazy, greedy, unattractive, jolly

When we stereotype, we place a person in a particular “mental file” not based on information gained through knowledge about or personal experience with the particular person. Rather, we assign the person to a “mental file” based on what we believe about a group to which the person belongs. Once learned, those stereotypes are called up instantly by our brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS). Stereotypes exist for every group of people imaginable. Even though we may not like to admit that we stereotype people, we all do it. Stereotyping makes it easier to function in a world filled with unknowns. Stereotypes help us organize our thinking and manage massive amounts of information. We classify the infinite variety of human beings into a convenient handful of “types.” Once in place, stereotypes are difficult to undo. It’s hard to get off “automatic.”

Developing Diversity Competence

To help us move “off automatic” and begin to value differences, we need to develop Diversity Competence. Diversity Competence consists of four areas:

  • Awareness
  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Action or Behavior


  • Recognize differences as diversity rather than abnormal behavior or inappropriate responses to the environment.
  • Respect the benefits of diverse values and behaviors to people and to the organization.
  • Accept that each culture finds some values more important and some behaviors more desirable than others.
  • Understand the effect that historic distrust has on present-day interactions.
  • Have a clear sense of your individual culture.
  • Recognize your own ethnocentricity—the ways in which you stereotype, judge, and discriminate, and your emotional reactions to conflicting cultural values.
  • Understand how the culture of your organization affects those whose culture is different.
  • Recognize the similarities that are shared across the “human culture,” regardless of the differences that exist among individual cultures and groups. These include, but are not limited to: desire for safety, good health, education and well-being of our children, love and belongingness, self-esteem (feeling of worthiness), and the ability to pursue and achieve our potential.


  • Learn factual information about other cultures and groups with different backgrounds.
  • Read an article or book about a cultural or social group different from your background. Compare your views with those of the author.
  • See a movie about other cultural lifestyles. Compare how you live your life to what you’ve seen on film.
  • Read about cross-gender differences in communication styles.
  • Attend a cultural event, celebration, or holiday program of a different culture that you have never experienced before. Compare the similarities and differences of this event/celebration to those of your cultural group. Find out the meanings behind the differences.
  • Learn a new language.
  • Interview a person from a different culture to learn about their culture. How did they grow up? What were the important messages passed on to family members? How are children viewed? Older people?
  • Explore your family history and background. Where did your ancestors come from before arriving in this country? What are the special customs and traditions that were shared from generation to generation? Interview an older member of your family.


  • Take personal responsibility for the way you respond to difference.
  • Make continued and sincere attempts to understand the world from others’ points of view.
  • Develop skills in cross-cultural communication.
  • Develop problem-solving skills.
  • Develop skills in conflict management.
  • Look for ways to work effectively with diverse groups of people.


  • Teach others about cultural differences.
  • Develop a mentoring relationship with someone from a different culture or identity group.
  • Show more patience when working and interacting with people who have different learning styles than you.
  • Integrate diversity issues as an ongoing topic in staff meetings at work.
  • Develop a personal plan for continued learning toward diversity competency

The Challenge of Diversity

Dealing with diversity can be daunting. It will help to keep in mind the Seven Underlying Principles of Diversity (adapted from “Diversity: Just What Is It Anyway?” Dimensions in Diversity 3 [1995]: 3.).

