Often, when I’m speaking with business leaders, I hear the phrase “culture fit” as the conversation starts to revolve around recruitment and retention. And, as recruitment and retention are increasingly difficult and expensive pursuits for the business community (with costs to replace an employee ranging from 16% of their annual salary, for relatively low-paying jobs, to upwards of 200% for leadership roles 1 2 3), it’s always that the conversation shifts there.
And, I want to establish up front, I believe the intent in “culture fit” thinking is good. Most leaders are thinking about making their existing teams, and their new hires, happy, and that simply works better/easier when there’s culture “fit.” And, that desire is fine.
The problem, though, starts becoming obvious as we start asking questions around what fit looks like, and about how we define culture. Hiring an additional team member that is as close a carbon copy of an existing team member as possible may be a short term win, as it relates to smooth on-boarding, but it may be a real long-term loss as you’ve failed to bring in new perspectives, world-views, understandings, value systems, problem-solving ideologies, personalities, cultural expressions, linguistic richness, and the list could go on and on.
Without meaning to, I think, what many leaders and hiring managers are saying is, “I want more me’s here.” We trust those that look like us, and that goes a long way into who gets an interview, and who gets through the interview process. And, at the end of the day, maybe we’ve reproduced a mini-me, but we may have lost a significant opportunity to get better.
This is tribalism, which term has gone through a recent resurgence a la the “find your tribe” movement. And, which I want to say, I think is awesome, when we protect ourselves from implicitly connecting our “tribe” with those we think are most like us. And, the reality is, that’s what we most often do (1 2 3). We are geographically and socially encouraged to connect with those “like us,” and in terms of how we connect, our socioeconomic levels generally predict that.
So, we are, generally speaking, operating in silos of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and ability similarities. We just are.
If we then pull from that community to form our tribe, and subsequently recruit and promote from that tribe, we are only drawing in like resources and parallel thinking.
In this case, “culture fit” becomes code for “like us enough.” And, since the dominant corporate culture is, statistically, some form of white [male] culture, those that fall outside of that demographic must seek to conform their behavior/language/thinking/etc to match the tribe which controls employment.
This is tribalism gone bad. And, that kind of conforming, that behavior policing (which is imposed from outside and inside under-represented groups in corporate America), is a tragic loss for everyone.
Hear that again. When we seek to “normalize” corporate culture by asking all applicants to be cultural “fits,” when we ask historically muted populations to “be like us” when they show up at work, when we assume that “professionalism” means the same thing to all within the workforce, we lose.
We lose the “war” for “diverse talent.”
We lose the opportunity to create an inclusive environment that retains untapped genius and unicorn brilliance.
We lose the chance to become better leaders, better organizations, better community stakeholders.
We lose the ability to accurately reflect the cities and neighborhoods we serve.
We lose potential innovations and inventions.
We lose legitimacy in a globalized economy, and credibility in our local one.
We lose. And that’s a lot of losing.
So, what does “winning” look like?
Many, I’m sure, are familiar with the “culture add” ideology. Instead of implying applicants and employees need to “fit in” to who they are, “culture add” companies invite applicants and employees to help them (the company) extend who they could be. That’s a big difference.
This is where inclusion happens. My working definition of inclusion revolves around it being a strategic set of policies and behaviors that includes all voices and perspectives, and that is housed in corporate cultures that recognize and reward those behaviors.
Winning means incorporating enough diversity of thought, perspective, history, worldview, and lived experience that the challenges your company is working to solve are getting approached from a deeply-appointed toolbox.
Winning means there’s a sense of authenticity around the buzz phrase of “bringing your whole self to work,” and an openness to what that might mean.
Winning means there’s a constant expectation around contributions, about voices and votes mattering, about each employee being an actual value-add to the way the company works.
Winning means not spending the bulk of your “talent” budget on recruiting to fill constantly-turning-over positions, but on development and growth opportunities for an employee group that believes their presence matters, and are serious about leveling up that presence.
