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Brave Conversations with LCW Podcast

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LCW is collaborating with experts across industries to share stories and insights that shine a light on the many ways organizations are building the mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

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Meet Your Host: Larry Baker
Season 3
Decoded: Unpacking Coded Language in the Workplace

You’re too bossy,” “you’re lacking professionalism,” “you’re just not a cultural fit”—when left unchecked, sometimes language has a much larger impact than intended. But what’s motivating this behavior, and how should you respond?

“Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias and often signal cultural dissonance. Join LCW Lead Facilitator Larry Baker (he/him) and experts from the cross-cultural and DEI space as they break down what coded language really means. Each episode, we’ll unpack a new phrase by sharing personal stories and lessons learned, how it relates to larger systemic issues, and tips to help you navigate unconscious bias in your communities and workplace.

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Decoded: “You need to watch your tone.”
Published on: September 6, 2023


The phrase “you need to watch your tone” is used to silence someone’s voice, invalidating their emotions and perspective in the process. Often bias and cultural difference manifest at the root of this tone policing, especially silencing women and BIPOC employees. So how do we respond when someone says this and how do we begin to create inclusive teams that allow all team members to be heard?

To help us unpack this complex topic, Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by DEIJ expert, consultant, educator, and writer Ralinda Watts (she/her).

Meet Our Guest

Ralinda Watts
DEIJ Expert/Consultant/Educator/Writer, RalindaSpeaks
LinkedIn | Instagram | TwitterWebsite

Ralinda, a native of Los Angeles, is a diversity expert, consultant, creative, speaker, and writer who works at the intersection of culture, identity, diversity and justice. She sparks thoughtful conversations on what matters most; authenticity! Ralinda’s work has been featured on CBS Media, Pop Sugar, Medium, YahooLife, and the Los Angeles Times. Most recently, Ralinda received a leadership grant award for research on the Black@Movement from the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.


Show Notes & Highlights

3:55  Ralinda defines “tone policing”

7:11  Ralinda and Larry share personal stories about tone policing

13:27  Ralinda connects tone policing to issues of control and advancement

21:25  Ralinda suggests asking clarifying questions to combat tone policing

27:50  Ralinda talks about risking social capital and speaking up as allies

38:53  Ralinda connects social capital back to what is learned in school


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and then hear personal stories and some tips to help us notice and call in bias.

So today we’re unpacking the phrase “You need to watch your tone.” This is a phrase that I am sure that we’ve all heard or said in the workplace or in our personal lives at some point. Whether the person that’s using this phrase knows it or not, it is typically used to silence and invalidate someone’s thoughts, their emotions, and their contributions, and it speaks to a larger issue of tone policing in the workplace.

I am very excited to unpack this phrase, and to do so, I am joined by DEIJ expert, consultant, educator, and writer Ralinda Watts. Ralinda, welcome to the podcast. Could you please give a brief introduction for our listeners?

Ralinda Watts: Great, thank you, Larry, for having me. Yes, my name is Ralinda Watts, and I’m based here in Los Angeles, California. I’m a DEIJ practitioner and writer and educator. A lot of the work that I do is to help articulate from history to present-day diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice and how it can help to amplify those who are most vulnerable in their respective communities or organizations.

Larry Baker: Okay, awesome. So you’re pretty busy, I would imagine, with all of these misconceptions about this space of DEI and J that we are in and how it is being weaponized by certain groups to mean one thing that it absolutely doesn’t mean. So I appreciate your work in this space.

But Ralinda, you mentioned a phrase that I think a lot of people are confused about. You said “tone policing.” So can you give me your definition of what you feel tone policing represents? Because for me personally, I just feel like it’s a tactic to kind of dismiss ideas that are being communicated by certain people, but I’m going to give you the space to give your interpretation on what does tone policing really mean.

Ralinda Watts: No, absolutely. Well, you’re spot on. It is a tactic, right? A tactic that is used to dismiss one’s ideas or their perspective, their lived experience. I would say that we especially see tone policing in conversations or in incidences that are related to race—that is where you see tone policing really be heightened. And the main objective is to invalidate, emotional responses. But I also think that it is a form of trying to control the narrative because if there’s that topic or there’s that racial incident that is brought to light, folks want to derail it. And so to derail it, you silence. But also you’re controlling the narrative around it being amplified in the workplace as an example, right? You’re silent in the conversation.

So I think what ends up happening is—from my experience as a Black woman—you really see this intense scrutiny of our emotions or our reactions. And then the focus becomes on how we responded as opposed to the actual incident that is the main issue to begin with. And so again, that’s about that control because now you’ve managed to make it about “This is how you responded” as opposed to “Let’s talk about what happened. Let’s talk about this incident.”

Larry Baker: Ralinda, I love that whole line of conversation because I’ve always felt that the use of that phrase was really, like you said, to control how someone that is subject to racism, discrimination, or microaggression, to control their reaction to fit in a certain box that I’m comfortable with. And if you don’t make it fit in that box, I can dismiss you. I can discredit you. I can invalidate your real-life lived experience. So I Iove that you said that because that is such a key piece that I think people overlook when this phrase is used. It’s that it’s all about control, and I appreciate you bringing that out.

But I also want to invite you to share with me a story that you’ve experienced around this phrase, because I know that you’ve experienced this. And you might say, “Oh my goodness, Larry, this might take a while.” But just to put some meat to the bone in regards to real life, how it happened or how it impacted you, Ralinda.

Ralinda Watts: Sure, sure. So I remember, a few short years ago… as a DEIJ practitioner, part of your role is educating the community but also how you respond to when racialized incidences and harm occur. And I remember at the time that the head of school, the school leader shared that I needed to watch my tone because people weren’t receptive to DEI work. Not because they weren’t interested—it was because of my tone and my delivery. And so when I push back around, if you’re genuinely interested in the work, it’s a professional and a personal journey independent of who is leading the charge. We all have areas of growth and opportunities for growth.

And so when pushing back, then it really became like this critique and scrutiny around, “Well, at the last meeting, I noticed that you weren’t smiling.” This is a direct hit. Or “I noticed that when you talk about this topic, you seemed upset, you seemed angry.” And so there goes the positioning of the angry Black woman stereotype.

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Ralinda Watts: Yeah, and so I would say for me as a DEIJ practitioner, tone policing has very much been a part of my journey, right? And rather, whoever the message is in front of, if it is unsettling to someone as they’re trying to make sense of it, if you’re bringing attention to an action that they have done in the past, it’s unsettling for folks. And so I think what happens is you have that fight, flight, or freeze that happens, and so often it becomes like that fight of “I want to tell you that I didn’t like your tone,” “I didn’t like how you brought that up,” or “Why do you have to talk about race?,” and “If you didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be an issue,” “Does that really happen? I haven’t noticed that, and I’ve been in the company for 20 years.” So you have that type of denial of lived experience—the idea that there’s no way that this is happening here. And it goes on and on.

And so again, it goes back to the control piece. It’s an attempt to control the narrative, right? If I can control this narrative to say that this doesn’t happen and that it’s you, you’re the problem, not what you’re bringing attention to, then it actually gives that person I think this safety net to not have to do the self-work. Also, it’s to deflect.

Larry Baker: It absolutely is. Really, it reminds me of this little motto that I tend to use when people have certain reactions or they get mad at me for speaking the truth. And I use this all the time: that the only people that are mad at me for speaking the truth are those who are living a lie. So for me, I, I don’t really get caught up in those conversations around your tone or “You need to watch your tone” because what it would assume is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to share your experiences, which is not the case.

And for me, when it comes to my experiences with this phrase, actually it took on a different word. And my grandfather used to tell me I need to be careful so that I’m not perceived as being “uppity.” Now, “uppity” to me is when it was used to describe Black people that might believe that a non-person of color would feel like we weren’t showing them enough deference. So my grandfather would always caution me in regards to “You don’t want to be seen as being uppity.” And that never sat right with me, but I can’t fault him because the era that he grew up in, being deemed uppity could be life and death, right? So it was a respect thing to hear it, but to see how that narrative really controlled his life was something that I did not want to be a part of.

So again, I appreciate how you keep bringing that back to it’s about controlling. It’s about making a narrative. It’s about keeping you in this box. I appreciate you sharing that perspective as well. So let’s get a little more specific because all the work that you do, you touch on so many different areas. You have so many different opportunities to, connect this phrase on a larger level. So talk to me a little bit about how do you think this phrase connects to larger systemic issues in society.

Ralinda Watts: Yeah, I think it’s definitely multidimensional. Even when you spoke about your grandfather, there was a sense of deference but really survival, right?

Larry Baker: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ralinda Watts: And so that goes back to that control piece. When I think about tone policing I think when in the workplace as a Black woman, you already have to combat the “angry Black woman” stereotype. So I do think that there is caution that exists around like, “Do I bring this up? Do I not say anything?” That’s happening, and it’s been happening. I think that when one dares to challenge, there’s always I think that fear of retribution, like “You want to bring this up? You want to challenge?”

And that hurts. I can speak from firsthand experience that that has hurt opportunities for leadership because if you’re not going to get along to get along, somebody’s remembering. Somebody who’s in a position of influence or power is dictating how fast somebody can move up in the ranks—who gets promoted, who doesn’t get promoted. I’m thinking about education, same with teaching assignments, like work schedules. I mean, people don’t understand that this plays out in very visceral ways, but somehow we’re not connecting the dots that it’s all related.

And so that systemic piece that you spoke to, I do think about that in relationship to advancement, like what does that look like? And when we see Black women or Black folks in leadership positions, we know that the numbers are speaking to something systemic that’s happening. This idea of this tone policing, we have to consider factoring that into the equation as to why the numbers continue to be that way.

Or I’ve seen plenty of times where there have been folks that are overqualified for positions and somehow they get passed over for another candidate that is from a different identity. And that very much could be that bias of “We don’t want to think about promoting that person because are they going to bring attention to something? What what does it look like? And do we even want to deal with having somebody who’s going to hold the mirror up and want us to be better?”

And so that’s that slippery slope with someone who’s a DEIJ practitioner because their purpose is to hold the mirror up. That’s their purpose, but it isn’t well received when that happens.

Larry Baker: Yeah. The ultimate connection is survival, right? Whether it’s in society or the workplace, this phrase is about survival because typically when people are using it, it’s almost as if they’re giving you a warning. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “You are getting very close to having something extremely detrimental happen to you.”

So it’s almost like it’s that warning shot to say you’ve got two choices: keep going and suffer those consequences, or back down and make me feel comfortable. Because when you hear it out in society from a police officer—“Watch how you’re talking to me” or “Who do you think you’re talking to?—you kind of know that you’re on a path where this interaction could go… It could go bad, right? It could go bad pretty quickly. And the same way in the workplace. When you hear people saying that, you have to make that conscious decision: do I keep pushing or do I back off? It’s this constant sense of feeling like you’re walking on eggshells,

Ralinda Watts: Absolutely. But going back to what you just said, that it is the warning. From my own experience, it very much was like, “Oh, this is an intimidation tactic.” It’s an intimidation tactic to say, “What is your future going to look like here?”

And I just remember, for me it was “Your tone is setting our DEI work backwards.” So I’m internalizing that that’s the warning. That’s the intimidation. Whatever it is that you are perceiving—cause it’s all about that perception too—you’re perceiving as problematic, and so as a result, here’s your warning. And then the way it was couch was that “Several people have observed.”

Larry Baker: The infamous several people, right?

Ralinda Watts: Who are these people?

There are two people in the meeting. What are you talking about?

Ralinda Watts: Right! And so you kind of backtrack your day and you’re like, “Wait, what’s going on?” But that’s how it was positioned—“Several people have noticed your delivery and your tone.” And then again, these are all warnings. It’s the intimidation tactic, but it’s very much to control. And so someone has to make that decision of do I walk in my truth and continue to do what I’m supposed to do, what I’ve been charged to do in my role, or is it I’m just not going to say anything because I don’t want to ruffle any feathers?

But the interesting thing is that from just research in talking to other folks, someone could be silent. Black women could be silencing situations and not respond, and then that’s also questioned. “I noticed that you were silent. I noticed that you didn’t say anything.” And then that gets construed as like, “Oh, you were silent. That means that you’re angry.” So, again, it’s having to constantly battle that angry black woman stereotype. And someone could be silent because they’re trying to process what is happening. So it’s kind of like, “Oh, I need to take a moment,” or they said, “I know I can’t say anything.” But it still gets weaponized, right? So it’s like you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.

Larry Baker: You’re leading me into another question that I just have to ask you. it’s important for us to give our listeners actionable things that they can do. So I would love to get your perspective on what type of advice would you give to people that are currently being targeted by that phrase or when they do get targeted by that phrase? If you could start there, and then I’ll ask you another question.

Ralinda Watts: Sure. I think one of the things is I love to ask clarifying questions. If the phrase is “you need to watch your tone” or “we’ve noticed that your tone has changed,” you can say, “Talk to me more a little bit about what you mean by that.” Really asking those open-ended questions. “Can you give me some examples to what you’re speaking to?” Because it can feel really amorphous, and most of it’s not based on anything. Again, it’s just this tactic. So really having to get at what do you mean, give me some examples. When idea of like “several people,” “Well, that’s interesting. No one has come up to me personally.”

We all in corporations and companies really want to have this culture of being able to go to someone. Feeling like this plan. And so really kind of pushing back on what seems like there’s a conversation that’s happening about me and I’m not in the room.

Larry Baker: Yeah.

Ralinda Watts: “I really feel like if someone was really offended by my tone, it’s so interesting that they haven’t come to me.” So really kind of pushing back in a way that asks those clarifying questions. They’re really good—you can really get at what this is. I would say they are great steps for having that conversation. And then also nowhere in anyone’s contract is their tone connected to the compensation. And so really asking that question of like, “Is this about my work performance?” Because that’s a different conversation, then just out of the blue people have observed your tone. So that’s one way.

I think also as people are thinking about places that they want to be in, it’s really important to be thinking about workplace culture and if that’s a place where someone’s ideas and perspective are valued and welcomed, or is it a place where they’re checking off the box for representation but they actually don’t want me to be a valuable contributor? And so I would say for people who are in the marketplace for employment, these are the kinds of things that we need to be looking for and listening. When folks are recruiting you, what do those responses look like? I feel like that’s that next layer because we know that it’s there. We know the research is there.

So these are the kind of questions that folks need to be thinking about when they’re thinking about where they want to be or a company that values align with their own. And that’s the hard part because there’s a lot of bait and switch.

Larry Baker: Right. Once they get you in the door, then everything changes.

Ralinda Watts: Right. These are the kinds of things that I think. And then also when there’s opportunities to talk to folks in the organization that have the same identity as you, oftentimes you can have that real, authentic conversation or you can also observe a lot. And sometimes what is not said says so much.

Larry Baker: Absolutely. Absolutely. Read between the lines. Ralinda, I love that whole concept because I often tell people that when you are given these vague coded language-type phrases, I always encourage them to make that individual give behaviors, right? And when I’m talking about behaviors, I’m talking about “Tell me why you interpreted that my tone was aggressive. What did I say? What did I do?” Because that way it gives them the opportunity to develop you. Because if you’re not working on behaviors, then I don’t really have anything to work on. I need to understand why you’re interpreting something that I did as being aggressive or that my tone needs to be improved, and I need you to be objective about it. I need you to give me the specific words, the specific actions so that way I can give you my interpretation of that behavior, so we can be on the same page.

Because I don’t want to be put in that position of trying to figure out what your intentions are for me. Are you doing this to help me get better, or are you legitimately giving me a warning to say, “Yeah, I’m gonna need you to change or else we’re going to have a different conversation.” So I need you to give me behaviors. I need you to be specific. Tell me the words, tell me the actions, because if you cannot do that, now that leaves room for me to say, “Is it possible that you could have some bias in regards to how I conducted that meeting or have that conversation?”

The other piece that I want you to give some advice on is for our allies. Now I often use the phrase “accomplice” because I think allies… it’s a little wishy-washy. But an accomplice—if I go down, you go down. So give me some advice for those folks who might witness this phrase being used. What, might they do if they are truly trying to be an accomplice or an ally for people that are subjected to this?

Ralinda Watts: I love that you separated the words because definitely I feel like allyship is something like a title that people give to themselves. And the accomplice piece is really like skin in the game. Like willing to risk social capital. In the organization, many folks have a different level of social capital, and it’s about how do you leverage that capital right in the name of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. We’re trying to get to that place.

And so I would say for those folks who are willing to risk social capital when they do see those things or hear those things is really being able to go direct and actually call those things out. There’s the water cooler or in between when another colleague says something about another colleague, to be able to say, “Hey. Can I talk to you for a second? I just heard…” But actually be willing to, right? Or sometimes it might be when there’s a meeting in public and being able to say, “You know what I noticed? My Black colleagues are having a disparate experience, and I noticed that. And so it’s actually something that as an organization, we really need to think critically about addressing because if I’m noticing this, I know that they’re experiencing this.”

So I think it’s just, what does that risk look like? What are you willing to risk I think is really important and it not being a one off. Sometimes folks are like, “Okay, I did say something,” or I’ve experienced where someone will send me an email or had sent an email saying that was really wonderful that you raised that point at the meeting, right? So they sent me an email and I’m like, “Well, what good is done if the email is going to me? I already know what I did.” But how do you take it if you’re noticing that, how do you take that in a larger space, like to the entire community to say, “This is my takeaway and this is what we need to do.”

And so I would always get those emails after the meeting, but it was like, “You didn’t say anything in the meeting. That’s where you risk the social capital. The email does nothing.” Maybe it was their attempt to try to make me feel like I wasn’t alone, but I’m the only one that received the email so I am alone.

I feel like that’s what’s missing —the risking of the social capital. And so these folks I sent those emails, they were white. They had influence in the organization, but they just couldn’t risk it. You know, they couldn’t risk that social capital. I feel like that’s an issue because again, if we’re going to connect this to the tone policing, it very much becomes about how I responded as opposed what was the act that that we really need to be thinking about and we really need to unpack, we need to address. It’s lost. That accomplice piece again… if folks, you know, could focus on “Well, here’s this issue” so that way we make sure that that’s at the center of the work that we do is really important.

Larry Baker: That the whole piece of letting accomplices know that you’re going to have to be willing to risk something, right? That is a huge message that they have to understand that. And you touched upon it: it’s not a one and done. You don’t get to claim yourself as being an ally. That’s something that the community gives to you that you just don’t get to deem yourself as being that.

But the reality is getting ahold of understanding that I have got to risk something so that somebody else can gain, that is such an under-discussed reality about allyship or accompliceship or whatever it is. That message needs to come to the front. You have to know that you’re going to have to lose something so that someone else can gain it. If you don’t understand that, then you’re not ready to be an ally.

Ralinda Watts: Absolutely. Well, that’s the biggest piece. Then that means that person, even in their best of intentions, has more work to do. And I think that that’s part of it. People want to be able to say like, “I’ve read all these books, I read all these articles, I’ve talked to people that I’m proximate to who have shared with me, like their racialized experiences.” You can do all of that and still have more work to do, because the thing is is that those things are there, but how does it show up in practice? And I feel like that’s the thing. People are still in the theory phase. Like they have theorized it, right? And they’re like, “Okay, this makes sense, but what does it look like in practice?”

And that’s when it counts the most, is that when you’re on the ground in real time and you’re interrupting, you’re disrupting, you’re helping to dismantle. That is when you have to show up the most and I think that folks think that them showing up is the reading and the listening.

And clearly in the last three years, there was a lot of listening and learning in 2020. But what’s going on?

Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s such a true fact. And another point to that allyship… And I don’t know if you feel this way, but I know that I do. I don’t need you to be an ally in the room that I’m in. I can stand up for myself. I can defend myself. I am comfortable with engaging in that conversation whenever and how often I need to. I need you to stand up for me in rooms I’m never going to get invited in and understand that folks that are foolish. They are loud. They are strong and wrong. But you have to stay the path, you have to stay the course, and you have to take all of that theory and all that understanding that you have and do something with it.

I use Bible references every once again, and the one that is coming to my mind is “Faith without works is dead.” I can have faith in it, if I don’t work it, nothing’s going to come to pass. So that’s the whole mindset behind you can have faith in this knowledge that we’re sharing with you, but if you don’t work it, it’s useless. So I appreciate you sharing that with me, Ralinda.

Ralinda Watts: No, absolutely. I 1,000% agree. And I think that, again, it’s where you were talking about rooms that I’m not in and folks that are somehow the loudest. That’s why that risking of social capital is so important because a lot of times the folks who are the loudest are few in number. They just have to be the loudest. So if other folks were to say “Oh no, I disagree or this or that,” actually I think that would illuminate that they are not in the majority, but that’s not what happens.

You have folks who are like, “Oh, I don’t want to risk the social capital because what if we don’t sit next to each other at the next meeting?” I just feel like people have to be willing to call out racism. I mean, that’s also a part of it. Like there’s such this gentleness around calling out racism. And I’m like… Why do we accept that? It’s egregious. And I think if more folks treated it as such, I think this would be a different conversation, but there’s such latitude and grace that is given to racist behavior. Wanting this explanation for the why, as opposed to like, I can’t debate on this—someone’s racist or not. I’m just going to tell you this is what they did and it’s harmful when we need to address this. So I think that that’s also very steeped in this around the latitude that we give for people who clearly exhibit racist behavior.

Larry Baker: Oh, yeah. And this reminds me so much of conversations that I have in organizations where we talk about the need to address these issues when they are seen. One of the things that’s often the response to me is “But Larry, we have such a nice culture here, and addressing these things would go against our culture.” To which my first response is, who is this culture nice to, the person that’s perpetrating the unfair treatment? Because I promise you the person that’s on the receiving end of it. They don’t think you have a nice culture. So I’m going to need you, I’m going to need you to redefine what nice culture is because your nice culture is actually supporting bad behavior and it’s making the victim feel like they’re the bad person for addressing it. That’s not a nice culture.

Ralinda Watts: Right, and we see this happen so early on, if you think about schools. And a lot of my work is in schools. That’s exactly what happens. You’ve got children that are experiencing harm at school in their classrooms and social encounters, and the expectation is that they have to just endure. And “Aren’t they so resilient?” Like, “Oh look, they’re so resilient. They’re so wonderful.” As opposed to what are we doing about these children that keep up this racist behavior? There aren’t any consequences.

I think what happens is kids are socialized and then they become adults. But I think because in school, racialized events are normalized and there aren’t consequences that happen or if the consequences happen, I don’t think folks necessarily see them as punitive, right? It’s more learning, listening, what have you. What happens is that the students who are in the majority learn very quickly the social capital they have, and the kids that are harmed learn very quickly “Oh, this is what this is about.” And then what happens is that that silences them. And so, so many things go unreported, but it’s because they’ve learned these are the rules of the game.

Ralinda Watts: And so I just share that because so much of my work in schools is about having to address these racialized micro-macroaggressions that happen. And I’m like, “Yeah, and then they grow up.” And so I think we’re not connecting also on what’s the harm that happens as a result of giving this latitude, of giving this grace. Folks grow up to be adults, and they also…

Larry Baker: Same thing applies.

Ralinda Watts: Yes. So that’s why I’m like we really need to treat like this racism is like a real issue as opposed to like, “Oh, it’s not…

Larry Baker: “It’s not a system, it’s an individual.”

Ralinda Watts: Yeah.

Larry Baker: Yeah. I understand. I understand. I understand. Ralinda, I am super happy that we had this time to have this conversation. I feel as though we can talk about this for days and hours and hours and hours. And what I want to do is to leave some space because I am positive that some of our listeners have heard something that you said, and they really want to connect with you, they really want to find out, “How do I get in contact with Ralinda Watts?”

So before we go, I want to give you this space to let folks know how they can get in touch with you, how they can see what you’ve written. I’m just going to give you this space.

Ralinda Watts: No, great. I appreciate it. So yes—if anything I’m saying is resonating with anyone, definitely check me out at Ralinda Watts on all the socials: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.

And as a part of my consulting, I started what’s known as RalindaSpeaks, and it’s also available on all the socials as well. And really what I do as an educator, that’s in me around trying to really teach a lot of these topics that can feel really heavy, but distill them down in a digestible way, and I use graphic design to do that. So on RalindaSpeaks, I talk about many of these issues via the graphic design in my words. And so it’s a great way for folks to learn.

And just check out we’ve built a really wonderful community that is very invested, in the pursuit of justice. So you’ll find my writing there as well. There’s plenty of links to pieces that I’ve written through various media sites.

So those are all great ways to get in touch with me.

Larry Baker: Love it. Love it. Love it. Ralinda, again, thank you, thank you, thank you so much for sharing your insight, sharing your time for this extremely important conversation. I really appreciate bringing you on, and don’t be surprised if we circle back and we have another conversation because I really, really enjoy having this conversation with you. So thank you so much.

Ralinda Watts: Oh, thank you so much, Larry, and I would be happy to come back and chat more. But thanks for a great conversation. A must for everybody, I think, as we think about how we can all in our own spheres of influence flip this thing on its head.

Larry Baker: Awesome Very well said. It’s my pleasure. So thank you so much again.

Ralinda Watts: Thank you.

Larry Baker: Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded. And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Decoded: “I don’t see color.”
Published on: August 2, 2023

“I don’t see color” is sometimes viewed as a non-discriminatory, “politically correct” approach to interactions with people of color. But in reality, there’s a difference between understanding a person’s inherent value and being mindful of the challenges and perspectives each unique identity brings to the conversation.

To help us unpack this phrase, Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Critical Conversations Consulting, LLC Founder and Owner Paul Ladipo (he/him), who will use their own lived experiences to explain how the phrase actually perpetuates racism through willful ignorance.

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Meet Our Guest

Paul Ladipo
Founder and Owner, Critical Conversations Consulting, LLC
LinkedIn | Website

Paul has a combined ten years of experience in academia, non-profits, and faith communities, becoming well-versed in the DEI challenges and needs of each sector. In higher ed, he has facilitated bystander intervention and sexual misconduct trainings with athletic teams, discussed systemic racism with faculty, and led full-day workshops on building inclusive cultures with student leaders. For non-profits, Paul has developed curriculum to center the needs of persons with disabilities, survivors of intimate partner violence, and survivors of sexual assault. Within faith communities, he has given presentations and led discussions on breaking racial barriers to create multi-ethnic ministries.


Show Notes & Highlights

5:03  Paul shares a personal story about the phrase “I don’t see color.”

8:04  Paul calls in “colorblindness” as an easy conversational out

12:03  Larry and Paul discuss the importance of self-reflection in brave conversations

17:04  Paul gives three tips to people targeted by the phrase “I don’t see color”

18:02  Paul and Larry give advice on how to help allies dig deeper in conversations

20:08  Larry shares a story explaining the different experiences and color


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and then hear personal stories and some tips to help us notice and call in bias.

Welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. My name is Larry Baker, and I use the pronouns of he and him. I am your host for our session on today, and our session today is probably the phrase that inspired me to want to engage in these conversations to decode some of these phrases: and that phrase is “I don’t see color.” That phrase is sometimes viewed as non-discriminatory, politically correct; it’s an approach to interaction with people of color. But in reality, there’s a difference between understanding a person’s inherent value and being mindful of the challenges and perspectives each unique identity brings to the conversation.

I am joined today to help break down this phrase with Paul Ladipo, and he is from Critical Conversation Consulting, LLC—he is the founder and the owner, and I will give Paul an opportunity to introduce himself in a moment. But again, this is a conversation, Paul, that I have been super excited to have, so we’re gonna jump in with you giving your introduction, telling people who you are and what you do, and then we’ll jump into this topic. So Paul, if you would.

Paul Ladipo: Thank you very much, Larry. My name is Paul Ladipo, and I’m based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. I’ve been doing DEI worked roughly 10 years.

I firstly got to the place where I started my own consulting because as much as I love DEI, I don’t like nine-to-five DEI. And a lot of people have said on LinkedIn and elsewhere that nine-to-five DEI is overly political and, not necessarily red versus blue, but maybe in terms of office politics and lack of support and just all the hoops and hurdles in the office spaces. So I was like, “You know what? I don’t like this. I don’t wanna do this. I wanna do it on my own.”

So I decided that, I took my little money, and I’m like, “I’m gonna start my own gig.” And, you know, business is slow, but it’s probably the best professional decision I’ve made is to start my own. That way I can do it my way, cuz I tell people I don’t do fluff. Upfront, I tell clients and prospective clients, “I don’t do fluff, I don’t do kumbaya.” I’m a firebrand, and if I say things that are uncomfortable and that’s too much, that’s okay. We can part ways early. Because I’ve tried to do fluff and I’ve watched people try to do fluff and it doesn’t work, and so I just kind of tell like it is.

