October 2020
VOLUME 39, ISSUE 9

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Features

Diversity Dialogue Broadening Business Perspectives

Excerpt from Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good

The following is an excerpt from Michelle’s new best-selling book, Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good. Reprinted with permission.

Michelle Silverthorn

REALITY CHECK #1: THIS ISN’T A COMFORTABLE BOOK

If you are a White workplace leader, then this book is likely to make you feel very uncomfortable. I’m not going to pat you on the back and say what a great job you’ve done. We have become far too comfortable failing at equity. Too many leaders are OK with saying, “Well, that’s just the way it is!” Or we make the following excuses:

“There aren’t enough qualified people!”

“We don’t have the time to train them!”

“They aren’t applying for the job!”

“We have to hire and hire fast!”

“They wouldn’t have cut it here anyway!”

Let me repeat: those are excuses. They are rationalizations to avoid putting in the hard, self-reflective and often painful work of diversity, equity and inclusion. Leveling the playing field means incurring the wrath of those who have been winning on that uneven playing field all this time. Are you ready for that anger? That resentment? I want you to be honest.

Are you ready to get uncomfortable? Are you ready to be challenged? Are you ready to do more than pay lip service to diversity? Are you ready to be held accountable? Are you ready to put your money where your convictions are? Are you ready to be bold? Be brave? Are you ready to think about the world differently? If you’re not ready then get ready because I want you to change the workplace, and changing the workplace takes hard work. It takes courageous leaders standing up to say, “This may be the way we’ve always done it, but here is the way we are going to change it.”

REALITY CHECK #2: “THEY’RE SO WELL-INTENTIONED”

Do you know how many times I have heard people say that their leadership, their managers or their employees are all “well-intentioned”? I know we do it because we think words like “racism,” “discrimination,” “sexism” and “transphobia” apply only to bad people. They do not apply to good, “well-intentioned” folks. “If you just knew their hearts, you’d know” is the excuse I’ll hear. Well, I can’t know their hearts. Their actions are all I have to go by. Show me the proof of good intentions — because that person who just sent the email excoriating your organization for its lack of gender diversity doesn’t care if your leaders were well-intentioned; she cares about what they did.

“If you just knew their hearts, you’d know” is the excuse I’ll hear. Well, I can’t know their hearts. Their actions are all I have to go by.

Simply put, assuming everyone is well-intentioned prioritizes one person’s comfort over another person’s pain. The focus has to be on the impact of the actions: the homogeneity that results from well-intentioned choices that you and your recruiters have made; the inequity that results from well-intentioned policies that you and your managers have put into place; the exclusion that results from well-intentioned actions that you and your employees have performed.

Look at the data. Look at the numbers. Look at the exit interviews. Look at who is staying and who is leaving. And realize this: falling back on “well-intentioned” will leave you right where you started — focused on the successful majority and how well-intentioned they are, rather than on the marginalized minority and how excluded they have become.

REALITY CHECK #3: I AM BLACK, BLACK, BLACK

This book is written by a Black woman in the American workplace. I will tell a lot of stories about being Black. I will talk about anti-Black racism in America. I will talk about my own journey to antiracism. I will tell my story. That story is from the perspective of a marginalized identity in today’s society, a Black woman in America.

But there are many other marginalized identities. I use terms such as “marginalized” (those who have been historically excluded due to their identity from power structures in their society), “minority” (those who are disadvantaged in relation to the dominant social group, the “majority”), and “person of color” (a person who is not considered White), “BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous and people of color, to acknowledge the unique experiences of discrimination faced by Indigenous people and Black people), knowing that they are messy, imperfect terms that encapsulate millions of people in America at the intersection of particular cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, beliefs, families, histories and stories.

I want to confess this at the beginning because much of the challenge I see with diversity is that we are so nonspecific in our efforts, often deliberately because it is harder to be specific. We speak as if every marginalized professional has the same challenges. It’s also why we use the term “diverse” so we can be broader rather than specific. It is comfortable to be broader; it’s much more uncomfortable to be specific. That’s why terms continue to evolve — for example, using anti-Blackness rather than racism —to ensure that we are specific in what actions we are discussing and what solutions we are putting into place.

I will try to be specific. I am a Black, straight, cisgender 37-year-old immigrant woman without a disability speaking from a Black, straight, cisgender 37-year-old immigrant woman without a disability’s perspective. I constantly work to be inclusive in my examples and in my language, so I want to be honest about my lived experiences from the start. I am writing a book about diversity, but I will speak a great deal about race, specifically about Blackness. I will not wave my hands in the air to distract you while I pretend that my particular lens does not exist. I might not always succeed. That’s why you’re here to hold me accountable.

But I called this book Authentic Diversity for two reasons. First, because “diversity” is still the language of the workplace — for now — and my focus is the workplace. Second, because I get calls from leadership and, to a person, those calls have similar complaints and concerns. Then I talk to their marginalized employees. And, to a person, those calls have similar complaints and concerns — across organizations, across industries, across cultures, across countries, across identities. Their stories about being excluded, overlooked and ignored; about the assumptions made about their competence or lack thereof; about accommodations that cannot be made for them but magically appear for others; about the in-groups that they are not a part of; about the jokes that they have seen sent in emails; about the extra unpaid work they have to do; about the hurtful statements made about them; about the belief that they should be “this” because they look like “that”; about the rules that are never explained to them but that they are expected to compete with; about the competition that is already stacked against them before they even come in the door; about the constant, unending, emotional toll of being a marginalized employee in the workplace.

So no, I cannot and will not speak for everyone. … It’s time to learn the old rules of diversity, the rules that can no longer stand.

Are you ready to change the workplace? Good. So am I. Let’s begin.

Michelle Silverthorn recently sat down for an episode of ALA’s podcast, Legal Management Talk. She discusses the current state of diversity, inclusion and equity and whether a permanent shift is coming to the workplace. Listen here.

 

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