Do We, As White People, Have Inclusion and How To Go About It All Wrong? Part 1

What if how we have been thinking about inclusion is all wrong? What if how we have been trying to do inclusion is more like a system of assimilation than the welcoming of diversity – even if unconscious?

I’ve been reflecting on this question since Jerry offered it in one of the many conversations we have been having lately about Black Lives Matter and White Privilege. Along with: who is doing the including? Who is being offered inclusion? Inclusion into what and in what way?

If you are to be included do you need to act and sound like me, value the same things I do to be included? If that is the case, we are not talking about being inclusive and welcoming of diversity in any way that matters. We are talking about replicating what we already know and what is familiar and comfortable to us. It is what continues to keep all the systemic barriers to inclusion and diversity active, while invisible to white people.

A Dinner Party Invitation as Analogy

If it is my house and I invite you for dinner, how I invite and how I host says a lot about how and what I welcome.

If it is intended to be a formal dinner with multiple courses and a seating plan, the people I invite may have little to no say about how they are included in and around the table. If you bring a gift of wine, tea or chocolate, it might not be included as part of the dinner if it doesn’t fit my plan, even as I say thank you for bringing your gift while putting it aside.

If it is a less formal dinner but I still have a food plan, guests might be asked to bring a bottle of wine or some chocolate and it might be made available before, during or after dinner. A welcome contribution but still token and still defined by my invitation. It fits where and how I want it to fit.

However, if it is a potluck dinner and there are no requests, guidelines or restrictions on what people bring or how they arrive, maybe now I am ready to welcome everything and all that shows up.  But, there’s a catch. If I am only inviting friends who look like me, like the same things I do and are likely to cook in a similar fashion, then the “diversity” invited in is limited and probably not diverse at all. I may be blinded by my privilege.

What if Your Definition of Diversity Needs to Expand?

In our book, Building Trust and Relationship at the Speed of Change, we note that if you are part of the dominant culture you may have little to no awareness of how you are asking people who are not part of the dominant culture to show up, to participate. It is common to fault those in a non-dominant culture for not participating without questioning how we have invited people. Have we invited them in a way they feel welcome and like they matter, like their views have value? If not, they will show up where it matters to them, where they matter and where they can make a difference.

You may not even be aware of a lack of presence of people of colour in a room or a group. We have a tendency toward self-congratulations. How many times have you found yourself in a room of white people complementing themselves on how much diversity there is in the room? It is not to say there isn’t diversity, but it is often a claim to diversity and a rationalization that helps us as white people feel comfortable and satisfied. And it absolves us from making space for diversity that looks and sounds different.

Even – especially – if I believe I am being welcoming, inclusive and diverse, I might not see where or how this is not the case. I might not want to see it and I probably don’t welcome being challenged on this. This would be a challenge to my identity, to my worldview. Our Worldview Intelligence work demonstrates that a challenge to my identity can be perceived as a threat to my mortality. It kicks in motion a whole set of defences and attacks designed to keep me “safe”.

Whiteness is an invisible characteristic to white people. It is the standard, the norm, by which all other people are judged and found wanting except for those “exceptional” people (by the standard of whiteness) who have somehow traversed the barrier without making us too uncomfortable.

What if, instead of extolling our virtues of being inclusive and welcoming we became curious about how we can become more so? How we can listen better?  How we can make more space for more diversity? How can we learn to expand our definition of what it means to be diverse as a team, department, organization or community. More on that in Part 2.

(This is part 1 of a 2-part series on inclusion and diversity. Part 2 focuses more specifically on organizational diversity and inclusion.)