Wining means healthy culture, an engaged workforce, a diverse and advancing employee base, and a leadership team that holds itself accountable to these realities.
So, the practical question becomes how.
How do we start shifting from a “culture-fit” to a “culture-add” mentality?
How do we empower leaders to take charge of this movement and admit they’re still in-process in their own learning?
How do we understand where we are now, without inciting a barrage of “we’re not doing enough” survey results?
How do start turning this ship, and letting people know we’re doing it, without pretending like we’re done?
For most, this means bringing in someone who has both the subject matter firmly in grasp, and the objectivity to see through the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way haze that sometimes clouds the vision of those internal to the organization. This is where a diversity/inclusion/equity/culture consultant can add real, demonstrable value to your company. This is where I come in.
Companies working with me can expect:
active and empathetic listening that builds trust up and down the organization’s structure
pointed and poignant questions that help identify and unfold challenge areas
creative and compelling exercises that engage each participant in corporate cultural ownership
disarming content that reframes the discussion in ways that work for and serve everyone
actionable next steps that begin shifting you away from “fit” and toward embracing “add”
an atmosphere of warmth and non-judgment, and a clear invitation to become better
Behavior always follows belief. Stop micro-adjusting behavioral policies in your workplace, and start addressing the deep cultural atrophy that’s created systems of disengagement and distrust. Reach out today and begin the necessary work of culture change.
Great leaders are effective relationship-builders. They function as the hubs of dynamic relational networks, in which information, ideas, and innovations are shared through and around them.
Great leaders know their success is integrally correlated with the strength of their networks. They understand that their reach is furthered, their impact is deepened, and their voice is amplified by an engaged, connected relational web.
Many leaders of title speak their ideas into dark rooms of disengaged employees. Great leaders cast vision in ways that enlightened and empower their teams - turning employees into partners, turning disengagement into passion, and turning challenges into opportunities.
There are, of course, outlier examples of leaders who accomplish great things as solo efforts. And, they are, of course, the outliers. The very best chance for you, and for me, to become the effective and impactful leaders we want to be is to invest in those around us. We must be willing to celebrate the success of others, champion the ideas of others, and support the work of others.
I have never been disappointed by putting myself into the service of a great idea, whether it was mine or not. And, I have been overwhelmingly blessed by the service of so many others in response to some of my ideas.
True relational networks are give-and-take systems. Support never runs just one direction. Leaders who get this, get stuff done, with people they like, in ways that are meaningful to them.
Let me encourage you: build good relationships. Take the time to be open, to be authentic, to be vulnerable, to be excited, to be passionate, to be wounded, to be discouraged, and to be available to those around you.
Take people out for coffee. Share your dreams with them. Ask them theirs. Find people who know things you don’t. Ask them to explain their worlds to you. Explore the lived experiences of others with wide-open eyes and a wondering heart. Reserve judgment. Exercise grace. Become a master question-asker.
If there is one thing that I can say for myself, and this has become my life anthem, it is that I deeply and fully believe that all people matter. I work hard to work this out every day.
I promise you this: you will never, ever, regret spending time and emotional energy in constructing a meaningful relational network.
Self work is just that - work. It has to be structured, intentional, pressed into, reflected upon… all the things that our “regular” work has to be.
It doesn’t happen by accident, and doesn’t happen overnight. And, as I’m trying to learn (and to relearn), it doesn’t happen by reading about other people’s self work. Hearing that someone else broke open his bitterness and salved it with mercy doesn’t make my bitterness go away. Or my loneliness. Or doubt.
That’s hard. That means I actually have to sit with my stuff, see it, listen to it, and work on it.
An article recently appeared in The New York Times discussing the language of job descriptions. The author wrote that the language of job descriptions, particularly in the pink collar sector of healthcare, one of the fastest growing sectors in America, "turns off some men."
