I was nicely challenged in a recent interview to share how and why I came to care about diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI).
My short answer was, and is, that DEI is simply the right thing to do: that *everyone* deserves to be heard and respected, and to feel like they belong (especially in a workplace environment!). And the world is better in multiple ways if everyone can contribute: we all know something that no one else does.
But articulating a longer answer, my own ‘how and why’, was a struggle. I realized while trying to answer that no one had ever asked me before. And I’ve been so focused on learning more and finding ways to help that it hadn’t occurred to me to reflect on, or share, my how or why. On the spot, the longer answer felt hard because there are so many things I’ve seen and heard over so many years (more than could fit into the whole interview timeslot!) They generally fall into two clusters:
- Public stories (news and books) of outrageous bigotry and injustices – which I could certainly list and share
- Personal stories of disrespect and microaggressions and conscious & unconscious bias that I’ve witnessed and experienced, from and with family and friends, feeling ‘othered’ and seeing them treated as ‘other’ – stories which I mostly don’t have the right to share.
My personal stories encompass religion, gender discrimination, birth defects, medical/mental conditions, use of a wheelchair, sexual preference, neurodivergence, race, skin color, language, education level, hearing impairment, vision impairment, speech difficulties, language and accent. In short, they include almost everything that shows up in company diversity statements and at the end of job descriptions reassuring candidates of non-discrimination, and include some things that aren’t.
On reflection, I realized that some of the people I grew up with also witnessed those experiences and shared some (not all), yet even today they do not value DEI and social justice. How have I ended up caring about DEI enough to start doing something about injustices, while they have not? Is there a threshold which my cumulative experience surpassed, while theirs did not? And I have to wonder: if not for my personal experiences, would I have even cared about the big public stories?
- If I would have cared anyway, then
(1) the personal stories aren’t my why, and
(2) it raises the further question of why, clearly, not everyone cares in the absence of (enough) personal experiences. If personal experiences aren’t the key differentiator in who cares about DEI and acts on it, and who doesn’t, then what is?
- If I only cared because my personal experiences primed me to be empathetic to the public stories, then it doesn’t bode well for getting society to address bias, because:
(1) in order to for society to want to do something about bigotry, more of society will have to first suffer from negative bias (more total harm in the world)
(2) the most privileged people who control society never will care because they won’t have enough of those negative personal experiences,
(3) as more people suffer, care, and act to address bigotry, suffering will decrease, and fewer people may reach the threshold that makes them care about addressing bias, and this vicious cycle may repeat ad infinitum.
Having said all that – none of this is an excuse for not supporting DEI; it’s still the right thing to do.
But why isn’t the short answer enough? [Why] do we humans seem to need to see, hear, or live a certain threshold of personal experiences of being ‘othered’ to drive our DEI why? … If it would actually help build empathy among more humans, I’m open to sharing some of my personal stories, although I’m not sure even now if I give a useful, concise answer without violating the confidences and privacy of people I care about. That will need a lot of thought.
Even so, I’m not sure it will make a difference. Maybe building awareness of more people to be above the threshold isn’t the answer; maybe lowering the threshold is. Not sure how to do that – any ideas?
And I’m curious … has anyone ever asked you how and why you care about #DiversityEquityAndInclusion? How do you answer? What is your DEI why?