Larry Baker: Yeah. And Paul, you know what? We are speaking from the same hymnal because I do the exact same thing, and I absolutely appreciate that perspective that you bring to the table.

And with that being said, as we jump into this conversation about this phrase, I do want to kind of acknowledge the fact that when this phrase is often said by people, they can be extremely well intentioned, right? They could have the best intentions to engage in this conversation. I just need them to understand that there is a better conversation that we need to have.

So that’s how I’m gonna kick this off, Paul. I’m gonna ask you to start sharing with me some stories that you have around this phrase, and just like you are going to do, make it raw. Tell me how you feel about this phrase.

Paul Ladipo: The one example that comes to mind was… this was 20 years ago, if I’m dating myself here. I was sitting in a friend’s dorm room, and it was three of us: myself, a white woman, and a biracial man, you know, Black-white mixed. And he and I were talking about race frequently, us being men of color. And my friend was like, “Oh, I don’t see color.” She said that, and it surprised me, and it stuck. And I remember that 20 years later—I don’t remember being offended, but it just caught me off guard.

And then a number of years later, fast forward 10 or so years when she and I were at a pub because we were celebrating me getting married soon to somebody else. She was in town visiting, and she made a comment about, “Oh, Paul, you don’t have your Black card.” Cuz to her I acted like a white Black person. And so when she said that—even though it was 10 years apart or 12 years apart—I’m like, “Wait a minute, didn’t you tell me you didn’t see color like 10 years or so before?”

And then also just doing DEI work, a number of presenters and DEI professionals and staff and experts have said the same thing that you’re saying, Larry, that’s like, wait a minute… it sounds PC. You may mean PC, but it’s something you’re BS-ing us here, you know?

Larry Baker: I love that, Paul, because it relates to me so well. Honestly, when I hear people say that phrase, automatically red flags pop up, right? I know that at least initially I can’t trust you. It says to me that your feelings are more important than my lived experiences. And from that moment on, we’re off to a bad start, so we’re going to have to remove some barriers so that we can progress in our relationship.

And that’s just me, right? I’m not saying that this is universal for every person of color, when they hear that statement that’s how they react. But for me personally, that is a red flag that means we’re starting off on the wrong foot, and it’s gonna take a little bit of work to regain that trust.

So I’m glad you shared that story. And Paul, you mentioned that you do work with organizations but also work outside of organizations. So talk to me a little bit about how this phrase connects, in your opinion, to a larger systemic issue in our society. But of course, things that impact us in society can kind of spill over to the workplace. So I want you to touch on how does this phrase impact systemic issues in society, but then in the workplace as well?

Paul Ladipo: So the first question, I think about police brutality. I’ve been in the church for a number of years, and I remember a pastor—he wasn’t my pastor, but he was a visiting pastor to the church I attended—he once bragged on saying… he would give his background, he was like, “Yeah, I marched with the brothers.” This white pastor, he even said “march with the brothers,” you know? And then I found out this guy founded a leadership institute that was colorblind or that attempted to erase identities of its participants.

His line of reasoning was that it’s trying to remove identities that have served as motivations for hate and dispute some more different groups of people. And I understood where he was coming from, but when I first saw that on a website, like you described it as, the trust, the wall went up between him.

Like you say you “marched with the brothers” and now you’re saying you found an institute that erases my identity. I’m like, “Dude, no. We cannot do this.”

Larry Baker: Conflict.

Paul Ladipo: And to make it worse in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered, I decided just to google this dude cuz he came back to my mind. So I Googled him, and he is like, “Okay, was George Floyd murdered beacause he was Black? Maybe. But colorblindness is the way to fight this police brutality.” And I’m thinking, “Man, you being colorblind is turning a blind eye to the injustice that Black men and women and trans people will face at the hands of the police.”

And so you’s talking about I don’t see color/being colorblind, but you’re being woefully ignorant of the oppression that we face. And it’s like, “You know what? I’m done. I’m done with this dude.” I wish I could sit down with this dude, but he’s like 75+, he’s not gonna change. I mean, chances are…

Like on Facebook especially and Twitter, it’s like people will bring up race or racism. It’s like, “Oh, I’m colorblind. I don’t see color.” And it’s like… Look, you can say that all you want to. It doesn’t change who I am. You can say you don’t see color, you don’t see that I’m a Black man. I’m still one, okay? I’m still Black. You know, it ain’t going away. Don’t BS me. So it’s an easy out of a difficult conversation. They’re trying to be PC, but what they’re doing is it’s a get out of jail free card. It’s like, let me just get outta this conversation. Boom. Back to the side. I don’t have to talk about it.

To the second part of the question in the workplace, I think when it comes to hiring people—say colorblind hiring or even like trying to abolish affirmative action and saying colorblind admissions—here’s the thing though: it still protects white supremacy. It upholds and protects white supremacy because the colorblind approach favors white applicants because they’re the default, especially with college admissions. And so rich kids are disproportionately white. And so rich kids have to pick when it comes to colleges.

If you would do a colorblind admissions policy, you would leave out a lot of Black and Latino and Indigenous students cuz they’re on average poorer than their white and Asian counterparts. And so this whole race-neutral whatever policies for higher ed would really be devastating to students of color, I’m gonna be honest.

In the workplace, you say being colorblind, but when you do that you’re ignoring the needs of different populations. I work retail on the side to supplement my income, and we have a large Somali population here in Minneapolis. But my boss does a good job of not being colorblind, and she’s aware that them being Somali, them being Muslims, they have different needs than other workers and other customers. To be colorblind is neglecting Somali people and their heritage and their religion and their needs and whatnot.

Larry Baker: Yeah. And Paul, to me that really ties into my interpretation of why this phrase is so harmful. Because my main responsibility in the work that I do is to create that awareness, which ultimately I hope will cause you to do some self-reflection, which will ultimately cause you to some type of action, right?

And when you use that phrase, it tends to automatically shut down the individual’s need for introspection, which is what I ultimately need you to have because even if you think that you treat all people fairly or without any bias, you know that there are other people that do not. You probably eat dinner with them. You probably take them to the show. You probably go to church with these people, and those are the people that I need you to talk to. So the reason why I’m so passionate about getting people to understand how this phrase is so harmful… because I’m trying to equip you for those conversations that become more difficult if you cannot let your guard down and deal with your issues first.

So for me, that phrase, it takes on multiple levels that I need to dissect and break down because ultimately I need you to understand why this isn’t effective. Because I need you to talk to other people that I never get an opportunity to talk to about why that phrase is so harmful. If that makes sense, if that resonates with you.

Paul Ladipo: Yeah, yeah. I would also say that what really bugs me is like… maybe you’re gonna ask this at some point, but like if I can be a little forward here, what really bothers me about this phrase, I feel like it’s a perversion of Dr. King’s “do not judge by the color of their skin.”

Larry Baker: Oh my goodness.

Paul Ladipo: So what I’ve learned was that, yes, Dr. King did say “do not judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of the character.” But it doesn’t mean that Dr. King wasn’t aware of color because Dr. King spoke a lot about race in his writings and in his speeches.

Larry Baker: Absolutely. Yeah.

Paul Ladipo: I think in the sixties with all the turmoil, a lot of white families listened to his “I have a dream” speech or even that section of his speech, and they clung to it for dear life. They’re like, “Okay, let’s not judge people by the color of skin. So now I’m colorblind.”

It’s like, wait a minute… now you’ve taken what he said, and you perverted it and distorted it. So that’s what makes it really difficult because they, in addition to being colorblind, they misquote Dr. King, and they reinforce each other. And really, you have like a two-headed beast that’s hard to defeat, you know?

Larry Baker: Absolutely. And what’s interesting about that quote or the speech from Dr. King is that shortly before he passed away, he came out and said, “I regret that I even said that because it is more of a utopia state than what I’m actually seeing happening.” So it was almost as if he regretted saying that particular part of it because it’s just like you said—too many people latched onto that and took that mindset of “I’m a good person because I’m doing what Dr. King said, and I don’t judge people by the color of the of their skin.”

But what it also does is it gives them this crutch or it creates this lack of an ability to acknowledge that they may have some opportunities open to them that I will never have open to me. And that’s part of that shield that I think they use to kind of protect themselves and say, “But I don’t see color.” No. I need you to understand that our experiences are a hundred percent different.

So let’s dig into some other questions. I want you to talk about in two different phases: what advice do you have, Paul, for people who are targeted by this phrase or people that are impacted by this phrase? What advice do you have for them? And then I’m gonna ask you to flip it and talk to the ally, which I like to use the phrase accomplice, but we can talk about that a little bit later. But talk about advice that you would give to an ally when they hear another non-person of color use this phrase— what advice would you give to them?

So start with the person that is targeted by this phrase. But then for the ally/accomplice that hears this phrase and how would we recommend that they attack that?

Paul Ladipo: To the target, I would say first of all is pick your battles cuz if you battle everybody, you’re gonna be exhausted. We don’t need battle fatigue. Protect your peace. Secondly, I would say that that should be an indication to you that they’re blowing smoke up your butt. When they’re saying “I don’t see color,” that’s their way of saying “I don’t want to. I don’t either know how to have this conversation, or I don’t want to have this conversation, or I don’t wanna sound racist.” That’s their mental gymnastics they’re pulling here.

And so when they say that, keep those three things in mind. Pick your battles. Is this relationship or person worth having this conversation or argument with or if they’re not? Cuz some people you just cannot have this conversation and you have to leave them or just leave it for the time being. So know that’s their motivation. That’s what’s going on in their head. That’s their discomfort coming out. Know where you stand with this person and then from there, choose your battle. Pick your battles.

To the ally, when they hear another white person, or sometimes it’s people of color—I’ve heard people of color say this too.

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Paul Ladipo: To this person, how do you not see color, or how did you learn this phrase, or are you uncomfortable acknowledging the diversity? Ask them clarifying questions to get them to think a little, dig a little. There’s a way to ask that’s not accusatory, but you can ask questions to get people to dig a little bit, do their own digging.

Larry Baker: Yeah, I love that. And that ties into some of the things that I think about when I give advice to people who are targeted by this phrase. I love how you said pick your battles, right? Because I understand that the primary reason why… well, they’re several reasons why Black people don’t want to talk about racism. I mean, first and foremost, we’re tired of dealing with it. So that’s one of the main reasons why we don’t want to talk about it. And another reason that I think surfaces is that we’re too busy trying to survive in it and thrive in spite of it to sit here to have conversations about it. So I absolutely appreciate your comment about maintain your own peace and pick your own battles.

The piece of advice that I tend to give people that are targeted by this phrase is to at least tell that individual how you interpret that statement. Because remember, you said that even some Black people say, “I don’t see color.” And that’s fine. But to engage in that conversation, I would recommend just at least tell them how you interpret that statement. And I said this in a lot of my presentations. One of the biggest things that I say is it initially tells me that you don’t see me. You tend to think that all of our experiences are the same.

So the advice that I give to my allies/accomplices, I’m gonna tie it into a story that I had with a neighbor of mine who is a white gentleman, and I would refer to him as an associate. I mean, every time he walks his dog, he comes past my house, I’m getting the mail, we engage in a conversation. So he knows the work that I do. And he was brave, I’ll admit it. He asked me. “So Larry, do you think that this work that you do is divisive? Because I think more people should be not seeing color.”

And here’s the scenario that I gave to him—his name is James. I said, “James, lemme give you a scenario. So let’s say you’re driving down the street and you are coming up to a stop sign or a stop light, and it turns red and you run through it and you didn’t notice an unmarked police car. And that police officer flips on the lights, pulls you over to the side, and then they say to you, ‘Hey, I’m pulling you over because you ran through a red light.’ If your response to that officer is, ‘Officer, I don’t see color,’ how effective is that argument going to be with that police officer? Because at the end of the day, that police officer needs you to understand that your experience with a red light is different than your experience with a green light.”

Paul Ladipo: Bam.

Larry Baker: It absolutely is. So when I said that to him, I could almost see his demeanor change. Yeah. Because now I gave him a concrete example… I don’t know if it changed his behavior. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen him walking his dog past my house in the last couple of weeks. But at the end of the day when I gave him that scenario that if you tell that officer, “Officer, I don’t see color,” you as an individual are failing to understand the basic thing that I’m trying to tell you, that you have a different experience with a red light than you do with a green light. So understand that my experience as a Black man is different than your experience as a white man.

And that’s all that I’m saying that that phrase negates us from engaging in that type of conversation. Again, I don’t know how it changed his perspective, but like I said, I haven’t seen him walk his dog past my house in a couple weeks. But I’m looking forward to having that conversation with him again.

But until you give those types of illustrations, it doesn’t become tangible. It’s almost as if this is such a foreign concept for individuals that aren’t experiencing this, and that their life is actually shaped because of this. It’s hard for them to grasp that concept.

Paul Ladipo: So your neighbor, he’s kind of exhibiting… if I dare say, I see it like textbook white fragility. It’s kind of like you brought up something, made him uncomfortable, and his response is to get out of there, not talk. And in some cases the fragility is hostile, in some cases fragility is running a direction. Another manifestation of that is that you be appease or freeze. And some people get flat out hostile. So in my posts, people have gotten straight up hostile, like I’ve had to block them or they block me, but they got really mad. I’m like, “Look, I’m just telling you. I’m not here to hold your hand. So like it or leave it, you know?”

Larry Baker: Exactly, exactly. And I’m not saying that he’s avoiding me, I’m just saying that I haven’t seen him come this way, but I’m pretty sure that if he was, you know what? I actually appreciate the fact that you asked me this question, right? Because it has given me the opportunity to share with you a perspective that nine times outta ten you probably would never get if you didn’t run into me in this scenario. So I absolutely appreciate that.

Like I said, I’ve recently become a follower of you over LinkedIn, and I’ve seen some of your content and there’s a lot of things that really jump out and resonate with me. So I am super excited that you took this opportunity to share your thoughts around this phrase, and I think you’ve done an excellent job at helping me decode this phrase. But Paul, I know, just like you said, you’re an independent businessperson, and I wanna give you the opportunity to tell folks, our listeners, how they can get in contact with you, what types of services you provide. So take a moment and share with folks who you are and what you do and how to reach you.

Paul Ladipo: Yeah. So like I said, I’m based in Minneapolis—the Twin Cities. I do remote and in person, so if you want to fly me out to your city or state or whatever, I’m down. I don’t know about Texas or Florida (laughs). But anyway, I love remote and in person consultations, and so I’ve done both. I do all sorts topics: I talk about like white privilege, white supremacy culture, psychological safety, ageism, Title IX matters, so sexual misconduct. I’ve done safe zone trainings. I do bias awareness training.

And where to find me? You can go on my website. It’s CriticalConversationsConsulting.com. I know, that’s a whole lot of breakfast there, but CriticalConversationsConsulting.com and look at what I offer. You can also check me out on LinkedIn, so look my name up on LinkedIn—Paul Ladipo, so L A D I P O. I’m on LinkedIn and my LinkedIn profile has a link to my site on there. You can access it from there. And if you like what you see, fill out a form and we can have a conversation.

Larry Baker: Awesome, Paul. I absolutely love what I saw. So that was one of the main drivers to get you in to engage in this conversation. I absolutely thank you and appreciate the time that you gave me on today. But I absolutely want to acknowledge that this is a phrase that it’s one of my personal missions to have no one say this anymore.

Paul Ladipo: Yeah, same.

Larry Baker: Or at least have a deeper understanding of the impact that this phrase has on people of color. So Paul, thank you so much for joining us on today. And for those of you that listened, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded. And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Decoded: “But you don’t look autistic.”
Published on: July 5, 2023

The phrase “but you don’t look autistic” presupposes autism as an “other,” ostracizing autistic people from the conversation and discounting the community’s diverse lived experiences. So how do we respond to anti-autistic microaggressions, and what can we do to foster a sense of belonging through inclusive language?

To help us unpack this loaded question, Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Becca Lory Hector (she/her), who shares her lived experience as an openly Autistic Professional on a mission to close the disability gap in leadership.

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Meet Our Guest

Becca Lory Hector
Lead Consultant and Founder, Truly Inclusive Leadership
LinkedIn | Facebook | Instagram | Youtube | Ko-Fi | Website

Becca Lory Hector is an openly Autistic Professional on a mission to close the disability gap in leadership by working with companies to attract and retain disabled talent via their DEIB initiatives. Becca was diagnosed autistic as an adult and has since become a dedicated autism and neurodiversity advocate, researcher, consultant, speaker, and author. In addition to her work in DEIB, she is focused on autistic quality of life research, and her personal development course called ‘Self Defined Living: A Path to a Quality Autistic Life. All with the goal of spreading acceptance, building understanding, and encouraging self-advocacy. She is also an animal lover with a special affinity for cats who spends most of her “free” time with her many animals, her husband Antonio, and her Emotional Support Animal (ESA), Sir Walter Underfoot.


Show Notes & Highlights

5:15  Becca shares her personal experience with coded language and autism

8:52  Becca explainssome societal barriers and disclosure of disability

13:52  Becca breaks down the connection between unconscious bias and privilege

18:58  Becca defines stigma, bias, and ableism

27:32  Becca gives examples of responding to microaggressions in different scenarios

30:51  Becca talks about being an ally through authentic curiosity


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and then hear personal stories and some tips to help us notice and call in bias.

So thank you for joining us today on Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. Today’s phrase that we’re going to take a look at is “But you don’t look autistic.” So this phrase, “but you don’t look autistic,” presupposes autism as an “other,” or ostracizing autistic people from the conversation and discounting the community’s diverse lived experiences.

So today we’re gonna talk about how do we respond to anti-autistic microaggressions and what we can do to foster a sense of belonging through inclusive language. To help me unpack this conversation, I am joined by Lead Consultant and Founder of Truly Inclusive Leadership, Becca Lory Hector, who uses the pronouns of she and her. And I’m gonna give Becca an opportunity to introduce herself in a moment.

But this is the phrase that we’re going to tackle, and I think that this phrase has so many wide-reaching implications. And Becca, I’m super excited for you to join us on today to kind of break this term down. So Becca, I gave you a very cheap introduction, so I want to give you the opportunity to expound on who you are and what you do. So Becca, if you would, thank you.

Becca Lory Hector: I appreciate that so much. I like to say that I’m a lot of things cuz I wear a lot of hats and that list gets long, but really my whole mission and everything is to kind of affect the changes that we need in our workplaces by helping to close the employment disability gap. It’s a big issue for us, and it affects a huge portion of our population.

So that’s something that I’m really working towards, and what that looks like out in the world is a lot of DEIB consulting, so diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging consulting. And I say that because that was the way that the disabled community was finally heard about the workplace—we snuck in in under that DEI mission. For a really long time, we were left out of that conversation. So we finally made it into the DEI conversation, and I’m able to do consulting and change up the workplaces via that. That’s what I do.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Becca. And how long have you been engaged in this work?

Becca Lory Hector: I’ve been really actively focused on this work for the last three years. Prior to that, I’ve been focused on just autism and neurodiversity segment of the disabled population cuz I was diagnosed autistic myself almost 11 years ago now at the age of 36. So I’ve been in nonprofit advocacy and nonprofit management for the last 10 years.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much for that, Becca. So, Becca, as we hop into our conversation around this phrase, one thing that I do want to acknowledge is that we truly do understand that in many cases when people are making this phrase, “but you don’t look autistic,” it’s almost from a point of not having any harmful intentions, if you will. So if you could share with me just a little bit of insight on your personal experience with this phrase—How does it make you feel? How do you interpret when someone says that? So if you could gimme just a little bit of your own personal experiences around this phrase, “but you don’t look autistic.”

Becca Lory Hector: Absolutely. For me, that phrase obviously entered my life a lot later than for some people. I was 36 years old, and I got a new identity label and I had to figure it out at 36. So there was a lot of work surrounding it. But what I understood as I entered into the community was that people were saying it like it was a compliment. The people that were saying it to me were saying it in the same way that people say, “You don’t sound Black.”

Larry Baker: Yes. Yes.

Becca Lory Hector: It marries that parallel, right? It’s a really similar thing: you’re saying that to me like it’s a compliment, and that’s a huge insult. Like, what do you mean by that? What is the baggage behind that statement?

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Becca Lory Hector: So for us as autistic people, the baggage behind that statement is autism doesn’t have a look. All of us look different because we’re all different human beings, and there is no look to autism.

It also digs up layers and layers of trauma for us where we have been invalidated about our experiences, where we’ve been told that, “No, you’re not autistic. You’re just weird or unique or this or that. Or broken.” Which was what a lot of us heard. And so there’s that layer to it.

Now all of these years later, it’s like an ironic red flag of a toxic human being to me. If somebody says it to me now—10 years into advocacy, seeing the world change, watching people talk about DEI issues, talk about microaggressions, talk about bias, talk about all of these things—if you’re still saying, “But you don’t look autistic,” I know the level of human I’m dealing with. It tells me something about you now.

Larry Baker: That’s awesome, Becca. And that just shows the amount of work that’s going to have to go into engaging in that conversation. I love how you made the parallel about the fact that when this phrase is used, it’s typically viewed as a compliment, and it absolutely resonated with me when you said, “Oh, you don’t sound Black” or “You don’t act like other Black people ” like that’s a compliment. And the way you tied it in with the whole correlation to the association with being Black is being broken or there’s something that’s not right with being Black. So that connection is absolutely something that I receive and that really, really resonates with me. So I absolutely appreciate you doing that.

It leads me to another thought process that I’d like you to venture into with me because you talked about how you are such a proponent of breaking down those barriers in the workplace for individuals with autism. Can you talk to me a little bit about what are some of the barriers that an individual might face when they choose to disclose that they’re autistic? Can you talk a little bit about that? You can do it for the workplace or you can do it for society. I’m gonna let you pick.

Becca Lory Hector: I have to tell you, I’m gonna talk to you about society because to me, the workplace is just a microcosm of our society.

Larry Baker: Agreed.

Becca Lory Hector: Same rules should apply, if they don’t, I’m sorry that’s not the case for you. So that’s how I really look at it. And the thing is that when we’re talking about these issues, there’s the current state of affairs and how we wanna deal with it now, and then there’s our wishes and dreams and hopes for the future and what it would look like.

So when we talk about disclosure, I always wanna start with please understand that having the ability to choose disclosure is a privilege. Some people have a on-the-outside visible version of their disability that they can’t, you know what I mean? Like if the bias is someone’s seeing them walking, it’s happening. When you have an invisible disability that people can’t see those supports you need—like those are not external supports that you need or they can’t see your external challenges—you then live in a small land of privilege. You’ve taken a step into privilege because of the way our world is structured, the hierarchy of our world. So I now have the option as someone with an invisible disability to choose disclosure or not, and that already puts me in a step ahead of a lot of people, a step ahead of a lot of the bias and discrimination and all of that.

So I lead a conversation on disclosure and remind you that it’s a privilege to be in a conversation about it, to be able to have that conversation. Then I talk about it realistically—is it safe to disclose an invisible disability in our current workplace? I would say no. Not right now. I would say unless you are a hundred percent secure in your job or if you lose it, you don’t care or if you are running your own business and that is under your control. Unless you are in those circumstances, I do not advise disclosure in the workplace.

There are ways that you can ask for the things that you need without necessarily disclosing your disability. I say that because currently our workplaces are full of stigma, bias, and ableism, and until that changes, it’s not safe to disclose. There’s currently still repercussions for disclosure, whether they are overt and documented or less overt and not documented, like bullying and gaslighting and things like that. But there are absolutely repercussions of folks knowing that you are different in some way or that you belong to a marginalized community in some way. And if you are not a strong person mentally, physically, whatever, it’s not always smart to have to take on that extra weight that it means to be open. It’s unwise.

So that’s where we’re at now. What I hope for is a world in which disclosure doesn’t count, or we don’t even have conversations about disclosure—where our workplaces are built under concepts of universal design and anticipating the differing needs of all different human beings, that those needs are met ahead of time, and folks don’t need to disclose something personal about themselves in order to have their needs met. They don’t have to separate themselves.

Larry Baker: That is such an amazing concept of that doing it beforehand, the anticipation that you’re going to have to make those accommodations for individuals.

But you touched upon a couple of things that I’d like for you to dig a little bit deeper in. You talked about this whole concept of individuals with invisible disabilities, they have a certain level of privilege. Can you break that down? Because I think that when most people hear that phrase, “privilege…” and I know from conversations that I have around the topic of privilege, that is the phrase that shuts people down the most. And the reason why it shuts people down is because I don’t feel like they truly understand the definition of privilege.

Becca Lory Hector: Correct. I was gonna say that.

Larry Baker: Because the assumption that most people have when we say privilege is that your life was easy. You didn’t have to work hard. That has nothing to do with what we’re talking about with privilege because my definition of privilege, it’s not about the things that you had to go through to accomplish what you accomplished; it’s the things that you didn’t have to go through to accomplish what you accomplished.

So talk to me a little bit about that, how you present to individuals with invisible disabilities that they have a privilege. Because I know they’re saying to you, Becca, “I have autism. How do I have privilege?” Can you talk a little bit about that conversation?

Becca Lory Hector: So here’s the thing: inherently, human beings have bias. It’s called unconscious bias. It has to do with being raised by who you were raised by, where you were raised, and all of those things. And whether when you grew up, you decided to throw that to the wind and say, “I am gonna start all over and recreate these things for myself” or you continue to live under what you were taught, either way, everyone has their own version of unconscious bias, right?

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Becca Lory Hector: When I step into a room, whether or not I identify as a woman or all of those things, the first thing people will see is that I’m a woman. They will then notice that I’m a white woman. What they will not notice is that I’m autistic because they can’t see it. It goes back to that “you don’t look autistic.” So you don’t see it, and the problem is that autistic people are currently categorized as either high or low functioning. We also get different levels sometimes, which is the current way we are diagnosed. And folks like to try to look at the spectrum as though there’s two ends of it: you’re very autistic or not autistic at all. And it’s not like that. We all kind of present differently.

So some people you can visually, externally see their support needs. And you as an outsider experience their challenges with them because you see that they have external supports. We say “externally presenting.” They have “externally presenting autism.” It has nothing to do with their abilities or their inabilities or their strengths or their weaknesses. Just fact, you can see that they need support.

I, however, have a lot of internal challenges. A lot of my challenges have to do with self-regulation and sensory issues and executive functioning issues and depression and anxiety and things people can’t see, yet they are disabling to me. The supports that I need for them, you don’t experience, and that puts me in a place of privilege. I step in, and I get to choose which one of people’s unconscious biases I want them to have. Do I wanna deal with all three of them? Do I not wanna deal with that third one today? And that is a privilege.

Larry Baker: That’s good. That is amazing, Becca. And I thank you for breaking that down because, again, that word privilege tends to shut people down because they want to use it in a way that it’s not specific to whatever we’re saying.

Becca Lory Hector: Correct, and I hate that as a disabled person because that language has been co-opted. People took the word, and it started being a thing with air quotes. And now people think that that thing with air quotes is the thing that the word means. It happened to the word “accommodations” for people who are disabled. People hear that, they go, “ADA, oh my God, lawsuit.” And it’s like, no, no, no, I’m asking can I control the lighting in my room. That’s an accommodation.

So it’s a co-option of language. My language was stolen from me. The ability to use the language I need was taken from me. And the disabled community is now in the place that the civil rights community was in, that the LGBTQ community was in. We are in those footsteps. It’s not like we can’t anticipate what’s coming. The charge has been led. We can see where it’s going.

So that’s where we’re at in that space, like reclaim our language, take back our culture.

Larry Baker: I love that statement because for me personally, reclaiming our language… that’s one of the biggest concepts that I focus on when we talk about the word “woke.” People have hijacked the word “woke” to make it mean something that it never was intended to mean. But because I want to control the narrative, I take these words and I hijack them so that I don’t have to deal with it. If I demonize this word to such a level, it insulates me from having to engage in these conversations. So I absolutely agree with you, Becca.

The other thing that you said that I really want you to give me some examples of—because in my mind, I kind of know what examples would relate to these two—but I want you to give me some specifics. So you talked about stigma bias and ableism bias. Can you give me some examples of what that looks like? And it could be in the workplace or again, like you said, society primarily, but the workplace is a microcosm of society. But can you give me some examples for people that may be like, “Yeah, I still don’t get it.” Give me an example.