This isn't a new conversation; it is a more novel one, though, as a problem affecting men, but the research and thinking has been around for some time regarding women's hesitance to apply for jobs that are described in traditionally "masculine" words.
Research published in 2011 out of the University of Waterloo and Duke University reinforces long-held anecdotal understandings of men and women's behavior as employees and potential employees. In it, the researchers write that
...women are perceived as more communal and interpersonally oriented than men, whereas men are more readily attributed with traits associated with leadership and agency.
This translates, as the research goes on to show, into how men and women respond differently to the language of job descriptions and advertisements. Words like "dominance" in a particular sector may appeal more broadly to males, while replacing that word with "excellence" would allow for more women to see themselves in that role. Similarly, in male-dominated sectors a job description might ask applicants to "analyze" markets, while a job description in a female-dominated workplace may ask applicants to "understand" the market.
Although we might argue that the language itself isn't gendered, the response to that language certainly is. The researchers went as far as to say
...gendered wording may emerge within job advertisements as a subtle mechanism of maintaining gender inequality by keeping women out of male-dominated jobs.
I'm not here to argue that you, if you write job descriptions or advertisements, are a gender-unaware troglodyte, and certainly not that you're a misogynistic language manipulator.
Rather than either of those things, I assume (and what a dangerous word that is!) that language that may provoke a more positive response from one side of the gender spectrum than another is an unconscious product, rather than a conscious one.
That doesn't mean, though, that it's not worth paying attention to.
In an era when employers are ravenous for a deeper and wider applicant pool, it's worth the effort to pay attention to how you speak about those roles, and about what that might mean to a potential applicant.
Research by ZipRecruiter points to this phenomenon as well. They argue that posting jobs without thoughtfully editing the language to be as gender inclusive as possible can prevent "wide swaths" of potential applicants from applying.
This may point to why, and again, this is anecdotal from my end, I've been hearing leadership at high levels becoming increasingly frustrated by a lack of female applicants. They truly do not believe that within the company there are no competent females for a particular listing, but often none apply. It could be that at those levels of employment, words commonly associated with men, like "strong" or "competitive" are being used disproportionately to more gender-neutral words, like "exceptional" or "motivated."
Leaders with the awareness to see and respond to this are pausing the hiring process, and initiating their own applicant search beyond the posted description. Kudos to them.
This isn't just about the feel-good either. There's bountiful research indicating that companies with diverse gender mixes across their leadership platforms outperform single-gender companies. Take a look at it some time. It's fascinating.
Even beyond that, as any of you in a hiring role knows, time is money, and every day you don't fill that role is money out the door. Job descriptions that are purposefully edited for gender bias can go a long way toward shortening that wait. Textio, a recruiting software platform designed to assist in this effort, says that
gender-neutral language fills jobs 14 days faster than posts with a masculine or feminine bias... and attracts a more diverse mix of people.
There you go.
How is your company doing with this? Working to neutralize the language of job descriptions doesn't have to demand a full-scale investigation, or finger-pointing, or even much effort.
Yes, there's an app for that.
I copied and pasted an opening I've got into it before I started writing this post. The language came back as: neutral. Whew.
I'd love to hear from you. Are you a job-searcher, male or female, who's been turned off to a job because of the way the description of the role is written? Are you an employer who's found an elegant, or practical, solution? Or, perhaps you're an employer that wants to become better at this, whatever this is.
If you're interested in productively adding to this conversation, comment below. I'd love to hear from you.
There's a popular phrase about diversity and inclusion making its social media rounds recently:
Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.
I get it. It's an effort to distinguish two terms that, for many, mean the same thing.
To this end, the statement is helpful. It articulates (though somewhat abstractly) that diversity is about representation, and inclusion is about involvement. Those are really different things, and it's important to help people understand that.
At the risk of reading too deeply into something not built to be analyzed, though, I have a problem with this phrase. Or, perhaps, more precisely, I believe that diversity and inclusion practitioners should stop using this phrase as a summary-statement or end-game phrase of D&I work.
