Earlier this year, I attended a conference that convened activists, organizers, nonprofits, and progressive organizations. I heard impressive keynote speeches from many leaders in this space, but one of the most memorable and thought-provoking experiences happened during a breakout session I attended.
During the Q&A portion of a panel, an older white gentleman raised his hand to tell the room about the “reverse discrimination” he had just experienced at the hands of the panel members: three women of color and a Latino man. Shortly before the panel began, he had approached the speakers to share a business proposal — but between greeting the audience members that were filtering in and the fact that the panel was about to start, he wasn’t able to say his piece. The white man concluded that he was being discriminated against. Ironically, the session focused on creating space for people of color — which one of the panelists poignantly pointed out to the aggrieved gentleman.
This encounter took me aback. A white man does not always have the most important voice in a group, but white men are empowered to express their ideas, while others are forced to diminish themselves to fit into space these men have left over — I’ve experienced this myself in professional settings. It is time for companies and organizations to move past diversity and inclusion in name, and move forward with concrete actions that allow all voices to be heard.
Corporate America’s progress so far
The current conversation around diversity and inclusion (also known as D&I) in the workplace tends to focus on recruitment and demographic representation. However, these elements should be considered baseline components of a modern-day organization — no different than offering employees a safe place to work, fair pay, or time off. D&I has become an incredibly popular buzzword where companies self-righteously reflect on their cultural achievements of being inclusive. Companies shouldn’t abandon these efforts, but we must acknowledge that it is no longer revolutionary to celebrate moving (slowly) closer to a demographic breakdown that is more reflective of our population.
Recruiting employees with diverse backgrounds and providing the institutional support for them to succeed in your organization are expected foundations for a 21st century workplace: Employee resource groups, affinity spaces for people of shared identities, have become commonplace; many businesses release some kind of statement on how diversity and inclusion align with their corporate values (18 of the top 20 Fortune 500 companies have dedicated D&I pages on their website); other organizations have gone so far as to share the demographic breakdown of their employee composition publicly and acknowledged where they have fallen short in regards to representation in company leadership, a step we ourselves at Blue State have taken.
Moving beyond diversity & inclusion
I urge progressive organizations — and more specifically the allies that comprise the heart of these organizations — to push past what has already become mainstream. Some suggestions as we attempt to forge ahead:
Recognize how your identity affects your day-to-day interactions.
I carry the privilege and weight of being a young, black woman in a progressive, predominantly white, elite space. I am acutely aware of my identity, and the space I feel it affords me in certain contexts. With each interaction, I must actively fight against biases I’ve internalized of who I think I’m allowed to be at work or what I’ve been conditioned to think is considered “appropriate behavior” in those spaces.
For instance, I’m naturally a vivacious and engaging individual. However, during one of my first professional experiences, I received feedback from my manager that I can often be timid and soft-spoken. Up until then, I’d never heard someone use the words “soft-spoken” and my name in the same sentence. To this day, I have to remind myself that corporate culture wasn’t set up for someone who looks like me, and my understanding of what constitutes appropriate behavior is informed by white-centric and masculine definitions of what it means to be professional. I have to ignore the voice in my head telling me not to speak up or ask questions for fear of feeling perceived as uninformed or otherwise out of place.
If I must be aware of the structures that disempower me, someone with white privilege or male privilege also carries the responsibility of recognizing that the same social forces that limit me empower them to be outspoken or bring their most authentic self to work.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
There is a necessary level of discomfort that comes with the discourse that accompanies any step towards progress. However, there is a difference between the discomfort of hurt feelings and the pain of feeling you are unwelcome in a space.
Too often, when people of color express their grievances about oppressive behavior in the workplace, they are met with dismissive or defensive remarks in response — if not worse. This type of behavior further discourages us from feeling like we can share our point of view and help shape company culture. Instead, allies can respond with additional questions around how they can help support that change. At BSD, the collaborative nature of our work creates a culture where the voice of every team member is not only valued — it’s expected. Combined with our scrappy company culture, this dynamic creates an environment that supports employees bringing forth ideas to help improve our organization.
Know that the burden to create an inclusive workplace does not fall equally on every employee.
Speaking up in the workplace has historically carried a great risk for someone who looks like me — a person of color, more specifically, a woman of color. While any initiative towards more inclusivity must include the perspectives of those excluded in the first place, expecting people of color to design and champion a more inclusive workplace puts an unjust burden on our shoulders. There is already a great deal of emotional labor that goes into how to present and communicate in the workplace. As I make active steps to unlearn trained behavior like code-switching and expressing my ideas with a soft tone to appear less threatening, it is important that allies understand their roles in building a truly inclusive workplace.
Beyond this, I urge allies and those in positions of power to simply be aware of the social forces that empower them to feel more comfortable in corporate spaces, and recognize the societal expectations that women, minorities, and other marginalized groups must conform to in order to assimilate to a space that was fashioned from a white, male cisgendered context. Recognizing and understanding this imbalance is the foundation of anything we build together, and we cannot create a better workplace without your help.
Is your organization contributing to a more progressive future? Could you be doing more? Let’s talk about it.