“Do you break down different types of people and what they are like?”
Because I focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion as a pillar in my company culture consulting practice, this is a question I’m asked regularly, especially before designing and leading trainings.
The question often comes from a good place. The asker believes that the barrier to achieving equity in companies is a lack of understanding of our differences. If we could just understand what it means to be black or disabled or non-binary or any other category that doesn’t overlap with ours, then we’d better navigate relationships.
But as much as I understand where this question comes from, my answer is always “No.”
I don’t even like this question.
I especially don’t like what it implies– that short primers on each “type” of person will be enough to understand huge segments of the world’s population.
I’d struggled to articulate these ideas fully until I picked up a copy of Tommy Orange’s masterwork There There, which tackles the complex and interlinked experiences of city-dwelling Native Americans — Urban Indians — in Oakland.
In the opening pages, he writes:
“We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of the copy of the image of an Indian in the textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image.”
I could write about the many reasons I don’t like a category-based approach to DEI: the research showing that focusing on categories deepens bias, the awkwardness and exclusiveness of leading sessions where the identity groups being dissected are minorities in the room, the even greater awkwardness and presumptuousness of talking about an identity group’s experiences without belonging to said identity group, or even just the fact that focusing on individual categories denies the reality of intersectionality.
I stand by all these arguments. I use all these arguments. But at the end of the day, the reason I don’t like this question or this approach is because of this idea of being “reduced to a feathered image.”
We are all interconnected in our humanity, and we will all feel the effects of pain, joy, death, love, and so much more. But that doesn’t mean we’re all the same, not as humans and not in identity groups. To talk about a person in terms of just one social identity denies them the right to a full individual identity, one shaped by different experiences, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and so much more.
I don’t want to become the authority on issues of social identity if it means reducing identity to two dimensions. Honestly, I’m not even qualified to be an authority on social identity at all.
So what, then, do I do?
My trainings focus on the many structural problems that put underrepresented groups at a disadvantage and the core skills and competencies we can build to help address disadvantages meaningfully in the workplace as individuals, teams, and organizations.
I often say that when it comes to DEI, I’m more interested in helping people take the steps to be the best versions of themselves in the future than confronting them with their worst selves today. I will tell you how you contribute to the conditions that silence or exclude others, but only enough to push you towards behavioral change, which is what my practice takes seriously.
I am the first to admit that this can come across as optimistic, starry-eyed, and soft on bad actors. But my goal is change, and I’m a pragmatist about how to get to that change. I am almost never talking to “bad apples,” but instead to the bystanders who need someone to tell them what to do and give them the permission to go do it.
This approach is not without limitations. There is so much value in understanding lived experiences, especially from those we deem unfamiliar. It’s how we build the empathy we need to see people as they are, to see opportunities for behavioral change and sustain it on our own.
We do need to understand different social identities, but not in this framework of “what type are you?” so much as “who are you?” Yes, this is very individual and hard to scale, but it’s also the best tool we have for mutual understanding and appreciation.
Later in There There, a woman reflects on what disempowered Natives could do in the face of systemic injustice and silencing, coming away with, “And so what we could do had everything to do with being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories.”
We don’t need category definitions, we need individual stories that form interlinking, sometimes corroborating and sometimes conflicting composites. And they need to come from the individuals who are living these stories.
My next step is to graduate from sharing my personal stories as a means of building empathy, to surface even more from those around me and make sure I bring people into my rooms who have stories that need telling.