by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar
Last summer, the death of George Floyd in the U.S. was a resounding wake-up call against police brutality, racism, and systemic oppression. It got people talking about these issues like never before — online, at home, and in workplaces around the world.
One year later, however, there is still much more work to be done.
A recent survey of more than 1,500 workers in the U.K. found that 40% of respondents were afraid of saying the word “Black” when talking about race at work. One in five also use the word “diverse” as an umbrella term while referring to people of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, genders, or disabilities.
It appears that many of us are still scared about what we can or cannot say at work — and too often, this stops us from having difficult, but necessary, conversations. In the survey, around 27% of respondents said they pretend that they aren’t listening when people talk about sexuality at work, and 16% excuse themselves when the topic of age comes up.
Further, the communities that “diversity and inclusion” are most meant to support reported feeling excluded from these discussions. Black professionals who engaged in conversations about race felt they were not heard as much as their white colleagues and were frustrated by the lack of progress made. Similarly, 63% of non-binary and 33% of genderqueer professionals said they felt excluded from conversations about gender.
Speaking about diversity may be hard and uncomfortable, but frankly, the discomfort that so many of us dread is what helps us make progress. When we work through that feeling, instead of avoiding it, we push ourselves to reflect, challenge our biases and perspectives, and become more intentional about creating spaces where everyone feels welcome.
The question, then, is: How do we get over this fear of conversations around diversity, and create safe and inclusive spaces for them to take place?
To get some clarity, I reached out to Asad Dhunna. Asad is the founder of the U.K.-based consultancy firm, The Unmistakables, that commissioned the report.
Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar: When I read the report, it seemed like a lot of the fear people had around discussing diversity came from their confusion around language — as in what is correct or incorrect to say in various situations. Would you say this is true, and if so, why does language matter so much?
Asad Dhunna: Language plays a huge role in how we understand and feel about ourselves and the world around us. However, in the last few years, language has also evolved very quickly.
For instance, let’s talk about the word queer. In the 1960s and ’70s, this word was used as an insult towards someone who identified as gay or lesbian. In general, it had a lot of negative connotations. But, in the past few years, the word queer has been reclaimed. Some people in the LGBTQ+ community now use it to express themselves and are comfortable with it, while others may not want to be called queer due to their relationship with its history and meaning.
For people who don’t consider themselves members of the communities they are discussing — in this example, people who don’t identify as queer — this might feel confusing and leave them unsure about what they can and cannot say in certain discussions. People who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ might have fears around making an offensive mistake. It’s very easy for people, especially at work, to go down that route and put the blame on language, saying that it’s either too frivolous or too complicated.
But I personally don’t think that’s true. It’s only by educating ourselves and engaging in these conversations that we can get over such fears.
The more efficient and productive workplaces are the ones that help their employees and teams understand why language matters when we talk about diversity, what inclusive language is, how to use it, and importantly, how educating yourself creates a culture that allows continual learning rather than fear.
Let’s talk about the word diverse. Why is it so unhelpful?
We often hear companies say they want to hire diverse employees and create diverse cultures. But what does it really mean when someone says diverse? Are they talking about different genders? Sexualities? Ethnicities?
For instance, BAME (Black, Asian, minority, and ethnic) is a popular acronym used in the U.K., and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) is similarly popular in the U.S. LGBTQ+ is popular worldwide. However, when you look closely, these acronyms simply refer to people who are not white, who are not cisgender, and who are not straight. They end up telling us what we’re not — as opposed to who we really are.
When we frame identities as what they are not, it can reinforce the narrative that these identities are a minority or less than the dominant identity. It creates a feeling of us versus them.
Moreover, using a blanket-term for identities can conflate our experiences. The truth is that being an Asian person in the U.K. or the U.S. is not the same as being Black, and if we use catchall terms and phrases, then we miss vital nuances
Right. It reminds me of a statistic I read in the report. It said around 27% of people feel excluded from conversations around D&I because of their identity. What mistakes are we making — and what should we NOT do?
Take the term “diversity hire.” Using that word without understanding what it means is a mistake. That word often comes with a loaded social connotation that this person has been hired to simply fill a quota. Even when it’s unintentional, it leads to unconscious biases about this person. Basically, it takes away from the skills, talents, and strengths that this individual brings to work. This kind of microaggression is also why marginalized groups continue to be absent or feel excluded from D&I conversations.
