Breaking the Rules of DEI

In any culture, the rules of behavior get coded into daily life via reward or punishment. We’ve been learning the unwritten rules of life this way ever since we figured out the “rule” about what the cool kids wear. We’re still learning them when we discover that our firm’s new attorneys only get assigned the best cases when they show up on the golf course. Most unwritten rules are about maintaining power, prestige, and safety for certain groups, while keeping others striving, uncertain, and disenfranchised.

This week, we’re looking at the way DEI work gets undermined (or even completely co-opted) by toxic, unwritten rules. We’re exposing the ways these rules gain traction, authority, and popularity. And we’re exposing the consequences of failing to critically examine the rules, how we blindly live by them, and how we impose them on others. 

We Like Rules for All the Wrong Reasons

Here’s a quick analogy to distinguish real best practices from toxic “rules.” In the beauty industry, which is wrapped up in diet culture and the cult of youth, people espouse a lot of rules. No carbs. Raw foods only. Rub lemons on your face every day. Even when actual dermatologists and nutritionists debunk the “rules” with scientific evidence, we still follow them.

Why? Because rules are easy. There’s no complexity, balance, discomfort, or messy humanity to consider. Just lemons. 

Because rules are black and white. You’re either doing it right or not. Beautiful or not. In or out.

And because rules are cheap. I can declare a rule and look authoritative, even though I have done no work and earned zero credibility. I can get performative about the work instead of actually doing it, and still gain admirers and followers.

All too quickly, the “rules” start to dominate the narrative because who wouldn’t prefer easy, black and white, and cheap over complex, slow, and demanding? 

DEI work is not immune from the same kinds of rules causing the same kind of harm.

One of the many reasons you won’t find Leverage to Lead on some social media platforms is that those platforms amplify the “rules” instead of the work and perpetuate oversimplification. The deep and lasting work of DEI doesn’t fit into an IG square or a few hundred characters. 

A Partial List of DEI “Rules”

There are many ways rules get instantiated into a company’s culture, but one of the most common is through leadership without cultural competency. Leaders who want to appear confident and decisive without actually having done the inner work to understand racism. Leaders who are too afraid of getting vulnerable or getting it wrong. Leaders who believe that DEI is about becoming nicer people rather than deep strategic work. 

These folks inevitably turn to a select few, already in their inner, usually all-white circle, looking for some rules to follow in order to feel safe. The “rules” they get almost always perpetuate oppressive stereotypes about people of color, plus they operate to protect the comfort of white people. Meanwhile, the real, structural racism of their organization never gets addressed.

Here’s a small sampling of the contradictory, self-canceling, and toxic “rules” that end up adopted:

  1. People of color, or those with oppressed identities, should be leading your organization’s DEI efforts. 
  2. People of color should never be burdened with educating white people.
  3. A racially diverse staff indicates inclusion and equity.
  4. It’s not professional to show up at work with your emotions on display.
  5. White people need to take their sadness/shame/questions/complicity to other white people only.
  6. White people are supposed to be quiet and learn to take up less space.
  7. Your organization shouldn’t expect only people of color to write a statement on anti-racism. 
  8. Any organization’s statement on anti-racism is just performative and empty.
  9. We shouldn’t protect white comfort by refusing to challenge harmful or oppressive views.
  10. If a white person is genuinely trying to learn and grow, you shouldn’t risk their journey toward racial enlightenment by making them feel bad.
  11. You must pay people for doing DEI work on top of their regular duties.
  12. You must never pay a white person for DEI work.

Toxic Rules Reinforce Oppressive Structures and Behavior

Confusing DEI rules aren’t just contradictory. They’re paralyzing. You can’t abide by any of them without breaking another, so you can easily end up doing nothing at all. Or worse, following the “rules” ends up undermining DEI work altogether. Just like a diet that tells you to ignore your body’s needs in order to stick with the program, DEI “rules” tell you to think more about following them than about the actual human in front of you. 

Here’s an example of how. One organization’s “rule” is that white colleagues must protect their fellow Black colleagues from bearing all the emotional labor of confronting racism. Maybe the “rule” intends to ask white colleagues to step up as vocal allies, but it’s quickly become a barrier to agency. When a Black colleague experiences bias, struggles with a racist structure, or simply shares a difficult emotion, their white colleague takes it up with leadership on their behalf–every time. It’s reached the point where leadership now finds it much more comfortable to have Black employees’ experiences mitigated, managed, and translated by white employees rather than build relationships with those who are being harmed. And the white employees are getting a ton of credit for being “allies.”

How “Rules” Exploit Our Human Need for Connection

Rules are about power, judgment, and punishment. Which are in turn about shame, exclusion, and tightening the circle of power.

When someone breaks a DEI “rule,” we’ve seen them get scapegoated as a warning to others to behave or else, so that a powerful few can maintain self-righteous security. Because we’re all hardwired for authentic belonging, the fear of being expelled from a group, whether an online community, friends, or work, can be enough to keep us from breaking the “rules,” let alone questioning them.

In reality, DEI “rules” disrupt or prevent connection and relationship because they demand uniform responses in the face of unique individuals and situations. “Rules” create a false sense of belonging that is based solely on fear. Unfortunately, any kind of belonging, however toxic it may be, can still seem better than none at all.

Breaking Up with All the “Rules”

Leaving behind black-and-white thinking takes inner agility and cultural competency. Developing the capacity to hold multiple truths and conflicting thoughts, get curious about your own emotions and values, and confront the contradictions and inconsistencies–this is where the real work of DEI begins. 

No program, workshop, or difficult conversation can affect change if your people aren’t ready to do the hard inner work. Critical and rigorous thinking is only possible if you can get clear about which “rules” you are following, what values they enact, and whether or not that’s what you want. 

If you want to talk more about building inner agility at your organization, contact any member of our team today.

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