Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with the question of peace — how to get people to understand each other, how to reduce conflict, how to make everyone’s lives better. This isn’t surprising, given the tumult and repression of the house I grew up in, but that’s a story for a different day. I was fixated on the question of human happiness the way that other kids were obsessed with science experiments, art projects, and boy bands. OK, I actually was pretty smitten by the Backstreet Boys, but the only poster that made the cut for my bedroom wall was a 3x4 print of Gandhi.
By the time I was 14, I was using my study hall periods to visit different classes at my high school and give presentations about “thinking globally and acting locally.” I’d talk to my peers about a social issue — like malaria in Africa or illiteracy in America — and then get them excited about what we could do right where we lived to make a difference — everything from raising money to send mosquito nets overseas to donating books to an under-resourced local library.
Nearly 15 years later, I’ve built a career for myself as a facilitator, educator, and consultant in the field of “Diversity & Inclusion,” helping organizations of all kinds build diverse workforces and nurture cultures where productivity and authenticity are not mutually exclusive. My clients look to me to help them meet their recruitment targets (i.e. x number of people of color or LGBTQ people in this department), to minimize the discrimination these new hires face (lest they end up with another lawsuit or PR crisis), and, increasingly, to build a system of cultural norms that ensure everyone feels welcomed, respected, engaged, and like they can grow within the organization.
If the training had left some people out, the workplace would too.
I used to approach this work the way I was taught by my mentors, and the way everyone else did as well. Diversity & Inclusion programming was primarily focused on large training events, with some consulting and supporting of senior leadership before and after. These trainings were typically based on the premise — albeit often unspoken — that we were there to help the privileged people understand how to treat the marginalized people better. So, we focused on explaining the history of institutionalized oppression, we worked to humanize the “minorities” in the room, we practiced “dos and don’ts” for interacting with different groups, and we sought to build empathy and a sense of connection among everyone.
Many people did indeed leave these trainings feeling more connected, more informed, more prepared to work with people different from themselves. However, when others would express feeling upset, confused, or silenced, I knew something was missing. Many of my colleagues wrote this off as collateral damage — some people, they said, would just never get it. And if a white man left feeling upset, maybe that was a good thing, because lots of people have been upset for a long time.
But those explanations didn’t sit well with me. If the training had left some people out, the workplace would too. I began to search for a different way. I would soon find out that new research on Diversity & Inclusion programs was revealing exactly what I suspected — that trainings that highlighted people’s differences actually reinforced their existing biases and the associated discriminatory behavior, because people still did not have shared strategies for navigating the full spectrum workplace interactions.
While doing the work of humanizing historically excluded minorities, I had been unwittingly dehumanizing others.
During this time, I approached my life the same way as I did my work. I greeted people with true warmth, and I genuinely saw light and potential in everyone. I wanted to help people treat each other well. I believed we all needed to understand each other. But, truthfully, I usually meant, you (a person with historically more access and power than most) needed to understand me (a person with experiences of violence and marginalization).
I lived my life as a pretty typical East Coast liberal. I would passionately launch into Facebook comment monologues, determined to get people to understand how they were hurting others, and I would distance myself from people based on their presumably more privileged identities.
Deep down, I, like so many others, felt scared and misunderstood. In most of the jobs I had as a young adult, I experienced harassment and discrimination — from prying questions about my trans body, to constant misgendering, to sexual harassment and violence. The pain of my marginalization and isolation based on my sexuality and gender identity kept me in a defensive stance. I was a kind and welcoming person, always recognizable by my sunny disposition and smile, but I compartmentalized people: “I could never be real friends with a straight guy…. he just wouldn’t get me.” Whatever that means. It hadn’t occurred to me yet that, even though I understood how social institutions might treat us differently, maybe I didn’t really get him either. I had never thought to ask.
Relying on shame and dehumanization — however subtle or justified — as motivating tools of change will never resolve the patterns of isolation and exclusion we seek to address.
While doing the work of humanizing historically excluded minorities, I had been unwittingly dehumanizing others. No wonder standard Diversity & Inclusion programs aren’t working. Relying on shame and dehumanization — however subtle or justified — as motivating tools of change will never resolve the patterns of isolation and exclusion we seek to address. They created those patterns in the first place. Viewing Diversity & Inclusion as an us vs. them quest to change some people's minds on behalf of others will not create the engaged, connected organizations we seek. It will only continue to amplify the feeling of uneasy disconnection that characterizes so many workplaces and communities today.
The work that many incredible LGBTQ people, people of color, women, and other historically marginalized people have done to legitimize the acknowledgement of our individual pain and institutionalized discrimination is important and invaluable. However, if leaving a Diversity & Inclusion training able to recite our personal and collective histories of oppression back and forth to one another was going to help us get along in community, we would not be in this accelerating state of political polarization and identity-based isolation.
It’s time for a new wave of approaches to navigating our human difference. It’s time to build organizations where difference does not calcify divisions but instead catalyzes connection. It's time to consciously design cultures where people of all identities can thrive.
This work starts with honoring everyone as a whole human, perfectly imperfect, and always completely deserving of love and care, no matter their history. There’s no us or them anymore. It’s only us. Us, you and me, showing up to heal that which holds us back from the sense of belonging we all so deeply crave.