Diversity Work Means Doing Things Differently

You cannot keep doing the same thing expecting different results

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting a different result. A lot of times we do things unconsciously that have been modeled for us by previous generations. We’re in fact just parroting the same phrases, going through the same motions, doing the same things that we were taught, because it’s easier. You can’t have inclusion and do things the same way when there is a lack of diversity. This is why the paradox is so powerful.

Cognitive dissonance describes our brains’ difficulty processing two seemingly competing pieces of information at the same time. Our brains don’t like paradoxes. Our brains like certainty. Once we first learn something new, unlearning it or replacing it with new information is very difficult to do. This creates significant barriers for those who were taught to be color blind, to just appreciate differences but not talk about the real issues of racism, homophobia, sexism and other dimensions of difference.

Like many others growing up in the Midwest, I was taught US History several times. First in eighth grade, a second time in 11th grade, and again in junior year of college. Each time I learned the exact same narrative about white men creating a place where we were “all equal.” I did not learn about any leaders of color (except for the well-known names and in a whitewashed version of that history), women, people with disabilities, or those that identified as LGTBQ+.

If we don’t learn our full history, we are bound to repeat it.

I now know I was programmed to believe in the myth of meritocracy (hard work pays off) and an apathy towards those that didn’t try as hard. Most of us don’t know what we don’t know, and I have found that it is really difficult to re-learn concepts learned in my childhood, as a middle-aged adult. I’ve had to do a lot of self-education to unlearn those harmful messages that I learned several times during the pivotal years of my life. Replacing existing information in our brains with new conflicting information is not easy. It takes practice, and even then, repetition to rewire the brain.

This next generation should not have to do that amount of work. They should be taught about all people throughout history, the major mistakes we made as a society, and not to oversimplify and whitewash our history with the message that things are better now. When people grow up hearing those messages over and over again, they believe them. It makes it harder to understand the importance of DEI and doing things differently if you think the ways of the past are idealized.

Paradox and cognitive dissonance

A few years ago, I posted a picture of a Dr. Seuss quote on Instagram about curiosity, with the hashtag diversity and inclusion. Many commented that Dr. Seuss was a racist and should never be associated with the words diversity and inclusion. This was before several problematic books featuring stereotypical images and harmful phrasing were banned. At the time, I did not know about this. I only had two Dr. Seuss books at home and thought their messages were inclusive, although not diversely represented. I did my research and sure enough I was wrong to use the hashtag diversity and inclusion. This story illustrates paradox and the cognitive dissonance that accompanies it. When we associate Dr. Seuss exclusively as a racist, it leaves no room for some of the books to not be racist. It’s hard to hold space for those two truths.

Recently, I commented on a LinkedIn post with a picture of two Black male NBA players kneeling during the national anthem with their white teammate standing beside them. All three were touching one another in solidarity. The image alone is paradoxical. The comment I made was that this was a great example of paradox and bracing the “yes and” in the conversation. As a white player, my understanding was that he wanted to support his teammates and also respect members of his family that were in the military and didn’t feel comfortable kneeling, therefore he stood with them.

The white player had a Black Lives Matter shirt on and appeared in the photo to be supportive of his teammates. His Black teammates were embracing him and his show of support. It certainly is thought-provoking and difficult to hold the tension of those opposites. Shame and blame isn’t going to bring anyone into the conversation about DEI. The response to my comment surprised me. People said everything from this is such a typical white person response to how inappropriate and insensitive my comments were about the Black Lives Matter movement. Again, holding the tension of opposites and paradox, is it possible to believe that the white player was showing his support in his own way?

There is no right or wrong answer here. You are absolutely 100% entitled to your opinion. I see this as a “both and” moment and I’ll continue to look for those moments, especially when tensions are high. If we both sit in our prospective corners and are unwilling to listen to each other, or meet in the middle, DEI work will remain slow and tedious. Allies say “yes and” when they disagree with someone. They model paradoxical behavior. They ask if conflicting situations are “both and” opportunities.

What’s next?

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.