It was a Friday morning, and I was more excited than usual about a client meeting. The client was a small organization, the staff young, and their work highly technical. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner whose father spent 40 years writing code to fly spacecraft for NASA and who started her business serving tech firms, it felt like a match made in heaven.
We’d been courting each other for months, following pressure the staff placed on leadership to instill change after the murder of George Floyd. I’d met the entire team, and this call was to finalize our work together.
Ten minutes before the meeting, I received an email from the leader saying they were discontinuing our conversations after a team member raised concerns about an article I wrote. In the piece, my Latinx co-author and I unpack the complexity of racial and cultural identity in a mixed and intersectional world. I wrote that while I’ve passed for Latinx for 30 years, I’ve only openly “identified [myself] as Latina twice — both in superficial social situations just to see if [I] could get away with it.”
The objecting team member felt this was disrespectful, and the team decided that they weren’t comfortable hiring a consultant who “justifies cultural appropriation.”
“I hope you can appreciate that we need to make our consultant choice a fully inclusive process,” said the white male leader. “And if any one person was not fully onboard with a choice, we would continue our search.”
For me, this incident sums up three aspects of what’s wrong with much DEI work that’s launched with breathless urgency over the past year. While I don’t regret the loss of that client, as it was clearly not a fit, I do regret that the organization chose to make decisions based on a faulty understanding of DEI, and to take actions that actually reduce inclusiveness.
The following suggestions are intended to help other organizations avoid the same pitfalls.
1. Cancelling has no place in creating a more equitable and inclusive environment.
I understand the rage, indignity, and righteousness that fuels cancel culture. I’m sorry to say I’ve participated in it. Dismissing, ostracizing, or destroying someone when they show themselves to be the enemy is deeply satisfying. It feels like action, it feels like justice, and it feels like progress.
It is none of those.
It is reducing a person’s complex thoughts, feelings, history, and identity to one moment. It is assigning a label of “enemy” to a person that is as complicated as you are — an error-prone ally at best, an awkward ignoramus at worst.
To cancel is to exact violence on another by using the very tools of the oppressor that the canceller thinks they’re dismantling as they wield them. To cancel is to expose your own fragility and intolerance, and to reveal your commitment to victimhood.
I do believe there is evil in the world, and people whose destructive behaviors must be stopped. I even believe that public guilting is an effective way to get bad actors to behave.
But the majority of folks getting cancelled are not the enemy. The team who dismissed me based on their interpretation of one sentence also chose to dismiss the rest of the article, which argued against cultural appropriation. They chose to dismiss the entirety of my work and reputation, as well as their direct experience of me.
If you search for a reason to mistrust someone, you will find it. When someone triggers your fear or mistrust, it’s an invitation to discern, not react. A more inclusive response, rooted in a true sense of power and equity instead of victimhood, is curiosity. What did that person mean when they did or said that? What were they thinking and feeling? What was their intent? Did they notice their impact? Is this behavior a pattern or an isolated incident? What have they learned from their mistakes? How have they grown, or what is their current growing edge?
These are the questions that preserve the humanity of everyone involved. These are the questions that promote learning and change, because they make it safe to make mistakes.
Cancel culture creates an eggshell-walking environment based on fear and righteousness that is allergic to equity and inclusiveness. If people aren’t allowed to think or feel differently for fear of being rejected, there’s no inclusion. If people are too afraid to make mistakes or speak their minds, equity can’t happen. And if everyone is expected to think and talk the same, diversity disappears.
Courageous conversations and consistent accountability are a critical component of DEI. But cancel culture isn’t about accountability — it’s about revenge, control, and the exercise of a toxic form of power. It has no place in true diversity, equity, or inclusion.
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2. Inclusion isn’t about 100% consensus on every decision.
It doesn’t mean everyone gets involved in every decision, or that everyone must agree. Not only is this approach highly inefficient; expecting 100% consensus squelches diversity by definition.
What makes any human group strong is its diversity of thought, feeling, and approach. A group can choose to make decisions by sheer numerical majority rule. It can choose to give some folks’ opinions more weight than others. But to give one member of a group veto power over the entire group can be dangerous.
A group that feels they can’t make a decision without 100% consensus has a bigger problem — lack of trust.
While it’s critical for organizations to examine how decisions are made and by whom, most often the problem isn’t a lack of consensus. It’s that critical stakeholders are either missing from the rooms where decisions are made, or their opinions are ignored. It’s that people with minority views are outcast or silenced.
Ensuring frequent feedback loops for all stakeholders to weigh in on their areas of expertise and influence is essential, as is ensuring all stakeholders have actual power in decision-making. But a goal of 100% consensus is unreasonable and destructive to diversity and inclusion.
3. DEI practitioners are not, and should not be, paragons of DEI perfection.
Expecting DEI practitioners to be faultless gurus places inhumane pressure on DEI practitioners, and creates a dysfunctional drama triangle of victim-persecutor-rescuer.
DEI professionals are not rescuers, and organizations and their leaders are not victims. We are partners and facilitators that assist leaders in doing their own difficult work.
It’s reasonable to expect DEI practitioners to possess better-than-average knowledge, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, maturity, and communication skills. It’s important to expect us to walk our talk most of the time and have high integrity. But we are not perfect. At our best, we are humble, curious, transparent, courageous works-in-progress just like you, just with a few more years of practice.
Expecting DEI practitioners to be infallible examples of (your notion of) DEI causes a chilling effect on DEI in your organization. For how can any of your leaders or employees replicate that perfection? How will they feel safe enough to make necessary mistakes as they learn if “doing” DEI requires perfection?
Instead of perfection, exercise discernment and curiosity. Notice how the DEI practitioner (1) responds to feedback, (2) repairs the damage done, (3) demonstrates curiosity and courage, (4) maintains self-compassion and sense of agency (instead of going into shame or blame), and (5) shows a capacity for self-awareness and growth.
Cancelling, consensus, and perfection have no place in true DEI work. The Seven C’s of commitment, consciousness, curiosity, courage, compassion, choice, and changeability are what’s needed to create a world that works better for more of us. They’re what’s needed to ensure we don’t replicate the dynamics of oppression and inhumanity that got us here.