What You Need to Know to Talk Actively About Diversity

Pitfalls to watch out to talk candidly about diversity

It has always been the right time to talk about diversity, yet given the  global pandemic and racial justice movements worldwide, it is especially important for allies to join the conversation, or risk being alienated or left behind.  Yet, there are many fearful allies.  They are afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing diversity wrong.

There are no perfect allies.

White Male Ambivalence

According to Boston Consulting Group, “worldwide, our data shows that among companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% report progress. Conversely, among companies where men are not involved, only 30% show progress.”  

This data shows at the same time the majority group, mostly white men who are decision makers in most organizations, are fearful of joining the diversity conversation at the precise time they are most necessary for positive change. 

It is necessary to get the majority group on board with diversity and inclusion because without them we won’t go far.  Diversity numbers are stagnant at best over the last decade with much focus on diversity and inclusion.  It’s not that the effort hasn’t been there, it’s that the efforts have been led by those that experience diversity and are the most marginalized.  It’s no surprise that most DEI leaders of organizations are women of color. 

One of my favorite pastimes is talking to white men about diversity.  Sometimes they cringe, sometimes they openly embrace it, but almost always they realize how much learning is necessary.  Like many DEI practitioners, I have studied diversity for years and understand the terms and inclusive language.  Diversity is like a foreign language to white men.  They simply haven’t had to learn it.  They feel like an outsider and that feels strange to them.  For those that experience diversity, of course being an outsider is nothing new. 

What if we empathize with the majority group and help them learn?  What would be possible? 

White Male Epiphanies

I call it the white male epiphany.  It’s the moment when white men realize that they have privilege and access to power that others do not.  It doesn’t mean they didn’t work hard to get to where they are.  By mere association with the majority group who tends to make most of the decisions and has access to the most wealth and power in the world, they simply inherited strengths by association.  Many in the majority group feel shame when they first discover this.  It’s painful to think that the world’s not equal and that somehow you had an advantage that others do.  Perhaps even the guilt of not helping others as much as you could. 

The good news is that privilege is a chance to help others that don’t have it.  The “P” word is not a bad word.  It means that you can be helpful to somebody else.  It means you can open doors for others, and can amplify other’s voices.  You can be a safe place for someone to share something hard with you.  That’s what allies do.

Once white men get the wake up call, they often make the mistake of instantly going into rescue mode. There’s no need for white nights or white saviors in the complex gender and race conversation.  Instead, what’s generally most helpful is listening, learning, and reflecting.  Action is also necessary, but only after the learning has happened first.  Without committing some time to learning about the issues, the vocabulary, the proper questions to ask, you risk showing up making a big mistake.  Then, you experience the shame spiral all over again. 

It is the intentional, consistent small steps overtime that truly make a difference. 

Baby Steps

Allyship is a journey, not a destination.  The good news is That there’s always more to learn.  The bad news is there’s always new things to learn.

  •  Embrace paradox.  Diversity work is a paradox.  Paradox means, “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.”  That means that we can hold space for both truths.  Both and is possible.  It is rare that someone is exclusively a good person or bad person.  There is room for ambiguity.  People can have different perspectives and both feel right.
  • Find comfort in discomfort. There is no easy way to have this conversation. You will feel vulnerable, you will feel shame, and mistakes will happen.  Be forgiving of yourself and others.
  • Stay on the journey.  It’s easy to get excited about diversity when you have an epiphany and let it fizzle out after a month or two.  People are watching.  If you stop reading the books, sharing your ideas, and asking questions, people will notice.  We’re all modeling behavior everyday as signals to others of what we expect from them as well.

If you liked this post, check out my Next Pivot Point podcast.  We have over 100 interviews with diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders all over the world.  Be an ally and leave a review on Google Podcasts – it helps other allies find it.