The issue is that, at its heart, this is an oversimplification of complex ideas, and doesn't authentically represent what inclusion really could/can be. Both of these statements, the "diversity" and the "inclusion" one, are passive constructions. That is, there is an implication of someone else (not referenced directly in the statement) doing the inviting, and doing the asking.
To put it into corporate terms, this phrase only really indicates that organizational diversity and inclusion is, at its best, those with leadership influence deigning to include others in their circles for brief moments, usually in celebrative ways rather than strategic ones.
Maybe I'm overly leaning into power structure dynamics, but when one asks another to dance, generally that's an ask coming from a position of relational power (in this case the comfort to believe that he/she won't be rejected), and unfolds accordingly, with the "asker" leading the dance. The one being asked remains a responder, both in the dance, and after.
It seems to me that espousing this idea that inclusion means being asked to dance is not only overly simplistic, it's dangerous. It allows that there is, and will be, a specific group that controls the "pace" and "space" of the dance floor.
What seems to me to be a better vision for this work is to create a sense where marginalized or underrepresented peoples are no longer dependent on an offer of brief "inclusion," but where they are equally able to be askers. That's a big shift, and I say this knowing it represents lots of organizational culture training, and time enough to bring more underrepresented peoples into leadership positions. It's also dependent on educational systems and inequities, the geographies of poverty and opportunity, traditional hiring practices, etc, etc.
But that's what we're shooting for, right? Full inclusion? Don't we desire a corporate culture that creates space for, and rewards, strategic practices, policies, and behaviors that allow all people not only to bring their fullest sense of self to work each day, but to lead out with their very best contributions toward that company's mission, vision and goals? Research indicates the closer we get to this ideal the better (also read, more profitable) our companies become. And, I believe, the better our companies become, the better our communities become.
Perhaps a better version of this statement might be:
Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is dancing.
Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is choosing the music.
Or, maybe at its best:
Diversity is going to a party; Inclusion is being a member of the party-planning committee.
I don't know. Maybe I'm way over-thinking it. But if I'm going to cast vision for, and be engaged in, a pursuit of something, it might as well be for something really worth chasing.
Again, this is just my perspective, and I'd welcome constructive or challenging feedback.
There's been a lot of press recently about "diversity initiatives" not netting corporations any significant gains in their workforce recruitment and/or retention numbers.
If you're a professional working in the diversity sector, whether organizationally or as a consultant, this (and what I'm about to say) is likely not news to you.
- - Diversity matters, but only to the extent it matters. - -
If a company's diversity numbers are bottom-heavy - that is, if their non-white and/or non-male hires exist nearly exclusively at the lower ends of pay scale, influence, and decision-making - then from an organizational perspective, that "diversity" doesn't really matter. At least, it doesn't matter in the sense that it has a meaningful effect on the culture or trajectory of that company.
And, the narrative is really clear here - when "diverse hires" occupy obviously non-influential roles, and when there are not clear and present avenues to pursue more influential roles, ideally with other non-majority employee success stories, those "diverse hires" are likely not long for that company.
There's a layered reality here: you need to hire in a more diverse workforce, true, but you also need to retain it, and advance it. It can turn into a chicken and egg problem; do you hire and hope to develop better retention policies? Do you create clear avenues of advancement, and then look to hire? Can you do all three at once?
One thing is clear, though, and that's that "diversity" is likely not the word most important to your company. Inclusion is. Diversity refers simply to the existence of difference, and, based on how widely you're willing to interpret that definition, you may already have a really diverse workforce, at least along some parameters.
However, if you don't create a culture in which those differences thrive, in which diversity has the space to fully display its variances, you'll never be able to effectively and productively integrate widely diverse peoples into your workforce. And, in the end, you'll stunt your company's growth because of it.
That's where inclusion comes in. Inclusion is a set of strategies and policies housed in a corporate culture that all work together to make sure that all are included.