Becca Lory Hector: We’re gonna get a little bit nasty though, right?

Larry Baker: That’s fine.

Becca Lory Hector: Because this is it. These are the hot topics. This is what real people are dealing with on a regular basis. People don’t like these words. They’re fiery. A lot of time, I use the word “bias.” It’s a little softer than discrimination. But really, bias is discrimination. That’s what it is. It’s when you have the bias and you act upon that bias is discrimination. So that’s the area that we’re talking about in here.

When we talk about stigma, we’re talking about that unconscious bias but the global unconscious bias. So sort of a societal belief about a group of people. For example, the word “disabled.” It’s become a dirty word in our society. Disabled people do not feel dirty about the word “disabled.” We will use it all over. You don’t have to tiptoe around us and say “differently abled” or “special needs” or any of that stuff. We’re not afraid of that word, but the world is afraid to use it because they made it a scary word. And so now it’s a word people whisper behind your back. Now it’s a word that people use to make you a difficult employee, and we create myths around these words.

I’ll give you a workplace example. There are a huge amount of myths about disabled people in the workplace. There are endless amounts. My favorite is that we’re more expensive to have as employees, that we are more difficult to have as employees. Not true. None of that is true. But if you look back into history, those same excuses get used for other marginalized groups too, right?

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Becca Lory Hector: It’s the way they are controlling the narrative. It’s that piece. So that’s the stigma that we deal with. I walk in, people have a concept of what disabled means in their head, and it kind of covers the whole organization or whatever group I’m dealing with. I can guess that’s the majority belief in that room: stigma.

Bias is a belief in some way, shape, or form that one group of people is better than another group of people or one way of being, one way of looking, one way of acting, one way is better than some other group, that there’s a hierarchy out there in some way of human nature. And that hierarchy, creates this idea of bias that somebody’s better than somebody else. That somehow the people that are all the same are better than the people that are different.

And that’s why we built our workplaces for sameness. We built it around that concept that we should all work the same way, put out the same amount of work, work the same amount of hours, work the same days of the week, all of that stuff. And what that does is leave marginalized groups out. Because if you’re part of that sameness group, that’s a privilege.

So there’s that bias immediately. It’s everywhere. It’s not even just in our workplaces, right? Ableism—I am gonna use the word here, so get ready—I equate to racism. It is that serious. It is exactly the same thing. It is those inherent biases that exist within our language, our societal norms, our public spaces, our employment space, whatever it is that that exist and are allowed to exist freely that discount disabled people, that leave us out. That is the ableism.

What does that look like? It looks different for all the different disabilities. What can it look like? It can look like having a deaf employee but not ensuring that captions are happening at your meetings, or there’s no translator. It’s about requiring everyone to be on camera in meetings because otherwise they’re not really there, which isn’t true. Some people are shy on camera. They never chose to be on camera in their lives. They just wanna do their job. And also, whether or not your hair is clean and done and you’ve brushed your teeth that morning doesn’t necessarily affect whether or not you can do your job or whether you can make that meeting. Let’s be real—that’s a made up thing. And when we put in those made up barriers, we discount the people who actually need to be off camera or who actually are feeling physically disabled that day and don’t have the energy to shower, and so they can’t be on camera.

Larry Baker: And you know what, Becca, that’s one of the things that… and you know, full transparency for me because 90% of what I do is facilitated sessions. Now, in this more recent environment, they’ve turned into more virtual sessions. So my interaction with people, they are less and less face-to-face, and that was one of the things that I had to consciously mitigate my bias towards individuals that didn’t have the camera on.

So until I became aware that that is actually something that may inhibit someone’s ability to fully engage in the session, I didn’t know. I felt like it was about me. It was about my perspective. It was about how I wanted the classroom to be represented, and it was absolutely a shift for me to say, “No, I need to meet other folks’ needs, and it’s not about them focusing on meeting my needs.” So I’m so glad that you brought that out as an example.

Becca Lory Hector: And really it’s actually about paying attention to our human needs, I think. Like it’s about your needs too. I’m sure there are days when you’re like, “Man, I can be there and I can give you the stuff, but I just can’t smile today. I’m sorry. And so camera off” Or something like that. We all have our days and it doesn’t mean we don’t wanna be there, and it doesn’t mean that we’re not doing our best work. It just means we need a little flexibility around our humanity. Like, be cool if today I can’t use a camera, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. It doesn’t mean that I’m not there.

And it is, it’s a shift in habits. But that’s what the whole world is asking for right now. We’ve integrated this new pronoun thing, right? You even introduced me with my pronouns. We all have to learn that. I had to learn it. I have to consciously still as a almost 50-year-old woman, I have to be like, “Nope. Don’t just assume. Say ‘they’ instead just in case” and things like that because I’m still learning. And not only am I learning, but I’m also trying to relearn old habits, which is really hard the older you get. So there’s some kindness to self in there for that learning curve and having to know that. And you also hope that the groups that you’re doing it for appreciate that you’re trying. And all of those things.

So it’s about all of us, all of this flexibility and this ask for our needs to be met is like, cuz we left our humanness out of so much for so long to chase the almighty dollar or whatever the concept was. The power or whatever people want. But that means that a whole lot of people are unhappy all the time.

Larry Baker: That’s great—that human element that we tend to overlook so much because, again, in pursuit of x, y, or z goal or initiative or whatever the case may be. I absolutely resonate with that.

So, I wanna ask you just for some advice. And I want you to give this advice on two different levels. The first focus that I’d like for you to consider giving advice to—I want you to speak to the people that are on the receiving end of this microaggression, “But you don’t look autistic.” What advice do you have for them to engage or to deal with those types of comments? So I’ll ask you to do the folks that are targeted by it, but then we’ll talk about the allies in the moment. What kind of advice do you have?

Becca Lory Hector: Um, I have mixed advice cuz it depends on what kind of person you are. And it also, to me, depends on the kind of company you’re in. So like if I’m hanging out at a bar and somebody wants to say that to me, my response to them is probably gonna be something snarky, right? I’ll probably at this point in my life make a joke out of it cuz I’m out, I’m socializing.

And at this point in our culture, it has become a joke within our community that people still say this to us. So we, we say things like, “Oh yeah, I went out and I met some people. They found out I was autistic. They did the whole, ‘You don’t look autistic’ thing.” We’re at the point where we’re laughing at ourselves, but also laughing at you guys in that way.

So I would say if I was out on a bar, I’d probably say something like, “Really? Well, what does autism look like?” We tend to do that kind of snarky response or, “Oh shit, I forgot to put my mask on today. I’m sorry.” But stupid things like that that really point out the ignorance of the statement because I’m out socially.

If I’m out for my job, it’s a learning experience. Stop, we must all pause in this moment. Because if somebody’s still saying a microaggression out loud, it’s a learning moment. They likely don’t know that it’s a microaggression, and so it’s a chance to educate and then educate anybody else who might be listening too. It’s a learning moment. But really say, “No, we don’t say that because X, Y, Z, and here’s why. And I know you think about it this way, but try saying X, Y, Z.”  We go into that scenario, I put on my little advocate hat and we have a nice conversation.

And then there are times too when I’m with family where that has happened—where when I was first diagnosed, I was dealing with family members or friends, and that response is really painful. So when it’s people who are close to us, what it means is that you’ve made no effort to learn anything about us, or our community, or our lingo, or what it means to us, or how to talk to us, or any of those things. It also means you’ve never stopped to ask us any clarifying questions about it or anything cuz we would’ve told you, right? So what it really feels like is “What you need doesn’t matter to me” or “I don’t love you, I don’t see you.” All of those things if it comes from a family member or a friend, and that’s the truth.

So how we deal with that is up to how your relationships are with your families and friends and where you are with your diagnosis and understanding your identity, how strong you feel, how much you can tolerate in that way. But those are the most painful ones for sure.

Larry Baker: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so let’s expound on the advice because you kind of touched upon a group that I wanna make a natural transition to. What advice do you have for those individuals that want to be allies to the autistic community? What advice do you have for those family members? How do you encourage them to engage in that deeper knowledge? What type of advice would you offer?

Becca Lory Hector: Well, what I offer to people is to be curious. Just be curious. Remember when you were eight years old and you didn’t think about people’s feelings when you wanted to ask a question? You just wanted to know and you didn’t understand social niceties and all that stuff.  Remember that person inside you and be curious. Let it light a fire under you that someone has a perspective that you’ve not seen before or you don’t understand, and ask those questions.

Oh my God, this person has shared with you something vulnerable that you may or may not be able to see, and they’ve shared this truth about themselves. They shared with you perhaps their strongest identity. For some it is not—they have other identities. They may have shared their intersectionality with you, all the other identities that they live in, and that’s a trust moment. That is, “I’m being vulnerable with you and trusting you that if I tell you my truth, you’re not gonna use it against me.”

Larry Baker: That’s good.

Becca Lory Hector: And so when someone shares that information with you, be curious and be kind because that person is in a vulnerable state. It’s like if they told you that they just had their heart broken. They’re not coming to you and sharing this information like they just got a haircut, what do you think? And so we don’t wanna treat it like that’s what they’re telling you. So we wanna be curious and say, “Okay, thanks for sharing that with me.”

When I first got diagnosed, I would’ve loved this response from people. It now sounds robotic to me, but I would’ve loved this. “Thank you for sharing that information with me. I appreciate your trust. What does it mean to you to be diagnosed with autism? What does it mean to you to be autistic?” Whatever. Mirror the language that person is sharing with you and be curious. “What does it mean for you? What are those challenges for you? What will it look like for me?” and most importantly, “What can I do to support you?” Because we can’t assume other people’s needs. We can’t try to be a people pleaser and fix things before they’re broken and do all that crazy hovering mom stuff… It doesn’t help anybody.

So what we wanna know is curiously, “Is there something I can…” and it may be nothing. It might be “No, you don’t have to do anything. I just wanted to share that with you.” Which, how priceless is that? If you’re in a romantic relationship or you’re in a friendship or in a family relationship with someone and that’s all that that was, what a beautiful moment you’re sharing. And what they’re saying to you is they invite you closer. And if your response to that isn’t, “Thank you for inviting me in,” that’s your social problem, not their social problem.

And so that’s really the response. It’s just “Tell me what that means for you.” What has that meant for you in your life if you’re an adult? What does that mean for you if you’re a little kid who’s unlearning your own identity? Curious questions.

Larry Baker: Yeah. That’s such a great piece of advice, Becca. And it, I think it’s universal, right? I think it can impact so many different marginalized groups, if you will—approaching those lived experiences with genuine curiosity and authenticity just to understand their experiences more.

And not feeling like, “Well, I’m uncomfortable asking Becca that question because what if she says something that I’m uncomfortable with?”

Becca Lory Hector: Right. “What if you’re uncomfortable?” I love that one.

Larry Baker: I think that that is such a great piece of advice to go in it with a genuine curiosity and authenticity that shows that you care about that individual. So thank you so much.

Becca Lory Hector: That’s the great part. The best part about that is that you can’t really offend somebody if that’s the route you take. It’s a safe zone too, right? Yeah. Just, “I don’t know, so help?” That’s a really humble place to come into a conversation, and I don’t know any other human being who doesn’t turn and respond kindly to that kind of inquiry. It’s the way to go.

Larry Baker: I love that, Becca. You just provided the answer for many people that say, “I want it to be a safe space. How, how can I ensure that I’m creating a safe space for this conversation to occur?” And you said it: you just be curious. Just be authentic. Just be humble and caring to engage in the conversation, and you’ve created a safe space. Yeah, I love that.

Becca, this has been an incredible conversation. We could do this for hours and hours, and of course we just don’t have the time to do that. But before we go, Becca, I wanna give you the opportunity to tell folks who are listening to our podcast and may have pulled some of these nuggets that you’ve shared—how can we get in touch with you? How do we reach out to you to maybe potentially engage in this conversation even further? So tell the folks how they can reach out to you please.

Becca Lory Hector: Absolutely. Real easy way is to head to my website, which is TrulyInclusiveLeadership.com. You use my contact page there and get in touch with me directly.

Another really great way to find me and probably find me kind of in real time would be on LinkedIn. I tend to be on there a lot. I do a lot of work in there, so you’ll definitely find me in there. You can connect with me there and reach out through direct message. I’m happy to answer those.

And my favorite, favorite, favorite thing to do is to come in and have these kinds of conversations, give these kinds of presentations. I do that in corporate settings as part of training protocols and other things that I do, but I’m also happy to come into ERGs and talk about my lived experience. I’m happy to come into other groups that are wanting to learn more about the autistic and neurodiverse experience or the disabled experience.

I really just wanna leave the world a better place than I found it for myself. So that’s what I’m up to. And if you think that that’s cool and you wanna collaborate on something, or you wanna hire me to talk to you about it, that’s how you can find me and I’m happy to do that.

Larry Baker: Awesome. So this has been such an amazing conversation, Becca. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your transparency and your vulnerability to engage us in this conversation, “But you don’t look autistic.” Thank you so much.

Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded. And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Deconstructing Myths About the AANHPI Community
Published on: June 27, 2023

Since 1992, May has been recognized as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month in the United States. So how can we honor the lived experiences of this diverse community and show up as authentic allies coming out of a pandemic that increased anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination?

In this episode of Brave Conversations with LCW, Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by internationally recognized keynote speaker, best-selling author, and master-certified executive coach Maya Hu-Chan (she/her). Together, they defined allyship through deconstructing myths and microaggressions faced by the AANHPI community, today and throughout history.

The episode was live streamed on Monday, May 22.


Show Notes & Highlights

4:35  Maya explains why it’s important to have these conversations

8:07  Maya gives a brief history of anti-Asian racism in the US

17:21  Maya deconstructs the myth that Asians are a monolith

21:24  Maya and Larry discuss the “model minority” myth

24:14  Maya deconstructs the myth that Asians are poor leaders

33:57  Maya talks about dealing with microaggressions


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Brave Conversations with LCW Live. I am your host Larry Baker, and I use he and him pronouns. Today we will be having a very timely discussion that celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by deconstructing myths and microaggressions that are faced by the AANHPI community today… and throughout history, if we’re honest.

Since 1992, May has been recognized as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month in the United States. So how can we honor those lived experiences of this diverse community and show up as authentic allies coming out of a pandemic that increased anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination?

And today I am super excited to be joined by internationally recognized keynote speaker, bestselling author, and master-certified executive coach, Maya Hu Chan. Maya specializes in global leadership, cross-cultural management, diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is the founder and president of Global Leadership Associates, a global consultancy that partners with organizations to build leadership capabilities and enable profound growth and change. Her latest book, Saving Face: How To Preserve Dignity and Build Trust is an Amazon number one best-seller, and her book Global Leadership: The Next Generation was a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge book. She is a contributing author of 14 business books and a columnist at INC.com. So as you can see, Maya’s not really that busy. Just kidding. Maya is super busy, and I’m super excited that she’s here.

She was born and raised in Taiwan. She lives in San Diego, California now. Maya is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and English. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her BA from National Chengchi University in Taiwan. Maya has lectured at the Brookings Institute, the University of California, San Diego, the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California, and Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

So welcome, Maya, to our session today. I am super excited to have you join us, but before we jump in, Maya, and I know we have a great topic that I want to talk about… before we jump into our conversation, I just wanted to take a moment to highlight the chat function that’s available across today’s livestream channels, and we absolutely want to hear from you. We want to hear your reactions. We want you to ask us questions throughout the conversation today. So put your comments in the chat. We have a team in the background that’s monitoring that—they will bring it to our attention, and we will address those throughout our conversation.

So Maya, I’ve done a pretty good job, I think, of giving you an introduction, but, I want you to first of all talk a little bit about why is this conversation that we’re going to have today so important? Can you tell us what brought us here today? So Maya, if you would…

Maya Hu-Chan: Yes. Hi Larry. Good morning, everyone. I am so honored to be here today, and as you said, May is the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander History and Heritage month. So this is a joyous time for us to celebrate the community’s diverse cultures and histories and also achievements with everyone.

But also, we wanted to share with everyone what we have been experiencing today. Looking back in the last three years, it’s been really tough for all of us, but in particular for the Asian communities that not only we have to deal with the Covid pandemic, but also we have to fight this racial discrimination and social injustice.

To share with you something that happened to me—I feel like it was just yesterday, but it actually happened about a year ago. I was invited to speak at a virtual town hall with a global company and the topic was combating racism in the workplace. And so I talked about the rise of the hostility and the racists in the community against Asian Americans during this pandemic. But shortly after I spoke, I received a private message from one of the audience and somebody wrote to me and said, “Maya, my manager constantly referred to Covid as the Chinese flu. I’m Asian American, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable. What can I do? Is it ethical?”

So when I read this message—first of all, it’s private so nobody else can read it— I felt so much pain, so much fear, and just high-level anxiety coming from that person. It made me think, “What could we do if you were that person?” And then also, if you are a colleague of this person, you witnessed or experienced something like this in the workplace, how can we support that person? How can we be an ally to the community?

So that’s kind of brought me to… I wanted to talk about this topic. I think it’s so relevant now. Thank goodness that the pandemic seems to be kind of behind us, but the racism continues,

Larry Baker: Yeah, Maya. I’m so glad that you brought that up because that kind of leads me into what I’d like for you to dig into a little bit more. Because this isn’t the first time that the Asian American community has been put in the spotlight for some type of flu or a pandemic coming to this country. We know that that’s not the first time, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t know the history about your community.

So if you could do me a huge favor and sort of set the stage for this conversation by talking a little bit about the history of the AANHPI community. If you could dig into that, I think that would do a great job to set the stage—please share that information.

Maya Hu-Chan: Absolutely. So I’m gonna show you a slide to share. The timeline—this is a brief US history of anti-Asian racism. Sadly, as you can see, the anti-Asian racism is nothing new. People of Asian descent have been living in the United States for 170 years and have long been the target of bigotry. And here’s a look at the violence and racism that Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have faced since before the Civil War.

From the time the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived as laborers in US in the 1850s, Asian Americans have always been subject to racist violence. So as a source of cheap labor to build railroads, Asian immigrants came to be seen as threats to white jobs and scapegoated as dirty and disease-ridden. The yellow peril ultimately led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first time the US had ever barred a specific ethnic group from the country.

So let’s take a look at this timeline. In 1854, the California Supreme Court reinforced racism against Asian immigrants in People v. Hall ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a white person in court. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, which effectively barred Chinese women from immigrating because it was impossible to tell if they were traveling for lewd and immoral purposes, including for purposes of prostitution. In 1882, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration for 20 years by the 1940s.

Tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had built lives in the United States, but after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, the US government forced all of the Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps for the duration of the war over suspicions they might aid the enemy. I dunno if you’ve been there, but I actually visited there years ago, and the conditions in the camps were extremely harsh. No spies were ever found.

In June 19th, 1982, the 27-year-old Chinese American Vincent Chen was about to get married. He was actually hanging out with a couple of his friends in Detroit to celebrate his upcoming wedding, and the two white men picked a bar fight with him, blaming Vincent Chen for the Japanese taking their auto-industry jobs. Outside the bar, the men beat him with a baseball bat, and he died several days later. The judge gave the men probation and a $3,000 fine.

In 1992, acquittal of the police officers caught on camera beating Rodney King. We all remember that, right? As the city erupted in riots, Korean American businesses became targets. Thousands were damaged during the unrest.

Now let’s bring bring us to the next big thing, the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001. Hate crimes spiked against Muslims and those look like or perceived to be Muslims, including people of South Asian descent.

So since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Asian Americans have faced racist violence at a much higher rate than before.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Maya, thank you so much for sharing that timeline. The Asian American experience is so similar to the Black American experience on so many different levels—not just the fact of being used for cheap labor and maybe even free labor in our case, but it’s the violence that Black and Brown bodies have experienced through this history of being in this country is something that is interrelated. And I appreciate you sharing some of that insight because I’m pretty sure a lot of folks may not be aware of that, so thank you so much for sharing that.

But what I also wanna connect with is it’s important for us to understand the history because the reality is a lot of things that happened in the past are rearing their heads today in the future. If you could do me a favor, I know there are some specific events that are happening right now currently that you wanted to touch upon, and I’d like to give you that space to talk about some things that are happening right now today that if we don’t understand the history, we may just let these things slide. So Maya, if you could talk to me about those things…

Maya Hu-Chan: Definitely. Very recently, you start to see there is this dangerous pattern of states across the country introducing legislation that would restrict and prohibit citizens of select countries from owning properties in the US. You start to see that the history seems to be repeating itself, right? So just a few examples… In Texas, the State Senate is advancing SB147. It’s an anti-immigrant bill that would prohibit citizens of China and other selectively targeted countries from buying homes and business properties.

And the Florida State Legislature is moving forward with legislation that would similarly prohibit land ownership with citizens from certain countries, including completely banning Chinese immigrants from owning any properties, even homes.

Just last month in April, the South Carolina Senate passed a bill restricting land ownership for Chinese citizens, a policy eerily similar to the racist alien land loss of the 1800s and 1900s, which were designed to shun Asian immigrants and contributed to a significant rise in anti-Asian hate.

Now, if you look at all this latest development, they’re withholding basic rights from the Asian communities, and history has repeatedly shown us that anti-China rhetoric and policies pose a threat to all  AAPI communities in the US, not just Chinese.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Maya, again, that is such an important point to bring out that if we are not aware of these policies and these practices, it’s going to look a lot like what it looked like historically. So number one, I absolutely appreciate you bringing this to the attention and bringing this concern so that folks that might be listening—if they’re from those states—they can stand up and ask questions about, “Hey, what does this actually mean? Why are we pursuing this path? This sounds a lot like what happened back in historical reference points.”

So Maya, what I’d like to do is you mentioned allyship, and we talked about the fact that this is something that potentially happens in the workplace as well. Talk to me about how do you think this, anti-Asian sentiment shows up in the workplace, but more importantly, how can we be allies to the AANHPI community as well? So if you could stop and talk about that, that would be great.

Maya Hu-Chan: Absolutely. Well, before we talk about how can you be an ally to the AAPI community, I’d like to maybe share with you some of the common myths about the AANHPI community. And this is something that is eye-opening for me as well because I have been conducting listening sessions with my clients around the country with the AANHPI communities and professionals across multiple industries. And those sessions created spaces for people to reflect, to share with one another about some of the common challenges: their experiences, obstacles, and hopes. I, learned so much from just listening about what’s happening in their lives, and a theme that has emerged across those listening sessions is the pervasiveness of common myth about the AANHPI community.

So we’ll just give you three most common myths. Myth number one—drum roll— is that the AAPI community is a monolith. There is a common in inaccurate perception that Asians are all alike. Now people think that we all look alike and we’re all the same, but in fact, the community is a diverse group of people from approximately 50 ethnic community and speaking over 100 languages. It’s extremely diverse. Each group has its own unique language, cultural traditions, and experiences. They also face harm in very different ways. So for example, in the US, East Asians have been the target of hate crimes and discriminations during Covid pandemic, while South Asians were targeted following September 11th.

You also look at the headlines in the last few years—the mass shootings happening in Buffalo, in Atlanta, and even most recently just this month in May happening in Allen, Texas… There were three members of a Korean family were killed while shopping in the mall and an Indian engineer. Eight people were killed, but most of them were Asians. Is that a coincidence? No. And the violence continued to happen.

In the workplace, AAPI professionals were often burdened with the expectation to represent not only their particular ethnic group but also the Asian community as a whole. So this connect is often reflected in the one-dimensional ways of companies talking to their AAPI customers. So what can we do about this and the myth about thinking all Asians are the same? So how can we educate ourselves?

Number one, I will recommend two things. Take the time to learn about the diversity of the Asian community’s experiences. Currently, there are 22 million people of Asian descent living in US. It’s about 7% of the US population. So take the time to learn about the diversity of the community, and number two is celebrate and appreciate the variety of cultures represented in the community. This will allow you to connect more authentically to your AAPI coworkers and also your customer base.

So that’s the first myth.

Larry Baker: Okay.

Maya Hu-Chan: Second one is that people think Asian Americans are the model minority. That they don’t have problems, don’t have any challenges. That’s a common perception, right? Asian Americans are often held up as inherently successful, hardworking, and problem-free, and this is a stereotype. And hold them as this exception to the stereotypes leveraged against other people of color and immigrant groups. And not only is this inaccurate, in fact, AAPI people face the largest income in equality gap of all ethnic groups in the US.

This stereotype pits Asian community against other racial minority groups as a means of dividing communities of color, and also negates discrimination, bias, and harm that a communities do experience. That denial inhibits progress against those injustices. So when we hear this, “Asian community is the model minority,” it may sound like a compliment, but in fact it raises the hardship that many AAPI communities face and often serve as a cover for racist and discriminatory practices.

Larry Baker: Yes, I agree a hundred percent, Maya. That’s one of the things that I’ve always tried to share with individuals that wanted to understand what were some of the conflicts with the Asian American community and the African American community.

And one of the biggest things was this myth that the AANHPI community were the model, that if they could do it, why can’t you do it? The truth to the matter is there were some things that were going on systemically for the AANHPI community that were being withheld from the Black community.

But ultimately, to get to what you said, it’s to separate us. It’s to divide us. It’s to pit our community versus your community versus this community versus that community when in reality, we are all subject to that racism and that discrimination and these unfair and unjust policies. But they want to divide and conquer, just like you said. I appreciate you saying that.

So what’s the other myth, Maya? I know you said three, and I think I only caught two.

Maya Hu-Chan: Right. So the third one is that people think AANHPI people don’t make good leaders. That’s the perception. And there is a recent survey found that almost half Americans incorrectly believe that Asian Americans are overrepresented or fairly represented in the senior positions within American companies, politics, media, and other industries. But in reality, it’s just the opposite. Asian Americans are underrepresented in most positions of power holding about only 3% of those positions in comparison to 7% of the US population. But only 3% are holding those position of power. Asian Americans have the lowest degree of representation in political office compared to any other racial and ethnic groups.

How about in a workplace? In the Western definition, the Western definition of a strong leader is someone who is outspoken, charismatic, and speaks perfect English. It’s this one-size-fits-all outdated concept, and it often pushes out the AANHPI professionals who would make excellent leaders, but don’t fit this mold.

The truly effective leaders often share some similar traits. I’ve been an executive coach and leadership educator for decades, and we’re working globally with thousands of leaders across industries. I have learned that good leaders is not just all one size fits all. They share some common traits, but ultimately, the most important thing for leaders to be effective is that—number one—they need to have high level of emotional intelligence. They can communicate well, not necessarily speak perfect English, but they can communicate well, and have a compelling vision, and they have the ability to inspire and engage people.

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Maya Hu-Chan: And so a lot of times that people have that perception about Asians doesn’t make the leaders perhaps have something to do with Asians tend to be more reserved and not quite as outspoken. But when we think about some of the characteristics of who truly effective leaders, they’re not always extroverted and constantly talking to people, bubbly.

But when you are looking for people to promote and to lead your positions in the company, check for potential biases that could be impacting your decision or even research, and acknowledge that the Western stereotype about good leader is very limiting..

Larry Baker: Definitely, yeah. Bias is definitely a major contributor in that because again, people have a image of what a leader looks like. You touched upon some of those characteristics, and if it doesn’t come in that package, then people tend to say, “This person couldn’t possibly be an effective leader.” So I appreciate you saying that.

You talked about how it shows up in the workplace, for example, in regards to defining leaders. So as an ally… oh, we do have a question. I’m sorry. We have a question in the chat, so let us take a look at that. “Half of Americans believe Asians are overrepresented in leadership positions, but could they name even one?” Wow. Sue, great point. I appreciate you bringing that to the attention… It really reminds me of some of the arguments that are used against the Black community when they say that Black people have made it and Black people have been successful, and then they name like two. They’ll say Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Jay-Z—these people. So it’s like you named five; there are over 40 million. Help me understand how that has overcome. So Sue, thank you so much for pointing that out.

Do we have any other comments? I wanted to make sure that we did not skip that because Maya, we’re having such a great conversation that we just could talk all day. I just wanna make sure that we talked to see if there are any other comments in there.

Maya Hu-Chan: I would love to hear from the listener, from our audience here: have you experienced or noticed any other myths about AANHPI community that’s pervasive in your workplace or even in your community? What have you noticed or heard?

Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s a great question. So any other myths that anyone who’s listening they may have heard. And I’ll give one. I’ve always been told that Asian Americans are incredibly good at math. Like if it’s a math problem and you don’t understand it, you find the Asian American kid in the class and they know it. And of course, I know that that’s not true, right? But coming up, that was the biggest myth that I had about the AANHPI community.

