Three ideas to help CIS, White Leaders, and Board Members succeed when it comes to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
“Fish did not discover water. In fact, because they are completely immersed in it, they live unaware of its existence. Similarly, when a conduct becomes normalized by a dominant cultural environment, it becomes invisible.”
These are the words of prominent communications theorist and educator, Marshall McLuhan. The quote describes exactly why I and other cis, straight white people in the U.S. sometimes miss seeing or understanding the struggles that people from underrepresented or marginalized groups experience.
When I miss noticing an insult or attack on a woman, person of color, or members of other underrepresented groups, it is helpful for me to remember McLuhan’s words, not as an excuse, but as a humble reminder that because of my cultural conditioning, I AM going to miss things and to double down on becoming more aware.
This very same phenomenon probably explains why – when organizations are working on inclusion diversity, and equity – leaders who are members of the dominant group are often the last ones to see why they need a DEI strategy or why they might need help creating one. “After all,…” they might say, “it’s just a strategy, and I know how to plan as well as anyone.”
But saying “DEI is just a strategy” is like saying “empathy is just listening”. What is missing in both assumptions is the need to feel how others may experience the world in radically different ways than we do. Speaking from my own first-hand experience, it’s that ability to feel and see things through the experience of others that changes everything about how I approach DEI. Yet, after almost 30 years of practicing it, I still underestimate how difficult it can be to, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “…discover the water.”
If you are a member of the dominant or “insider” group, here are a few helpful tips that can dramatically accelerate your effectiveness in championing and supporting DEI in your organization:
Because we were brought up in “the water” of the dominant group we are going to lack some of the awareness or sensitivity to the issues others face as a result of our upbringing.
When I was a cancer patient, friends with the best of intentions would say “you’re going to beat this (cancer), Jim.” The comment rarely made me feel any better. I would say to myself “huh, even my doctors aren’t guaranteeing my cancer will go away; how do they know I’ll beat it?” But when they said something like, “I have no idea what it must feel like to be you, but I can imagine how scary it might be..” I felt like they got me. In other words, when talking about DEI, taking a stance of humility and authenticity is much more helpful – and believable – to my colleagues from marginalized groups.
We need help seeing “the water,” and needing help doesn’t make us weak or wrong or bad; it makes us human. Especially in organizational life, where we assume knowledge is power and our worth is tied to our knowledge, it takes courage to accept help from others. In many cases, there is no way to overcome what we don’t see other than through listening to and believing the stories of disadvantage we hear from others.
In these moments, my mantra is, “I have to do this, and I can’t do it alone.”
When working on DEI, recruit and accept the support and help of facilitators and trusted advisors. You need to be able to trust them because – if they’re good at their jobs – they will probably need to share with you some feedback that will be hard to hear. Good facilitators and advisors know how to communicate difficult feedback while helping you work through your shame or guilt, two natural reactions that can stop DEI’s progress if we ignore them.
Larry Wilson, a mentor of mine, used to say, “If I always do what I’ve always done, I’ll always get what I’ve always gotten.” After years of working with thousands of leaders, Larry and his son, Hersch, realized that what leaders really needed was to challenge their mindsets and assumptions, so they added this addendum: “…and I’ll always do what I’ve always done if I always think the way I’ve always thought.”
As you know, assumptions are tricky – on the one hand, they allow us to process and sort experiences or ”data quickly.” On the other hand, our beliefs can block our ability to notice new data or be open to new learning. For example, do you assume that the only way to learn about DEI is from members of marginalized or underrepresented groups? If so, ask yourself, “Who from within my group might also be able to help me learn about DEI?” and make note of your answers.
The research is in; when properly applied as a mainstream strategy, DEI improves organizational results in myriad ways. Keeping these three ideas top-of-mind helps me be a better partner, sponsor, and leader as a group member who doesn’t sometimes see the water. Try them out and let me know what you think.
*Incidentally, because of my solidly white-collar, middle-class upbringing, I also miss seeing or understanding the experience of other cis, straight white people who grew up in less advantaged circumstances, economically, than I did.