It’s also why being intentional and specific about language is so important. If you want to talk about police brutality against the Black community, say that. If you want to hire more women at work, say that. Your aim should be to center the experiences, struggles, and trauma of a particular community — and not yourself. When people feel seen and heard, they are much more likely to participate in conversations and voice their views. When they’re not, they’ll take themselves out of the conversation.
You briefly spoke about how language is evolving. Can you explain what that means?
I say that language is evolving because there’s no end point that we need to get to. You can’t read a dictionary, learn words, and perfectly speak a language. Keeping up with language is about constantly updating your vocabulary, knowing that words and contexts change all the time, and being okay with it.
Language is always going to evolve — and so should we.
I often equate diversity to where digital was a decade ago. If you think about it, technology fundamentally shook up the workplace. Words like mobile, cloud, virtual, remote, etc. were new, and we didn’t really know what they meant. That language of digital didn’t just change how we spoke to each other. It also changed business models and introduced new ways of working.
Some of the challenges we faced in adapting to a digital workplace are what we are seeing now with diversity and inclusion — especially in terms of what diversity looks like at work and the new structures and processes that organizations must focus on to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Okay, since language is evolving, I’m assuming that what’s acceptable keeps changing with time. How do we keep up with it? Do you have any tips or strategies on how to be mindful of these linguistic changes?
One place to start is to speak to people within specific communities to understand the current debates and discussions around language or identities. For instance, there is still an ongoing debate around the right way to talk about disability. While some prefer “people with disabilities,” others may lean towards, “disabled people.”
There are also generational differences about how people reclaim or discard terms. So, there is no universal consensus on how people identify.
The best strategy, then, is to ask the individual how they want to be identified and ask yourself how that challenges your current preconceptions or understanding. You can also read up as much as possible on certain terms and their evolution. Look up what slurs were used 10 years ago, what they meant for people of a particular community, how people in that community view those words now, and whether or not it’s appropriate for you as a non-member to use that term at all. Make the effort to understand how oppression works — and be weary of not putting the burden on minority groups to do the work for you.
When you do have these conversations, you’re likely to make mistakes — and that’s okay. When you do make a mistake, say sorry, correct yourself, and try not to repeat it again. Apologize even if you didn’t intend to offend.
Finally, remember that no one person has all the answers. So, be open to learning from each other — regardless of what position you occupy.
One of the things that stood out to me in your report was that 51% of men feel less engaged in conversations because they think D&I isn’t relevant to them. As an upper caste cis-woman, I’ve often contemplated if it was “okay” to speak about discrimination that didn’t directly impact me. I’m still worried about taking up space in conversations that aren’t about me. How can we use language to become better allies?
Allyship must aim to find common ground. Think of it this way: We are all human first. Then, we all have a layer of identities — cis, queer, Asian, neurodiverse, etc. On top of these identities are the social structures that impact what positions we occupy in the world and how we are able to express ourselves.
The first step is acknowledging that human connection we all share. Hopefully, this helps us understand that we all deserve to be equal — and should have equal access to resources, power, and privilege — despite our differences.
Also, know that equality is not a zero-sum game. We are often fed the narrative that for one person to gain power and space, another must lose something. That’s simply not true. When we discuss sexism or transphobia at work, it makes all of us aware, empathetic, and sensitive to the way privilege works. There’s really no issue that’s only applicable to some people and not to others.
Being absent from spaces that aren’t about you doesn’t help you. Instead, recognize the ways in which you’re entitled at work and beyond, use that opportunity to speak about things that matter — without speaking for someone. You also don’t have to contribute to a conversation to be engaged in it. Sometimes, listening intently or asking questions can be a form of support.
It sounds like a lot of this requires being vulnerable at work. Given how people are already fearful of speaking about diversity, how do we encourage that vulnerability at work?
The notion of vulnerability in the workplace has been written about in depth by researcher Brené Brown. She talks about how “dropping your mask” or lowering our guard can make us more empathetic, courageous, and happy. This is true about reducing fear around diversity and inclusion.
In listening sessions and exercises that we have run for our clients, we often ask “Who are you?” rather than “How are you?” to start the session. The one caveat is that the person cannot state their job title or what they do day to day, but instead, we ask them to build a rounded picture of who they are for the group.
While we’ve been working from home, we’ve seen people bringing their whole “shelf” to work, as well as their whole self. Some use props and pictures around them to demonstrate who they are. Some have had their children come on the call. Being able to do so without fear or negative repercussions contributes to psychological safety and in turn creates more productive workplaces.
Vulnerability has been the larger theme of the pandemic. Let’s hope that we don’t need the existential threat of a global pandemic to keep that up.