Diversity is Only the Beginning
Inclusivity Requires Daily Actions
Lawyers and judges of color are often asked to share personal stories of when we have experienced racism, implicit bias, and microaggressions in our professional lives. It’s a fraught request. It assumes the audience understands what racism, implicit bias, and microaggressions are and believes that they are real. It also assumes that the audience will accept us as reliable historians of what happened and its impact.
When we agree to share a personal story, we invariably open ourselves up to backlash, often challenged with “that didn’t happen” or “you must be misinterpreting what happened.” Aside from disbelieving the first-hand account of someone who was there in favor of the assessment of someone who wasn’t, these responses shift the focus away from the impact of the experience and away from how we can do better in developing inclusive organizations—the purported purpose of soliciting the personal story. The vulnerability in sharing these stories is heightened when, like here, the story will go through an editing process. I wonder, will there be a person of color at the editing table who is well-equipped to ensure that edits best convey, and do not inadvertently thwart, the point of publishing the story?
Despite all this, I, and many like me, choose to share our experiences in the hope that we have moved beyond telling these stories solely for shock value. We share them in the hope that they will be a learning tool—helping others to identify biased behavior and respond productively.
Many individuals and organizations, but not nearly enough, have committed to learning these skills. And the results are in: organizations with inclusive cultures are three times more likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes. There’s also a broader movement happening—book clubs, townhalls, and countless Zoom chats about allyship are plentiful. I hope sharing my story helps people put these tools and concepts to work to create inclusive environments.
So, my story.
I was a woman of color serving on a majority-white board of a majority-white organization. (The identity of the organization doesn’t matter; I have lived similar situations many different times in many different contexts.) The organization had presented an issue implicating racial profiling and did so in a way that I thought was problematic. I shared my perspective with the organization’s leadership. My perspective was otherwise unrepresented and one I was uniquely positioned to share. I included multiple supporting articles and studies and asked leadership to share this alternative perspective with the organization. My concerns were dismissed by leadership as insignificant, and the message conveyed by the deeply biased (in my view) programming was left unchallenged. Unfortunate, but not surprising.
Afterward, I wrote a letter explaining that the organization’s lack of meaningful engagement with me about why I thought the presentation was so harmful to my community—the community I was supposed to represent on the board—meant that I could not in good conscience continue to participate in the organization. My resignation was accepted without comment other than a form letter: sorry to see you go, if you change your mind in the future, let us know.
The message I received was clear. The organization wanted “diversity,” but wasn’t interested in recognizing, much less engaging with, a diverse perspective when one was shared. This is sometimes called performative diversity. Diversity for show, not substance.
It’s pointless to recruit diverse individuals to participate in an organization and then refuse to engage with the divergent voices and experiences they bring. Worse, it is exploitative. It leverages the diverse person’s status by presenting the appearance of inclusion when none actually exists. Ultimately, diversity is exploited to perpetuate the status quo—a status quo that will continue to marginalize diverse voices.
Performative diversity happens because organizations pursue diversity without articulating or understanding why it’s important. The value of including diverse individuals on a board or in an organization is that they bring different voices, perspectives, and ideas that are inherently beneficial to the organization. I’m reminded of a famous quote by Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Similarly, diversity must be coupled with the substantive inclusion of those diverse voices in the organization’s work.
So, understand that diversity is only the beginning. When diverse members of your organization bring concerns to you, engage with them. This doesn’t mean deferring to every concern or idea a diverse individual raises. Instead, engage, listen, and try to understand where they’re coming from. Have the uncomfortable conversation. Be open to the possibility that the person may be challenging an unconscious bias. And appreciate the leap of faith underrepresented people take when they do bring up a concern.
Doing all of this is hard. A natural tendency toward defensiveness abounds. That’s totally understandable. In trying to get it right, we all make mistakes. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is how we respond to those mistakes. Do we retreat into ourselves, afraid to engage with people who don’t share our experiences out of fear of saying the wrong thing, making the wrong assumption? Or do we trust that there is real value in crediting, understanding, and responding to perspectives born from different and unfamiliar life experiences, even when we do it imperfectly?
I hope it’s the latter, and it’s the reason I’ve shared this story.
There are plenty of readings, discussions, and monetary profit being made around implicit bias, diversity, and inclusivity initiatives. That’s fine. But if we’re paying attention, we have opportunities almost every day to put into action all that we study and intellectualize.
1. Bourke and Dillon, “The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths,” Deloitte Rev. (Jan. 2018), https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-22/diversity-and-inclusion-at-work-eight-powerful-truths.html.
2. See id.
Many individuals and organizations, but not nearly enough, have committed to learning these skills. And the results are in: organizations with inclusive cultures are three times more likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.