“What’s your philosophy about diversity, equity and inclusion?” In the process of interviewing candidates for the first DEI Professional Leadership Program, I’ve rightly been asked this question several times. In responding to these smart and thoughtful professionals, I realized that while my philosophy comes across in my articles, talks and consulting work, there is no one place where I articulate my core beliefs and values.
So, here that one place, grounded in my half century of lived experience, the latest science, and professional work over the last 30 years. I offer it as an honest response to anyone curious about my DEI philosophy, and as a provocative stimulus to anyone curious about their own.
- Human diversity is an excellence multiplier, and essential to human evolution. When it comes to cognition, innovation, prediction and problem solving, research is clear that diverse groups produce better results than individuals and non-diverse groups.
- However, diverse groups only produce better results when differences, and the inevitable conflicts they provoke, are effectively managed. Diverse groups only outperform other configurations when there is also inclusion and equity.
- Also, human diversity does not solve all human problems. Some human activities are best executed and managed by homogenous groups. Diversity introduces chaos, conflict and confusion which takes time and skill to navigate effectively.
- DEI is about, and for, all No exceptions. This includes white people, men, straight folks and political conservatives.
- DEI work can, and should, be done by people from all identity groups. No exceptions. After all, dismantling racism is white people’s work, dismantling patriarchy is men’s work, and dismantling homo/transphobia is straight and cis people’s work.
- DEI work should explore all aspects of human identity and difference, including intersectionality. DEI work should never shy away from, or gloss over, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. And it should include multiple additional human differences – especially social class, rural-urban differences, formal education level, neurodivergence and organizational level.
- Therefore, the word “diverse” should stop being used as a proxy term for BIPOC, people of color, marginalized or underrepresented groups or their members. This habit narrows the definition of “diversity” in people’s minds and reinforces the misconception that DEI is only about, and for, people of color, women and/or marginalized groups.
- People of color, women and LGBTQ folks are historically and currently marginalized. And white rural working class and blue-collar individuals, especially in politically conservative states, are increasingly marginalized too.
- All people occupy both power-dominant and power-non-dominant identities. No one person is either oppressor or oppressed, victim or victimizer. We are all both, depending on the context.
- A proselytizing approach to DEI and anti-racism work is harmful and ineffective. Trying to convince others to share your (liberal) beliefs or have the same (liberal) values not only creates more resistance, it reduces diversity! It’s also oppressive, disrespectful, colonial behavior. Thinking your beliefs and values are good, moral and superior doesn’t make your imposition of them on others less oppressive.
- The goal of DEI is to establish sufficient consensus – not unanimity – about appropriate behaviors and shared values, to enable people to live and work in community. The goal is not to establish consensus of (liberal) thought, or 100% consensus about anything.
- Inclusion should not mean assimilation, but mutual Inclusion means equitably valuing what those who would be “included” bring to the table, and making room for that. It also requires those who would be included to adjust to the culture or group they are joining.
- Equity means justice. Equity means accessibility. Equity means access. Equity means shared power.
- While equity serves the greatest number of people, and is therefore better for humans overall, equity does represent loss for those who hold disproportionately large amounts of resources and levels of power. Ignoring or dismissing this fact alienates those who stand to lose and may pose a threat to DEI efforts.
- Cancel culture, calling out, eggshell-walking, thought policing and extreme language policing are deeply destructive and have no place in DEI. Curiosity, compassion and learning are more effective, more humane, and less oppressive approaches to “bad” behavior and relational ruptures.
- Words are important and powerful, and ought to be chosen mindfully. Removing words from language and hyper-policing language is a destructive distraction, and not a substitute for meaningful action. The goal of DEI is not to avoid offense. Some of the most inequitable and oppressive forces never involve an offensive word or behavior.
- Extreme cultural relativism is harmful and ineffective. Exploring the context for someone’s behavior is important, and respect for others’ sovereignty is critical. However, failing to confront “bad” behavior because it’s part of someone’s culture, or out of fear of backlash, harms the overall community and its goals.
- Letting go of proselytizing, cancel culture and extreme cultural relativism does not mean that individuals and groups shouldn’t have healthy boundaries. Clarity about what behaviors are inappropriate (and why) should be clearly and consistently communicated. Corresponding boundaries must be enforced with meaningful consequences when a person or group establishes a pattern of violation and resistance to learning and collaboration.
