Walking the Talk of Diversity: Looking French, Looking Turkish and the Power of Legislation

Filiz Bikmen Bugay

Filiz Bikmen Bugay

In my last post I promised my next piece to include (and I quote): ‘A great quote from M.L King, why one speaker claims the French are ‘xenophobic but not racist’, and an Italian-Swedish MEP who claims that for women, its not all about climbing the ladder and gender balance on corporate boards.’ Well here it is.

On 1 June, King Baudouin Foundation and Mercator Stiftung organized the ‘Practicing Diversity- How to walk the talk’ session. I admit that what first peaked my interest about the  program was the attendance of Cem Ozdemir, Co Chair of the Green Party. In my ‘hyphenated identity’ as a Turkish American, I was quite keen to listen to a German-Turkish success story and role model for the European Turkish community and other immigrant European communities.  But it turned out to be a panel of speakers with many interesting perspectives which were surprisingly engaging and honest- not an easy feat with the subject of diversity.

Hakim El Karoui from Rothshild Banking group claimed that the French were ‘xenophobic but not racist’. According to him, the French model is about assimilation, which in practice translates to ‘acceptance for only those who LOOK French’. It was incredibly REFRESHING to hear this level of honesty and I congratulate him for it. It also touched a nerve in me, as when I introduce myself I am often told by Europeans – whether in a meeting or even as far away as a Zen Buddhist temple in South Korea (really!!)-  that I do not ‘look Turkish’.  I get the feeling that looking French has a better connotation than looking Turkish- but that is another subject best saved for later.

So what was said? Ms. Anna Maria Corazza Bildt (MEP of the European People’s Party- Sweden, who also attended our Turkish Foundations session early in the morning on the same day- more to come in another posting) expressed a compelling degree of passion,  illustrating her points through personal accounts of her own upbringing as an Italian – Swede who lived in Bosnia and elsewhere.  Another nerve in me was touched as she claimed that ‘diversity is not about physical boundaries [of nation states]’. Having personally been raised in and between two nation states and cultures, I could not agree more.

On the issue of gender diversity, Ms. Bildt expressed with great determination that feminists were ‘wasting their time’ on making sure women are on more boards, claiming that there are only ‘so many Ericcsson’s’ in the world. She claims that overemphasizing gender balance in the board room limited the importance of representation in all positions of power – whether it be a CEO, a manager or a community leader or wherever a woman CHOSE to be present. She also spoke frankly about how in Sweden, she was once instructed not to answer the phone at home during the day since it would give the (negative) impression that she was NOT employed. Apparently the pressure to be a working woman in Sweden is quite significant. I appreciated this honesty and it had me thinking about how whether women are pressured to work (e.g. Sweden) or not work (e.g. Turkey), that we all share the challenge in securing an environment where women can make their own choices.

Mr. Fidele Mutwarasibo from the Immigrant Council of Ireland shared a very real and personal account of his own perspectives on diversity and discrimination with regards to race and religion- an especially sensitive subject for the Irish. He was adamant about the dangers of quotas and said nothing would make him feel worse than being promoted only for the color of his skin. When talking about his role in promoting diversity policy, he mentioned a segment of a Martin Luther King quote which was so compelling that I immediately launched Google to find in full. It reads as such:

It is true that behavior cannot be legislated, and legislation cannot make you love me – but legislation can refrain you from lynching me… and I think that is kind of important.
From a M.L. King speech at Oberlin College 22 October 1964

My personal observation (and public comment in the session) is that policy may not be enough but it is a must. Policy protects individual rights, protects from abuse and allows for victims to pursue justice.

I had higher hopes for Cem Ozdemir’s contributions, but he was suffering a sore throat (maybe it was the topic?) and made limited (but powerful) remarks about Islam (dangers of generalization) and identity. But he was mainly keen to keep the Frenchman in his place as he talked about how ‘Muslim women could not marry French citizens’.  Yet regardless of what Cem did or did not say, his presence and accomplishments in the European political arena were a testament that diversity in decision making mechanisms is possible- and happening. It was good to see proof that the Turkish voice was represented at the European level- and that gave me hope.

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