As Joe Gerstandt, a diversity consultant, says,
Diversity is about the ingredients, the mix of people and perspectives. Inclusion is about the container—the place that allows employees to feel they belong, to feel both accepted and different. You need a group of people who think differently—in a container that's safe to share those differences.
In the next 25 years or so, the US will be the first majority minority country in the world. This means that an increasing number of your employees, and your customers, will be non-white. If you haven't developed appropriate and effective policies and company culture by then, you won't just be missing from the "Best of..." lists, you'll more than likely be in survival mode.
Another way to think about the relationship between diversity and inclusion is this: if diversity is the spark for greatness, then you'll need kindling (short-term retention policies/culture) to keep it alive through its tender years, and substantial heartwood (long-term advancement avenues) to fuel its sustained growth and development.
Otherwise, the spark dies.
Terry Morreale, chief technology officer at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, puts it this way:
...once you’ve embraced the idea of inclusion, you need to incorporate it. You need to embed it into your business process, in the corporation. It’s not necessarily just a new person at the table but it must be built into the company’s DNA.
Whatever you call it (empathy, inclusion, equity, etc), it needs to matter. You can't say that you're adding more voices to the table unless you're actually bringing more voices to the table. Diversity doesn't matter unless you make it matter.
The gains are there, and real, when inclusion works. Research shows us that diverse teams, both along the lines of men-to-women ratios, and in terms of color, to name a couple of examples, are functionally more productive, creative and profitable than non-diverse teams.
For both the obvious reason, and the not-so-obvious one. For one, team members with diverse experiences and perspectives bring those diverse experiences and perspectives to bear on problem-solving and innovation. This means there are more ideas floating around the table, which often results in a movement away from an organization's easy go-to answers, which may be becoming increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly diverse environment.
Two, when there are diverse perspectives represented at the table, we assume those perspectives will bring new and challenging ideas into the conversation. Therefore, we up our game. Much of the increase in innovation around diversity is often attributed to the increase in individuals' expectations of themselves in that setting. We're better when we're invested in working with a diverse workforce, where every opinion matters, and every voice is included.
Diversity matters, yes. But companies need to develop strategies that take into account historic under-representations, educational unbalances, language barriers, the disparate effect of last-in-first-out tendencies, and a host of other challenges to ensure that the diversity within their workforces becomes a meaningful and integral part of the company at every level.
Companies need to ensure that they're not chasing diversity as some kind of end-goal.
That bubble will burst.
Disclaimer: I’m a white, middle-class suburbanite, and as such I do not claim to be the voice of a movement, nor do I believe I have the authority to step into anyone else’s grief, whether individual or corporate, and use that grief as moment to position myself as an “ally.” Those that wish to disregard my content because of my context, feel free. My words, though, are not so much about my shared suffering as they are about challenging the position of privilege, and the language of tolerance.
This week has been another unfolding footnote in America’s memoir of racial unrest and violence. So many of us are sick of this narrative, and the positively nauseating commentary that flows from it.
No one with a rational worldview is going to argue that being a police officer is a simple job, or that the vast, far-reaching majority of police officers do their job, and more, every day with integrity, honesty and justice. The voices that shout, “All cops are bad” are just as misguided as those that respond, “All cops are good.” In a nation-wide body of officers in a country as large as ours, there is no “all.” This is not a “war on cops,” or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
There is a war, though, or should be, on the kind of white-privileged response to the questionable, nearly always unjust, killing of minorities by white police officers, that unspools from the mouths and mouthpieces of the subtly arrogant, self-congratulatory majority. A war on the kind of response that says, “Compliance is the issue,” or, “Treat police officers with respect, and they’ll treat you with respect,” or, “He did have 31 moving violations,” or, “Blacks commit far more violent crime than whites,” or some other racially-charged, morally-blind, and fantastically-hurtful nonsense.