- Shame is currently underappreciated as a powerful tool to correct “bad” behavior in a human group, and to encourage growth in individuals. However, guilt is a more effective tool than shame. Guilt encourages curiosity, commitment and change, while shame stifles and shrinks.
- While DEI work should not shy away from painful and frightening topics like oppression, it should also focus on what humans have in common. Unity and a sense of shared humanity are essential to navigating differences, healing relational ruptures and creating community.
- Intent does not equal impact. We must be clearer and more honest about our intent. We must also take steps to repair the harm we all inevitably cause. Good intentions do not absolve us of responsibility for our negative impacts.
- Fragility is not unique to white people. While white fragility is a particular type of fragility born of white supremacy, racism and white people’s lack of skill in thinking and talking about race, all people experience fear, grief, rage and fragility when it comes to identity and oppression. Cancel culture, calling out, thought policing, extreme language policing and excessive trigger warnings are symptoms of fragility and victim mentality.
- People are not entitled to a trigger-free, 100% psychologically safe workplace, neighborhood or community. While increased safety for more people is critical to creating a world that works better for more of us, a goal of 100% safety and comfort at all times is neither realistic nor reasonable.
- In DEI work, space must be made for everyone’s fear, grief, anger, etc. But human differences are neither treated nor viewed the same, and not all pain is the same. Hurt feelings have less impact than lost lives and livelihoods. Fear of what “could be” is less valid than fear of what has already happened, and what is
- DEI practitioners must not be expected to be perfect. DEI practitioners are neither gurus nor messiahs, nor should be revered as such. However, we should, be expected to exude excellence, courage and integrity. DEI practitioners should maintain a regular reflective practice to “do the work” in our own lives and walk the talk.
- Being is just as important as doing. Our energy, intentions, attitudes, habits, values, practices and nervous system state affect all aspects of our work. New ways of doing with old ways of being cancel out the power of new ways of doing.
- The scientific method is one of the most robust, reliable ways humans have to determine what is truth. Science informs us about human evolution, the human brain and biology, and what works to meet our needs and help us grow and change. And science is also evolving. There are other ways of knowing and experiencing that science cannot (yet?) explain or measure.
- The body and the non-cerebral (autonomic) nervous system are where most of the trauma, healing, habits and work around DEI must take place. An overemphasis on the brain is incomplete, inaccurate, and an expression of an ancient oppressive belief system that the body is just a vehicle for the (superior) head and its functions. The truth is that humans are primarily bodies, which the brain helps us use and regulate.
- Unconscious biases cannot, and should not, be eliminated from the human brain. Unconscious bias training is a waste of time and money that would get better results by changing inequities in systems, processes, norms and culture.
- Examining the use and abuse of power is a critical element in DEI work that’s usually missing. Like any natural force, power isn’t inherently bad or wrong. However, it must be identified, interrogated, and shifted if necessary. Many of what are often viewed as characteristics of white supremacy are actually characteristics of generic oppression, and power-over hierarchies.
- The corporatization of DEI is dangerous and oppressive. DEI work should not be used as a tool of oppression – such as getting employees and teams to produce more for less. The modern U.S. workplace, especially in the corporate sector, is already inhumane in its expectations, workload, false sense of urgency and false sense of scarcity.
- Training should be the last solution in DEI work, not the first. Inequitable and exclusive systems, processes, habits and structures require the first, and most enduring, focus. Organizational culture and leadership are essential, and do not require training. DEI should be driven by all levels of leadership, from the top down, and, just like budgets and finance, not relegated to just one office or individual.
- DEI cannot, and will not, repair a toxic organizational culture or lack of effective leadership. Both need to be addressed before, or concurrently with, any DEI work.
- First, do no harm. It is better to do no DEI work at all than to do it poorly.
- Black Lives Matter. This should not be a controversial statement, and it ought to be true.
- Climate change, empire decline and extinction threat are real and an important backdrop to DEI work today. At best these shifts demand an expanded notion of who the stakeholders are in DEI work. At worst they may render it moot.
This is my DEI philosophy and therefore not open to debate. However, I hope mine has demonstrated the importance of having a philosophy, clearly communicating it, and acting in integrity with it. I also hope it’s sparked your own fire of curiosity, clarity and commitment!
So what is your DEI philosophy?