But we wanna hear from you. We wanna hear from the audience. What types of myths have you heard?

Maya Hu-Chan: Yeah. Actually Larry, that was interesting, that myth that you brought up. I am very bad in math. My husband, my son… nobody’s good at math. So I just show you my family alone, we’re good at other things, but math is definitely not our strength.

Larry Baker: But you know what’s good about that? I’m so glad you said that, Maya, because what we tend not to realize is that with these myths, it tends to put undue pressure on individuals that don’t live up to the myth. Now they have this self-pity about, “I should be good at math. I’m an Asian. Why can’t I be good at math?”

Now you start to put on all of these unnecessary stressors because they don’t live up to a stereotype that’s not even true, that they should’ve never even tried to live up to. But because it’s out there and it’s the narrative, and if I don’t live up to it now something’s wrong with me. But I’m glad you said that.

Maya Hu-Chan: Absolutely. And another thing now that we talk about this, during those listening sessions I learned a lot about some of the challenges people have experienced in the AANHPI community, but I also heard some good news. So something I wanted to share with you and our audience here is that I noticed younger generations, the younger AAPI communities or actually just community at large, particularly spoke of not only emerging kindness across culture, there is a theme of hope.

They really talk about that there is an increase of awareness, that people are participating more in the cultural events, activities, and then also increase of awareness, advocacy, and actions that the younger generation are taking. So I think that there’s definitely hope there, and we can all work together to continue to combat those myths and to try to understand what’s the real truth behind all the stereotypes. And then just get to know the community, get to know people better.

Larry Baker: So, Maya, you’re starting to go down this path, and I really do want you to dig into some more specifics. I want you to give us some actions that we can take to be an ally to the AANHPI community. So if you could give us some specifics like you talked about.

What’s ironic about one of the first things that you said was to get to know the community, our organization, literally this week we are on a retreat. One of our big activities will be to go through Chinatown. We’re gonna go through a museum, and I will be perfectly honest with you, I have lived in Chicago probably my entire life and I’ve never been there. So I am super excited for this experience. But if you don’t take that conscious effort to get to know the community, you will miss out.

So that was one thing that you recommended as an ally. What are some other things that we can do?

Maya Hu-Chan: I would recommend two things that everybody can actually take action on. The first one is holding space. When you notice that your Asian colleagues at work may have experienced acts of hate or discrimination or perhaps they just seem really quiet, you reach out to them, check in with them to ask them how you can support them, how are they doing. And then even if they have not directly experienced any racism or hate crime, they are still impacted by them. Their community, their family are impacted by them. So check in, ask how they’re doing and how you can support them.

One thing that can happen regularly and very frequently but also sort of fly under the radar is a theme about microaggression. The microaggression is happening everywhere, and when we think about what’s happening in the workplace, the racial bias and discrimination against AAPI can show up in different levels. Some of them are overt, but microaggression is much more common. It may be perceived as harmless by the person who committed them, but their negative effects can compound over time.

So what is microaggression? They’re subtle putdowns or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that are regularly experienced by marginalized groups. While microaggression might seem minor in comparison to the harassment or violence, their harmful impact is the same. On the personal level, they can demean, belittle, shame, and even stifle careers, and on the society level it can lead to violence.

So you know, some simple things that you may notice… let me give you a couple examples that can happen at work. If you notice it, then I would like you to actually check in and step up. For example, not learning to pronounce their name correctly. And that’s something that I appreciate so much about you, Larry, was that you asked me several times, “How do I pronounce your name and also your university that you graduated from Taiwan?” Chengchi University. Maya Hu-Chan. You asked me, and you practiced back with me to make sure you said it right. And I can’t tell you how much that I appreciate that.

My Chinese name is not Maya—it’s Men-Jyung. During my first year of graduate school, my professor and classmates rarely called me by my name, and so I very quickly discovered that everybody just uncomfortable saying my name. They didn’t bother to even learn how to say it, how to pronounce it. So they just called me “Hey!” So my name is “Hey” the first year.

Larry Baker: Wow.

Maya Hu-Chan: So as a result, I was not included in the study groups or classroom discussions, and I just felt excluded, invisible, and marginalized—just like an outsider. And after a year, I realized I need to do something to fix this. This is not gonna work. So I changed my name to Maya and then Men-Jyung as my middle name.

This is an example of the effects of microaggression. I really feel like an outsider as a foreign student from Taiwan in American school. And my classmates, professors made this dynamic—not only emotional one, but also physical one—that cut me off from access to the group.

A client recently shared with me a real example at work that in his company, people repeatedly confusing the names of two Asian American. Those two people work together in the same team, and the leader repeatedly called them the wrong name when they’re sitting in a meeting. They get those two people mixed up over and over again, even after people have told this leader, “No, this is Lisa. That is Sally.”

Larry Baker: Yes, exactly.

Maya Hu-Chan: They’re not even trying. You think about it in such a basic level, saying somebody’s name correctly, it’s a form of respect.

Larry Baker: Yes, it is. It is.

Maya Hu-Chan: I get it. They don’t wanna get it wrong. But asking how to pronounce somebody’s name is never offensive if you ask with genuine care and respect. And then after you’ve heard a correct pronunciation, you can repeat it and check to make sure you got it right and practice it. And even if you forget it and you meet that person later on, at a later time, you can ask again. It’s okay. It shows your interest in getting it right, and it’s inclusive behavior that communicates care and respect.

Larry Baker: It is. It is. And for me, Maya, it is so important that I do that because this story echoes with a lot of my friends that are from Africa, and they have very challenging names to pronounce.  But it goes to the very core of inclusion.

Someone took the time to give you that name, Maya, and the fact that no one took the time to really say it, and it made you change your name… to me, that’s so disappointing that in order for you to assimilate, if you will, you had to give up some of that identity. Now, you kept your original name as a middle name, but the reality is that is a microaggression. That is a lived experience that many individuals with names that are challenging to pronounce go through, and they’ll say things like, “you could just call me X” or “you can call me Q,” or whatever the case may be.

I understand that and it’s okay, but I wanna know how to pronounce your name right because I want you to understand that it’s important to me that I understand how to pronounce your name. So I appreciate you pointing that out, that I did that because that’s extremely important to you, to me. So I appreciate that.

Maya Hu-Chan: I have a question for the audience actually. One of the common expression people will say to the AANHPI community is that they say, “Your English is so good.” Even though they were born here. So how do you respond to that? “Your English is so good.”

First of all, what’s wrong with that? Many microaggressions are example of the difference between intent and impact. Somebody might think that they have good intent and then are complimenting somebody by talking about how good their English is. but impact is this kind of cast this person as an outsider.

It’s like, “I don’t expect you to speak English that well, “You’re less capable of,” “I’m not expecting you to really be able to communicate.” And so what would be a better way to say that? If you are actually wanting to give somebody a compliment? How would you say to that person if they have communicated well, they made a good presentation, what would be a better way to compliment someone about their communication?

Larry Baker: And while we wait for a response, Maya, I handled it in sort of a humorous way. I would usually get people saying, “You are so articulate, Larry. You are so articulate.” And my response, knee-jerk was, “And so are you. That is awesome. You are so articulate.” And it threw ’em off. But it sort of let them know that I understand what that comment really means, so I want you to be aware of it. But I say it in a way that’s humorous to kind of break that conversation from going down a path that we really don’t want it to go down.

So that was usually what I would use when someone would come up to me and say, “Oh my goodness, you’re so articulate.” I was like, “You know what, so are you. I am super proud of you as well.”

Maya Hu-Chan: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I’m wondering if any of our listeners have any idea how you might compliment somebody for their communication. Someone perhaps English is not their native language. How do you compliment about their presentation skills? I think I like your comment. “You’re so articulate.”

And sometimes you can speak to the specifics. For example, “I love how you open your presentation. That was a very compelling story.” Or you can say, “You summarize that complex idea so clearly.” So stick to the specifics.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Yeah. The behavior. That’s what I often tell people as well. It’s not that you can never tell me that I’m articulate, but you need to tell me what was so articulate for you that led you to that statement. So I agree a hundred percent. Thank you so much for that. Maya.

Maya, we are getting close to our close for today, but I want you to share with our listeners. I’ve given some of the things that you’ve done, but I have nowhere touched the surface. So how can folks get in contact with you to learn more about you and what you do and your services? If you could just share how folks could get in touch with you.

Maya Hu-Chan: Yes, it’s easy. You can go to my website. It’s Maya Hu-Chan, mayahuchan.com. And you can send me an email, you can send me a note and then we can collect.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Awesome. So thank you so much, Maya. I will ask once again if we have any comments from the audience before we move our session to a close. I wanted to make sure that folks had an opportunity to ask the questions with the experts that we have on the call today. So, do we have anything in the chat? Here we go. It’s coming.

Sue says, “Our name is the most important word in our lives.” Absolutely. Great point about inclusion, belonging, always. “… okay to ask again and again.” Thank you so much, Sue. I appreciate you saying that. Definitely appreciate that. Thank you so much, Sue.

So Maya, this has been such a great conversation, but the reality is it really doesn’t stop here. And what we are hoping that you do is that you take some of the things that you’ve learned here today and you share it with your friends, you share it with your coworkers. And again, thank you so much, Maya. I appreciate the conversation. I’ve learned so much from you, and I know that we will continue to learn from each other. So thank you, thank you, thank you so much.

Maya Hu-Chan: It’s my honor, Larry. Thank you for having me.

And if I may say as a conclusion is that when we think about allyship, it’s a verb—it’s not a noun—based on our actions that we take and the things we say in the moment when allyship is needed. So it’s everybody’s responsibility to speak out and take a stand against hate and racism.

So this work is already begun. And let’s continue to work together and make our community, our society a better place.

Larry Baker: Thank you. Thank you so much, Maya. Thank you all for joining us today. I really hope that you gained something from our conversation that we had on today.

And again, my name is Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.

And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Decoded: “You’re just a diversity hire.”
Published on: June 7, 2023

What does it mean to be a “diversity hire?” Is it just a marketing ploy, or are organizations truly looking to diversify their team’s thought leadership? And what effects do these expectations have on the employee?

Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Ana Goehner (she/her) to discuss her lived experience “checking two diversity boxes” as a woman and immigrant Latina, including veiled compliments, lack of representation, and cultural compromising.

Meet Our Guest

Ana Goehner
Bilingual Career Strategist, Digital Butterfly Communications
LinkedIn | YouTube | Instagram | Website

Ana Goehner is a bilingual career strategist, career development instructor, and founder of Digital Butterfly Communications. Ana is a certified HR professional and a first-generation college and MBA graduate. As a solo Brazilian immigrant, Ana spent more than 10 years advocating for her career in corporate America. Now, she helps people find work environments that foster career development opportunities. She encourages her students to become Chief Career Officers and advocate for their career well-being.


Show Notes & Highlights

6:11  Ana shares her experience with the phrase “diversity hire” as an immigrant Latina woman

10:56  Ana speaks to feeling not good enough just because you’re perceived as “different”

18:30  Ana reflects on losing yourself through forced workplace assimilation

28:18  Ana discusses exit strategies and empowering yourself with knowledge

34:48  Ana and Larry encourage allies to speak up when they hear the term “diversity hire”

38:40  Ana describes tokenization and the many variables of identity

43:51  Ana describes how language in job descriptions can be exclusionary


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and then hear personal stories and some tips to help us notice and call in bias.

So welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. My name is Larry Baker. I use the pronouns of he and him, and I am your host for this Decoded series. Today we are going to be talking about the phrase “You’re just a diversity hire.” So what does it really mean when people say that you are a diverse hire? Is it just a simple marketing ploy, or are organizations truly looking to diversify their teams through thought leadership? And then what effect do these expectations have on the employee?

I have with me today Ana Goehner, who is a bilingual career strategist at Digital Butterfly Communications, LLC. And I’m gonna give Ana an opportunity to introduce herself and tell us a little bit more about her and what she does. So, Ana, if you would, please introduce yourself to the audience.

Ana Goehner: Sure. First, I wanna say thank you so much for having me on the show. I’m really honored to be here, Larry. And yes, so like you said, I’m Ana Goehner. My pronouns are she/her, and I’m a bilingual career strategist and a career development instructor.

I use the word “bilingual” because I want people to get a little hint that I may have an accent, I may be from a different country, or my being two cultures, right? So that’s why I use the word “bilingual.” And the main thing I do is to teach professionals how to advocate for their career wellbeing and find a healthy, positive type of work environment.

When I talk about career wellbeing, I want people to understand that that means you are using your natural strengths and the skills that you enjoy at work in an environment that suits you. So of course, you’re going to be doing things that you dislike at work, but if the majority of the time you are able to tap into those skills and in your strengths and you are in an environment that fully embraces you, that’s where you can find job satisfaction. That’s where you can find work and life harmonization and where you might feel seen and heard by your manager and your colleagues. So the formula that I like to talk about is using your strengths and your skills a good amount of the time in an environment that works for you. When I talk about career wellbeing, that’s kind of what I mean.

And for me, I am an immigrant and a first generation in a corporate environment. My parents never worked a corporate job, and I spent more than 15 years working in environments that didn’t suit me. For me, I didn’t have a guide to help me navigate the corporate world in Brazil and in the United States, so I felt stressed, undervalued, overworked, and underpaid. And I know how frustrating that can be when you hustle in an environment that doesn’t help you thrive and grow.

So my work involves a lot of self-advocacy, and I love to educate people and help them understand that they can advocate for themselves at work. They can have allies, people who will vouch for them, but they need to advocate for what they want and not just wait for things to happen to them. So I help people learn how they can speak up at work.

Larry Baker: Thank you so much for that detailed introduction of who you are and what you do. There were so many nuggets that you brought out with your introduction that I think will lay the foundation for this conversation around this concept of “you’re just a diversity hire.” You touched upon your emphasis around career wellbeing and giving individuals the tool to advocate for themselves.

So can you give me a little bit of a background of your experience around that phrase “You’re just a diversity hire?” Do you have a story you can share?

Ana Goehner: Oh, absolutely. So, when I first came to the US, I was a student and when I finished graduate school, I had to learn how to navigate the US market. It was really tough for me to find a job, so I had to learn that whole process on my own. And when I did find a job and as I went through my career—I’ve been working in the US for more than 10 years—I remember well-intended people, and I would say this because I give people the benefit of the doubt; sometimes they don’t know better, right? But I remember being asked to straighten my hair, that I should put my hair if it was curly like on a ponytail or straighten my hair because I’d look prettier where my hair was straight, or buy clothes at a specific store that was really expensive for my salary and budget.

Larry Baker: Mm-hmm.

Ana Goehner: There were many times that I was in an environment where I was the only immigrant Latina woman working there. There was nobody else like me, and it was really hard to navigate because there were times that I would see peers that had way less work experience than me getting different tasks that were projects that would make them visible, that would get tangible results. And for me it was always the invisible tasks. Even though I already had a graduate degree, I remember just getting these very invisible tasks. And sometimes I would ask, “Can I be a part of this project?” or “Can I do this instead?” But I always felt like I was just there to check a diversity box cuz there was nobody like me and they didn’t know how to help me feel like I was a part of the team. I was a part of the company.

So there are many stories like this, but you know, there’s the hair, there are the clothes, there are a lot of things… I had to change who I was to fit in. So basically the whole thing about being a culture fit, not a culture add. I felt like this in many spaces, where it almost makes you feel like you don’t have the necessary skills or experience, even though you do, but like there’s always that inner voice telling you based on the things that you experience in the workplace every day.

Larry Baker: Yeah.

Ana Goehner: There’s always that inner voice telling you you’re not good enough for this job, or they can’t see you for who you are, or you have to work here for like six years to get a promotion—all these different things. When you see people you know who kind of fit the environment getting promotions and the group projects and all these different things…

I have many stories, but these are some of the basic ones that happened more than once. I definitely felt like I was the diversity hire, just checking the box and just like, “Okay, you’re here, but now you need to be one of us.” If you’re not one of us, you feel really isolated and alone if you don’t try to do things to fit whatever the culture they have in place.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Ana, again, you just said a couple of things in your conversation that relate to how this phrase actually connects on two different levels. So for one, how it connects to the larger systemic issues that we have in our society, but how this phrase actually impacts individuals in the workplace.

So I’m gonna ask you first to attack where this phrase impacts you in the workplace. And you touched upon it, how you mentioned that you saw other people be given special projects and you were passed over for those projects. And then societally, there were conversations about your appearance and in the hairstyles that you wear.

So talk to me a little bit more about how has it impacted you in the workplace, but then how did it impact you on a larger level in society?

Ana Goehner: Sure. For me, since I first started working in the US, I always felt the need to prove myself. I was always looking for the certification, the class, always trying to find ways to improve my skills, let’s say—for a lack of better word—to just like look the part. I want to be hired for my skills and experience. So I just became this leaner. I mean, I’ve always been a learner, but it was like 10 times the achiever, 10 times more. Just trying to prove myself in every single space because to me, just saying that I had the experience, it wasn’t enough. I had to have the certification, I have to have this and that.

It got to a point that I really felt like, again, I wasn’t good enough. Or sometimes I would see in job descriptions, right? Like I just came across one today that kind of brought back some bad memories from the past with certain words, keywords like “a rockstar,” “dynamic work environment,” “fast-paced environment,” “Ivy League,” or all these different things, right?

Sometimes you feel like, “I don’t have that. I don’t come from this background.” I grew up in Brazil, and I didn’t grow up with much at all. So I did the best I could with the little resources I had. And when I came here, I remember reading job description and just thinking right there I’m never going to get this job just because of the language. Right?

Larry Baker: Yeah.

Ana Goehner: And then the ones that I actually got, there were still things like I said in the workplace that I would watch people getting the projects that were visible. Like you get the tangible results and then you get praised in meetings. And for me, I remember the very few times that I tried to speak up in a meeting, I was always shut down— like “We’re not gonna talk about this right now” when it was an actual important issue that I felt like everybody should know, or help me at least figure it out how to move forward with it, or if they knew somebody could help me solve the problem. I remember being shut down.

So what happened was I spent many years in toxic work environments without knowing I was actually in a toxic work environment. Because what was sold to me when I first moved to the US and learned more about the culture, what I understood was that you had to work really hard and hustle to get anything, which is something that, you know, coming from Brazil, I already knew and that was already ingrained in me. But I felt like here that need was 10 times higher. I really had to work hard, but then what does it mean to work hard? Working like 50-60 hours a week, saying yes to everything and everyone, not taking vacation? Just going from one test to another and doing all sorts of things because, again, that need to prove yourself, that need to show that I am here, I am worth it.

It’s something that I particularly don’t like to say, and I help people don’t feel that way about themselves is when they say…  job seekers for example, they talk about, “Oh, I want this company to take a chance on me.” That’s kind of the mindset that I had that “Oh my gosh, I am here. I should be grateful. And these people took a chance on me.” And I’m not saying you should be ungrateful when you get a job. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t feel like, “Oh my gosh, I am here, and I should be grateful that I am hustling and working like crazy. I have no life outside of work.”

I feel like that’s a mindset shift that I had to have in order to be where I am today, in order to not have those feelings of I am a diversity hire, I am here not necessarily by chance because they needed somebody like me on the team.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Ana, your experience really echoes personal experiences that I’ve had where you have this mindset that you’re always trying to prove that you belong. One other factor that we haven’t really touched upon, but it’s an underlying cause that we have to be aware of when we are viewed as this “diverse hire,” is that there is a hesitancy from those individuals that are in positions to give out the stretch assignments because they have this mindset that, “Wow, if I give this person this assignment and they’re not successful, how will I be viewed? How will my colleagues and my peers view me if I give a diverse person an opportunity and they fail?” as opposed to having the same mindset that you would have for any person that you put into a stretch assignment if they fail— they didn’t fail because they were a diverse hire. They may have failed for whatever other reasons that anyone would’ve failed in that particular situation.

So that whole hustle mentality and that whole working harder and working longer, that’s almost just the price of admission, right? In my culture, we refer to it as the Black tax. That’s just what you have to do as a Black person in this environment. But then the other piece that a lot of people don’t talk about is that even when we do that, there’s still the hesitancy from the person that’s making the assignments because their reputation may be changed if you don’t have success being a diverse candidate in the organization.

And I really think that it ties into more systemic issues. Again, you talked about in society how you were given advice about your hair and things that have absolutely nothing to do with your skills and your knowledge or your experiences. But it’s almost as if there’s this mentality that you have to conform to what they think a person in their organization looks like, not necessarily what they bring to the table, but if you can have this look, maybe people won’t see you as being diverse.

So you touched upon that. How did that impact you, that type of advice about straightening your hair and buying clothes from this store and that store? How do you think that that had an impact on you when you thought about yourself outside of the workplace, maybe?

Ana Goehner: Mm-hmm. I felt like the impact was like losing who I was, right? I am not the person who shops at this or that expensive store. I am not the person who can straighten my own hair cuz I’m okay with curly hair. It’s okay for me. But like many other things that were happening in the workplace, when people would talk about their expensive vacations and things like that, that’s not something I could at the time do, or anything along those lines. I was barely making it. But I feel like it’s just losing myself and losing myself, I would say, inside the workplace because again, I was doing everything to try to fit in.

But I would also say outside of the workplace because then it’s like, “Who am I? What kind of friends can I have? What kind of people should I seek? What kind of advice should I listen to?” And being from a different country, I had friends from all over the place, all over the country, all over the world, right? And they all had their own ways of seeing the workforce or seeing the world and their own background. So it was really hard for me to kind of find myself. There were times that I remember thinking like, “Who am I? I don’t know who I am. I was this girl who came from Brazil, and now who am I? Am I trying to be someone who was born and raised in this country, or am I trying to be Ana, the immigrant who came to the US and now is living here, but she still has her own values from her culture?”

It was really hard for me because there were many times that I felt like I wasn’t Brazilian, but I also wasn’t American. Even though I am a dual citizen, sometimes I feel like there were times that I felt like I was not Brazilian enough, I was not American enough. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and that affected me outside the workplace too. Because the things that I love to do, like today I dance a lot, I love dancing, but for many years I was working so much and doing the whole culture, hustling, and all these things that I felt like I had to live for work and not work to live kind of thing. I just had to dedicate my life to work because that’s what every young person in this country did after they graduated from college or with their graduate degree—they had to hustle and try to climb the career ladder.

So those were the things that I learned, and those were the things that I thought were good for me. But at the end of the day, they were not because then I found myself going from one wrong environment to another—sometimes toxic, sometimes not necessarily toxic but an environment that they would talk about diversity or something along those lines, but as soon as you started you are pretty much in a sink or swim type of situation. You either tried to figure it out, how to be and how to fit, or within a matter of months you’re gonna realize that… it gets to the point that you realize that you don’t belong there. This is not a place for me. And then you start looking for a different job or you change who you are, which is something that I’ve done many times. Just kind of try, “Okay, I can talk this way, or I can do this thing because it’s not how they act here.”

And sometimes they were part of my own culture that I’m this person. I like to talk and smile and all these things. But sometimes if you are in an environment where people carry themselves with they don’t smile enough, they don’t do any sort of small talk, meaning “How are you?” …but like when I say, “How are you?” I really wanna know how are you today? Not necessarily “I’m fine, thanks” when your facial expression is telling me that no, you’re not fine. You know what I mean? But there were many times that I had to play that role.

I’ll say this—sometimes with emails, I’m always the kind of person, “Hi, how are you?” But there were a time I remember somebody giving me feedback. There were two types of feedbacks that I remember that I can talk about. One was “you say ‘sorry’ too much” or “you apologize too much.” Meaning this was something from my own culture, right? If I did something wrong or if I felt like I would just say, “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to do this way.” And I was told before, “Don’t apologize. You shouldn’t apologize.” And I was like, but what is the silver lining? When should I apologize? When should I say sorry? And it was that vague type of feedback that I didn’t know what to do with it. Even when I feel like the other person maybe took something a different way, I shouldn’t apologize. I didn’t know what to do with that kind of feedback.

And the other thing is being in the workforce and when you send an email to somebody, not even ask in the chat messages, “Hey, how are you?” Not doing even that and just go straight to the ask. I am not that kind of person. I don’t operate that way. I want to say at least “Hi.” But I was told before that you should just like, “Oh, quick!” And it’s something that I had to adapt because I didn’t know how to. For me, I like to give context. I like to give a little background so you don’t misinterpret something that I write or something that I say because I’m a non-native English speaker. I wanted to make sure that people would understand me years ago, so I would give them some context, some background.

But I was told before, “No, you need to go straight to the point.” And that’s when the whole don’t apologize thing came afterwards because I always felt like I said this this way, but I don’t know how this person took it. So I would say, “Hey, sorry if I sent this message and you misunderstood,” that kind of thing. So I feel like in the past, I didn’t know if I was miscommunicating. I had to learn all of this by the way—I had to learn how to be in the workplace and how to communicate effectively and all these different things so I would avoid this misunderstandings where I don’t know, like am I being too short? Did I give you enough context to go forward? You know, all these different things.

And today I learned that when somebody give you feedback, you have questions, ask. When they give you like vague feedback, you shouldn’t apologize. It’s like, “Okay, but what do you mean? Can you give me an example? Can you help me understand what you mean when you say that? What did I do in the past that made you feel like I shouldn’t apologize?” You know what I mean?

Larry Baker: Focus on behavior? Yeah.

Ana Goehner: Exactly. You need to learn these different things. 10 years ago I didn’t know, and you learn. You learn as you grow.

Larry Baker: Ana, what you’re referring… like I said, a lot of the things that you say really resonate with my experience being in these environments as well. And the phenomenon that you were just talking about where you said that sometimes you didn’t feel like you fit in the culture at work and then when you went home you didn’t feel like you felt that you fit in your culture outside of work, to me that relates to this phenomenon of code switching, right?

So I’m one way outside of work, but then when I come into work, I have to flip this code to know all the rules and all the protocols of how to behave at work. And then once I get out of work, I have to switch it back on to be a part of the culture that I’m naturally a part of.

And that is absolutely a phenomenon that we experience because we have these diverse backgrounds, which I like how you were getting to it—that as an employer you should embrace that as opposed to saying, “Yeah Ana, I know that that’s how you do it in your culture, but at work I just need you to do it this way.”

So with that in mind, when you think about the advice that you give to people that may have this phrase aimed at them or someone uses this phrase, what type of advice would you give to the person that was told, “Well, we’re not gonna give you this opportunity cuz really you’re just a diverse hire and you’re here just to check the box?” What type of advice would you give someone that may have experienced that phrase in the workplace?

Ana Goehner: So if I can give just one word, I would say run (laughs), but I’ll expand on that because I feel like not everybody can just run from a bad situation where they feel like they’re not seen and heard. I do work with people, too, where they are in environments that are not good for them or that they feel that way. Even though sometimes things are implied, they’re not really said to your face, but they are implied, right? So I do work with people sometimes when they’re in those kind of environments and sometimes they can’t just leave.

They need to create an exit strategy. So the first thing is to shield yourself, meaning you need to figure it out ways that work for you to realize that it’s on them is not on you. You have the skills, you have the experience, you have the knowledge, you have what it takes to be on that job. But if you are in the wrong work environment, then it’s really on them. If you feel like your teammates or your manager, they’re just not on the same page and they don’t allow you to be your full self at work, then again, it’s on the culture and it’s on them. They are not making that space for you. But what we usually do, we take upon ourselves and we start believing those negative like self-talks and things. We start believing that I’m not good enough, I shouldn’t be here. But it’s on them.

So what I would say is more like on the mindset, try to shield yourself. Try whatever that works, whatever that means to you when it comes to positive affirmations, meditation, whatever it is to do that mindset, that self-care that elevate you, empower you to see that it is not on you is them, is their bias. It’s what they believe. It’s what’s ingrained in their brains. And honestly you can’t help people see when they want to be blind. They choose. It’s a choice. “I don’t want to see things this way. I can only see my way.”

So create an extra exit strategy for you, meaning the first thing is your mindset. It’s a constant work because you always have to be reminding yourself of your worth, of your values, all these different things, but work on your mindset. And the next step I would say is just start looking. Do some research. We have the internet. You can just go online and do research and try to figure out what companies have collaborative, supportive cultures. Then read as much as you can and then reach out to people.