  1. Diversity is an inside job, meaning that diversity is not about “them.” Rather, it is about each person coming to terms with his or her attitudes, beliefs, and experiences about others and gaining comfort with difference.
  2. Diversity goes beyond race and gender. The diversity tent is big enough to include everyone—young and old, homeless and affluent, immigrant and native, white and black, rural and urban, gang member and corporate professional.
  3. No one is the target of blame for current or past inequities. All human beings have been socialized to behave in certain ways, and all of us are at times both perpetrators and victims of discrimination and stereotypes. The idea is to move forward in creating more opportunities.
  4. Human beings are ethnocentric, seeing the world through their own narrow view and judging the world by their familiar yardstick. This is not bad in itself, but it can be a source of conflict if other ways of being are not accommodated and valued.
  5. The human species resists changes, continuing to seek homeostasis. This makes the constant adaptation required by diversity difficult for people already overwhelmed by staggering transitions in today’s communities and organizations.
  6. Human beings find comfort and trust in likeness. We have a tendency to seek the company of those most similar to us in a variety of ways… age, gender, and ethnicity being just several of many.
  7. It is difficult for people to share power. History shows us that we rarely do it voluntarily. Understanding this last reality helps clarify why there is sometimes a backlash associated with diversity from people who may believe they will lose in this experience.

All of these truisms about the human species do not make people mean-spirited or cruel. It just makes us humans. Nevertheless, these realities make dealing with diversity a challenge.

Making a Commitment to Diversity

Developing Diversity Competence is not a short-term venture, but you can get started today by making a commitment to do one thing in the next 30 days to increase your understanding of diversity. Ask a family member or a friend to join you in this venture. Select one of the items suggested in the lists above under Awareness, Knowledge, or Skills, or take advantage of an upcoming event or opportunity that would increase your diversity competence. Follow the instructions on the Commitment to Diversity Plan form on the next page. Within 30 days, plan to meet and discuss what you learned with your “diversity buddy.”


Choose one thing you will do in the next 30 days to increase your understanding of diversity. Jot it down in the two places indicated on the lower portion of this form. Select a friend or relative to serve as your “diversity buddy” over the next 30 days. Exchange the bottom section of your diversity commitment plan with your “diversity buddy.” Carry out the activity you have selected within the next 30 days. At the end of the 30 days (or sooner), meet with your “diversity buddy” to discuss what you learned and how you increased your understanding of diversity.

Commitment to Diversity Plan form

Make a commitment to diversity, Take the following steps:

To increase my understanding of one aspect of diversity, I make a commitment to do the following activity within 30 days:




My Name: __________________________________________________________________________

Date: _______________________________

Buddy's Name: ______________________________________________________________________

Date: _______________________________

To increase my understanding of one aspect of diversity, I make a commitment to do the following activity within 30 days:




My Name: __________________________________________________________________________

Date: _______________________________

Selected Reference for Further Exploration


Carr-Ruffino, N., Managing diversity: People skills for a multicultural workplace (7th ed.) Boston: Pearson, 2006.

Cox, T. Jr. & Beale, R. L., Developing a competency to manage diversity. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Henry III, W., “Beyond the melting pot.” Time (April 9, 1990): 28–31.

Ho, L., Cross-cultural swinging: A handbook for selfawareness and multicultural living. Canada: Pacific Asia Press, 1990.

Stewart, C., Sexually stigmatized communities: reducing heterosexism and homophobia. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Productions, 1999.

Straight Talk About Disability brochure. Chicago: Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, 1998.

Tannen, D., You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Tatum, B. D., Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? New York: Basicbooks, 1997.

Thomas, R. R. Jr., Beyond race and gender. New York: AMACOM, 1991.

Thomas, R. R. Jr., Building a house for diversity. New York: AMACOM, 1999.

Tiedt and Tiedt, Multicultural Teaching (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1995.

Other Publications

Diversity Activities for Youth and Adults.  This 12-page publication features six different activities that can be used to help youth and adults understand and appreciate diversity. It is a publication of the College of Agricultural Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University.

Teaching Tolerance Magazine. This magazine is published biannually and is filled with multicultural materials and teaching strategies. This resource is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center and is free to educators. Write to Teaching Tolerance, PO Box 548, Montgomery, AL 36177-9622.

Web Sites

Smith, B., Miller; A. W., Archer, T., and Hague, C. Working with Diverse Cultures Factsheet. CDFS-14. This is a publication of Ohio State University Extension.

Prepared by Patreese D. Ingram, assistant dean of multicultural affairs and professor of agricultural and extension education.