The “compliance and respect” response demands that the audience listen to an anecdote about a minority who “followed the rules” when being pulled over by a police officer. Why is it, again, that black children need to be taught the being-pulled-over-by-the-police rules? White children are introduced to the police at 4th of July parades and community picnics, given balloons and stickers. Many black children are educated on compliance and hoodies. Additionally, this reasoning allows that if one does not comply or treat an officer with respect, it’s that officer’s prerogative, choice, or job to shoot you. This is not true, and no police department teaches it. Why do privileged white people post it on social media?
The “moving violation” and “crime statistic” response is a smokescreen designed to allow privileged whites to assuage some of the racial discomfort associated with these moments. “Clearly,” they think, “I’m not a racist, but I simply cannot work up the indignant response that others have around me, and so therefore I must not be bothered by this. Why not? Oh, he was a bad person anyway.” This is malarky. Why did he have so many moving violations, or whatever current data the white media publishes? What about statistics concerning where minorities live, what police presence looks like there, job insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity, racial profiling, prison demographics, and so many other data-points that reveal the depth and breadth of the racial problems America.? He didn’t have 31 moving violations because he was an awful person. And, anyway, since when did moving violations become an excuse to shoot someone?
The final stronghold in the privileged response is to identify a minority in that person’s life who is a successful, law-abiding citizen. “There’s no more racism,” these people say. “See, this black friend of mine is a successful doctor whose kids are in school with mine.” What this person hopes to believe is that we are truly a post-racial society, and that violence against blacks and other minorities is not a testament to the condition of our country, but a just and appropriate response to what was surely a “bad apple.”
We don’t live in a post racial society, though; we live in a society that sometimes allows class to trump race. Once the socio-economic status of a minority individual reaches a certain tipping point, that individual is “allowed” to check their race at the door, to a certain extent. However, for poor and under-privileged people of color, the very notion of a post-racial society must be, at best, a joke, and, at worst, a cruel label that identifies them personally as failures, rather than, by and large, as the victims of two and a half centuries of systematic and systemic racism.
Anecdotes simply don’t work anymore. We have a problem. Clearly, violence against minorities is a big part of it, but the privileged response to these tragedies might actually be the bigger problem. These responses are the moments in which tens of millions of privileged whites are allowed to escape back into whatever rationale relieves the tension of the moment, and excuses them from further participation in the conversation.
This is where tolerance comes in. I hate this word. The very idea that we must tolerate something indicates that we think it is morally wrong, ethically unsavory, or personally distasteful. To tolerate something or someone is to put myself in a position of authority over that thing or person. I won’t tolerate too much salt in my food, but I feel ok about putting myself in a position of moral authority over salt. Why must we be asked to tolerate each other?
By the way, the conversation around tolerance is always one-sided. Minorities are not asked to tolerate whites. Privileged whites, whose neighborhoods, schools, leisure spaces and ideological/religious positions of comfort are “threatened” are asked to tolerate those who “threaten” those spaces. We don’t use that vocabulary, but that is precisely what is being invoked when we use the word. And, those privileged whites who “claim the black friend” only raise the tolerance argument in a slightly different manner.
Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, has a particular poignant and damning explanation of tolerance. He says it is “gratuitous generosity from those who dominate and hold political, religious and/or symbolic authority, the authority of number and/or of money.” He goes on to call it the “intellectual charity of the powerful” (Ramadan). I could not agree more. I sense, even as a white person of privilege, the deepness and rawness of this statement. No one who believes himself to be of equal value feels the need to be tolerated. No one who believes others to be of equal value feels the need to tolerate them. The very word demands an ethnocentric worldview.
I’m certainly not claiming that most privileged whites think they are invoking the language of domination. No, America’s racism among the privileged is far more subtle than that. Perhaps Frank Furedi, is in his book, On Tolerance, says it best when he calls tolerance a form of “polite etiquette” (Bunting). We think we’re doing “them” a favor when we tolerate them and write off their “bad apples,” but instead we’re creating a space in which we get to feel civilized, and a space in which we get to gaze at and shake our heads toward those savages. It’s the new colonialism. Welcome back to last century.
