Diversity and Inclusion: It’s time for us ALL to act [Part Two]

In Part One we looked at celebrating diversity and tackling unconscious bias as the first two areas of focus for creating, fostering and sustaining a diverse and inclusive workplace. In Part Two we explore the need to challenge systems and what it means to be an ally.

1.  Challenge Systems

Systemic or institutionalized racism and discrimination occur regularly in the workplace through interactions and processes that create disadvantages for people with common characteristics (such as race, gender, disability) over a long period of time. This is not about individual attitudes, it is about the deeply embedded biases, stereotypes and assumptions perpetuated by an organization’s policies, decision-making practices, and people systems.

In order to challenge systems, we need to understand the underpinnings of systemic racism and discrimination, and these are primarily privilege and oppression.

The term “privilege” – within the context of social justice – is often misunderstood, and in many instances people get defensive and even dismissive when discussing this term. Here are a few things to clarify what is meant by privilege:

  • Privilege is best understood as a two-sided coin. On one side of the coin is privilege – the advantages that people experience, based purely on who they happen to be. Whilst on the other side of the coin is oppression – the disadvantage people experience, also based purely on who they happen to be.
  • This privilege and oppression occur within the context of societal power systems (e.g., patriarchy, white supremacy, hetero-sexism, ableism, etc.) with privileged groups having power over oppressed groups.
  • It is possible for groups of people to experience both privilege and oppression simultaneously. But being oppressed by an aspect of a groups’ identity (e.g., income level) does not cancel out the privilege experienced by the same group based on another aspect of their identity (e.g., race). In other words, while poor white people do experience the oppression of being poor, they still experience the privilege of being white.
  • When we speak about privilege, we are not saying that privileged groups should not experience the advantages that their privilege provides them. But what we are saying is that everyone, regardless of who they happen to be, should experience those same privileges.
  • One of the most frequent arguments against the term privilege is “but I worked hard, and had things tough too.” Addressing privilege is not done to dismiss or negate the fact that people with privilege have also worked hard and experienced trials and tribulations. But by understanding privilege and oppression, we can acknowledge that having privilege means we do not face as many barriers and obstacles as those who do not have the same privilege(s).
  • And finally, we do not talk about privilege to lay blame or to make people feel guilty about having privilege. This serves no one and is counter-productive. Instead, we should all seek to understand what types of privilege we have so that we can use that privilege to challenge oppressive systems.

Addressing systemic discrimination at an organizational level is difficult. It requires the work of senior leaders to review, change and monitor the organization’s systems, and this takes time and the willingness to make the changes. At an individual level, we cannot wait for this to happen. Regardless of role or level in the organization, everyone should challenge systems. This is not an easy thing to do, and most of us shy away from this type of confrontation. But if we are committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace, we have to act.

Some suggestions for challenging systems include:

  • Speak up and speak out when we observe systemic discrimination (for example, unfair hiring practices), we must raise our concerns to management.
  • Role model the right behaviours by “walking the talk” and through inclusive communication.
  • Lead courageous conversations by bringing people together to have open, honest conversations about inequality and discrimination.
  • Join or initiate an Employee Resource Group (ERG) program to give everyone a voice and to create a culture of belonging.
  • Be an inclusive leader, regardless of position or title, by proactively and consistently confronting discrimination, tackling unconscious bias and challenging the beliefs of others.

2.  Be an Ally

If we truly care about making our own workplace inclusive, we have the ability to effect real change as an ally. An ally is someone who is not a member of an underrepresented group but who takes action to support that group. It is up to those of us who hold positions of privilege to be active allies to those with less access, and to take responsibility for making changes that will help others be successful.

It is very important to remember that “ally” is a verb. Just saying we are allies is not enough. We need to follow up with consistent and authentic actions. These can include:

  • Acknowledging our own privilege and using it for those that do not have it.
  • Actively listening and learning about the issues facing oppressed people and groups.
  • Taking on the formal role of sponsor for someone from a marginalized group.
  • Being willing to make mistakes, apologize, learn and move forward.

In addition to the above, another very powerful way to be an ally is to intervene and speak up when we see injustices happening in front of us. Opportunities to intervene can occur at the store, when you are on the bus among strangers, or when you are at work among colleagues.

Although we know that intervening is the right thing to do, one of the biggest obstacles is the fear of being harmed, or, if we know the person perpetrating the injustice, potentially damaging the relationship. But we cannot be silent bystanders and allow discrimination and injustice to go unchecked. We must intervene with respect, by expressing our disapproval and discomfort towards the behaviour and/or words, without causing defensiveness or shame. This is what it means to be an ally.

The work of creating, sustaining and fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces is never done. It often feels like no progress is being made – in fact at times it seems as though we’ve gone backwards – and this has us feeling despondent and dismayed. But we have to persevere. We have to push ourselves and others to do their part, because:

“We must always take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
The opposite of love s not hate, it’s indifference.”

– Elie Wiesel

In Kwela’s Diversity & Inclusion workshop, participants gain a better understanding of their role in cultivating a world of inclusivity.

Helen Schneiderman
Senior Consultant