Because sometimes again, words on paper, right? We can all get out there and write this diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging sentences, but what does it feel like to work at that environment? Do they really walk the talk? ‘Cuz anybody can just put words out there. I always tell people if you can, if you’re not in like a really desperate situation where you need to get out—if you need to get out, just find a bridge job, something that can help you pay the bills while you try to figure out your next career move, your long-term career move. But I would say do your research on supportive, collaborative cultures, people-centric, work and life balance, harmony, cultures that value those things.

But first, I also think you need to figure it out what that means to you. What are the things that you see today that really bother you that you want to improve, that you want in a different work environment? Because honestly, for some people, a fast-paced work environment or startup type of environment is what they want. It’s what works for them, right? But for other people, they want an environment that it’s more like work and life balance because maybe they have a family and they need to really get off the clock at a certain time and then help their family—that’s what they need, so they need more collaborative, supportive type of work environment.

So I feel like it’s important for you to understand what that means to you, and then just do your research. Like I said, just reach out to people. Try to figure it out if you have the time. The first step of the research is just going online and trying to read as much as possible everywhere, and then the second step would be to reach out to people who are former employees or current employees if you have the time. The third step that I like to teach people is when you go on for an interview, ask the right questions, especially a few questions about the work environment just for you to understand what that means. “Work environment” means pretty much everything inside a workplace: the culture, the conditions, the management style, and so many other questions.

There are many ways that you can empower yourself with knowledge before you accept that job offer. So it’s important to figure it out first what that means to you to have a collaborative, supportive work environment and then do your research and try to figure it out what are the companies or places that may have what you’re looking for.

Larry Baker: Yeah. I really like the piece of advice where you emphasize that if someone says this phrase of being a diverse hire, know that you deserve to be there and the problem isn’t within you—the problem is with that individual having a better understanding of what you actually bring to the table.

So let me switch. Instead of focusing on the person that had this phrase said to them, what if I am a colleague of a person that I heard them say, “Well, you know that person is just a diverse hire.” So what if I want to be an ally and I hear someone use this phrase? What type of advice would you give to me when I hear that phrase and how should I address that?

Ana Goehner: Sure. So if you were with other people, I would call this person to the side and just have a conversation with them and explain to them, “You used a word and I want to help you understand this word better from my own…” if I am a minority hire or something along those lines. For me, yes, I am Latina, woman, and an immigrant, so I understand what it feels like. So I can call this person on this side and educate them and help them understand that hiring diverse people means this.

Because I feel like more companies are really putting more focus on hiring people based on their skills and experience and not necessarily you’re here just to check a box. And help this person understand what it means when they say, “Oh, you’re a diversity hire,” and help them understand from my perspective, what does that mean for me when you say this. It makes me feel like I don’t have the skills or experience to do the job.

So just kinda have a easygoing conversation. Think about your tone of voice. How are you going to approach that person? Because it matters, right? For me, telling somebody, “Hey, I just wanna talk in,” just in a conversational, easygoing way. You don’t need to try to like educate them in a way that, “Hey, what you said there is wrong.” You don’t need to use these words, but you can just help them understand how you feel when they say this.

Or if you’re not from a minority group, you can help them understand the different ways a company may hire for diversity, equity, inclusion because they have a program and they wanna make sure that moving forward, that’s what they do instead of, “You’re just checking a box.” You know, we are just there just because we need to report, you know?

Larry Baker: Yes, exactly. Yeah, I like that when you said that everybody may have a different method, but overarching your response was speak up.

When you hear it, give that person some insight about how isolating and how uncomfortable that experience can be when you view that person as only being a diverse hire. Because at the end of the day, everybody wants to be treated in a manner that they feel like they belong. And I think in some other situations when it comes to diverse hires, when you’re brought into an organization, you can feel tokenized, and what I mean by that is they always look to you to represent your entire race.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with that. Someone may say to you, “Ana, you’re a Latina. Tell me how all Latinas feel.” You know? And that’s really an uncomfortable position to be in because the reality is, you don’t know what all Latinas feel or what they would say or what they would do in that situation.

So that’s also part of this whole misuse of the phrase diverse hire and diverse employer. I’m sure you’ve had experiences around that as well, and you can elaborate on it, if you feel comfortable doing that—that would be great.

Ana Goehner: Yeah, sure. So this happened to me more than once, like multiple times. Like, “Oh, you know how it feels…” But what I do today when I talk about anything, I will say, “My experience, as a Brazilian woman was this, or is this.”.

Larry Baker: Yes, that’s great.

Ana Goehner: Cuz I wanna bring something here when we talk about diversity, right? Let’s say in a company there’s 10 employees. Let’s say four of them are Brazilians and they are Brazilian women. They all identify as women. It doesn’t mean that because the four of us came from Brazil and we identify as women that we’re gonna have a lot of things in common, that we’re gonna be best friends, that we had the same type of experience. It’s completely different, right?

When I first came here, I had a lot of Brazilian friends, and we all came from different parts of the country. We all had different upbringings, so you can’t say that one person knows what it feels to be. It’s my personal experience. I can only write a lot about my own experiences. But I never generalize because I feel like it’s not right to do this. Because yeah, I know what it feels like to be an outsider, but I know from my own view with my own lens. I don’t know what it feels to you to feel like an outsider. You know what I mean?

Larry Baker: Mm-hmm.

Ana Goehner: So I’m very careful with language and the way I talk about things because I don’t think we should generalize and believe that everybody, just because they came from the… I still get a lot of people, sometimes they’ll come to me and say, “I just met so-and-so from Brazil and is this, this, and that.” And I’m like, “Oh cool. But you know, my experience is a little different.”

So they absolutely get the idea that they have in their brain, and I feel like that creates a lot of bias to it because I have an accent and I can’t change who I am. I’m not gonna change my hair, my skin color, and my accent. I’m okay with all of these things. But sometimes well-intended people, they might come to you and say, “I met so-and-so and their English was perfect. They had no accent.” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s nice. I’m so glad you have this experience with this person.”

I’m saying this because I heard that from other people. And the person, sometimes they don’t realize how saying these things might make you feel. I learned English as an adult on my own. I didn’t have the experience like some other Brazilians, maybe they had the means growing up to go to an English school to learn English or to travel to the US with all these different things. I didn’t.

So you can’t generalize and believe that one person’s experience—just because they came from the same country or they say a few words to you—you use that information to believe that all Brazilians are the same. It’s not. It’s on the case.

Larry Baker: I agree. When you said that, you reminded me of a funny situation that I had a while back when I was working at this organization. And they said, “I met so-and-so from Chicago.” Now Ana, you know, as well as I do, Chicago is huge.

Ana Goehner: Yes.

Larry Baker: So the first thing they would say is, “Do you know–?” I’m like, “Well, probably not.” There are like millions of people in Chicago. And just because we’re from the same culture, that does not mean that I know them.

One other thing that I wanted to touch on before we leave our conversation around this phrase “you’re just a diversity hire…” Talk to me a little bit about your experience when you have people that tend to put top talent and diverse talent in competition with one another, or in other words, they don’t really believe that as a diverse hire you are truly the best talent. And I know for myself personally, having those conversations that focus around you absolutely can have the top talent be a diverse hire, and you need to have that mindset.

Can you talk to me a little bit about how you have addressed some of those issues where someone said, “Shouldn’t I just hire the best person for the job as opposed to looking for a diverse hire?” Talk to me a little bit about those conversations you may have had.

Ana Goehner: Sure. So I wanna start again with the job description situation. Because sometimes there’s gonna be language there that it’s more towards the top talent. And sometimes you even read those sentences in a job description, right? “We hire top talent.” And you may even apply if you are a diversity hire, if that’s the box that they put you in, but at the same time you wonder, “I don’t even know if they’re gonna hire me.”

And when you are the person looking at the resume when, when they look… Name: “Oh, this person has a name that I can’t pronounce. And this other person has more like a regular name” School: “This person went to this university, this person went to a university outside the country.” And all these other things. And sometimes there’s the bias about being a diversity hire, they fit that box. They may have way more work experience. They may have way more skills and education because they already feel the need to prove themselves than the other person.

Because there’s that bias, right? Like maybe name, maybe school, maybe where they work before. There’s that bias that because they have those things, they are going to be top talent.

Larry Baker: Exactly.

Ana Goehner: But it that really true? Why don’t you invite both people for an interview and then treat them the same during the entire hiring process? And then at the end you figured out which person actually has what it takes to perform the job.

So I feel like it’s important, again, talking about language. This is always important to think about the language, how you’re writing those job descriptions. Are you using words that automatically make people who identify as women not even apply, or you use some words and go on and on and on. You don’t use the word “fast-pace,” or you use like a couple words here and there.. I saw another job description that—it wasn’t even something that you were going to work with the public—but a job description said exceptional English skills. And then it went on and on and on. And this person is not gonna talk to anybody in this role, in this position. They’re just basically going to do work behind the scenes. Why there’s this emphasis so much about English skills? And there were multiple times in the job description.

So I felt like a person like me, with my mindset from the past, I would look at that and not even apply because it’s clearly saying I shouldn’t apply to this. And today I would still not apply because I know the signs, I know the language—my background’s in HR, so I know what to look for when I read the job description. Think twice if this is really where you wanna work, or if this job description really is something that you’re looking for. But I feel like for a lot of people, they see certain things and you know right there.

Sometimes even going through the interview process, right? Let’s say you applied even though you have all sorts of self-doubt within the inner critic and you just don’t feel confident, but you continue on. Let’s say you get to an interview and then they may ask questions… again, sometimes people don’t know better, but sometimes it’s just for a lack of training and preparation on how to deal with diverse candidates. They may ask questions that make you feel like you don’t have what it takes to do the job. Like “Why did you come here?” or something along those lines.

It’s important to have the proper training, and that to me starts with the way you’re going to phrase that job description. What kind of people are you trying to attract? And then work on your bias when it comes to like names that you can pronounce. Maybe the person works outside the country, maybe they speak different languages, maybe they had a gap, and all these different things. And then again, I don’t like to say give people a chance, but I wanna say try to follow that process in a way that doesn’t exclude people just because they don’t have similar backgrounds.

If I learned anything in my 15+ year career is that career paths, they’re not linear, especially with Gen Z, the new generation. I doubt they’re going to keep the same career path for 40+ years. You know what I mean? They’re going to try different things. Maybe what they study in college, they’re not going to work on that, and they’re gonna just always have their side gigs and things like that.

So I feel like sometimes you’re gonna have two candidates. They’re both qualified, but their backgrounds are different, and that doesn’t mean that they cannot perform the job. Follow that process in a way that give people ways to feel they can do the job, they can perform the job.

Larry Baker: Ana, you say a lot of those things in your statement that really relate to conversations that I try to have with leaders when they are struggling with this top talent and diverse hire. The first thing that I ask them to do is to be able to define what top talent behaviors look like, and the more that you can do that objectively, then it doesn’t matter what the candidate looks like that meets those behaviors that you define.

But it’s just like you said, we have to create these strategies to mitigate the bias that we’re going to have because you may say, “This person studied at a university outside of the country. I’m not familiar with that.” That’s a bias. People need to understand that. What you need to do is to say, “Does this individual need to demonstrate that they have obtained higher education? Okay, higher education obtained.” So again, you’re taking away the fact of your bias saying, “Well, this person’s probably going to be a diverse hire and they may not be the top talent.” No. Define what those top talent behaviors look like so that when you see it, it doesn’t matter what the candidate looks like because they have the behaviors.

So Ana, thank you so much for our time today and engaging us with this conversation around “you’re just a diversity hire.” What I’d like to do in some situations is give my guest an opportunity to tell us how we can get in contact with you, Ana, and maybe reach out to you via your Instagram or your Facebook or whatever social platforms you’re on. So I’m gonna give you a moment to just kinda give your own commercial about the services that you provide.

Ana Goehner: Sure. I have my website. It’s Ana Goehner, “a n a g o e h n e r.” I like to spell it because a lot of people don’t know how to write my last name especially. And I am very active on LinkedIn. You can find me there again under Ana Goehner. I started on Instagram and also on YouTube.

And my email is my first name, ana@anagoehner.com. Reach out to me if you have any questions, and I would love to help further.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ana. Thank you for your insight and, and your time on this conversation today. I really do feel like we have done a good job of breaking down that phrase “you are just a diversity hire.” So thank you so much and have a wonderful day.

Ana Goehner: Thank you. You too.

Larry Baker: Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded. And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

 

Fill Your Cup: A Cultural Take on Wellness
Published on: May 24, 2023

April 7 was World Health Day, and May is Mental Health Month. But why talk about health and wellness in the workplace? What can organizations do to promote wellness and help diverse teams thrive?

In this live-streamed episode of Brave Conversations with LCW, Host Larry Baker (he/him) was joined by LCW Consultant Emani Richmond (she/her) as she shared her experience with wellness as a Black woman, DEI practitioner, and certified yoga instructor. Join us as we dive into the cultural factors of personal and professional wellness!

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.


Show Notes & Highlights

6:00  Emani gives a business case for wellness in the workplace

10:00  Emani describes her personal and professional background in wellness

15:35  Emani explains LCW’s approach to inclusive wellness

20:53  Emani gives three tips to help engage in workplace wellness

26:57  Emani and Larry discuss what goes into effective workplace initiatives

31:38  Emani offers advice on asking for support on your wellness journey

37:38  Larry points out generational difference in an approach to wellness

39:10  Emani explains how keeping conversations going moves the needle on wellness

 


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns. For those of you that are unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DE&I training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

Hello everyone and welcome to Brave Conversations with LCW Live. My name is Larry Baker, and I am your host. I use the pronouns of he and him. And today we will be preparing for Mental Health Month by focusing on our overall, culturally inclusive wellness. Some of you may know that on April 7th, that was actually World Health Day. Some of you may also know that Mental Health Month is coming up in May. But why should we talk about health and wellness in the workplace, and what can organizations do to promote wellness to help diverse teams thrive?

Well, I am so glad that you asked us that question for today, because today I am super excited to be joined by my colleague Emani Richmond, who is a consultant with LCW and she’s a certified yoga instructor. So welcome, Emani, if you could do us a huge favor and introduce yourself before we get into our session.

Emani Richmond: Absolutely, Larry. I’m just so thrilled to be on this stage, in this platform talking about something that I love. Like I can spend endless hours talking about this. So a bit about me—my name is Emani Richmond. My pronouns are she/her/hers, and I’m currently based in Charlotte, North Carolina. I hold down the Carolinas, and a little bit more about me…

So I have been practicing yoga for well over nine years now, which is wild to say. I started with an intro class in college and just kept rolling with it that way. I also became a certified yoga instructor last fall, so I’ve been able to expand into some other markets and just share that passion and love for movement and wellness.

I also have been plant-based for going on three years. So that’s a bit more about me, and I’m really excited to share more with you, Larry, about me and my wellness journey and the folks that are able to join this conversation live today.

Larry Baker: Awesome, awesome. Thank you so much, Emani. But before we jump right into our conversation, I wanted just to take a moment to make sure that I highlight the chat function for our session today. We want you to participate. We want to hear your reactions. We want you to submit questions throughout this conversation. So if you have questions, you have comments, you have things you wanna say, go ahead and put them in the chat, and we’ll do our very best to answer them throughout our conversation.

So, Emani, I wanna take this moment to be a little bit personal with my relationship with you.

Emani Richmond: Okay. Mm-hmm.

Larry Baker: Because when you first came into the organization talking about this whole wellness perspective and the passion that you had for that, honestly, it kind of took me a moment to get on board with this.

Emani Richmond: (laughs) Mm-hm.

Larry Baker: Cuz to understand that I’m the product of being raised by baby boomers and individuals that were around in the silent generation, and combined with those generational experiences, plus the racial component of my father and my grandfather having the simple fact of they were just happy to have a job.

So for them to engage in conversations about their wellness and taking time for themselves, that was unheard of. So because that was my influence, it was unheard of for me. So when you started talking about things like, you know, vacation time and yoga and all of those different things… I will be perfectly honest with you, I said, “That is absolutely something I am not going to engage in.”

However, your passion for wellbeing, it just made me stop and think about it. And it’s actually become something that I want to incorporate into my day. And I just want to give you a specific shout out for that because your love, your passion, your encouragement truly made me say, “You know what? I probably should think about how this is impacting me.” Because the reality of the work that we do, it’s not just facilitation—it’s like reliving my lived experiences, which can be traumatic, right? So your insight in regards to taking those mental breaks and doing things that are to preserve me, I truly appreciate that. So I just wanted to give you your flowers before we jumped into this session, but I truly feel like your influence, your passion, has given me a different perspective.

So let me ask you this question: why should we consider wellness at work?

Emani Richmond: Yeah. Well, Larry, I first wanna start by saying thank you for sharing the impact that my conversations around wellness has been having with you, because similar to you, a lot of individuals have not been given space in order to hold these conversations—that can be via culture, that can be via your generation, or even your working environment.

So in order for me to stay at LCW long term and for me to be happy while I’m here, I knew that I needed to have an organization that talked about wellness, that offered resources and space to even take part in those resources. I’m grateful to hear that that’s had an impact on you.

But deep diving into just this specific question “Why consider wellness at work?”—similar to what you mentioned, it benefits us all. Within the DE&I field, we’re always talking about the business case for diversity, about how diversity helps us innovate, diversity makes us smarter, and how you can ideate conversations greater with more of that mixture of ideas coming into the table. I view wellness as a part of my toolkit.

In order for me to better show up in this place, I need to make sure that Emani is taken care of so that I’m not allowing other outside distractions to come in. And we know that a lot of folks deal with a number of mental disorders, a number of mental illnesses. And if I am not taking the time to make sure that I’m nourished throughout the day, making sure that I’m hydrated, making sure that my nervous system is regulated, then I’m less present for our clients. I’m less present with my colleagues.

And I found that for myself, instead of wellness or self-care being something that I did outside of work when I’m done with work, I thought, “What if I repositioned that and instead brought wellness in at the beginning? How do we structure our projects so that we have more ease and space in our timeline so that you can make space for when life comes up?” And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to allow more flexibility for what we matter and then better prioritize that.

But whenever I first center wellness at work, I’m able to then stretch myself in a way that I’m not left feeling empty at the end of my day, but rather I am engaged in rewarding activities that lead me to greater alignment and alignment with my career aspirations, alignment with the way that I wanna show up for my community, and also alignment with specifically how I want to contribute to the different spaces that I’m in.

So whenever I consider wellness at work, I’m allowing space for me to be more present and more effective in the things that I’m doing.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Emani. And shout out to LCW to be perfectly honest with you, because when you brought these concepts into the organization, they were welcome.

Emani Richmond: Right. Encouraged!

Larry Baker: And I was like… okay, we have virtual environments and whatever challenges come with virtual environments, but literally if I told my boss, “Hey, I took a 30-minute walk,” she’s like, “Hey, okay, no problem.” And I’m like, “Wow, this is truly something that they support.” And I do appreciate the fact that I don’t have to feel weird about saying, “Yeah, I just took a 30-minute walk to kinda refresh my mindset.” Or if I have a tough meeting or a tough session, that’s welcome and encouraged. So I appreciate our organization for being that way, but again, you’re spearheading that.

And I think you touched upon your background a little bit, Emani, but I don’t really think you gave the people what the people really needed to hear. So talk to me about your background with wellness, both personally and professionally.

Emani Richmond: Oh, thank you for this question. I was so excited when you presented it because it allows me to go on a little trip. At LCW, we are globally focused, so whenever I have the opportunity to bring in my international experiences that is benefiting me, right through that globally informed lens and also other folks.

So my wellness journey, it actually began in Bangkok, Thailand. I had the incredible privilege to live internationally, to work amongst Thai folks, to really get acclimated into that culture. And I found for myself whenever I was in Thailand in front of beautiful sunsets, meeting incredible travelers from all around the world in different stages and ages of their life, I was not showing up in a way that I wanted to. I noticed myself dimming my light. I noticed myself being less friendly, less outgoing and meeting folks and making those connections. So I thought, “What do I need to change? What do I need to change in order for me to feel differently?” And that started with wellness.

I didn’t have a great relationship with food. I indulged in emotional eating, and a lot of clients that I’ve been able to coach outside of LCW… I support women through their weight-loss transformation programs. They talk about these unhelpful patterns that they have with food.

And I also noticed that instead of me engaging with the folks in front of me, I was anxious, and I was so lost in my thoughts about how am I showing up or what should I say or what should I not say. So my wellness journey began this exploration first into myself around what are my values, what matters to me, and how do I bring that forward in everything that I do? And also what are some difficult decisions that I need to make so that I can start living more fully, so that I can start taking up more space?

So Thailand was the beginning of that. And one other thing that I’ll note just specifically about Thai culture that really influenced the way that I view health, that I view work, or even health at work is something that I noticed in that culture. When I was there, I had the opportunity to do some work with a public school, and at that school they began each day with a morning assembly with the entire school being there. And since Thailand is a Buddhist culture, they began their day with chanting. Folks offered alms and gratitude to the monks, to the folks that were taking care of the environment around them, and then also there was this pause. There was this collective centering right before the day got started.

So that was a huge shift from my individualistic-based kind of mindset that I came from the United States with into this more collectivistic culture. I saw them looking at wellness as being the responsibility of the community. So from there, there was that charge for me—how can I better involve my community in my healing path? I’m doing a disservice to myself if I’m learning all of these helpful tools about how can I get calmer before I go into a meeting, how can I clear my heart, clear my even just emotional baggage, whatever I’m carrying around before I dive into that facilitation… I’m not showing up for my community if I’m not sharing those resources.

So being back in the States at LCW in a culture that is so welcome and receptive towellness conversations is extremely rewarding. But I would say that journey first started being in a different culture, seeing how did they interact with wellness, how do they get centered, and then looking and seeing how can I adapt some of those tools and frameworks to better help me make sense of wellness culture here in the United States and then also help other folks along that journey.

So it’s been a wild ride, and I would say I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, right? One being everyone doesn’t wanna look like a pretzel, Larry. Everyone doesn’t want to engage in yoga.

Larry Baker: Especially hot yoga, I’m just saying. Especially hot yoga. You know how I felt about that episode.

Emani Richmond: (laughs) I know! And Larry’s referring to, during our retreat last year at LCW, one of the wellness offerings that we had was a group meditation and stretching session that also was in a heated studio, right?

So we’re bringing some of those practices that some folks take it home and then spreading them. How can we make community, especially in this remote virtual environment that we’re working with in LCW? And a lot of folks are working along with that reality as well. How can we share some of those and then create a community of wellness as well?

Larry Baker: Yeah. You mentioned a lot of different pieces to this puzzle, Emani, and what I’m really gathering from your statements is… that wellness program, it differs from one person to another. Because our organization is so focused on inclusivity and making spaces for people to feel included and like they belong, how can we or how can an organization make their wellness culture more inclusive? What are your thoughts around that?

Emani Richmond: Well, I would say something that we try at LCW in order to inform our wellness initiative is first asking folks what do you value, right? What do you care about, and how do you want to better position wellness in your life?

Wellness for me, currently looks like… I have a flexible but somewhat rigid as well wellness routine. So for me, being well means that I’m waking up in the morning, and then at first I get started with my hygiene routine: washing my face and just getting done with the bathroom. And then from there, I’ll move into a yoga practice. So I do about 20 minutes of movement in the morning, maybe some affirmations, and while I’m drinking coffee or something of that nature, I’m also reading a text or maybe reading an article to get my mind warmed up and ready for the day. Lastly, I’ll light an incense because environmental wellness is important to me.

So while working from home, having those divisions in between how do I start my day or what do I do for my lunchtime is something that I’ve taken as a ritual throughout my day. So from there, once I make sure that my needs are taken care of, then I’m able to open my laptop and then give LCW what it needs or give our clients what it needs.

When it comes to asking yourself how does wellness differ from person to person, first a self-assessment needs to happen. As we were launching the wellness initiative at LCW, the first thing that Briza and I did was we created a survey. We are not here working in silos. I think sometimes folks do a disservice whenever you assume that I get in a 30-minute walk every single day, so everybody needs to do this. Well, if my goal or my value is not around movement in this space or season in my life, maybe I wanna prioritize my time being spent on nutrition first, right? So first, having that survey to ask your employees what do they want to hear and see is one way to make your wellness initiatives or actions more culturally inclusive.

And then from there, actually act on the data. How many times do folks take a survey and they say, “Well, why did I spend time doing that? My employer didn’t make any changes?” We then at LCW, through the wellness initiative, we launched so many activities that were centered on what folks at LCW said that they wanted. We were in meetings all day, every day, but people didn’t have much time to just connect with the humans that they were working with. People needed time just to check in with their colleagues, some of that watercooler talk that folks mentioned, right? So we launched an initiative called Flow on Fridays. I have the opportunity now every other Friday to hold space. We bring that cup of coffee, we bring whatever your greatest joy for that day or week was into this informal gathering, and then we also have the opportunity to move through some gentle stretches and breath work.

But that all came from that survey that we initially sent out first asking folks, “How do you wanna bring greater value or how do you wanna bring greater balance into your life?” And then from there, asking folks, “What are some areas of your life that you’re dissatisfied in?” Because how many times do folks spend energy complaining about things, not being solutions-oriented? I wanna provide solutions, resources that folks see how they can clearly get from point A to point B while their wellness is in the forefront of those conversations.

Those are some strategies have helped us and that we’ve seen great success at LCW and look forward to leaning more into as folks deepen their understanding about wellness in general.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Yeah. So you’ve mentioned in regards to how our program has been kicked off at our organization, and you talked about the first thing we did was to take the survey… which again—full transparency—I kind of struggled with that because I never had anyone ask me these types of things at work, and it was almost this feeling of “this really isn’t work related,” right? And until I have that epiphany that’s like, well, If I’m not taking care of myself, then I’m probably not going to be able to do the work at hand. So that’s what helped me to see, “Oh, this is important to actually engage in this survey at this level.”

But that’s just one tip. And Emani, because I know you, and you talk about this with a passion, I know you have some more tips. What are some tips that you would give to that organization that may be 10 times bigger than LCW? What kind of tips can you provide for folks looking to promote this or to engage this in their workplace?

Emani Richmond: Right, I definitely have three tips that folks can take with them today.

So similar to what I first mentioned, ask employees what they believe their levels of wellness currently are. Allow your employees to self-diagnose themselves. Because Larry, I think it is so illuminating for me. I hope I take this data back. We’re gonna act on it. The fact that when you took that survey, it was difficult for you to pause and think about these things… A lot of times folks are just moving throughout their days trying to get things done and then showing up and wearing so many different hats. So first holding that space, like I mentioned, for employees to check in with themselves.

If you’re looking to promote wellness in your organization, what you value is what you spend your time on. If you tell me you value folks having a flexible work policy, but whenever I need to leave early for something then I get a lot of pushback for that, I’m gonna think that your values don’t really align to what you say that they are.

So first asking employees to check in and self-diagnose, and then two, just get the conversation started by holding real space for how you’re doing. How many times, especially in the United States context, do we ask someone, “Hey, how are you?” and then you just respond, “Fine. I’m okay”? One way that I wanted to change that narrative is by taking that moment to pause and ask myself, “No really, how am I?” And then that starts creating some of that psychological safety for us to pause and really check in with one another.

Now, if you don’t have a lot of time to get into everything that’s going on with you, use discernment, use some of that wisdom to mitigate that. But just holding space for you to talk about what you have going on.

And I believe a comment was actually mentioned about how LCW has been really supportive with our colleagues that are going through a number of things.

Larry Baker: Mm-hmm.

Emani Richmond: And then lastly, define what does wellness mean for you. So having that internal definition—I like to call it my wellness manifesto. It includes me inviting more space and ease into my life. I know that I’m well when I’m not rushing from one thing to the next, I have time to breathe in between engagements. So just figuring out for yourself, based off of your culture, based off of your values, what does a well-lived life look and feel like for you?

That can start to help you diagnose and then also create programming that meets employees where they are along their wellness journey and also start to promote a culture of wellbeing in your organization—in a way that’s not just giving lip service to the idea, but supporting folks with what they have going on.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Emani, your statement about your wellness manifesto, that really resonates with me because one of the things that I came to realize is that I needed to have some boundaries, right?

Emani Richmond: Mm-hmm.

Larry Baker: Because with this work from home environment, I find myself, for whatever reason, never shutting off the laptop, right? So anytime if the laptop is up and I look over and I see something there, or I may see something from something else that may inspire me to add something to something else that I’m working on… it was this constant struggle with setting boundaries of when I’m done with work and when I’m at work. And I struggled with setting the boundaries, but what I realized is that once I set those boundaries, it kind of pushed me into a wellness manifesto.