Shelby Steele, in an op-ed around Barack Obama’s candidacy, wrote that escaping the “stigma of racism” is America’s “deep longing.” I don't deny this. One of the very last things I want associated with my life is racism. However, the facts of the matter are that I, my family, and those like me, have benefited from centuries of racial injustice and systematic oppression. The very fact that my family owned a home when I was born, or that both my parents went to college, or that I got to open a bank account as a young person, speaks to the arc of white privilege that has extended across our nation’s history. I am lucky to benefit from it. It is a privilege. But it’s there.
Privilege isn’t wrong, but it is a matter of luck.
I didn’t choose my ethnic heritage in my country of birth; it was dictated for me. I didn’t have to rise above anything, because there was nothing to rise above.
I can’t erase my white privilege, and I don’t think anyone is asking me to. I don’t feel threatened by it; I didn’t create it. I can, however, freely acknowledge that I’ve benefitted from it, and seek to create structures and systems in our society that allow others to benefit, personally and generationally, as I have.
Being an “ally” doesn’t mean revoking your whiteness, or scoffing at your privilege. It means using it as a framework to build out from, to create more, new spaces of privilege and opportunity, to invite others to come into the protection of that structure.
That’s what I want to do.
I’m sorry to the families of all of those who were killed this week, and I’m sorry for the acidic, hurtful commentary that has flowed into the wake of your grief.
I welcome comments of constructive criticism, thoughtful debate, and authentic questioning. I am only one voice.
Bunting, Madeleine. “The Problem with Tolerance." The Guardian 5 Sep. 2011: n. pag. Web. 8 July 2016.
Ramadan, Tariq. “Respect, Beyond Tolerance.” Gulf News 17 Sep. 2013: n. pag. Web. 7 July 2016.
Steele, Shelby. "Obama's Post-racial Promise." Los Angeles Times 5 Nov. 2008: n. pag. Web. 7 July 2016.
Binaries signal difference; they exist to illustrate contrast. This is why juxtaposition works so well to sell diamonds (you can more clearly see the facets when placed on black velvet) and reveal characters in literature (we can more easily understand what someone is like when placed in contrast to someone they are not like). It's about identifying, and bringing into greater focus, the edges of something.
And, when we overpopulate our thinking with [religious, ideological, philosophical, racial, moral, gender, etc ad nauseam] binaries, we create boundaries, or edges, of separation between people and ideas that often aren’t reflective of thoughtful reflection, but of lazy thinking.
I've certainly been guilty of this.
I've also thought a lot about it, though, and have come to the point I've recognized some of the destructive power of binaries. This certainly isn't an exhaustive list, or maybe an overly rigorous one, but it's mine, and it's helping me navigate a world that clearly isn't just one thing or the other.
- As a husband, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of right and wrong is the enemy of relational reconciliation.
- As a father, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of nice and not nice is the enemy of true kindness.
- As an educator, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of smart and stupid is the enemy of impassioned learning.
- As a spiritually-awake seeker, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of good and evil is the enemy of meaningful faith.
- As a person who loves cross-cultural exchange of all kinds, I’ve come to realize that: The binaries we assign to the human experience are the enemy of authentic relationship.
Again, this may not be a ground-breaking list, and it may even be a little overly simplistic, but it's far more nuanced and complex than my unchecked brain sometimes wants things to be.
Physiologically, brains store and retrieve information through a binary system of electronic impulses: they are either on or off. This construction is often mirrored in our thought processes as well.
We seek to make sense of our world, and all of its complexities, by categorizing what we see and experience. There’s clearly evolutionary history at work here; knowing whether a sound of dangerous or not is important, as is knowing which berries are good and which are bad, etc.
This is where bias comes into the equation. Not only are we constantly categorizing and ranking foods, sounds, experiences, and so on, we are also seeking, often unconsciously, to do the same with people.
