Advancing the D&I Conversation Through Organic Discourse
Recognizing the Opportunities
There is a rapidly emerging HR-adjacent industry developing around D&I. But I don’t want people to think that the increase in diversity professionals, means that everyone else gets to go on break. You, me, the mail clerk, and the uber driver…we all have a role to play in supporting the conversation around D&I in this country. And it doesn’t have to be painful or draining. You don’t have to be a full-time activist or dedicate your twitter feed to diversity hashtags. All you have to do is be honest when you have a chance to express your feelings on the subject, and believe me, the chance will come.
A Chance Facebook Encounter
I don’t want to bury the lead here so I’ll tell you the quick story that inspired this post. I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline and a saw this funny meme that one of my old high school friends posted.
I laughed at the meme because I vividly remembered those plastic nails and just how silly my sister and I looked with the pale peach fingertips and hot pink nails extending from our very brown hands. Without even giving it much thought I made the first comment that popped into my head “And they never made them in brown.” Within moments, another person posted a response to my offhand remark in a way that absolutely moved me to my core: “This makes me sad,” she said. “I never even thought about it. Uggghhh. How ugly to only have the one color.”
The response stopped me in my tracks. It is so easy to forget how widely perspectives vary based on our experiences. At that moment I felt seen, heard, and understood in a way that I didn’t expect to be when I posted my offhand comment. I was also reminded that many people don’t think about issues of equity; not because they aren’t good people, but simply because they don’t ever really need to. I quickly followed up by highlighting how D&I initiatives can change this sort of outcome. She liked my comment and we both went on about our day, but that moment lifted the tenor of my day immensely for a number of reasons:
1. Her comment created an opportunity to share my thoughts on both a problem and a solution to a receptive audience;
2. The vulnerability and candor of her comment positioned her as an ally; and
3. Her comment forced me to process for the millionth time that for every hard-hearted person I run across that is aware yet unconcerned with the disparities and alienating effects that the constructs of colorism and “race” have ; there are others that just simply haven’t been exposed to the perspectives that reveal those inequalities on a relatable level.
Quiet as it’s kept, It is still VERY possible in this country, as a person of visible European descent, to live a full and productive life without ever having to expand their circle of friendships, colleagues, mentors, investors, spiritual leaders, supervisors or peers to include people who do not look like them. It doesn’t even need to be intentional – it is just a bi-product of how the power structure of the country is set up. With a circle of influence that homogeneous, something as simple as a Facebook comment about a child’s toy from the ’80s, can absolutely be enough to spark a light bulb moment. To be fair, I don’t know if that scenario is true for this particular commenter. She may have already been down for the cause and just wanted to show me some public solidarity. Or she could have truly never realized how often toys have historically been created, messaged, and marketed to the exclusion of millions of children as though those children were invisible. Either way, our conversation was started in the most organic and unassuming of forums, and that is, I believe, still the best place to do the relentless, detailed work of advocating for of D&I: Person to person, heart to heart.
So maybe you feel like D&I work is not your job. You are all for it, but you aren’t getting paid as a practitioner, so it’s not your problem. Creating policies, procedures, programming, metrics, and regulations is very important D&I work, but it is not the only work. And if we are concerned with creating a society that is a TRUE meritocracy, where hard work pays off more than ethnic origin, sex, or age, then we are ALL responsible for doing the grassroots work. Just speaking up and letting your voice be heard can create change. It is only within the last 5 to 10 years that I have seen ballet shoes, leotards, and bandaids (among other allegedly flesh-tones items) begin to be manufactured in colors representative of the billions of people in the world that are not tan or peachy in complexion. The idea that what has always been accepted as the color “nude” was not actually nude for most people is not new. My own (still living) grandmother explained how they used to dye their pantyhose darker at home after they bought them. Plus, I can’t even count how many years (as a preacher’s kid) I sat in church wearing “suntan” colored pantyhose that were 12 shades lighter than my actual skin. It is just a reality that we accepted because we were not in the rooms where those decisions were made.
But there is now an acute sense of joy and redemption that I experience when I walk down the pantyhose aisle and see brown sugar, cocoa, nutmeg, and the other variations of nude pantyhose. These changes signal to consumers of color that we are no longer invisible afterthoughts. That is why people say #representationmatters.
Still, it took many voices, building momentum and volume, to change that. Add your voice to the conversation. Someone is going to be moved by you specifically because they respect your opinion, trust, or admire you. It doesn’t take a speech or a dissertation to make someone really think about what life might be like for someone else and want to become a part of the solution. It just takes a willing heart and an eye for opportunities.
For those of us that already feel personally responsible for championing and advocating the advancement of diversity and inclusion, it is very easy to fall into the pragmatic position that we aren’t actually changing people’s minds or hearts, we are just changing the rules. In order to avoid fatigue and burn-out, you almost have to prioritize advocating for better regulations over the more human aspects of advocating for D&I. In fact, I remember Hillary Clinton making this statement during her presidential campaign :
“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws, you change the allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential. ”
Hillary, it seems, has all but given up on the heart-work. And maybe that makes sense for her in the circles she moves in. But that powerful little Facebook exchange I experienced underscored the need to take full advantage of the everyday opportunities to speak up for diversity and inclusion, even when you have no expectation of success at that moment. My hope is that the tiny moment I shared with the FB commentator will stick with her and she will have a heightened awareness of situations that she never gave much thought to before. She only has to relay that conversation to one other person to effectively double the impact of our interaction. I understand that in order to shift industry and society towards equity and inclusion we have to change the rules of engagement; but on other more beautiful and unexpected occasions, we can change a heart, and a willing ally is more impactful than a reluctant rule follower.
I sometimes equate D&I work to treating an aggressive disease (The isms are indeed unhealthy and often deadly -racism, sexism, ageism…). The treatment itself is sometimes uncomfortable, and everyone is a little nervous, having no guarantee that the treatment will cure the disease. It has been a tremendously long, slow, and difficult work just trying to slow the spread of the disease while other forces continue to promote it. But if you and I resolve not to shrink from everyday conversations on the subject, then we are slowing the spread of the exclusionary and implicitly biased behaviors that have long-plagued our society. Someone was pushing this boulder up the hill before we ever got here. So don’t give up. It’s your turn to push.