But on the flip side of that, I began to realize that the people that were getting upset with the fact that I had started creating these boundaries, those were the ones who benefited from me not having set up boundaries. So if there was one thing that I could take from that whole illustration of creating a wellness manifesto, it was about setting boundaries.

And it really resonated to something that I’ve been taught, and I don’t even remember who told me this or where I picked this up from, but they told me that in your life, everybody has a start date, or you have a date that you were born, and all of us are going to have an end date. And those two things will be placed on our headstone. But the other thing that’s placed on our headstone is that dash in between the start date and the end date. So the question becomes, what are you doing in the dash? And that really just resonated with me. I forget where I heard that message from, but that question always sunk in with me, and it helped me to understand that this is my life. This is my time, right? This is my story. I need to own that. I need to take charge of that. So that whole wellness manifesto that you just spoke on, it really resonates with that.

Do we have any questions? We can open it up to some questions. Okay, let’s see. I have something,  and this is from Tamika Walters. And Tamika, if I mispronounce your name, I apologize. “I like the idea of a wellness manifesto as a personal practice. Interested in organizational solutions. What sort of workplace programs have you seen that address employees’ wellness goals and priorities?” Emani, wanna take that one?

Emani Richmond: Thank you so much, Tamika, for this question. It is energizing because it’s actually fueled by something that we’ve initially rolled out at LCW that has also came from conversations that I’ve had with other professionals in the wellness industry.

So something that we’re currently offering to our employees are personalized wellness coaching sessions, and what those wellness coaching sessions look like is my colleagues will come into that conversation first with a goal, something that they have predetermined that they wanna focus their efforts and energy on. And then during the conversation we speak about why is this goal important to them, specifically what that goal is, and then lastly, we talk about how can LCW or even me specifically support you in achieving those goals.

So something that’s needed and that’s been effective in promoting that individual wellness is that first setting the goal and then follow up. We have so many initiatives that get started at the beginning of the year with the best of intentions, but without that follow up, without me knowing that you care about this based off of you spending your time that way, then I’m not sure if that’s gonna be effective for me. So setting those goals, having follow up, and then even wrapping those conversations into your biweekly or monthly manager check-ins. So just like this, an agenda item: “How are your relationships going with your clients?” or “Do you need any support on the projects that you’re working with?”

Something that we’ve embedded into our coaching conversations is “How are you? How can can we decrease your workload? Are things manageable for you?” And since LCW, we’ve rolled out an unlimited PTO policy, we’re also moving more in this direction of how do we even assess productivity potentially differently in our organization. So allowing that flexibility and follow up for individuals has proven to be effective.

And, and one more note about that, Tamika, cuz I’m so excited about this question, is we host events and programmings based off of what our employees say that they need help with. There was at least a three-month kind of trajectory where folks were saying, “My back is sore. I need a new office chair.” So we thought, well, let’s have a posture clinic. Are we in this virtual environment? Are we taking care of our body while we’re taking care of everyone else? And if we don’t leave that space to talk about what resource and support will look like, people just continue to dismiss their wellbeing in our practice. So offering events that target areas that folks need support has also been proven to be effective.

Larry Baker: Yeah, and Tamika, one of the things that I’ll say in regards to what types of workplace programs are effective… The reality is it’s not necessarily the program per se; it’s the support within the organization.

Our organization does an extremely wonderful job of not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. And what I mean by that is I don’t believe that I have been in a meeting, at least in the last year and a half or so, where my supervisor has not started off the meeting by asking, “How are you doing? What’s going on in your world? What are you most excited about? What are you concerned about?”

Whatever the program is, it’s not going to be effective without the support. And that’s what any program that you put into your organization—I don’t care if it’s a DEI initiative, I don’t care if it’s a wellness program—if it is not being supported right throughout the organization, from the top to the bottom, it’s going to be challenging for any program to be effective.

So hopefully, Tamika, that helped you. If not, we can pull back and give you some other information a little bit later. But thank you, Tamika, for the question. Anybody else? Any other questions that we have Emani in the space?

So we have a question in regards to how do I ask my employer to support my wellness journey? Great question. I’ll let you start, Emani.

Emani Richmond: Yeah, I think this is a great question because it illuminates the fact that we are all on our own wellness journeys. So I first connect with folks by just getting centered in our humanity. We are all humans going through this human experience. And so sometimes that includes kind of triumphs and things that you wanna celebrate, and then other times you absolutely fall down and you just need to pick yourself back up.

So one way that I would approach asking my employer to support my wellness journey is by asking them first, “What is something that brings you joy in your day that you want more of?” I approach my coaching from a strengths-based perspective. So I first wanna understand what do you enjoy about your life? What do you wish you had more time to do? What makes you feel most alive whenever you’re doing it? So I would throw that question to my employer or maybe to my manager, “What’s something that makes you feel most alive?,” and then that opens up the conversation for me to share more about myself.

Well, it makes me feel really alive whenever I’m practicing yoga. And then once we look at that container of my strengths, from there we can develop strategies or even maybe steps to bring that greater wellbeing and balance into our life. So that might look like somebody making space for you to have that 30-minute walk within your busy work schedule, or that might also look like you perceiving resources for more nutritious lunch options. But if we don’t start from sharing what do you care most about first, then it can just be misaligned, I would say.

Larry, how would you add to this?

Larry Baker: Yeah, for me personally, like I said, having those upfront conversations tend to promote understanding me as a full person or as a whole person. I don’t have a problem with tying it into business results as well, right? So if I’m saying that I’m under stress with X, Y, or Z, and I could use some assistance and A, B, and C, or whatever the case may be, fortunately enough we have created this environment where we can be honest and truthful about what is impacting my overall performance for the organization.

And again, at the end of the day, we’re here to get work done, but if I am not at my best then I’m not going to be able to produce my best work. And I think that because we have this understanding that we want to do the best work that we possibly can for our clients, if there’s something in the way that’s preventing that, I’m a hundred percent comfortable with sharing that with my manager and honestly anyone that’s in leadership within our organization.

Emani Richmond: Larry, I wanna add onto that. How did you create the condition for you to share that? Because it requires a certain level of vulnerability, of transparency for someone to say, “I need help” or “I’m struggling.” So can we just dive into that from maybe even a culture-based standpoint of what that means and looks like and how you’ve built that?

Larry Baker: So for me, I established it based on a DIN model. And what I mean by that is if you do what you say you’re going to do, then I will trust you. And over the years, the relationship that I have with my manager, she has done enough of the ifs that I understand the then. So we’ve established that trust with one another.

But you’re right, it did involve some time where we were like, “Yeah, I’m not really so sure if I should share that.” But I had to understand that in order for me to be my best, I have to get to be able to trust this person. So we established those guidelines and as soon as I saw that she did what she said she was going to do, yes, she earned a little bit more trust.

And when I gave her something that was a little bit transparent and there was no backlash for that, there wasn’t any animosity or hard feelings, then I knew that I can open up and give more. But you gotta start somewhere, right? You gotta take that first step, and however you establish your trust, get it going early so that you can establish that trust as soon as possible. Because at the end of the day, you want to be able to perform at your best level, and if you don’t have trust with that manager, that’s going to cause some conflict.

Emani Richmond: Larry, I’m so grateful that you brought that up because something that hasn’t been surfaced in our conversation yet is for me to gain the trust of my colleagues, that first involved me showing up to them in an authentic, open way, in a way that I’m most comfortable with.

So for folks that are leading wellness initiatives that wanna get that wellbeing conversation started, I want you to be aware of some of that precursor work that has to happen on that front end for folks to believe that you care about their wellbeing, folks that believe that you are able to show up for them in that way. And that’s been really transformative for me in building these relationships and having the success with our initiatives.

Larry Baker: Agree, agree. Let’s see… there’s another question in the chat. “How do we move the needle on conversations about wellness? Larry mentioned generational differences in perspective. How do I make a business case for wellness?” (laughs) That’s such a great question.

Emani Richmond: It is! I wanna get started with the second one a little bit and maybe we can jump in and out. Larry, I’m not sure if you had an initial perspective that you wanted to share… you do?

Larry Baker: Yeah, only about the generational differences. Because honestly when you started this, Emani, I was just like, “Oh my goodness. This generation and all of the things that they wanna bring to the table.”

Emani Richmond: (laughs)  Our beanbag chairs, uh-huh.

Larry Baker: Exactly! I’m like, “Can we just do our job?”

Emani Richmond: No!

Larry Baker: But when I really took time to be open to the possibility that maybe the old way of doing things or the traditional way of doing things… maybe they just don’t work anymore. Because we have been thrust into this new work environment, maybe we need to have some new ideas to get different results.

So that was just for me, my personal difference, because I was just like any other… And I’m not a baby boomer. I’m Gen X, but close enough. I’m like right on the cusp of the baby boomer. At the end of the day, it took your passion and your persistence to get me to have that paradigm shift that says, “You know what? Maybe this isn’t the best way to be. Maybe me being exhausted isn’t a good thing, and there’s more to life than just having these accomplishments at work.”

But I’ll let you expound on your thought with the second part of that question.

Emani Richmond: Absolutely, absolutely. So to answer one part of the question, and I forget which one… Thank you for dropping it back up. In terms of moving the needle on conversations about wellness, keep the conversation going. If you are only talking about wellness in May or for heritage months and days, folks will realize that is not where your value is because you’re not investing time in that conversation.

Larry Baker: Agreed, agreed.

Emani Richmond: One way that we keep that conversation going about wellness is we released a wellness newsletter. So every single month our organization has a focus on which one of the five areas of wellness will we be focusing on tips, tools, and resources for, and then we also follow up those newsletters with programming. So folks have some self-directed learning opportunities. If you wanna get a healthy recipe, if you wanna learn about the impacts of stress on the brain, we have those resources in the newsletter. But if you want to talk to an individual about something that you’re managing, we have Flow on Fridays. We have that human-centered kind of connection.

So one way that we move the needle about wellness is we keep the conversations going. And by keeping those conversations going, wellness has become one of our top strategic priorities for LCW, and it comes from efforts from me and my colleague leading the wellness initiative and then from there also individuals saying, “Thank you for this.” “Oh, I needed this.” And Larry, to your point of, “Well, I didn’t know I should spend time thinking about this, but maybe this really does benefit me.” Let’s dive into that more. So keeping it going, definitely.

Larry Baker: And I can wholeheartedly testify that that’s the reason why I started to engage in it because it wasn’t going away. I thought that if I just wait them out, maybe they’ll stop talking about this stuff. No, every month, every two weeks, and it’s like, “All right, I need to dig into this and see the benefit that it can have for me.” So excellent point.

Anything else? Any other questions that anyone may have? This has been an amazing conversation, and I promise you it makes a difference—it really does—when you start to invest in the wellness of your employees. They truly have that sense of “Oh, they do care more than just what I can give to them.” It’s that reciprocity that I think really gives you the passion to do your work at even greater levels.

So maybe we’ll leave it open for another question or two, but if not I’m gonna definitely give you a moment, Emani, to let the folks know how they can get in touch with you. But I just wanted to check the chat to see if there were any other questions that we needed to address… No more.

All right, so what I’m gonna do, Emani, is first and foremost just to let folks know—or to let you know—that this was such a great conversation with Emani, but the reality is it doesn’t stop here. We really hope that you learned something today and that you share it with your friends, you share it with your coworkers.

Thank you so much again, Emani, for joining me today. But before you go, I do want to give you that space to promote some of your personal and professional endeavors. How can our listeners get in contact with you? So go ahead and respond.

Emani Richmond: Of course. Well thank you Larry for the space, and the best way to get in contact with me: you can find me on LinkedIn at Emani Richmond. And I’m actually working on launching my personal wellness brand. It will be called Rei of Sun, that’s spelled “R E I,” Rei of Sun. You can look forward to personal stretching sessions coming out of that, mindfulness opportunities.

And I also make some body butter on the side because I need my inner and outer wellness to be shining. You see this glow? Okay, I don’t wake up with this. This is created. So following me on LinkedIn will allow you to know about when my website will officially launch and other offerings that are coming.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Awesome. And Emani, I do have a bone to pick with you because you said it was a heated room. No, that room was hot. So don’t try to minimize that. And it was over the summer, so I just wanna understand that that was a hot yoga session, but I definitely appreciate it. So thank you.

Thank you so much, Emani, for joining us or joining me today. And thank you all for joining our conversation. I am Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW Live. Thank you.

Thank you all so much for joining us, and to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share it with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or you can reach us at Language and Culture Worldwide, or LCW. Until next time, I’m Larry Baker and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Decoded: “You’re not being a team player.”
Published on: May 3, 2023

If you don’t participate in your workplace culture the expected way, you might hear, “You’re not being a team player.” But what are the qualities of a team player, and why are some viewed as more acceptable than others?

Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by DEI Practitioner and Founder of her own consultancy Rahimeh Ramezany (she/her) to discuss her lived experience as a Muslim woman in the workplace. Don’t miss their conversation on how expectations based on team unity can actually be exclusionary, causing companies to lose out on a diversity of top talent.

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Meet Our Guest

Rahimeh Ramezany
DEI Practitioner and Founder, Rahimeh Ramezany Consulting
Instagram  |  LinkedIn  |  TikTok | Youtube Website

Rahimeh Ramezany (she/her) is a multiethnic, neurodiverse, Muslim American woman, and a diversity, equity, inclusion, and intercultural practitioner. She founded her DEI business in 2021 in order to train organizations on how to include Muslims and religious identity in their existing DEI efforts, while developing nuanced understandings and practical DEI skills that can be applied across identity groups.

Rahimeh leverages her lived experiences at the intersections of multiple marginalized and privileged identities, a master’s degree in intercultural communication, and years of professional DEI experience to address the often deeply uncomfortable but nonetheless essential work of making our spaces inclusive and equitable for all.


Show Notes & Highlights

4:18  Rahimeh shares the traditional definition of being a “team player”

8:52  Rahimeh connects the phrase to subtle and outward Islamophobia in society

19:17  Rahimeh reflects on the exclusive nature of alcohol in networking events

26:20  Rahimeh offers advice for people targeted by coded language

29:13  Rahimeh offers advice for allies who witness this phrase in the workplace

 


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to the develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and hear personal stories and tips to help us notice and call in bias.

Well, hello and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW, where we break down terms that could have coded language implications. And today we’re going to be talking about a phrase that you might hear if you don’t necessarily participate in your workplace’s culture the expected way. You might hear this phrase, “You’re not being a team player.”

But what are the qualities of a team player, and why are some viewed as more acceptable than others? To help me have this conversation today, I am joined by DEI Practitioner and Founder of her own consultancy, Rahimeh Ramezany, who is going to share her lived experiences as a Muslim woman in the workplace.

Could you please introduce yourself to our listeners and then maybe share a little bit about your personal experiences around this coded phrase “you’re not being a team player?”

Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you, Larry, so, so much. I appreciate the introduction. Hello everyone, my name is Rahimeh Ramezany. I use she/her pronouns. I’m a diversity, equity, inclusion intercultural practitioner, which I just use to sum up all the things: trainers, speaker.

I like to talk to people about how to be inclusive and equitable for all and create organizations and spaces for all, but specifically looking at the Muslim, Muslim-American, Muslim in the West experience, and also those of other marginalized religious identities in the West.

That is my personal lived experience. I do always, always start with and center that I absolutely do not represent all Muslims. Not at all. There are an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims around the world; that is an estimated 25% of the world’s population. No single one person could possibly know, even if they are a Muslim themselves, myself very much included… none of us as individuals can know everything about even our own group.

So please do make sure that you’re not taking what I’m saying, and saying, “Oh, all Muslims because Rahimeh.” No, no, no, no, no, no. But definitely wanting to share my own experience so that it can benefit others and also what I have heard from many other Muslims in my own community, online, in professional settings, and so on.

Larry Baker: Awesome, thank you so much for that quick introduction, Rahimeh. So what I really want to kick this session off with is I want you to share—because again, we’re given this phrase a little bit of a deeper context—so I want you to share your personal experience around that phrase and, how it’s been applied to you: “You’re not being a team player.”

Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. The tricky thing with this kind of coding is that it is both explicitly used in the workplace and also implicitly used, so it’s not said, which makes it even more difficult to push back against. A lot of the times when you’re newer in your career—I know for myself as well, when I was newer in my career—it just like an ucky feeling of “Huh, I don’t really feel like I am being respected, but I can’t really put my finger on it.” Because sometimes they don’t actually come out and say, “You’re not being a team player” or “We need you to in essentially conform with the standards of professionalism.”

There are a lot of conversations in the DEI space around what is actually professionalism in the West. And a lot of the time that is norms where you are expected to be white, you’re expected to be a man, you’re expected to be cisgender, you’re expected to be Christian or Christian-passing, on and on… all these like dominant, privileged identities in the workplace, and anyone who falls outside of that is not professional or not a team player. So in many cases, Muslims… again, please, please, please keep in mind that Muslims are incredibly diverse in our ethnic background, our racial background. Actually, ISPU (the Institute on Social Policy and Understanding), which is a Muslim American nonprofit and think tank, did a study a couple of years ago and showed that Muslims in the United States are actually the most racially diverse religious group in the United States. A lot of people don’t know 30% of Muslims in the United States are Black or of African descent or African immigrants or part of the African diaspora.

So please keep in mind, not just ethnically, racially from all backgrounds, but also there are different sects of the religion. There are people who choose to be a certain level of practicing and less practicing, and so in all of these different ways of all the great diversity amongst Muslims, there is no one way of showing up as Muslim of acting Muslim. “Oh, they have a Muslim name” “oh, they acted Muslim,” “this person’s less Muslim.” On and on and on.

With that having been said, for Muslims who do practice more of the religion of Islam that kind of departs from mainstream non-Muslim American life, for instance, we’re gonna talk about not drinking alcohol or not shaking hands or making physical contact with someone from a different gender: a couple of other examples that can be very jarring for non-Muslims if this is the first time they’ve come across that kind of behavior, which I totally appreciate when you are coming across something new in from your experience in the past. I’m not here to shame anyone for being surprised. Not at all.

But the problem is when we come back to our phrase, “You’re not being a team player.” When it’s like… what really does it mean in this organization to be a team player? Is it all of these professional norms that really don’t mean anything when we really think about it, or is it how good someone is at their job, how much they really are dedicated to the quality of their work and doing it as what they were hired to do? And are we guilting people for actually being from diverse backgrounds and not from the dominant privileged identities or attempting to hide or erase their own identities in order to assimilate?

Okay.

Larry Baker: Okay. So when you think about this phrase, you start to touch upon it with what you were saying, but I want you to just really be specific. How do you think that this particular phrase tends to connect to maybe even larger issues in society?

I mean, you touched on it a little bit, but I just want you to kind of put your twist on… so once this phrase is applied, here’s what it might have a greater connection to. So if you could give me some insight on how do you think it connects to larger societal issues?

Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. So for Muslims in the West and honestly around the world… but especially in the West cuz I’m born and raised in the United States. I’m American, so that’s very much my own lived context, and I want to be very clear about what context I have expertise in. So having said that, the broader model of marginalization that Muslims face is called Islamophobia, which is the fear and bias against Muslims, Islam, or anyone who is thought to be Muslim, right?

So for instance, someone who is being discriminated against or god forbid attacked, which has happened. Deaths, murders have happened because someone was thought to be Muslim when they weren’t in fact Muslim, and that actually would for sure be considered Islamophobia. And it’s one thing completely, just as an aside, to critique a religion; every religion is deserving and must be critiqued by its own members and externally, that is a completely separate and valid point. But this fear of Muslims are taking over the world, or you know, Sharia law when you don’t even know what Sharia law really is. “Muslim women are all oppressed.” Not to say that Muslim women, just like other women in other groups, don’t face marginalization or oppression from the hands of other people. Not at all. But the fact that a whole religion and all these women who choose to practice Islam, who choose to be Muslim, who choose to wear hijab are all oppressed by default and on and on and on.

So with this overarching idea of Islamophobia coming into the workplace, this “you’re not a team player” is code for basically like legitimized, professional Islamophobia where a Muslim is acting against what is considered “professional norms,” whereas if that might mean a Muslim woman choosing to wear hijab or any Muslim of any gender choosing not to shake hands or hug or make physical contact in some other way with a member of a different gender.

I know ironically it’s actually been at other DEI-centered events that when… and I’m someone who also doesn’t shake hands with people from different genders, and I have a whole script of what I do to try and make it less awkward for people. Cuz again, I appreciate very much that like you are not expecting someone not shake your hand when you’re meeting them for the first time. It’s meant as a gesture of getting to know someone and starting a professional or some sort of relationship with them and trying to start off on a good foot. I appreciate the intention, so I do everything that I can, and I know a lot of Muslims who do the same thing—have this whole script of trying to make sure that the other person doesn’t feel like we hate them or we’re discriminating against them, or or or or.

But even then when I explain, “Hey, this is my religion. I don’t shake hands with men or with people of other genders, but it’s so nice to meet you,” and I go straight into whatever the conversation is to try and not make it something we spend time thinking about, they start stewing about and getting ideas about, “Does this person actually hate me?” Which is not at all the case.

Even then with all of that effort, it’s actually surprisingly when I’m at DEI-related events that I get the most raised eyebrows, the most “What? Oh, why? Why are you so different? Why are you so weird?” And again, this is like in a professional networking setting, but even in a job, if you are not following the expectations… which when you really think about it, what about shaking hands with someone or letting them hug you or letting them tap you on the shoulder or some other professionally-accepted—at least in the United States—form of physical contact, what about that inherently makes someone a team player or not, right? When they are doing their job very well, when the quality of their work is excellent, when they are attentive to their customers, their clients, their teammates, their manager, on and on and on.

So that’s one example with handshaking and just generally touches on Muslims as the permanent other, similar to Asian Americans. And there is a lot of overlap between Asian Americans in the West and Muslims because there are many Muslims who come from ethnicities that are from the Asian continent. I do wanna just take this opportunity to point out that not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim, the Middle East falling under the Asian continent. So just really wanting drive that home that I don’t want people walking away from this conversation thinking that “I thought all Muslims are Arab and Rahimeh confirmed that.”

No, no, no, no. That’s not what I’m saying. But there are a lot in India and Bangladesh and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iran and all these other places, so many other places that have so many Muslims and fall under the Asian continent. And so there’s a lot of overlap between Asian Americans and Muslims.

So having said that, there’s this similar thought between Asians and Muslims where they are the permanent other—that no matter how many years, how many generations, how much they have integrated into the United States or the American context or other Western countries as well that they are never like really citizens, that they are never really belonging here.

And I get that treatment all the time. Especially now that I am very vocal and do a lot of my education work on social media, which is honestly a method where I am trying to just get the information out in an accessible way because not everyone works at a company that can hire a DEI practitioner or consultant or trainer.

And that means that the information stays in very specific kind of… not classes, but just like there’s a certain financial burden that comes from hiring someone for a completely tailored engagement versus there are so many people who are really interested in this information.

So I will stop there. Thank you, Larry. I know I’m a talker.

Larry Baker: No, because you’re leading me into the workplace because I want to dig into that because you’re kind of touching up on some things that… We almost gave a definition of “a team player” because when I think of what the standard, traditional definition of a team player is, it’s basically somebody that is actively contributing to the group in order to complete a task or meet a goal or even manage a project.

So some of the things when we talked earlier, you talked about your experience with this: they don’t even relate to that topic. And what I mean specifically is you talked to me about a situation… drinking, right? Some type of event where drinking was involved. I want you to elaborate on those experiences and how that created this contradiction for you and your religion. So if you could talk about that a little bit.

Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the thing—what you just described as the meaning of a team player. I agree. If this is a job, if this is a professional setting, it should be about the work. Is someone doing their job as the job description stated and they signed a employment contract that stated these are the roles and the responsibilities that you have. “This is what we’re paying you, compensation for your time and expertise.” “Amazing, this person has been doing those things. They’ve been doing good quality work. They have been coming to meetings, they’re on time for things. Whatever the case may be.”

If things happen that they have to make changes, they have to call out sick. Okay? That’s completely expected in the human experience. People are human beings. People get sick. They have children who need to be taken care of, their elderly parents, whatever the case may be. The power goes out in their house, their car gets broken down, whatever. Like those are different aside things.

I agree that what you described should be really what is the definition of a team player. What ends up happening, as we were talking about this coded phrase, is that it adds on these like unspoken layers of things where if you try and push back then you have it used against you. Like, “Oh, well I feel like you’re not being a same player,” and you were like, “But I have been doing my work.” And I’ve seen so many testimonies online and in person and I’ve experienced it myself where I have had a manager or some part of my team come to me and say, ”Hey, I don’t really like X that you’re doing” or “This isn’t going well” or “Can you do this differently?” and I push back. And again, many other people have this experience, not just Muslims of course, but Muslims as well, saying “This was the project that I was given. Yes it was. Did I meet all the expectations? This expectation, this expectation? Yes, I did. Then what is the problem?”

And somehow it’s still just not good enough or they just don’t feel good about it, whatever the case may be. So it’s all these implicit, unspoken layers that are added on that people just use the phrase  “team player” because it’s so ambiguous that they can then just criticize people for things that they personally are biased against, and in this case for Muslims like Islamophobic biases.

Remind me of the second part of your question. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re on mute.

Larry Baker: The situation around drinking and alcohol in different events.

Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. So I want to start with again stating that there are many Muslims on all different sides of the spectrum of this specific topic, just like all topics. There are Muslims who do. There are Muslims who go to bars or go to institutions where drinking is happening, and they have no problem with it as long as they themselves choose not to drink. There are Muslims who may go to professional settings through their job. Cuz a lot of positions, employers will have like happy hours or times after work where people are networking amongst their team with their manager, with higher ups, with people in leadership, where this is where promotions and recommendations for jobs later on… this is where the foundation for that is laid.

There are people when they go to grad school the same way, which a lot of it isn’t just necessarily about the degree, but it’s also about the networking with your cohort and how powerful that is. That’s a lot of the reason why people want to go to really prestigious grad schools because that is the caliber. Again, the thought behind it is that that’s the caliber of people going to those institutions, that you’re then networking with your cohort, with your professors and so on and so forth.

And so if all of those kinds of both in a job situation or professional networking settings outside of a job… if all of those are related to alcohol and you have a Muslim, in this case someone who is practicing the Islamic principle that alcohol is not allowed to consume… again, with the asterisks being that there are Muslims not just that do drink because they are not practicing, but also my understanding is that there are some Muslims who legitimately think that drinking alcohol is acceptable in Islam. And I’m not here at all to say that those people are not good Muslims or that they’re not Muslim or that they’re wrong.

But I’m trying to represent that the majority of Muslims—I do feel comfortable saying—would say that it is not allowed in Islam to consume alcohol and some would go so far as to say to enter into a space like a bar where alcohol is being consumed or an event where like it’s a big part of the event. I know some people who won’t even go to restaurants where there is a bar. I will go to a restaurant where there is alcohol like served, but I won’t go and sit at the bar area if they’re like, “Oh, you need to go order from this area.” So again, many Muslims on all different sides of the spectrum.

For the Muslims who don’t care about alcohol and are fine being around it or consume it themselves, then they’re not going to have this phrase used against them—“you’re not a team player”—because they go along with what the dominant culture is. This is in no way meant to judge them. For those Muslims who do step aside from what is the dominant culture norm—which is to either be very open and free with consuming alcohol or they themselves will attend events where there is alcohol—for those of us who do not do those things, I know for myself, I have had some very sticky situations.

One event in particular I’m thinking about… so this was a job where I had a lot of coworkers where we were very close, and we had a lot of great rapport. And so one of our team members in particular who was very beloved by the whole team—and rightly so, she was amazing—she’s having a birthday, and so we all decided to take her out to lunch on our lunch break. And there was a restaurant that a lot of people liked very nearby, like we could have walked there it was so close. And I thought for myself, especially since I was like younger in my career, “Well it’s lunchtime. We’re only on our one-hour break.” A lot of people actually did end up driving and not walking, even though we could have walked be. “So people are driving, it’s lunchtime, we’re going back to work from work. I think I’m safe. I don’t need to think about this.”

And so we get there. Actually, someone did drive me… don’t judge me for not walking, but I actually did drive with someone as a passenger. Then when we got there, everyone ordered wine. Like everyone. And I felt so uncomfortable and at the same time, this was against my values that I would’ve respectfully passed and wished her happy birthday, gotten her a gift, given her a hug, whatever the case may be if I had known this. Now that I was there, I was fighting in my mind about, “Do I say anything? How can I say something? How can set some sort of boundaries in this completely awkward situation where literally everyone around me, all my coworkers, are drinking, and I’m incredibly uncomfortable, and I really wish someone had told me that.”

