If I Want to be Inclusive, I Must be Willing to Change
When my partner, Paula T. Edgar and I facilitate workshops on workplace inclusion, we discuss all of the incredible benefits of having an inclusive workplace: more successful collaboration, greater efficiency and productivity, improved employee engagement, retention, and more effective communication, to name a few.
We are transparent with participants about the fact that being inclusive requires work. The hardest part of that work is being able to change how we do things. Valuing diversity is easy, by comparison. I can appreciate that someone cooks differently than I do, especially, if I enjoy their style of cooking. But even if I do not want to eat their food, we can still coexist peacefully and in an engaged and supportive way. Inclusion, however, means that I must change my style of cooking if I am going to successfully collaborate with another human being. I love to cook. I especially love to plan an entire menu so that my guests can enjoy a thematic experience. If I am to be inclusive, I must be able to open myself up to a different approach to the menu and any number of stylistic variations; from how much salt one uses, to what type of oil is best to use.
Vive la Resistance!
People really do not like change, hence the great success of chain restaurants. People get to order food that they have eaten before and apparently enjoyed, and in doing so, avoid surprises. I have heard more times than I can (or care to) recount, “But we’ve always done it this way!” There is security in knowing how things are done. This approach makes great sense when it comes to mundane tasks such as opening doors, turning on lights, or mailing a letter. But even these simple-seeming functions have evolved tremendously in the past 100 years, and continue to do so. When I began working full-time, I used an IBM Selectric typewriter with carbon paper to make an original and two copies of everything that I typed for the law firm that employed me. (I am incredibly grateful that when I mistype something these days I can just hit backspace or delete to correct the error!) So, change is a very good thing – sometimes.
It is fairly easy to get people to embrace change that makes their lives easier or simpler, but when it comes to changing the way that we think about society, and ourselves, things get a bit more complicated. The recent launch of ‘The 1619 Project’ by The New York Times is an excellent example of this. The 1619 Project is intended “to correct the record, reframing the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the national narrative.” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html For people who have been excluded from chronicling the history of the United States, this project provides an opportunity to write a more inclusive record. There has been a backlash by some White individuals claiming that essays in the project are either inaccurate, or that the project is not “real history”. These negative reactions (I will not reference any of them here), to this sweeping endeavor to examine the impact of slavery on our systems and institutions, employs the method of questioning the qualifications and efficacy of the messenger to disqualify the content. I can say with confidence as one who studied graduate level history at an Ivy League institution, that change was not something that was embraced in our field, be it a change of perspective or the subject itself. I was challenged when I wrote about the history of Puerto Ricans in New York City for being too close to my subject. So, another way to resist change is to establish that only a small number of people – people who claim to be objective – are truly qualified to research and write about our past. I would posit that no human being is able to be fully objective about our history and so we are all disqualified, according to these criteria.
Not All Change Is Created Equal
We hate being wrong! We especially hate being wrong about racism. As a person who is optically White, I can tell you that racism exists everywhere. For years, I called myself ‘a spy in the house of racism,’ because racists would say racist things to me or in my presence based on two false assumptions: first, they assumed that I was White; second, they assumed that I was a fellow racist. When I would correct people and say that as one of Puerto Rican descent, I am a mixed-race person, they would respond in shock; “You don’t look Puerto Rican!” “When I say Puerto Rican, I don’t mean someone like you!” Ah, you mean that you believe I am a better person because I look White – like you. People become very defensive when they are corrected or ‘called-out’ on their racism. I am not a big advocate of calling people out, but sometimes, I just get tired of this ignorance and bias. As a diversity practitioner, I educate people, with love, and help them to change and open their minds and hearts and reexamine their history books. So, if I am facilitating, I focus on feeling empathy for the person who has been mis-educated about slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and immigrant-phobia. Through my empathy I can begin to try to educate them from a place of love. I explain that our goal to create a more inclusive world is not about making anyone feel bad about our past, but rather to help them to see a personal benefit in being able to have really wonderful relationships with people who are quite different from themselves. This means, that we need to understand the distance that the other person has traveled to get to this space that we are sharing at any specific moment in time. This means that we need to study history, anthropology, and sociology from multiple perspectives – even the parts that make us very uncomfortable. Once we receive this new information, we need to be able to have our minds changed by it. Empathy is an incredibly important and powerful experience. If I can feel empathy for another human being, especially a human being who I do not identify with or necessarily like or respect, then I can begin to bridge the chasm of being exclusive.
There are many anti-racism workshops being facilitated across the country as well as examinations on White fragility when it comes to discussions on race. We regularly facilitate these workshops, as well as sessions on how to be an effective ally. Several organizations have gotten a great deal of publicity by providing their staff with one hour of ‘diversity’ training following racist incidents between their employees and their customers. This is a complicated subject and as such, we need to stop trying to find simple, quick fixes for these problems. One hour? Most people binge-watch five hours of the latest series before coming up for air. The average movie is two hours long. The average seating for a dinner in a restaurant is 90 minutes. How can even the most qualified facilitators be expected to accomplish anything of value in one hour? We are requested to meet these unrealistic expectations on a regular basis. We are told that there is not time within the busy work schedule to pull people out for training. We are told that people will not tolerate a training session that is longer than 90 minutes. We are told that the budget ‘will not allow’ such an expenditure; we are told many things about why employees cannot spend a full day in a workshop to learn how to navigate the impact of racism on the workplace. What we need to hear is how much the time and money it costs to respond to litigation; how much time that organizations spend attempting to resolve conflict between employees; how much is invested by organizations on recruitment and hiring only to see those precious investments run screaming from the building because they have been subjected to micro-aggressions on a daily basis.
This work takes time. Time to gather information about the organization’s culture and history; time to develop workshop agendas that matter to the participants and genuinely help them to learn and grow and change; and time for organizations to shift from being reactive to proactive about being inclusive.
Helping people to develop meaningful communication and relationships with one another is what this is all about. We are asked regularly to give people a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ or a checklist of things that they should read to help them to be inclusive. We resist providing such lists for multiple reasons, but if giving you a list will help to make change a reality, I will break our rule, just this once.
Studies show that people respond to lists including 5 things more than they do to lists containing any other number so, here goes!:
The 5 things that facilitate inclusion:
- Willingness to change
These are of course, over-simplifications, especially as we are talking about messy, complicated people trying to cope with the daily onslaught of social media messaging and negative news that seeps through the porous walls of every workplace, but this is the outline of a master course in being inclusive. Let us know if you want to join us, the learning never ends.
Wendy Amengual Wark
New York, NY
August 26, 2019
Inclusion Strategy Solutions LLC
Helping Organizations to Intentionally Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion!