Recently, I was asked how to start on the path to understanding the issues of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion. These are complex issues that take years to grapple with, and even then, you may never truly understand them. Since I have been asked this question often, I wanted to put down some big-picture ideas.
There are many steps you can take. But first, there are some intellectual changes you should make to place yourself in a good position to make a change:
It’s not me, it’s you: Slavery is one of the most inhumane aspects of human history. A portion of our current American population is on this continent because they are the descendants of slaves. Much of the current white population came to the United States after the Civil War; the population nearly doubled in the second half of the 19th century. These facts set up some complicated issues. White Americans might find themselves thinking (or saying), but my family didn’t own slaves. As an Asian-American whose family came on TWA in the sixties and seventies, I could say pretty categorically that my family didn’t own slaves. But, I wouldn’t. Why? Because arguments about actual ownership are not the point. In the US, the descendants of slaves have faced incredible prejudice and economic hardship from the moment they left the African continent. People who are white have not faced those same hardships, even if say, your Catholic ancestors faced certain prejudices. If you ancestor’s children weren’t sold as possessions, it wasn’t as bad for your people as the slaves. Saying that your family didn’t own slaves is immaterial. There are people in this country who ancestors were own like furniture, and this country is inextricably tied to that terrible fact. What your ancestors didn’t do isn’t the point. The point is what you are doing now.
White guilt isn’t the Trip we need: White privilege is a truth in society. Ceding your privilege by centering others is the best way to assuage your guilt about the privileges you were born with. But, many people with white guilt act in ways that don’t make our racially-problematic society. Guilt is often the reason white people might feel uncomfortable speaking about race or couch their conversations in euphemisms. Guilt might make white people choose to center their feelings about race rather than focusing on the actual injustices of racism. Guilt should not be a way to continue the current oppression; it should be an impetus for change.
Don’t look to Black Saviors; This fight is for whites: The people in power generally are the ones with the most power to change society. People of color have been doing this work for a long time. But, they can only make change up to a point. White people need to think of themselves as change-agents.
Intersectional; not siloed: Diversity, equity, access, and inclusion is not about adding a few people from one minority into the majority. Historically, African-Americans are the most marginalized in America. Often, organizations use the term “diversity” as a code for adding more African-Americans to their community. DEAI efforts have to deal with the ways that African-Americans are positioned in our society (and the breakdown of structural racism in our institutions.) But, DEAI is by definition broader than one racial group. People are marginalized in our society for their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, neurodivergence, nationality, and class. True DEAI efforts need to think of the way organizations deal with all types of differences and therefore require the transformation of processes.
Diversity isn’t like seasoning old dishes; It’s about new meals: Diversity isn’t about adding in a few new folks. DEAI initiatives need to be fundamental reworkings of thought and processes. Adding a couple “gay people” or “black people” isn’t the way to make these changes. You need to question everything that occurs starting with the underlying thoughts about who, what, and whys of your organization.
Listen to people marginalized people, but don’t burden them with your questions: We are taught to ask questions in school. So, asking questions seems like a good way to test your understanding of issues. But, remember life is accumulative. So, your question of your marginalized friend is one of the thousands they have been asked.
Center Others: Attention is not an infinite resource. Take stock of who is getting the most attention. If you were born with more privilege, your voice has mattered more for longer. Use that privilege by centering other less privileged voices. Give someone the center to this argument so that you can learn.
Study like your future depends on it, bc the equitable future does: In the end, the issues of DEAI are about our society as a whole. How can we ensure that all of us in this country have a future? Imagine we are on a life-raft together? If some of us sink, the whole raft is toast. Our country might still be afloat, but if inequity keeps some sectors of our society down, our whole country suffers. With this level of import, you can understand why information is your best way to help improve the future. Learn as much as you can. Read everything. Find voices that are different than your own. Question everything you know. The future is in your hands.
Make mistakes: I can’t tell you the number of mistakes I have made and thought the wrong thing. I still have major blinders thanks to my education and background. If you don’t admit to your biases and faults, you are doomed to maintain your bad behaviors. The only way you can improve is to make mistakes. Learn about other people, but also interact with them. Be truthful about who you are. Don’t pretend to be a different class, race, or gender. But, then, interact with other people. Communicate. Listen and take criticism well. You will speak incorrectly. And, learn from your mistakes.