And also, this is someone’s birthday. I don’t wanna make it about myself by making a scene or anything like that; we’re there to celebrate her. And so it was a very awkward situation. Thankfully because I had been at this organization for a while, I had rapport built with my coworkers that even though they weren’t aware of this part of Islam… when I was younger in my career also, I very much had to I unlearn a lot of internalized Islamophobia where I would like tamp down on my own values and ideas about boundary-setting. Because of being Muslim, I was figuring that I bothered people. So anyway, I had people who went with it and hopefully I didn’t ruin this person’s birthday.

But I’ve had many instances as well in professional networking settings where either I have completely opted out when going to a dinner with people at catered roundtables and seating charts where I had asked ahead of time to be given a table where alcohol wasn’t being consumed, even though everyone else was drinking on other tables. And they gave me this teeny tiny little appetizer table where you stand. It was so tiny. And then thankfully one person, one of the organizers, sat with me so I wouldn’t sit by myself, but it was just so awkward and I’m literally smiling through it like “This is awesome.” I don’t want you to see how awkward I am and like how humiliating it is.

Larry Baker: But Rahimeh, you’re really touching upon another line of thought that I want you to dig into, is some advice, right? What type of advice would you give to people that might be targeted by this phrase? Or if you are in a room and you hear someone being targeted by this phrase, what kind of advice would you give to those two parties?

Rahimeh Ramezany: So for the people who are targeted by this kind of language—this coded phrase where the phrase itself might not be objectionable, but then there’s all this like unspoken stuff behind it, which again is why it’s so difficult to like confront it. For those of us who experience being on the receiving end of that, first and foremost, I want to appreciate and uplift the fact that you are probably in a setting where this is your employment, where you are making an income to feed yourselves, to feed your family, to pay your rent or your mortgage. Right now, the economy is not in the best shape, and I personally don’t think that there is any shame in prioritizing the stability of one’s life, their food, their housing—in the United States—their healthcare, their retirement…  prioritizing that and that safety instead of always living 120% your values. And I know that that’s very difficult. I know for me it is very difficult to know that I’m compromising on my values to survive. However, I just wanna say that I personally would say to not beat yourself up too much about that you’re doing the absolute best you can. And that’s all anyone can do.

And when there is an opportunity to come to your manager or come to a coworker who could be an ally for you. Because especially if this person has a more privileged identity in this area, they trust you, you trust them: they’ve shown that they are trustworthy and they can advocate for you, and  you’ve given them your permission to advocate and all of that, then that is a great method that you can do. If there’s a way to give anonymous feedback if you don’t feel like there’s that psychological safety there. Maybe there are coworkers of similar identities to you who you feel might have experienced similar problematic feedback—reaching out to them and doing what you can to see what you can do collectively because there are absolutely power in numbers. So trying to be innovative with how you approach things.  The foundation that I personally hold true is that your employment, how you are surviving this world, I would never, ever, ever want to give any advice that could jeopardize someone’s livelihood.

So having said that, for people who are managers, who are in leadership, anyone in a position even if they’re not in leadership who are wanting to be allies to those with different marginalized identities—whether they are Muslim or some other marginalized identity—try and stay open to feedback. That feedback is a gift on how to improve, and there has been a lot of conversation for many, many years around growth mindset. So if that is something that we generally understand in the professional world about being open to growing and that you are not a failure as a human being because you don’t know all the things, then you can apply that to DEI values where you are not having this perfectionistic perspective of “I know all the things. I am never going to be in the wrong because I always make right decisions.” Instead, shifting towards a more flexible growth mindset perspective of when someone comes to me and says, “Hey, this is how you can be more inclusive of me. This is accommodations that I need to have a more equitable experience”—and equity within DEI is about removing barriers to access—allowing someone with who they are because we appreciate, with the diversity element, that human beings are incredibly diverse. Again, not just Muslims. Human beings are incredibly diverse, and that’s actually an amazing, beautiful thing about the human experience.

Larry Baker: Yeah, agree. Agree.

Rahimeh Ramezany: You have the business case down for DEI where it’s more innovative for your company and on and on. So you have these diverse people in your organization making sure that you’re taking their feedback so that you can build that psychological safety where they trust you. They are going to be more innovative, they are gonna be more committed to their jobs. They’re going to do so much more for your organization because they know that you have their back.

And again, going back to the original focus of today’s conversation—“you’re not being a team player”— really getting clear on what exactly does it mean to be a team player in your organization. And does that mean that you were requiring people, as an example, to consume alcohol to be a team player on your organization? And there’s so many people, just as one last point, that don’t consume alcohol, not just for religious reasons, not just Muslims.

Larry Baker: Exactly.

Rahimeh Ramezany: There’s so many other people for very, very legitimate reasons, which we can go into in another time. But just keep that in mind: what are you really saying when you want someone to be a team player? And is that actually related to their role?

Larry Baker: Yeah, and thank you so much for that Rahimeh, because that kind of ties into some of the things that I was thinking about… that definition of team player, it also has to be based upon intersectionality of the different values that you have within your team, right? So I like that as advice for an ally, but also I want them to be aware of their own bias in regards to how they define team player.

You also touched upon a great point in regards to when you are given feedback: don’t necessarily equate that to failure. Because if you are an individual that is looking to grow, looking to improve, that feedback is that mechanism to help you get there. So I absolutely appreciate you touching on all those points.

But I just wanted to thank you so much, Rahimeh, for joining me on this incredibly important topic, and I think that you shared your experiences with your religion in that beautifully because again, we wanna always make sure we’re being intersectional in our approach.

But before we go, I’m gonna give you a little space to promote your personal and professional endeavors with us. So how can our listeners get in touch with Rahimeh? Tell us how to get in touch with you.

Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you, Larry. I appreciate it, and thank you so much for this conversation. I very much hope for anyone listening that this has been helpful, educational to you in some way.

If you are interested in getting in touch with me—as I mentioned a little earlier in the conversation—I am active on social media as of course marketing my business but also genuinely offering education pieces for people who don’t have the opportunity necessarily to have organizations that they work at come in and bring a completely customized, tailored training or engagement to their team. So if you are interested in following and learning around these topics around diversity, equity, and inclusion, around intercultural communication—especially as it relates to Muslims in the West or those of different marginalized religious identities in the West—I really highly recommend checking me out.

I’m very active on LinkedIn, which for some people they’re active on LinkedIn, and the people who aren’t active on LinkedIn are just like, “What? Who’s on LinkedIn? That’s just a resume site.” So that depends on, you know, your own usage. But I’m also active on Instagram, YouTube, and on TikTok, so you can check me out there if you have my name with this episode. All of my accounts are under my full name, Rahimeh Ramezany. I’m sorry, yes—you will have to spell my name correctly.

But you can refer to there if any organizations are interested in actually bringing an actual customized, fully tailored engagement, which that is a big point of pride for me in my work is that I don’t just copy and paste trainings from one org to another; I really get to know the organization, their context, what are their struggles, what are their questions, and tailor the content specifically to them.

If you are interested in that sort of engagement or something similar that you might have in mind that you want to propose, you ca reach out to me@rahimehramezany.com: no dots, no spaces, no, dashes or anything. Again, you will—I’m sorry—have to spell my name correctly, but you can reach out to me there. I have my contact form and there are more details around my work. So I recommend checking me out there.

Larry Baker: Fantastic. Thank you so much again, Rahimeh, and this has been such a great conversation.

But understand that it doesn’t stop here, and we are really hoping that you take what you learn and you share it: share it with your friends, share it with your coworkers. And if you actually want to partner in having these conversations in your own workplace, then let us know. You can contact LCW at languageandculture.com. So once again, this has been Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. Thank you.

Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded.

And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Decoded: “Where are you really from?”
Published on: April 5, 2023

Regardless of birthplace or current residence, the phrase “Where are you really from?” can be belittling of an individual’s intersectional identity. How do you respond when you’re positioned as an “outsider” in the conversation?

To help us unpack this phrase, Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Go Beyond Co-Founder Greg Sloan (he/him), who shares his lived experience as a multi-racial business owner dedicated to helping organizations integrate purpose into their culture and strategy.

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Meet Our Guest

𝗚𝗿𝗲𝗴 𝗦𝗹𝗼𝗮𝗻, 𝗖𝗙𝗣®, 𝗖𝗘𝗣𝗔, 𝗖𝗣𝗠™
Co-Founder, Go Beyond
Instagram  |  LinkedIn  |  Twitter  |  Website

With over 25+ years of experience in financial services, Greg (he/him) discovered the benefits of activating personal purpose in the workplace and seeks to share this knowledge with other leaders. Believing that everyone has a unique purpose that can improve the status quo, Greg founded Go Beyond, a talent development company that leverages behavioral science and technology to help companies attract, engage, and grow their people. He is a thought-leader who centers his time and energy on purpose and people, with focus on purpose in the workplace, future of work, and financial wellness.


Show Notes & Highlights

2:19  Greg describes his experience as a multi-racial American

4:25  Greg reflects on the issue of putting people in boxes

6:18  Greg advocates for bringing your authentic self and lived experiences to the workplace

8:12  Greg explains adding diversity of purpose to the concept of DEIB

10:30  Greg and Larry discuss using a problematic question to turn the conversation positively on the asker

14:24  Greg defines allyship in terms of acknowledging “hurt people hurt people”

16:59  Larry gives advice to allies trying to start a conversation

20:10  Greg shares his experience with triggering language based on lived experience

22:28  Greg describes how in the future, multi-racial identities will become the norm based on population


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.

For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to the develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.

This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and hear personal stories and tips to help us notice and call in bias.

Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with L C W. Today. we’re going to talk about the phrase “Where are you really from?” So regardless of your birthplace or your current residence, this phrase “Where are you really from?” can be belittling of an individual’s intersectional identity. So how do you respond when you’re positioned as an outsider in the conversation?

To help us unpack this phrase, I am joined today by Go Beyond co-founder Greg Sloan, and I’m going to have him talk about his experiences when it comes to this particular phrase. And Greg, in your introduction, can you do us a little bit of a favor and dig into that concept just a little bit? Greg, I’m gonna yield the floor to you and tell me a little bit about yourself.

Greg Sloan: Well, thanks Larry. Thank you for having me on the show. I look forward to this conversation. You know, when I was first asked to join this and looked at this comment of “Where you’re really from?,” it kind of hit home. I live here in Atlanta, Georgia, but I am originally from Hawaii and grew up there—born and raised—and moved to Atlanta, Georgia in… let’s see, about 19 years old.

I’m currently as you mentioned the co-founder of Go Beyond. We’re an employee experience software platform, and we really are part of the conversation to help the workplace and the workforce work better together.

So in my career, particularly after arriving here in Atlanta, I had to hear this a few times because I grew up in the era of Sesame Street, where “one of these things doesn’t belong. I clearly didn’t look like I belonged in Atlanta, Georgia. And I have some of those features that most people can’t really tell where I’m originally from. And so just for the audience—I know most of this is just audio—I’m half-Asian and half-Caucasian, so I’ve been identified from a racial perspective as everything from Hispanic to Asian to Hawaiian to Black to everything in between.

So this has come up in my career more than once. And particularly when you’re somebody that recognizes you look different. Yeah. It really—what did you say—addresses or hits home to that identity. No question I experienced that in my career.

Larry Baker: Yeah. So Greg, thank you for that introduction and a little bit of background on some of your experiences. But I do wanna ask you some specific questions.

Greg Sloan: Sure.

Larry Baker:  When you think of this phrase, Greg, how do you think that it connects to larger systemic issues that we face in our society?

Greg Sloan: I think that the reality is we’re taught to sort of identify people and to sort of look at others based on what our parents taught us or our grandparents taught us. And again, I’m speaking from experience growing up in Hawaii and somebody from a Japanese culture. We really were taught to identify other members in Hawaii of where their parents were originally from and where their nationality was from. And I’m not saying that this was the right thing, I’m just saying this is the way it happened in Hawaii.

But when you bring that into the workplace, I think it’s sort of been natural for individuals in the workplace to really think of other individuals. We don’t wanna be put in a box, yet a lot of us were raised by putting people into a box—sometimes based on national origin. I know for myself, it’s something that I’ve had to experience on the receiving end, and I’ve tried hard not to put others in the box in a negative way. I’m very fascinated about different nationalities and very attracted to people from around the world. So I think there’s a way to do it in a positive way, but unfortunately I don’t think that that’s the norm.

Larry Baker: Yeah, and I appreciate giving that insight and tying it to the workplace. So when you think about this whole concept of this phrase “Where are you from?,” what are some examples or some ways that your organization works in regards to eliminate some of the stigma that this phrase might have in the workplace?

Greg Sloan: When we started building what we were building, no question that what helps organizations is really understanding individual strengths and their experiences. Because when someone comes into the workplace, we really—in addition to their education and their skills—we do want them to bring their unique self into that role, or in some cases into the project. It could be a project within an organization. And there are individuals that have gone through life experiences in the past—partly because of where they’re from—that is going to benefit a particular project or in some cases a particular client that we can leverage this in a positive way, not necessarily a negative way.

So again we’re a software platform that has some assessments, and within our assessments, some of the questions that are asked focus definitely more on life experiences versus national origin or nationality. We don’t really get into those questions, but we did talk about life experiences: life experiences being tied to origin. We really do have the ability to pull out from those individuals unique things that they have gone through that will help in the existing project or role that they potentially can be a part of.

Larry Baker: So it sounds essentially that you’re using this phrase in a way for individuals to see it as a benefit to their overall business as opposed to an eliminator to classify you as not really belonging.

Greg Sloan: No question. In fact, the way we look at DEIB and particularly focused on the belonging piece, when you ask questions around belonging, we fully recognize that we are a diverse society and that we are better when we have diversity.

We don’t necessarily focus on the racial side of diversity. We focus on the experiential side of diversity, what we call that diversity of purpose. So when we talk about diversity and what you’re bringing uniquely to the marketplace—those life experiences that you’ve gone through—there’s a phrase that you’ve heard: there’s purpose in the pain.”

I’ll use a really simple example, which is in the healthcare space. A lot of individuals get into healthcare, nursing, physicians, caregiving partly because of what they experienced watching a loved one go through some life experience. And so when you’re able to bring that out of your workers to say, “Can you bring some of that passion? Can you bring some of that life experience into what we’re working on here?,” you’re gonna have a unique perspective, and you’ll even bring something that someone else may not have thought about of how we solve this particular issue.

Larry Baker: Yeah. You know what, Greg? I really love that philosophy, that mindset, because when someone is asking you that question “Where are you really from?” or “Where are you from?” and when you elaborate on those types of experiences and influences, you can provide them with such an eye-opening revelation that they never really intended with that question. So I definitely appreciate you sharing that specific insight.

Greg, I do wanna get into asking questions about what advice might you have for individuals that might be targeted when they hear this phrase “But where are you really from?” What kind of advice can you give for those individuals?

Greg Sloan: Well again, I’m gonna use my personal experience cuz going back to, gosh, it’s been 30-some odd years, 35 years I guess now when I arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. And at first I was taking aback: it was obvious that I didn’t look like everyone else, and I didn’t know how to respond, to be candid with you. I just knew that people were looking at me differently.

Now, what I didn’t know was that many people in the South didn’t realize Hawaii was a state, and I’d hear those questions “Well, when did you come to the United States?” Guess what?

Larry Baker: (laughs) Forever.

Greg Sloan: Hawaii is a state, right? I know that’s crazy for people not to realize it, but nonetheless, what I learned through this process—and it took me a few years—was that once you get over the fact that sometimes people are trying to be offensive, right?

Larry Baker: Oh yes.

Greg Sloan: Sometimes people are just ugly. That’s just the way it is. But how can turn that? How can you spin that in a way that is positive? And I was able to learn how to do that. I did realize at some point people did see Hawaii as kind of a paradise, and I was able to start to tell stories or hear stories whether they visited or grandparents visited or parents visited.

And I started to use it as an example of where we’re kind of similar, but we’re different. And there’s experiences and there’s things that I can bring to the table and you might find intriguing because I’m not from here. So I actually started to turn it on them, to be honest with you. I’ll start asking them questions about “What do you know about Hawaii? What island have you visited? What experiences did you have?”

And it did take me a while, no question, but then I eventually started to learn how to be proud. Not that I wasn’t proud already from where I was from—the islands. But I really started to become proud of how I was different and then I think was able to even turn it on the question-asker. Like even if they were from Ohio, well tell me something different about the part of Ohio you were from. So I did learn how to do that, and I think that that’s one of the things that we have to recognize is there is a way to put a positive spin on things.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Greg, what really resonated with me is when you said you were using it as a way to be proud of how you overcame because I have a similar experience when people ask that question of me. Because in most cases being from the Black or African American community, your zip code has this tendency to determine your destiny. And for me to explain how I overcame those challenges and those obstacles that were in my way but still I had resilience to overcome that to reach this specific level within my life as well.

So I absolutely love that advice for individuals that may feel targeted by this phrase: look for opportunities to flip that around and show how you’re proud of the things that you overcame. So I absolutely appreciate that.

Now my second question on that line is… if you have someone that wants to be an ally who may witness this phrase being used to someone that is considered an outsider, what type of advice would you have for that ally in regards to some things that they should do?

Greg Sloan: Well first of all, we have to be honest in recognizing that some people are just going gonna be ugly, right?

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Greg Sloan: And some people are… how do I say this? They have a lot of pain in their lives that they’ve not worked through and you’ve heard that phrase: “hurt people hurt people.” And I think one of the first things you have to realize is sometimes you are the current target, but you’re not really the global target of their pain.

So from an ally perspective, I think one of the first things to realize is it may not necessarily be about you. It seems like it’s about you for that particular day. Maybe even they’re bullying you or they’ve, they’ve targeted you, but that person has gone through something that they haven’t overcome. Now, I do believe there’s a Bible scripture that says, “Live peaceably with all men, if you can.” And I’d like to follow that first part, but there is that second part that says, “If you can.” (laughs)

Larry Baker: “If you can.” Right, right. (laughs) There are limits.

Greg Sloan: There are. There are some individuals that it’s not gonna be for you to kind of help them through that. So I think the first thing is just to recognize a reality is you’re not gonna necessarily be there to help everyone come to this place, but be gracious to them and even for your ally.

Your question reminds me of another situation that we were a part of in a friend of ours. The son was getting divorced and the daughter—future ex-daughter-in-law—was kind of being vilified in the situation. And no question she was doing things that I feel like probably were beyond what maybe should have been done, but we also recognize that she had her own pain that she may not have overcome. And so bring it to this situation, it did partly do not necessarily the geography that she came from, but from the household that she came from… She experienced some things that didn’t allow her to move beyond that, and so you do have to recognize other people going through pain themselves.

Larry Baker: Yeah, I appreciate that insight as well, that you are not necessarily the target of this type of exclusionary behavior. And for me personally, when I teach our sessions around microaggressions and I bring up this statement as an example of a microaggression, almost in every session I have the comment or the the statement where someone says, “But Larry, I struggle with how this is a microaggression because I’m truly trying to strike up a conversation with someone that I don’t know.”

And what I tend to offer them is a couple of different questions, and I’m just gonna chime in to the questions that I use. I recommend that they say one of three things: you can ask them “How long have you lived in Georgia, or how long have you lived in Atlanta?” or whatever the case may be. Or you can even ask them “So where did you grow up?” Right? The same type of question can get the same response, but following them, if you don’t relate to those two, maybe you can even ask them “Hey, where else have you lived?”

Because you have to understand that when you are asking that question, the context is everything, right? We’re not saying that everybody is going to react negatively to this phrase, but having that awareness that that phrase can trigger some people to let them make the association with “you really don’t belong here,” “you’re really not a part of the team,” or you know “where do you come off telling us what to do?” We don’t do that down here. What are your thoughts?

Greg Sloan: Well first of all, you used a really critical word, I think, which is “trigger.” And when I first started looking about even the work that LCW is doing and leading in a culturally diverse world, for whatever reason, every time I looked at that “L” I also thought about the other L-word, which is “language,” right? And when we’re communicating, we’re communicating through language, and it’s better if we recognize that language has different meaning to different people in a large part based on where they’re from.

Again, I grew up in a culture that didn’t necessarily speak good English. You know, in Hawaii we speak Pidjin English. It’s very similar to the way in New Orleans they speak Creole English. And yes, and the reality is the language that we use, the words that we use do sometime create those triggers that you may have no idea what that other person is processing.

One thing I wanted to share, coming back to the original phrase… to me it’s more than just geography. It’s also about the racial component of it. Cuz as I mentioned, I am multiracial, right? Half-Japanese and half-Caucasian. And to be candid with you, growing up in Hawaii the part that I was put down for was the Caucasian.

I grew up in a mostly non-white environment, and I was actually more embarrassed of being white. I really wished I was more a hundred percent Japanese or I had much greater Asian features. And so one of the things is you use this language to try to sound more like the culture or the group that you want to be accepted by.

Larry Baker: Yeah, yeah. Right.

Greg Sloan:  You wanna get that sense of belonging. But going back to what you were saying about triggers… I think it’s so beneficial when we understand that other people have certain triggers that—you may not have been doing it intentionally—but it may be a trigger.

Larry Baker: Yeah. And Greg, that whole statement that you made about being multiracial and that struggle that you have with “Which identity do I gravitate towards?” That is an internal struggle as well. It’s almost as if you’re saying, “But where am I really from? Am I really from my Asian background, or am I really from my Caucasian background? And which one is more salient to me in this situation as opposed to this situation?”

So again, “Where are you really from?”—those can be some internal struggles as well, dealing with that intersectionality that you have within your identity that can play out when someone is really just asking that question in a way to shut you out. But they may not even realize that “Look, I’ve already been shut out. I’ve been going through this my entire life. I’ve been trying to figure this path out for a long time now.” And I appreciate you sharing that depth of insight. Go ahead, you had something.

Greg Sloan: One thing that I do really appreciate, I read this study once—and I don’t remember what the date was—but there is a date in the future where that checkbox when you apply for a job or start a company that says, “What is your, your nationality?” …there’s that one checkbox now that’s multiracial. At some point in the future, that is gonna be the largest population of people checking that box because our society’s becoming so integrated.

For me, I’m gonna have grandchildren that are also Filipino cuz my son-in-law’s Filipino. And we’re gonna have this like United Nations, melting pot home, and I think that that’s a beautiful thing. Of course, I’m of that type of ancestry, so I think that I’m already attracted to that.

But I know this is gonna be more the norm because just statistically that’s gonna happen, so I think that’s a beautiful thing that. And we’re talking about here in America for the most part that that is gonna continue to happen. I think it’s a wonderful.

Larry Baker: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you anymore, Greg. And I just wanted to first and foremost thank you so much for your willingness to be a part of this conversation. I think that you’ve given us such an interesting perspective on this phrase, and I believe that we have taken it to a totally different level that I just don’t think a lot of people really take the time to consider. So Greg, I absolutely appreciate you and all of your insight.

Can I give you an opportunity to have some of our listeners know how they can get in touch with you, how to get in touch with the work that you’re doing within your organization?

Greg Sloan: Yeah, absolutely First of all, Larry and the LCW team, thank you for having me and allowing me to be part of this really important conversation.

Our company’s go beyond, and—as I mentioned—we help the workforce and the workplace work better together by activating purpose, and purpose is really about each person’s unique design to improve. That’s our definition: your unique design to improve the status quo for others in the workplace. This really helps companies align the right people amd bring on their ideal workforce. And then of course, make sure they’re in the right seats as Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great.

So you can find us at GoBeyond.work. If you wanna send us a message hello@gobeyond.work, great way to reach out directly to us. And then we’re also on all of the social media, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

Larry Baker: Greg, thank you so much for this conversation. We could have done this for hours. I just appreciate you being so transparent, being so vulnerable, and talking about your experiences. So thank you all for another incredible episode of Decoded. Thank you.

Greg Sloan: Thank, thank you, Larry.

Larry Baker: Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded.

And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.

Woke or Broke: Commitments to Black Employees
Published on: March 22, 2023

It’s been three years since we saw organizations make a wave of promises and commitments to their Black employees following the racial reckoning of 2020. So what’s changed? Have these commitments converted to action? What do we do when it feels like performative policy is replacing positive transformation? We want to know – are organizations’ commitments to Black employees woke, or are they really broke?

In this live-streamed episode of Brave Conversations with LCW, Host Larry Baker (he/him) was joined by Executive Director of Equity Communities of Practice Dr. Harry Petaway (he/him) as they discuss accountability through “making woke great again.”

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.


Show Notes & Highlights

4:47  Dr. Petaway defines the term “woke”

5:40  Dr. Petaway and Larry discuss DEI awareness vs. accountability

10:21  Dr. Petaway explains what’s different from three years ago

15:02  Larry reflects on the backlash against DEI based on discomfort

19:09  Dr. Petaway defines diversity- and woke-washing in terms of marketing

23:01  Larry unpacks the phrase “loudest voice in the room”

25:32  Dr. Harry separates advanced leadership from hyperfocus on the bottom line

29:13  Dr. Harry reflects on commitments and expectations of professional development opportunities

31:55  Larry and Dr. Harry discuss the dichotomy of commitments vs. accountability for the Black community

42:08  Dr. Harry talks about “make woke great again”


Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Brave Conversations Live with LCW. I am your host, Larry Baker, and I use the pronouns he and him. And I am absolutely thrilled to welcome you to this episode of our livestream series. Each month, we will be making space for timely and important conversations that we hope will help educate, generate discussion, and help you to take actionable items back to your organizations and to your daily lives.

For those of you that are not familiar with LCW—or Language and Culture Worldwide—we are a global DE&I training, consulting and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop global mindsets and help you develop your skills and systems to succeed in a continually changing, culturally diverse world.

I am super excited today to talk about this conversation “Woke or Broke,” and I am equally excited to have as my guest Dr. Harry Petaway, who I know is going to add to the conversation. He is the Executive Director of Equity Communities of Practice.

Dr. Harry, welcome to this episode. I am going to let you introduce yourself before we hop into our conversation. So, Dr. Harry, introduce yourself to the people.

Dr. Harry Petaway: Hey, Larry, and thanks for having me. Thanks for the people at LCW. Love it. Love it. My name is Dr. Harry Petaway. I’m the Executive Director for Equity Communities of Practice. And what that is, it’s a virtual community where we try to bring cross-disciplinary professionals together—I’m gonna say a “hack session”—and try to hack out some of these tough problems that we have. I lean towards public health equity, and DEI falls under that.

And the idea, just to give you some perspective on that, is that sometimes we tend to talk to ourselves, meaning that we end up in a social media group loop where DEI people talk to DEI people. And what I’m trying to do is bring bankers/finance together with educators, together with healthcare professionals, those type of things. So it’s exciting to be here, especially with this topic. I’m giggling a little bit as you say it, but it’s a good one.

Larry Baker: Absolutely. Dr. Harry, because I know we’ve had conversations about this in the past, which is the main reason why I wanted to bring you in on this conversation.

A little bit of backdrop before we get into the heart of the matter. We know that it’s been three years since we saw organizations make a wave of promises and commitment to their Black employees following the racial reckoning of 2020. So what’s changed? Have these commitments converted to action? What do we do when it feels like performative policy is replacing positive transformation?

So we want to know: are organization’s commitments to their black employees woke, or are they really broke? Or have they already broken some of those commitments? That’s really going to be where we center our conversation.

And Dr. Harry, I want to just start off by asking you. We’re gonna start slow, and then we’re gonna get deep into this, right? I wanna know from your perspective, what were some of the most significant company commitments that were made over the last three years, and how have those actions compared to their promises?

Dr. Harry Petaway: Yeah, and I love that question. If I could, let me talk about “woke” for a minute or just for a second. You know, I had to Google it because I wanted to research where the word came from. It’s got history back from the 1940s, and in general it’s an awareness of political and social issues, right? That’s how it starts—oftentimes leaning towards racial inequities or social justice issues.

But in general, it does have to do with an awareness of social issues, and why I wanted to bring that up is cuz woke kind of gets a bad rap. It’s taking on new definitions, but it’s acknowledged by the Oxford Dictionary and a few others [that] woke is an okay thing.

Larry Baker: Absolutely

Dr. Harry Petaway: That is where I wanna start. I wanna make woke great again.

