Truth Hurts, But So Does Hiding It
One of the principles of DEI work that I hold dear is to meet people where they are.
This is a challenge when a group is diverse. How do you meet people in multiple places at the same time?
Recently a slide I’ve been using near the beginning of workshops has prompted a few strong reactions, but for different reasons. This is the version of that slide that I used recently during law school orientation programs:
I use this message to help participants understand why adults at a high-performing professional organization are being trained on inclusion at all.
The organization may be more diverse now than in the past, but the norms and assumptions of the past persist. So it will take conscious effort to identify and rethink them so that they truly serve the diversity of today.
During a recent workshop, I noticed one man reacting to the slide right away: a man of color, frowning and shifting his weight but not raising his hand.
During a break I checked in with him. It turned out he was bothered by something I hadn’t thought of before.
The first sentence could be interpreted to mean that the law profession wouldn’t have been founded but for the work of straight white men.
He read the slide as suggesting that inequality was just a curious historical happenstance. Women and people of color, one could infer, were not originally engaged in the hard work of developing law. Now they wanted to be “included” in something they had no part in.
The reality I left out of the sentence is that the straight white men were deliberately excluding everyone else from the start.
I thanked him for the insight. It certainly hadn’t been what I meant—but impact matters more than intent (another core principle of DEI work).
So I started drafting a revised slide.
Before I finished, though, I got an email from another client whose workshop was coming up. To my surprise, she had singled out the very same slide for feedback. But this time it wasn’t to be more specific about the cause of inequality—it was to be more general.
“This slide is going to make some people uncomfortable,” she said. Naming straight white men at the start of a session, even in this general way, might prompt white participants to resist before I even had a chance to engage them in dialogue.
And so I sat with yet another core principle of DEI: that people have to get comfortable with discomfort in order to learn.
Stating the truth about the origins of racism and sexism is painful. It is so upsetting to many Americans that they are passing laws to prevent it from being discussed in schools and libraries.
The question, sometimes, is whose discomfort we tolerate and whose we don’t. As the first participant reminded me, it hurts to erase the struggle too.
DEI isn’t easy. Even for DEI professionals.