Talking, or not talking, about diversity, equity, and inclusion

Over the past few years, against the backdrop of all the tumult and polarization in our country at the moment, an increasingly number of my friends and colleagues have been talking to me about “doing more” with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion at their respective organizations and companies. (To be clear, these are three distinct and inter-related concepts. To define them here would take up a lot of space, and is beside the point of this piece, so I refer you to this, which strikes me as reasonably on-target although not perfect.)

What does the “doing more” encompass? Usually, it involves bringing in consultants to facilitate conversations, sometimes for multiple days, for people to learn about different dimensions of, and organizational practices related to, diversity, equity, and inclusion. And then follows some sort of commitment, expressed through goal-setting and action planning, of how to be better about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

I’ve been fascinated by the anecdotes people have shared with me about how these conversations are going, and heartened, also, by the fact that these conversations are taking place at all. For most of my career, we didn’t have these conversations in the workplace. I worked at organizations where the majority of staff could safely be described as holding liberal/progressive views about social change, equity, and justice, and maybe that’s why we didn’t talk about these issues—we assumed that we all held the same shared goals with respect to equity and justice and therefore, no need to talk about these things, we just needed to make progress. (In retrospect, breathtakingly naïve and shortsighted of us, but isn’t everything, with hindsight?)

I was an active contributor to the not-talking-about-it culture. In my defense, I was raised to not talk about these issues, ever. My parents came to America from Korea in the late sixties, my sister and I were born in the United States, and the unwavering messages we received from our parents were: Assimilate, dominate, succeed. (There is a reason why neither of us are fluent in Korean.) Although my memories of my childhood are mostly happy (lots of friends and lots of books and wandering in the woods), it was also a very white, rural area, and we were not insulated from incidents of racism. I remember being called a “Chink” repeatedly, of being told to “go back to where I came from,” of horrified exclamations from my friends when they glimpsed the foods fermenting in our refrigerator. Even the kindly-meant comments stung a little: like when it was suggested to me, more than once, that I go to the prom with the only other Korean-American person in my high school class because we’d “make such a cute couple,” as if we were somehow destined to be together because of our ethnic backgrounds.

So with that history, it is most exciting to find out that these days, I do want to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, having learned so much at my most recent job and from paying close attention to the latest articles, research, practices, etc. being talked about and shared through multiple platforms. I want to talk about why we’re all talking about these issues. I want to talk about what we’re learning, and I want to talk about the moments of insight and discovery and healing, and the moments of trauma and pain and conflict, and how we fortify ourselves with the former, and move through and beyond the latter. So we can respect and celebrate our differences, our commonalities, in our workplaces and in our lives and gathering places, too.

Talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion is what this piece was supposed to be about. But every time I start shaping this piece in my mind, do you know what happens? Terrible, terrible shit happens. Most recently, Jussie Smollett, a talented African-American actor and singer who was assaulted in downtown Chicago. The week before that, a bunch of boys in MAGA hats—which in my mind, are indistinguishable from the white hoods worn by others in our nation’s history—grinning at a Native American elder during a demonstration. Before that, seemingly endless reports of people calling in the police on black people who are simply going about their lives, as they have an utter and absolute right to do. And of course, the heartbreaking murders of black men, sometimes in the most unbelievable of circumstances, like when they are entering their own homes.

These terrible events can have the effect of derailing any thoughts of hope, optimism, or insight that I could possibly hold in my heart, let alone offer to the world at large, about what I’m learning about equity and tolerance and the struggle for justice and what others might be learning, too.

In January 2017, I participated in an incredible training on diversity, equity, and inclusion and there was a moment when one of the lead facilitators was talking about structural racism and modern oppression—meaning, the behaviors of the oppressed and the oppressors in today’s society. But then she paused, and said thoughtfully: “I have been wondering, actually, if we are at an extraordinary intersection in time when we not only have to consider the structures and practices of modern oppression, but also consider the structures and practices of old-fashioned oppression—acts of violence and hate towards groups that we have not seen since the first iterations of the civil rights movement, and the struggles that followed.”

I cannot stop thinking about her observation, which felt at the time, and still does, agonizingly true. That for many of us who were brought up in eras of not talking about these issues, we are going through overlapping and concurrent development processes. We are not only trying to figure out our own levels of awareness and woke-ness, we are also witnessing and processing truly horrific events of violence and murder and an ongoing indifference to human suffering, based on baseless, fear-driven interpretations of who does or doesn’t belong.

I’ve met people who, as young activists in the days of old-fashioned oppression, would not hesitate to jump into a car or on a bus and go to wherever the action was happening. To volunteer, to organize, to show up. I admire these people tremendously and I ask myself why I haven’t done the same. Is it because they were young and I am not young, and have multiple life responsibilities they do not? Is it because I serve my activism, these days, through donations and writing, instead of marching on the street? I do not know.

But I do know, in my multiple attempts to write this piece and failing to do it, that one of the greatest enemies I am combating is paralysis. I have posited on social media a few times that I view the strategies of the current administration to be twofold: one, crank up the volume of corrupt, illegal acts to the highest possible level. This is a strategy of simply outrunning or overwhelming your competition—as if a 400-pound sumo wrestler simply decided to sit on a flyweight boxer to win a match, in complete disregard for any conventions or rules or what referees or judges might be trying to enforce (no offense to actual sumo wrestlers intended, they are among the most graceful and gracious of athletes). Two, cultivate indifference to the horrific events taking place. This second prong of the strategy is largely communications- and messaging-oriented, and it requires heavy trafficking in platitudes, false sincerity, and skillful manipulation of our darkest emotions: fear, rage, and anguish.

With either prong of the strategy, you can see how paralysis could occur. That we could be so engulfed in the hate and sheer evil of what’s happening, so completely outraged by the constant stream of platitudes and false claims, that we could doom ourselves to saying and doing nothing.

That so many haven’t gone silent, that so many activists are galvanized rather than paralyzed these days, that we had more women enter Congress than ever before, is what keeps me going. Like I do with members of our armed forces, I thank activists and reputable journalists and conscientious elected officials every single day for their service. And I long for the days when we can actually draw breath and take stock of what we are learning about ourselves, our country, our organizations, when it comes to diversity, and equity, and inclusion. When we can celebrate the moments of progress, grieve for the victims of oppression, and then set our jaws, and aim to do better, always, moving forward.