Perhaps a story would be helpful here:
My wife, who’s done more personal growth and healing work in this area than anyone else I know, had a recent conversation with our children about a binary that has been at the center of America attention almost since the inception of the republic: black and white. My two older children, 4- and 5-years old, were studying composers, and Scott Joplin came up. The book called him one of America’s greatest black composers, and my daughter stopped my wife: “Why do they call him black? He’s not black. And I’m not white. I’m peach, and he’s brown.”
My wife responded by explaining that black and white are so opposite each other that one feels like it has nothing to do with the other - that maybe these terms are what we use when we want to feel different from someone else. Peach and brown are sort of shades of the same color, but sometimes people don't want to feel like they are the same as something or someone else. She explained that the terms black and white are not really about skin color, but about a way to organize people.
Sure, there is lots more nuance and complexity we could entertain, but for a conversation about binaries and their danger, had with a kindergartner and preschooler, I thought it was great.
Here's the danger: when we ask people to accept the fact that they have bias, and that their brains seek binary explanations for the world, the response is often defensive. But the fact is, having a bias doesn’t make you evil, bigoted, or any of the “-ists” we often refer to in labelling ideologies. We all have biases that our brains create, which clearly “thinks” it’s doing us favor.
It's the intentional effort that we exert over our brains to fight immediate and reactive bias that inclusive work is all about.
Here are some simple ideas:
Slow your thinking down
- Take the time to own your bias. Understand that it's a part of how your brain is seeking to make sense of its myriad perceptions.
- Seek to understand any specific roots of its existence. If your brain is creating categories, what categories does it have at its disposal? Why? How can you blur some of those boundaries?
- Don’t let an immediate bias turn into a decision or belief. The fact that your brain does something quickly doesn't necessarily mean it's coming to an ethical or particularly thoughtful conclusion. Push back against your first reaction.
Ask earnest questions
- Seek as much information as you can, rather than filling in gaps with “assumed information.” Very few people can't tell the difference between false curiosity and an authentic desire to learn and connect. Don't be afraid of asking questions.
- Good questions are intent-edited. Ask yourself, before you ask the question, why you want to know. Are you looking to inform your thinking, or reinforce already-held binaries?
- Sometimes, it's helpful to ask if you can ask. I'm a curious person by nature, and sometimes I can go a little overboard. I often disclose to a conversation partner that I'm a candid person, and often ask questions from that perspective, but let them know that they can simply "pass" a questions when necessary.
Listen with a courageous heart
- Take the time to hear someone’s story. Don’t automatically connect the individual in front of you to a group identity. That's how stereotypes create redundancy in our brains. We assume things about a person before we learn things about him or her.
- It can be hard to hear, based on someone's response to a question you've asked, or something you've said, that you are operating out of ignorance, or are misinformed about something. No one likes to be wrong. Choosing to hold onto to that wrong perception, though, moves you from accidental ignorance to willful prejudice. Don't do that.
- Be a vulnerable listener. Listen with the intent to massage some of your thinking into greater accuracy and insight.
Reflect with intentionality and generosity
- Seek the connective tissue between your story and someone else’s story. As a human, you have far more in common than not. Tie that tissue together.
- Find commonality with others along the spectrum of human experience, celebrating what’s similar, and seeking to hear and understand what’s not.
- Practice deconstructing binaries by reflecting on people you've met that aren't so easily categorized. Consistent effort at erasing some of those boundaries can make it easier to "hear the story" of the next person you meet.
No one is ever going to perfectly and eternally erase all of the binaries of the brain. At least, I assume not. It seems to be hard-wired into us.
We can all, though, get better at battling the binaries of our brains, and the biases that come with them.
This battling is the work of inclusion, at least on the personal level, and is the work of us all.
These are my just thoughts, and reflect the singularity of my experience. As always, I welcome constructive criticisms, challenges and conversations.