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How to Have Tough Conversations About Diversity at Work

Conversations about diversity are essential, but engaging in them can be confusing and intimidating. Irshad Manji, the author of Don't Label Me, shares tips for participating in a meaningful dialogue.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #612
workplace talk

In the US and around the world, we've heard the call to action for social justice and equality loud and clear. Companies and individuals are doing their best to respond. But with so much emotion and complexity in the system, knowing what to say and how to move forward can be overwhelming and confusing.

I sat down Irshad Manji, author of Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars. She enlightened me with her unique point of view and candid perspective.

Labels—are they good or bad?

We began with a discussion of labels. They can be problematic, and yet they also serve a purpose. I asked Irshad why we label people and things, and how we can draw the line between what serves us and what leads to bad behavior.

As she says in her book, “A shoe’s a freaking shoe regardless of any other function it may serve.” So how, I asked, can we apply that logic to people?

Labels stop us from engaging one another and really finding out each other's backstories.

"The issue that I have with labels is that they come with baggage," Irshad said. She explained that labels allow people to assume they already know something about you that may not be true. "Labels stop us from engaging one another and really finding out each other's backstories."

"And I think the way to cut through all that clutter is to slow ourselves down and actually speak with one another. Not as if everything has to be a debate, but with sincere questions, because we're all pretty damn interesting if we only gave each other a chance to be heard," she said. "[But] labels do serve a purpose. Here's the key to remember though—people are not things. Things are static. They stay the same.  People are moving—we don't stand still. And that is why it is doubly important to recognize that, unlike things, unlike a shoe, people are far more complicated and deserve a lot more respect for that complexity.”

How can we have constructive conversations about diversity?

We know that listening to each other—really connecting—is key. But conversations around diversity have become charged and intimidating. Here are some of Irshad’s thoughts on how we can move forward.

"One of the great tragedies of how diversity is practiced these days is if you ask me a question that somehow rankles me or rubs me the wrong way, then you've just invalidated my entire existence when you were just asking an innocent question. And by the way, a question probably born out of genuine curiosity, which shows that you care about me."

Today, the focus is on embracing and celebrating our differences; on exploring and learning about all of the cultures and traditions around us.

I shared with Irshad that I was personally raised in an era that taught the value of colorblindness. When I was a kid, the message I received was not to look at the color of someone’s skin. We didn’t talk about race or difference when I was young. Today, however, the focus is on embracing and celebrating our differences; on exploring and learning about all of the cultures and traditions around us.

This shift requires a lot of de- and re-programming.    

"I really, really regret the fear and the anxiety that a lot of white people have today," Irshad said. "I think that is something that anybody who advocates for justice has to take some responsibility for. Because again, by making someone like you feel afraid, we have turned the pursuit of justice into the pursuit of just us. And we are managing to exclude in the name of inclusion.

We have turned the pursuit of justice into the pursuit of just us. We are managing to exclude in the name of inclusion.

"If you feel offended by something that somebody else has said, slow yourself down instead of automatically reacting. Take a breath. Because when you breathe you don't give the brain the opportunity to rush to judgment."

“If you want a conversation to be successful," Irshad said, "you must first be willing to hear.”

Irshad encourages us to ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity, and also to assume positive intent on the part of the asker. The more we can learn about each other—really absorb people’s unique stories and experiences—the more likely we’ll all be able to move forward together.

How to handle education-exhaustion

Another challenge we discussed is that of people in marginalized groups expressing frustration over having to continue to educate those in the majority. I asked for Irshad’s advice on managing conversations that may trigger precisely that exhaustion.

Anybody who wants change in society is by definition an educator. You have to raise consciousness.

"[Those of us in marginalized groups] wind up telling people like you, ‘it's not my job to educate you,’" Irshad said. "Well, hold on a second. Anybody who wants change in society is by definition an educator. You have to raise consciousness. You have to raise awareness among the people who you want to bring on board. So if it's not your job to educate, whose job is it?”

How can companies do a better job with diversity?

Irshad explained that too many companies begin with the premise of needing more people of color. This translates to a message that “white people no longer matter.” This, she explains, creates a defense often labeled as fragility. But, she says “It's not because they're white [that they get defensive], it's because they're human.”

If people aren't engaged for their ideas, then all of this is merely cosmetic. They're being used for their labels rather than tapped as professionals and individuals.

Her guidance to companies is to take a more expansive view of diversity. If the intent is to attract more people of color, be mindful not to telegraph a sense of “I guess that white people no longer matter.”

Focus as well on a diversity of ideas—a greater breadth of perspective, backgrounds, experiences, and opinions. This drives inclusion but also innovation.

“If people aren't engaged for their ideas," Irshad said, "then all of this is merely cosmetic. And they're frankly being used for their labels rather than tapped as professionals and as individuals.”

Distinguishing honest from dishonest diversity

What distinguishes honest from dishonest diversity is labels. Dishonest diversity “slices and dices individuals into categories” that make us singular and “vaporizes all the rest that makes us human beings capable of similarity and not just of difference.”

Honest diversity moves beyond labels. It acknowledges that while we may fit into categories, we are multi-dimensional beings.

Honest diversity is the brand that moves beyond labels. It acknowledges that while we may fit into categories, we are multi-dimensional beings. It’s about wholeness and integrity, and it’s the direction in which companies need to start moving the conversation.

How can we start to have better conversations?

Irshad believes in taking small steps that lead, over time, to habits and routines.

She describes a simple strategy of changing up how we begin meetings. Having everyone go around the room (or Zoom) and name the first concert they ever attended is cute, but done. She suggests instead this simple exercise: Ask participants to answer “What is it about you that you want us to know, but that we wouldn't know just by your skin color?”

It can be a brief exercise, but it’s a powerful way to create connection and vulnerability.

I concluded my conversation with Irshad with a feeling of hopefulness, ready to lean into curiosity, listening, and being empathetic to where others might be coming from in a conversation. I hope you took away something you’re feeling inspired to put into practice.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.