Written by Cheryl Ingram PhD
Fifteen years ago I sat in a conference and listened to this round table discussion full of scholars, business people, and a facilitator who addressed issues of diversity and inclusion. The conversational topics covered multiple components of diversity (race, sex, gender, etc) and overall how discrimination manifest in education and work spaces. When I left the conversation, I was 20 years old and ready to change the world. There was one problem, I had a wealth of information, and no idea what do with the new knowledge I had acquired. I had no idea of what my next step was, where to begin or finish. I was afraid that with this knowledge and no action to support it I could fail. But fail at what exactly?
The last sentence of the first paragraph represents a societal paradigm when we think, talk, and practice diversity and inclusion. It is as if they, diversity and inclusion that is, are the new buzzwords, the phrase everyone wants to hear, it makes people feel good, empowered, and dare I say….AFRAID. I don’t question that we live in a world that is populated by people who see a need for change, yet the first place we forget to start the process of change is in the mirror.
It’s like that old saying of we point our index finger at the person, place, or thing causing the problem while the other fingers are addressing the one thing we sometimes fear, changing ourselves. Diversity and inclusion cannot exist without self-reflection. The same institutions at which we point our fingers, are the institutions that have created meaning for many of us, taught us our cultural norms (schools, church, television, media, friends, etc). The most difficult part of understanding how to develop and implement diversity and inclusion is seeking to understand and respect perspectives outside of our very own attitudes, morals, and values. They make up the societies that we live in, the same societies that have created our biases towards people.
The concept that “we fear what we don’t understand” has an interested meaning. I relate this to unconscious/implicit bias. When these things surface we sometimes don’t understand fully why they exist. For example, if you say a racial or homophobic slur. People who are more self-aware will ask themselves how could I have such ugly and or hateful thoughts. Where did those thoughts even come from and how can they exist in my mind? Well newsflash, they exist because somewhere in your life you learned them whether directly or indirectly through an interaction with someone or something. We begin to fear that those thoughts exist so we don’t speak about them, we remain silent out of fear.
Silence exist in multiple layers:
Layer 1: The verbal silence/neutrality: if I say nothing, no one will know how I feel. I’m not contributing to the problem.
Layer 2: The actionable silence: I will speak up and voice my opinion but I’m not going to physically contribute to any possible solutions. I have done enough by speaking out and that is as far as my advocacy goes.
Layer 3(the silencer): Involuntary silenced/the practice of silencing others: This layer usually exist when someone with more power or influence has decided to use that power to silence your voice. This can happen in multiple ways.
I refer to these levels of silence because they are a result of the fear. Last year I attended a panel on diversity and inclusion and I watched people in the crowd stand up and ask the experts what we (the participants and community leaders) can do to solve the issues we were discussing once again in the areas of discrimination that manifest in education and work spaces. I will remind you that this was the same discussion that took place 15 years ago. There were no solutions being given. Only one speaker, out of the five, had the courage to say, I don’t know the answer to how we solve these issues. The presence of actionable silence was real. There is this unspoken belief perpetuated by our fear that if we fail at implementing diversity across our businesses we are bad people. We approach it with a caution as a society because no one wants to be the bad person who screwed up the diversity initiative. We proceed with caution and this causes hesitancy and sometimes results in nothing being done at all. I challenge the reader of this article to approach the issues you see of diversity and inclusion in your personal and professional spaces with respect and grit.
My perspective is that diversity and inclusion doesn’t need more dialogue to discuss the problems. If we continue down the path of just dialogue, we will be here again 15 years later, in dialogue. We need action, solutions, and attainable deliverables set to measure success. I’m not against discussing the problem, I am against ONLY discussing the problem. We live in the most technically advanced time of our lives, we invent new apps, devices, etc to solve many problems. We need to take the same approach with diversity and inclusion. Create and implement the solution. I believe some companies and organizations are putting diversity and inclusion into practice. There is still a very long way to go for others. Creating a diversity and inclusion statement to put on a job description or for an employee manual is merely scratching the surface, keep going.
My mentor used to say to me, keep digging. You will eventually find an answer to your problem. I say the same thing to any Directors of Human Resources, VPs or Directors of diversity and inclusion. Work with your companies to not see diversity as a separate department. It has to be embedded across functional teams. If you’d like more information, please reach out, I am happy to help.
I am a firm believer that the development and implementation of sustainable diversity and inclusion practices will not happen overnight. It takes time to create organizational, internal, and external changes. I am talking years, decades, and perhaps centuries. I also believe that we have had progression as a society, but we can do more.