Karith Foster was a successful comedian and broadcast journalist before she became a “diversity engagement specialist.” But she really prefers the term inversity—a word she coined because diversity “has become polarizing, overemphasizing what divides us.” And that’s not the point, is it? “We’re all coming from the same place and want the same things,” she says. “When people hear the term diversity, they think it only refers to people in marginalized groups. And it’s really about everyone. People are tired of being victimized or condemned because they were born into a certain body.”
Foster has taken her Stereotyped 101™ program to college campuses around the country, relying on humor (and liberal examples from her own family life) to encourage students to put themselves in others’ shoes. Her goal: “To turn traditional diversity and inclusion training on its head, and leave people feeling good rather than frustrated.” Learn more about her work at FosterRussell.org and karith.com (where you can also check out her stand-up comedy), and follow her on Twitter at @KarithFoster.
In the beginning, there was diversity
I was born in Denver, Colorado, and I lived in a neighborhood that was like a real-life version of Sesame Street. It was wonderful, warm—diversity on steroids. Then when I was 7, my father, who was with IBM, was transferred to Texas. We moved to Plano, where only a handful of black families lived in a several-mile radius. I became the “HBR: Honorary Black Representative” for my melanin-deficient friends since I was always the only black person in any of my classes. This became my new normal. Even in college, I was the only black person in my honors dorm freshman year. I eventually went to Washington, DC, for an internship program, Oxford University for study abroad, and New York City for a job on The View. If Disney World is the “happiest place on earth,” then NYC is the “most diverse place on earth.” I finally felt at home because everyone was different—not just me.
My source of strength
My parents taught me my family history. They made sure I understood what strong, resilient people came before me, and they instilled me with pride and sense of self. My alma mater, Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri—the second oldest women’s college in America—gave me a sense of power and confidence as a woman. I have never thought that I can’t do something or that I’ll be treated differently because I am a woman or because I am black. Sure, racism, bigotry, sexism, and misogyny exist, but what trumps those things is how we tell the world to treat us—which begins with how we treat ourselves.
Why I love my job
I LOVE making people laugh. I LOVE seeing people’s minds shift and hearing them say, “I never thought about it that way.” To combine my love of entertaining with education and socialization—I am living my dream. I had to create my dream job, but sometimes that’s what you have to do.
How my family became fodder for my work
My husband is not just white, he’s super white. He’s from Australia! My theory was always that if I married a white guy, I’m brown, he’s peach, our kids would be beige, which, hello, goes with everything! And my two girls are among the greatest reasons why I’m doing this work. I want them to grow up in a world where the first question out of people’s mouths isn’t “What are you?” but instead, “What’s your name? What do you like to do? What are your hobbies?” I understand we are all curious by nature, but I want people to be more interested in who they are as human beings rather than their genetic make-up.
My message in two sentences
Be kind to one another. Respect one another and don’t be a jerk!
My message in six sentences
Respecting one another—our different views, ideas, experiences—and respecting ourselves is crucial for living and working together in harmony. Please don’t confuse harmony with complete agreement. We should hold our own beliefs and ideas but respect others’ beliefs and ideas as well. That is why free speech is so important, because it leads to an exchange of ideas. That can strengthen your belief system. And sometimes it challenges it.
How I know I’m connecting
Sometimes tearful students and faculty will tell me I touched on something that affected them. It could be the black girl who was teased because she “talked white.” Or the cisgender white male athlete who thanked me for including him and his perspective in my programming. Many people feel so alone on this journey. When I show them that we’re all coming from the same place and want the same things, people feel relieved. They’re motivated to use their voices and stand up not just for themselves but for others.
Advice I’d give my 20-something self
Relax. Don’t worry so much. It is all going to work out. Say YES, even if you’re not sure how you’re going to make it happen.
Books I can’t get enough of
Two books really touched me—they became the basis for much of my social philosophy. The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I think I’ve given at least two dozen copies of the latter to people over the past 15 years. And right now I’m reading Reinventing Diversity by Howard Ross. I met him recently and he’s the first person I’ve encountered who shares the same ideas about what diversity training should be.
On my bucket list
Travel, travel, travel. I want to hit Hawaii. I was supposed to go for my birthday a few years ago, but I had a baby instead. I want to get to Africa and Australia and I’d like to become fluent in another language—either French or Spanish.
Things that surprise people about me
I’m a bit of an introvert. Also, I am into natural medicine and use essential oils for just about everything from treating my asthma and allergies to fighting viruses. I even gave birth naturally twice—both times in water; the second one was at home. (It was the BEST thing ever!)
Four quotes I love
- “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” —Wayne Dyer
- “Endings are only disappointments for those who have no faith in life or love.” —Unknown
- “Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.” —Jacqueline Woodson
- “Diversity is the art of thinking independently together.” —Malcolm Forbes