A year ago, we published a newsletter titled Breaking the Rules of DEI where we exposed some of the toxic, unspoken “rules” of DEI. Contradictory, self-canceling, and paralyzing, such “rules” are really meant to undermine any real progress toward increasing diversity and achieving equity and inclusion.
The “rules” are white supremacy culture at work, fighting to maintain power, status, and comfort for a select few. DEI work and anti-racist acts will always feel countercultural within white supremacy culture. They will feel disruptive, dissenting, dangerous—until the culture itself changes.
In the meantime, we must develop the inner agility to pause and name what might at first seem countercultural. Does it seem countercultural because it’s causing white discomfort? Because it’s someone’s difference fully in view? Because it’s a person of color taking up space with agency? Today, we’re laying out several ways people of color break “the rules,” and how they get seen as countercultural disruptors because the culture itself remains toxic.
Ask, “Whose problem is this?”
White supremacy culture defaults problems to people of color and difference. It’s your problem if you’re unhappy, feel unfairly treated, and aren’t getting advancement. It’s your problem because you’re too loud, angry, or guarded. And we have long internalized the problems of the culture and the problems of white people, on top of all the problems that are actually our own. Others often decide things are our problem for us, sometimes based on assumptions about our identity (women get assigned far more office housework), and sometimes because we just keep taking them on.
The countercultural move is to ask yourself and others, “Whose problem is this?” When your team gets pushback on equity and inclusion work—is it your problem to solve? When your supervisor tells you there’s no one else willing to stay late and complete the work that someone else left unfinished—is that your problem to solve? When your department chair says they need someone to plan this year’s holiday party—is it your problem to solve?
Here’s another example. A white CEO tells a Black associate their DEI initiative isn’t working. Toxic internalizing looks like this: I’m doing something wrong. I’m not the right person to lead this work. He should replace me.
The countercultural move is curiosity: What is he seeing and not seeing? What is the source of his discomfort? What do *I* need from *him*? Whose problem is this? What am I afraid will happen if I put this down? What will actually happen if I put this down?
Look at the system, not just the individual
When there’s an incident involving or based on race, we are quick to assign individual blame. Someone behaved out of character or is a bad apple, and so they need to be dealt with individually. Perhaps they’re reprimanded, maybe even fired or expelled. This is how we keep DEI confined to “nice people work.” As long as we only confront individual offenses or failures, we make DEI about learning to be nicer, because ultimately it lets us believe that we’re nice people at heart. And it lets us scapegoat people instead of examining our systems of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
The countercultural move is to look at the system, which is another way of saying to look at all of us. A racist incident isn’t going to be fixed with a mandate to sensitivity training because it indicates a deeper culture of bias. Unequal pay isn’t going to be fixed with a one-time raise because it’s a signal of wider discriminatory practices and a culture of inequality.
Risk not belonging
When your actions align with equity and inclusion, they’re going to make others uncomfortable. And when people feel uncomfortable, they can wield belonging like a weapon. We are all hard-wired for connection and the threat of not belonging can be enough to make us act against our values, keep silent, or be complicit in upholding the status quo, which is white supremacy culture.
The countercultural move is to risk not belonging to a group that, in reality, doesn’t acknowledge your belonging in the first place. If you are not allowed to belong as your authentic self, then you’re settling for the scraps of false belonging. We promise that risking rejection from the toxic culture is never as damaging as failing to belong to yourself.
Breaking the rules is the only way to get to real inclusion.
Refuse to fit in
White supremacy culture requires the complete assimilation of all differences, which it peddles as fitting in. For people of color, the promise usually sounds like this: follow the rules, keep your head down, don’t rock the boat, work hard, overachieve, and prove your value. Maybe in five years, they’ll see my worth and give me a promotion.
But at the end of the five years, what do we actually have to show for all of our assimilation and hard work? We learn that we have always been Black, we have always been invisible, and we have never been equal. The countercultural move is to reject the rules and embrace your full self. There is no following the “rules” to gain success. There is only filtering out your difference and concealing your authenticity.
Show up with agency
Agency itself is countercultural when others believe they have the right to define how we show up. A Black employee is told their silence is disengagement. A woman is told her disagreement is uncollegial.
Internalization is apologizing for how others perceive you as displeasing. The countercultural move is to name for yourself exactly how you’re choosing to show up, and thereby disrupting those attempts at disenfranchisement.
I wasn’t disengaged. I was actually listening carefully, learning, and giving my colleague a chance to fully express herself without interruption.
I wasn’t upset at all in my disagreement, and my tone and words were completely professional.
When you gain clarity on your organization’s white supremacy culture, you still may decide to stay—perhaps because you can’t find another position during the pandemic, or need to finish your degree, or can’t risk dropping your insurance. Whatever the reason, agency means owning your choice fully.
When a Black employee is caught between competing expectations—speak up against bias for the sake of her fellow coworkers or keep to herself because it’s safer and she’s exhausted—it can feel like she has no good choices. And the truth is, none of her choices are good because she simply can’t win. When she speaks out, her tone is policed, she is labeled “unprofessional,” and written up. When she stays quiet, she’s scolded for being disengaged and aloof. Showing up at all is depleting. She’s come to hate her job. But she’s caught without agency. Or is she?
Let’s be clear that all choices have consequences, some of which, like losing your job, you may not be willing to incur at the moment. But an amazing kind of freedom comes from claiming your agency. You may still have to work inside a biased and toxic culture, but your capacity to manage your reactions will have completely shifted. When you make a decision with agency, you do so with eyes wide open. You can spare yourself disappointment in your colleagues and bosses. You can stop killing yourself to be something you’re not. You can protect the boundaries of your time and energy, you can stop taking on problems that are not yours, and you will thereby stop feeling exhausted. Your responsibility will shift from fixing, pleasing, and achieving and you will be responsible for you and your wellbeing.
Agency is the inhabiting of one’s power, serving as the instrument for one’s own self-determination, and having force and influence. But here’s the thing about agency: it may not change anything about your actual situation, but it can change everything about your lived experience.
Show up with humanity
Our full humanity includes our emotions, gender, race, family, personal history, humor, frailties, and mistakes. White supremacy culture survives on the myth of one universal truth that can be proven with data and sees a diverse array of humanity as a direct threat.
The countercultural move is to own your emotions, build the inner agility to name them and get curious about them, and normalize emotions by refusing to hide them from others. Imagine freeing up all the energy you spend denying or numbing your emotions. Think of how much real work you can get done with that energy instead.
DEI Work is Identity Work and Values Work
Excavating and examining our identities is a crucial and uncomfortable part of DEI work that organizations often try to avoid. It can be especially challenging for folks who have never had to contend with their racial identities or gender identities before, particularly ones that benefit from white supremacy culture. At Leverage to Lead, we believe the more you the better. And that goes for everyone. We talk a lot about showing up with our full selves and acknowledge here that doing so can indeed be difficult work for white people, not just people of color.
The same kind of deep examination is required of an organization’s values. We ask organizations to look at how their current values create inclusion, and which create exclusion. We ask them to identify aspirational values and write a statement of who they want to be, and then to interrupt the old values and embody the new. Sometimes that work is painful and can lead to replacing the people who were leading your DEI transformation because they hold values counter to who your organization aspires to be. That’s real accountability work. That’s not settling for “nice people work” when perfectly nice people happen to be the wrong people.
If you or your organization is ready to undergo the transformative identity and values work needed to create real equity and inclusion, contact any member of our team today.