Some of the significant company commitments… and it was interesting cuz I went to try to find an end-all, be-all inclusive list of some of these things that people talked about and there is no end-all,  be-all list.

Larry Baker: Agree!

Dr. Harry Petaway: (laughs) So three years ago, what was interesting is that a lot of those commitments, I mean, they were—not to play on words—but they were bold. Everybody had to come out with something, and it had to do with two things: “We are gonna focus on social and racial equity or social justice”—that’s one big one with how do you deal with that—and then the other had to do with, “We’re gonna clean up our house internally.” And that’s where things get a little bit tricky because I think that that second part about cleaning up internally, I think it had different meanings for different people.

What that may have meant for me as a Black employee at a major corporation might be entirely different than the process that they went through as an organization.

Larry Baker: Right.

Dr. Harry Petaway:  And whether I felt that and they felt they followed through with the commitments towards me as an individual—especially as we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, this idea of belonging: Who am I as an individual? Am I included?—I suspect a lot of that piece for the individual employees didn’t really come to fruition.

What you saw were things like a commitment towards supplier diversity, right? Something that I like to call “Brown faces in spaces,” meaning that we are gonna hire as many people of color as we can because you can see it, right? It’s one of the things that people can see. But again, did it really help the employees that were already there? I don’t know, but we did see significant contribution in dollars spent outside of the company. I think 2020, it was 50-60 billion or so, and now it’s somewhere around the 360 billion. The challenge is where that money is actually going.

Larry Baker: Yeah, and I absolutely echo a lot of those comments because, having the privilege working with a lot of organizations, their commitment was really about driving awareness. And we were absolutely seeing a lot of those organizations committing to the awareness, but to your point, how is it ultimately impacting those Black employees in those organizations?

What I started to see a little bit was a disconnect in regards to… so now we have this awareness: what do I do with it? What am I expected to do with it? How am I gonna be held accountable for doing something with this awareness? And I think that that’s the piece that started to wane over the last three years. Now that they’ve had this awareness phase, what’s the accountability phase?

I think that that’s the part I’m interested in, and I don’t see a lot of those connections, and I’m concerned that we might be missing that mark to have that impact that you were talking about earlier. As opposed to having “Brown faces in places,” is it actually impacting those soldiers that are in the battle in those organizations? That’s the part where I feel like, “Where’s that promise that’s being kept?”

So that kind of leads me into my next question I want you to focus in on, Dr. Harry. In your opinion, what do you think is different? Because I know that there have been some differences, but what do you think is different now than three years ago? And then more importantly, what’s the same? Because it goes to that adage that many of us in the Black community understand all too well: we take two steps forward, but then we take five steps back. I’d like to get some of your insights on what do you think is different from three years ago and what’s the same.

Dr. Harry Petaway: It’s a great question. So what is different, and we might get into this a little bit later… if we go back to the first question with this awareness, it had to do with how are they getting their data? How are the organizations getting their data? And they were doing things like employee surveys and things like that, and there was also a big push to ramp up marketing and include different people, shape, sizes, abilities on the webpage. And in that time period, what you had were, an assessment of how people of color felt at work today and then some kind of plan that went along with that. But recruiting more people: “We’re gonna recruit some people in there.”

So the thing that’s different right now is that I think that some of these diversity supplier initiatives, y’know, they’re in place. There’s some funding related to that. I don’t know how I feel about this one, but some of the connections in terms of recruiting—now I’m specifically talking about Black employees, right?—we’re going to reach out and create alliances with HBCUs or relationships with with them.

Now, what was interesting for me is that I didn’t come from HBCU.

Larry Baker: Neither did I.

Dr. Harry Petaway: And I’m not saying that that’s a bad idea, but again, me sitting in those spaces like, “Who do you know at HBCU?” I’m like, “I went to Western Michigan University. Go Broncos. I don’t know.” But you do have some of those relationships.

The level of awareness from consumers to the products and services that are provided is much higher than it was before, in terms of what are you doing for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Now this one, it will probably… I don’t wanna say piss people off, but it might not feel good with what I’m going to say. There was a point to where—and I’m gonna say it maybe 30 days—where this issue was a Black social justice issue, specifically surrounding George Floyd. These promises were made about Black issues, be they employment or otherwise, and it quickly became everyone else. And that is not a bad thing because I think one of the positives within the Black community is that it did kind of force us to say, “Well, we’re not just Black. There’s other things about us that make us who we are—our perspectives, orientation, family status, education level, all of that. We are more than just the color of our skin.”

But what is different is the focus on everything else. Public administration’s a political degree, right? And it’s this idea of, how do we focus on this if we have to focus on everything else?

Larry Baker Exactly. Exactly.

Dr. Harry Petaway: Now what’s the same? Well, what’s different: the turnover for Black employees is higher than it used to be. They are more apt to go and look for other places. I think some organizations are catfishing a little bit, meaning that—we’ll get into woke washing in a bit—they’re putting up some significant marketing efforts in terms of saying, “Come to us! We’re inclusive. We’re diverse.”

So Black employees are leaving, going to these other organizations. Other Black employees are coming into these organizations. What they find out is that it’s either the same or worse. The processes are still the same. The mentoring programs are not there. The coaching programs are not at that level.

But one more thing that I think is significantly different from three years ago—and I’m not trying to say that there were not employee resource groups before—but I’m gonna tell you, they blew up.

Larry Baker: They exploded. Oh my God.

Dr. Harry Petaway: They blew up, especially for Black employee resource groups. And it’s no longer just an affinity group about this is how we feel, meaning I need my support network. Their leadership growth and self-teaching is significant, and I think that’s a major factor in what’s different between now and three years.

Larry Baker: Yeah, so in my perspective because again, I’m working with organizations, I think the biggest thing that’s different than three years ago is that folks have been given spaces to talk about these things. I think that they have been allowed to say, “This isn’t cool. I don’t think that this is going in the right direction.” They’ve had the space to do that.

But if I’m honest, what’s the same is the backlash because now that the opportunity to talk about it has been presented, it’s almost as if it’s this catch-22: so if I do talk about it, what are my consequences? And I think that’s what’s the same is that before I couldn’t even talk about it and there were consequences, now I’m allowed to talk about it and it seems like the consequences are even more severe. I’m even more likely to be viewed as difficult to work with or aggressive or I’m not a cultural fit or things of that nature than before. It’s just more pervasive because now because the door has been open to have conversations that make people feel uncomfortable.

Now when they’re feeling uncomfortable, the retaliation seems to be even more intense, which is this whole backlash on “woke,” right? It’s like, “Oh my goodness, we have to stop this woke phenomenon because I’m really, really uncomfortable!” I even saw something the other day where some individual was like, “I can’t even enjoy breakfast anymore because of what’s on my syrup bottle.” Really? That’s why you’re against cultures getting woke? Such insignificance in their life, but they wanna down the company for making a decision that has such a positive impact on an entire community.

So going into that narrative, I want you to dig into talking about what is diversity-washing or woke-washing, and what’s the impact of having just purely performative commitments or purely performative types of policy. So talk to me about diversity-washing or woke-washing first.

Dr. Harry Petaway: I wanted talk about something you said about the backlash also. It’s reflective of society in general…

Larry Baker: Yep, agreed.

Dr. Harry Petaway: …and how the media and social media plays out. And unfortunately, we are in a space where the loudest voices win on whichever corner of the world or perspective you wanna look at. If we were to go back and say one of the things that are different, if I’m talking about Black issues, someone’s going to come in and want me to talk about things like inclusive language. And we’re gonna debate on if “jumping the gun” is violent or not.

And I’m like, “Well, it’s a track reference.” “No, but we shouldn’t have it!” And we do, we get caught up in some of those… I don’t want to call ’em less significant, but they had the tendency to derail us.

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Dr. Harry Petaway: So we get caught up in some conversations to where we have to acknowledge that for some people, as soon as something comes outta my mouth, “Oh, well I saw on TV that this is what diversity means, and this is what woke means. So I’m not having any of it.” I’m gonna say it’s a leadership thing, and if leaders were dealing with that and dealing with emotional intelligence and how to communicate with other people, we probably wouldn’t be having half of these conversations right now.

Larry Baker: Agreed.

Dr. Harry Petaway: Anyway, so what is diversity-washing and/or woke-washing? It’s similar to what I said before in terms of organizations go out of their way to appear that they are socially conscious—you know, doing the right thing in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so the first wave of that was Brown faces in spaces: let’s get them in here so we can say, “Look, our numbers went up.” Sometimes those might not be Brown faces; they might be all women. “Let’s promote the women in the organization.” And that is not a bad thing, so whoever’s watching this, I’m not saying that that is a bad thing, but that is not a racial equity issue.

Woke-washing in general is putting out the perception that the company is more in-tune with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and is doing more in society and internally than they actually are. And I think part of this is the catch-22 marketing. If I am a Black employee and I’m looking for somewhere else to go, I’m gonna look at the webpage. And if the webpage doesn’t look inclusive, if there’s not people like me I might not click on that.

Same thing though if I’m looking to buy products—and this is where it gets tricky in terms of the business case for diversity. If I’m looking to buy products, the marketing department has to appeal to different groups, whether they be Black, LGBTQ, abilities, you know, we can go through it. But that ends up being this catfishing type of scenario where you get into an organization and they don’t do what it appears that they’re doing.

Same thing with investors, and investors are looking at where should we put our money? So they’re looking at the webpages, they’re looking at these metrics, but you talk to the employees—”How’s it really going down there in XYZ companies?” It’s not that great. (laughs)

Larry Baker: Yeah. And you know, Dr. Harry, you bring up one of my pet peeves in this space of DE&I work because I have a huge problem with organizations tying DE&I work or DE&I initiatives to the bottom line and their mindset of we can’t do this work because it’s not profitable. We need to have the mindset of it needs to be done because it needs to be done because it’s the right thing to do.

And I think that that’s always been a struggle for me, for organizations to always say, “Okay, well tie this into the bottom line. Tie this into how it’s going to make me profitable.” Well, if I can’t do that, does that mean you’re not going to do it? And I think it has to be more of that conversation that you have responsibilities outside of profitability that impact society as a whole, if that makes sense.

So I did wanna open it up to see if anybody else has any insight that’s on the call to what you’ve heard woke-washing is or what it looks like or diversity-washing or any types of examples of that in your experience. And I will let my folks in the background who are monitoring the chat say that. We’ll go ahead and wait for individuals to submit that, and Dr. Harry, we’ll continue to have our conversation.

But you did mention something that I thought was really interesting. You said that sometimes it’s the loudest voices in the room, and for me, I don’t even think it’s the loudest voices. I think it’s just the voices that stand up, right?

Dr. Harry Petaway: Mm. Yeah, yeah.

Larry Baker: Because the reality is there are far more people that disagree with the loudest voices in the room. They just don’t say anything because they know that there is this social capital that’s at stake if I rock the vote, if I appear to be sympathetic to a cause that’s not the cause of my affinity group and all of my homogeneous relationships say are valuable.

So it’s not necessarily the loudest in the room, it’s just the one that’s not afraid to start the ruckus, if you will. Go ahead.

Dr. Harry Petaway:. It might be the boldest. Like I had this conversation last week. I did a live stream about Black-shaming or when we shame each other for not acting the way that we expect someone else to do. And the challenge becomes… you weigh that social capital, right? You weigh that capital. Like do I disagree with this person that in theory is aligned with me because who does that give fodder to?

I’m looking at the thing [comment tracker] “I hadn’t heard of woke washing before, but I’ve definitely seen it. “

Larry Baker: See, you’re welcome. So we’ve already provided that awareness, which is definitely part of it, but it’s a real thing. Thank you for that comment, Shana.

Dr. Harry Petaway: I think it was Share Jones: they called it kind of corporate catfishing. It wasn’t specifically about woke-washing, but it was presenting something that was not—once you actually got into it—it wasn’t what you thought.

But back to what I was saying, it’s difficult to sometimes have varying degrees of dissenting opinions with another Black person about things. And another challenge is when you have your white allies that speak on behalf of you because they’ve heard something from a Black person that’s not necessarily the case.

You brought up something that was interesting to me of why is it tied to the bottom line, and we can’t do this unless it’s tied to the bottom line. I think it’s a fundamental “this is me, I’m talking, this is a point-of-view issue.” When you look at advanced DEI strategies, they have to do with things like emotional intelligence, communication, inclusion, belonging, right? Those are advanced leadership strategies. What I think happens in the DEI space is that it becomes a space and it becomes a bucket. To whereas we should be talking about leadership, it becomes DEI. Well, you know, you just paid for everyone to take this Franklin Covey course and this emotional intelligence course. Why can’t we expand that, and why can’t we have that kind of conversation?

Your market, if you’re selling a product… And that’s the funny thing when we look at three years ago. I think everybody said, “Oh, there’s a lot of other people out there that want things, whether they’re boycotting Nike or whatever else. Let’s appeal to them.” You see it in the Super Bowl, right? That’s where it starts to add to the bottom line. It’s all over; it’s dispersed throughout the organization.

And the other thing I think that challenges me a bit is this idea that the people —they’re not DEI professionals—that are making this call. And oftentimes the people that are hiring the DEI professionals are hiring off the mark, like they don’t even know what they’re hiring for. And so they get varying different degrees and perspectives of things, which is of course why I do like LCW cuz y’all are on it. I don’t even think that you claim DEI like that. But you’re on target with that, so I appreciate it.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Yeah. So I see a familiar face in the place, Dr. Harry. I think you are very familiar with this incredible individual. Tahitia, thank you so much. “Thinking from a business perspective, to not talk our way makes DEI seems like it’s just optional. This type of separation of financial value has been used to de-emphasize the need for things like education.”

I agree a hundred percent, and it always becomes the first thing that we cut, right? Because if we look at it as being optional, anybody that’s running not even just the business, in your own household, when it’s time to tighten up the bootstraps or what have you, those things that are viewed as optional are typically the first ones you pick away. But you have to resist that temptation because that’s always what’s been done. And for our community especially, it’s almost as if we are sitting back waiting for the shoe to drop. Like okay, they’re pretty gung-ho about this in 2020, let’s see how it goes in 2023.

Dr. Harry Petaway: Yeah.

Larry Baker: Let’s see 2025. Do we still have this fire? And unfortunately, it’s the same result, right? We’re seeing it. It’s starting to wane. It’s starting to kind of slow down. It’s like, I think we’ve gotten beyond the intensity that this has, so let’s start just “whoop, whoop,” pulling away, pulling away and using that ROI as the scapegoat for doing that.

So when we talk about different commitments, what, what did you expect Dr. Harry. What do you expect those commitments to look

Dr. Harry Petaway: In 2020, I was with an organization, so I can only speak for what I thought we were looking for, and it was kind of comprehensive. There was a social responsibility piece too that was with it, meaning we want to see this type of investment—either time or money—in the community. There was also this human development component to it because at the time I feel like we were being heard, but everyone was being heard because like, “Oh, we better listen. They’re upset.”

And I’m not trying to be funny, but really we better listen. They’re upset. I was expecting more career development mentoring for the people that were joining and starting to speak their truth because they quickly left. “We want this posted on our webpage about George Floyd:” it left that quick, and it went to “here’s what our experiences are.”

And when I was doing some research for this, that’s one of the things that are still missing, meaning that for some of the positions, you don’t see a lot of Black employees in the higher ranks of management. And when you look at coaching and executive coaching, it’s up here. It’s not in this developmental phase, which is why I’m so excited about what ERG the employee resource groups are doing right now because they’re learning how businesses work, how to navigate the political components of it, and how to lead and work with each other. So I think that that’s pretty significant.

But one thing I do wanna say is that—and I believe this—if you fix something or create something for a marginalized group of people, so we’re gonna say Black people… if we want a mentorship program or coaching program for Black people, you have to then question is there one for everybody else? It’s almost like is it a if-then and if there’s not, then you need to make one, right? And if you have one and you can recognize whatever the gaps are and the failures between— or not failures, but the missed opportunities for Black employees to engage in that—all you’re gonna do is make the program better for everybody else.

So this idea like, “Oh, we can’t do this,” again, it goes back to a leadership issue for me. So I was expecting or wanting to develop the people at the organizations where they were instead of this idea like, “Hey, we just need to bring in more people and let them all leave because they’re talking too much. Let’s let them go.”

Larry Baker: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And Dr. Harry, there was a comment, and can we bring that comment back up on the screen? Because honestly [mic cut out] the organization was going to do, and I didn’t get the individual’s name. She said that a lot of organizations made the commitment but neglected to integrate a strategic plan for providing those resources, personnel support, ongoing education and training, engagement and professional development.

And honestly, that’s what I thought those commitments meant. Because I’m in this space, because I’m in this field, that’s what I thought we were going to be discussing. We’re gonna be talking about the plans. We’re gonna be talking about the resources. We’re gonna be saying, “All right, so once we get these programs together, boom (claps). Here’s how we make this work in our culture.”

And in a lot of situations, that’s not happening. And in our community, we know when it isn’t—when it’s woke washing, right? We know that you have the outside of the house looking so beautiful and spotless, but then you come into a hoarder’s home on the inside. And I think that that’s the connection that we absolutely need to continue to push organizations to do: have a strategic plan so that when you have individuals attending these sessions, they know how it fits into the big picture. If not, it’s just checking the box. and we all know, what that looks like and what that feels like.

Now, Dr. Harry, I love to give our listeners some actionable tools, so I want to get your insight onto this question and then maybe we’ll open it up to some more comments to the audience. But from your opinion, what does that authentic action look like? Or in other words, how do we move the needle on commitment into action. So gimme your thoughts around that.

Dr. Harry Petaway: Hopefully I don’t make it too complicated. One, I think we need to have more current pulse checks on what life is like for employees today—all employees, Black included, meaning we can’t go off of the 2020 survey that we did because most of those people are gone, especially people of color, and I’m just gonna be blunt with that.

The other piece of that is that I feel that we should be partnering—we in the DEI community—with the learning and workforce development component, talent management components of these organizations to find ways on how we connect principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion with things that are already in play, right? I don’t think it’s too hard to modify an existing emotional intelligence course to then include issues with bias and race and things like that. I think that that’s an easy, low-hanging opportunity if people just want to do it. It’s not too hard.

Larry Baker: Yeah.

Dr. Harry Petaway: The other piece of that, when we talk about professional development—Imma backstep a minute—I think that miss was a miss for all employees, and the reason why I think it was a significant miss is because I don’t think that a lot of organizations have a culture of professional development. So when Black employees said, “Hey, we want to be a part of this…” and I think my camera froze, but I’ll keep talking so it doesn’t shut off my audio.

Larry Baker: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re fine.

Dr. Harry Petaway: “Hey, we want to be a part of this,” there was nothing to be a part of, right? There was no professional development piece, so create one. Build one, work on your succession planning, you know?

No matter where it is, it’s just fundamental to me—business and organizational strategy—that we don’t need to call it DEI if it’s hurting whoever in the corner office or the corner cubicle over there because somebody said DEI and they think it’s because they’re not allowed to use these words or whatever anymore. Call it something else. I really don’t care. As long as it gets, it gets done.

The last piece of that has to do with when you said it’s a “check the box,” and we need to revisit then how we check the box. So if it’s a check the box, if it’s a compliant initiative, then somehow you need to slap people in the face with something that’s valuable. And I don’t mean slapping the face in a way of forcing opinions and ideologies on someone and making people feel bad for their privilege. I’m not really about that, but what I think that we can do is start to revisit some of these vendors that are offering check-the-box-type of courses and tools and say, “We need more,” and bring in consultants like yourself or facilitators like yourself and coaches like yourself to really do more with some of the tools that are out there.

Larry Baker: Yeah, Dr. Harry, of course I’m really resonating with what you said, and I have to read this comment from one of my most favorite people in the entire universe: Cecilia Hurt. She said, “It’s so important to dual-path our efforts as we seek to increase representation, including recruiting efforts. We must also seek to support the culture shift and journey to make sure that these environments are supportive and psychologically safe for the employees we are attracting and retaining.” And of course, hand clap, finger snaps. You are right on the money with that, Cecilia, but that doesn’t surprise me.

And I also want to give a little credit, right? Because I do feel that these statements of solidarity are important, but they need to understand that, look, this is just the starting point. You are literally at this critical juncture as a nation, and this moment simply demands more.

So a couple of things, and you’ve touched upon it, Dr. Harry; it’s all about prioritizing and assessing your corporate accountability. Because just putting on these programs without expecting people to do something different, we are missing the mark. So we have to prioritize and assess the corporate accountability.

Then there has to be this commitment to really evolve the corporate structure. We have to make steps that people can actually see, “Oh wait, this is different. Things are changing, and we have to move in that direction.” And then let the employees have a say, right? Let them have more ability to drive the culture that you’re looking to accomplish.

So yes, I think that there are a lot of these good steps that we’ve already been talking about, but those are critical. You gotta have that accountability. You gotta start to have that structure evolve in a way that people sense it and feel it, and then bring them into this process as well, right?

So, Dr. Harry, I know we’ve talked about this phrase, and you said it a little bit earlier and I’m not gonna steal it. So I’m just gonna let you use it, but give me some insight on that statement that you said that you told me I couldn’t steal from you.

Dr. Harry Petaway: which one, the “make great again?”

Larry Baker: Absolutely.

Dr. Harry Petaway: (laughs) Make woke great again. Well okay, so wait. Before I do this though, I think that there is a gap that we have to acknowledge as, as professionals in, in the D E I space, health equity space, whatever it is. And it the last comment that came up really triggered it for me— this idea of psychological safety that is something that is different than three years ago. This idea that my mental health and wellbeing matters, especially for Black people. There’s been more about that, especially in the professional space, more Black employees have left to create their own businesses. That is significant, and some of that is like, “Hey, I know your worth. Protect me. Know your worth and do your thing.”

Larry Baker: Yes.

Dr. Harry Petaway: So I think that that is a positive that, that we’ll probably see play out over time. But there is this interesting gap between me as an individual working here today—what I need today and what organizations are doing systemically. I don’t wanna say that some organizations aren’t doing anything. They are. It’s just whether or not you can see it right away. So those relationships with HBCUs or whatever the organization is, some commitments to different social responsibility programs…

Now, I will tell you, I was sitting in a program with the Forum on Workplace Inclusion, and it had this idea of decolonizing philanthropy. They always have these names kinda like “Woke or Broke.” But the idea was that the money that’s coming into these programs isn’t necessarily going towards the programs where they need to or being able to be spent in a way that is most beneficial. So it’s like, “Hey, we’re gonna give you a million dollars cuz that’s what’s in our budget.” It’s a lineup. “We’re gonna give you this, but you’re gonna do this with it.” So that’s a different conversation for a different day.

But, but let’s make woke great again. This is something that’s been bugging me, especially as I watch politics and things like that. We see it a lot in Florida. The first time I saw “woke” show up in legislation was Donald Trump’s executive order that had to do with bias training. He wanted “no bias training.”

Larry Baker: Right.

Dr. Harry Petaway: There were some decent things in that order, but it said the word “woke” in it. “Woke” originally meant along this emotional intelligence tip just to be aware of how systems work, politics work, social issues, whatever. From that standpoint. Ron DeSantis—I hope we don’t get banned for this—is probably one of the wokest people I’ve met because he’s in tune with his voters and what’s important to their issues. Whether or not I agree with that, not really; it doesn’t match with the rest of what woke means.

But I feel that because—when I talked about these loudest voices in the room—that sometimes “woke” can shift to a place where I don’t even want to… you know, I’m trying to focus on a few things, and I don’t always have time to argue did they have enough different faces in that ten second commercial. Some of that stuff is just hard to do, and what I would like to do, is bring back the positivity that was associated with woke and get back to the systemic awareness, the structural issues, the political issues. “How are you feeling today, Larry?” You know, some of those things related to woke, so let’s make woke great again.

Larry Baker: And on that line of thinking, to me, it’s about how people take words, and this was a word that was historically used in our culture, right? This originated from Black culture, the word “woke,” and I think this is just another example of how certain people want to take the words that we use and weaponize them to be used against us. And what you are proposing is to take back that word and use it in a way that’s positive.

Now, I know this is gonna sound crazy when I say this, but to me, I think that when the other group is using that word “woke,” it’s their 2023 version of the N-word.

Dr. Harry Petaway: It is.

Larry Baker: I truly feel like every time they say it, it’s their version of the N-word because they don’t wanna be ostracized by saying the N-word anymore, and they’ve struggled to find a word to replace the N-word. And woke is it.

Dr. Harry Petaway: It is also way more inclusive than the N-word. So a lot of people that they are talking about, “woke” is “not me.”

Larry Baker: Exactly.

Dr. Harry Petaway: It is not me. Some of them are what we would call allies of other ethnicities and colors and races like those all, but it’s also anything that’s just not “normal.”

Here’s why “make woke great again” is important to me. There was a a point to when with the NFL we were arguing about should you or should you not kneel during the national anthem and the flag and what happened. And it started to change how I felt, and I started talking to my friends. Somehow that flag—the American flag—was not mine anymore. And it’s not because I’m not a patriot. It’s not because my father wasn’t a vet, my brother wasn’t a vet. They were, right? It had nothing to do with that.  It’s the people that, “This is ours,” and you don’t believe in it. It was a struggle to work through that because you go outside, I see the flag. Well, what kind of patriot you?

Larry Baker: Right. And it’s like you’re punished for having a realistic approach to saying that yes, I can love something and chastise it at the same time. I think of my children—I love them, but I can chastise ’em at the same time because if you’re not doing right, I’m gonna have to let you know that.

So, Dr. Harry, we can talk about this, as you know, for hours upon hours. I do want to see from my colleagues, if we have any other questions or comments in the chat, and if so can we throw that up on the screen?

If not, Dr. Harry, this has been amazing, and I wanna thank you. Interesting thought: “The flag is there’s is not mine.” Dr. Harry, I’m gonna give you an opportunity to let folks know how they can reach you, how they can get in contact with you. What do you have going on? You talked about your podcast, and I know I’m gonna sneak on there and we’re gonna raise some ruckus on there. But tell folks a little bit about how to get in touch with you and some of the things you’ve got going on.

Dr. Harry Petaway: The best place to get in touch with me right now is on LinkedIn; I’m trying to focus on LinkedIn. The specific reason for that is that I feel that all the decision makers are there. The challenge is you might see me poking out to different people is that I’m trying to break out of the algorithm of just DEI health equity folks because I’m trying to do this cross-functional thing. So I mentioned before, you could look up EquityCommunitiesOfPractice.com. I’m building a virtual community where we’re inviting cross-functional professionals from different areas.

My podcast is actually dropping by, and because I live in the country—some of y’all are seeing this right now as my camera freezes—we switched it to dropping by because I have no idea what my internet is gonna be live. So sometimes I’m just dropping it at the top of the hat.

But I do have a really cool project that’s coming out, and sometimes it still gets me a bit emotional when I talk about it. It’s called Equity War. And what it has to do is I had an interview with a health equity advocate for veterans. His name is Tim Houser. He is the podcast host for the Gulf War Advocate, and it had to do with him and the work that he did—Imma say as a normal person, right? I watched him say, “I have an idea. I think there’s something wrong.” Watched him end up joining with a group called Burn Pits 360, then getting engaged with John Stewart fighting on the halls of Congress.

Larry Baker: Wow.

Dr. Harry Petaway: You know, I would turn on the TV and I would see him. Then getting the PACT Act passed, which is the largest healthcare bill for veterans passed in this country. And the reason why it’s significant is that it was one voice that became a few voices that that then got the help that they needed.

But what’s so significant about this interview is that there’s so many things about social determinants of health. Those are the things that make us who we are—how we interact life, how we decide to go to school or go to the military. All those things come out in the conversation with him.

So we’re releasing that in four different episodes. The first one’s out right now, has to do with the PACT Act and how Tim join4r the army at the age of 17. But we live in a click currency. We’re really trying to get the information about the PACT Act out. So if you see it, please tag a veteran in it, and pass it along. We really appreciate it. And thanks for that opportunity.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Absolutely. Dr. Harry, I always appreciate and enjoy the conversations that we have. So because I don’t see any questions coming from the background, I am going to assume… and if that’s not true someone on my team let me know. Flag me. Let me know. I don’t see anything.

So, Dr. Harry, this has been such a great conversation, but the reality is it doesn’t stop here. So we hope that you take the advice that was shared here and some of the questions that were asked back to your own workplaces. And if you want a partner in having these conversations, just let us know. You can contact LCW at LanguageAndCulture.com.

Dr. Harry, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been Brave Conversations with LCW Live. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

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