In an article in the January-February 2022 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Associate Editor Dagny Dukach notes that DEI has gone from a corporate “flavor of the month” to a more institutionalized corporate initiative. “It’s increasingly clear that many people—perhaps even the vast majority—are genuinely disturbed by inequities and are motivated to address them.” Dukach says.

Until recently, the movements to counter discrimination and bias were led by those impacted by bias. Women marched for suffrage, people of color marched, sat in, and bled for civil rights, LGBTQIA people demanded and demonstrated for equality under law, and disabled people worked to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and enforced, among others. These efforts got laws passed and drew attention to the legitimate grievances of those groups.

But in the wake of movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Pride it has become clear that laws and what Dukach calls “buzzword-laden diversity training” are not enough, and as Tema Okun has pointed out, “it is paternalistic and condescending to ask the targets of bias to solve problems that they did not create in the first place.”

What seems clear today is that the “majority,” specifically those who are white, heterosexual, cisgendered and male have to accept a new role in the struggle for equality, a role that steps up to responsibility in action for changing organizations’ cultures and the culture writ large. In her book Inclusion on Purpose, DEI consultant Ruchika Tulshyan notes that real progress rests not just on empathy but on proactive, ongoing effort. She offers six strategies for turning empathy into action:

  • Be willing to be uncomfortable
  • Reflect on what you don’t know and don’t know you don’t know
  • Invite feedback and make the relationship safe enough for others to be honest
  • Control and defeat your defensiveness
  • Grow from your mistakes
  • Expect change to take time

Prerequisite to engaging with Tulshyan’s steps is coming to grips with two fundamental dynamics. These are blame and shame. It is established scientific fact that every person harbors many biases including biases that could fall under the headings of racism, sexism, etc. In her book The History of White People, Professor Nell Irvin Painter of Princeton University details how the notion of “whiteness” began and how, throughout western history “if you’re white, you’re right, if you’re Black, get back” has been a theme that predates modernity by millennia. The same is true of sexism, heteronormativity, etc. These are the culture we are born into.

Buddhist philosophy speaks of “invisibles.” Chief among these are water to the fish, air to the bird, and human nature to humans. Bias is like water to the fish – we swim in it and don’t know that it is there. For that reason, it is something to learn about and be responsible for, not to feel guilt or shame about. The same is true of unearned privilege, which comes about through accidents of birth such as our skin color, height, inherited wealth and position, etc. That being the case, anyone committed to making a difference in creating diversity, equity, and inclusion (as well as to justice and belonging) also has to be committed to acknowledging the invisibles and working to make active impacts.

A second prerequisite is to accept that historically targeted people are not the authors of their own situation – the majority, those who are empathic, and well-meaning as well as those who are actively biased, racist, etc., are the source of the problem and are the only ones who can change it. In his memoir How to Be an Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi makes the case that we have passed the point where to be “not a racist” is useful – what is needed now is anti-racism. And the same is true for all the other “isms” that impact those who have been historically targeted.


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