Seeing Our Humanity is a 3-part series on how real DEI work depends on being messy and vulnerable humans. Read Part 1 here.
One word we commonly use to describe our work at Leverage to Lead is human. DEI work can be hard when we’ve been socialized to value perfectionism and power hoarding while fearing discomfort (these are just a few of many other white supremacy cultural values).
What exactly does our humanity-focused work look like?
Why do we insist on embracing the mess?
Today, we share part 2 of our series, on how social constructs, power, and comparative suffering also dehumanize us.
Seeing Our Individuality
In Part 1 of Seeing Our Humanity, we explored the ways in which we deny, suppress, ignore, or hide our own humanity. We do this to ourselves out of fear, perfectionism, or simply trying to fit and be accepted. Our own social constructs can also dehumanize. Constructs like race or gender tend to group, generalize, and reduce humans to these categories. This is not to say that acknowledging someone’s race or gender is dehumanizing. But when a company seeks to hire a Black female partner, the human can easily be reduced to these two identity markers. When a company launches a DEI effort to be more inclusive to its Black employees, they’re can ignore the very different lived experiences of each Black employee.
Seeing our differences is crucial to seeing our humanity—how others are different from you, from your leadership, from white supremacy culture values, from others in and out of your organization.
Here’s one reason we need a humanity-based culture:
One Black team member at a tech startup holds a minority opinion from the group, which is composed of eight white developers, four Asian American developers, and four Black developers. All three of her fellow Black team members hold the majority opinion and she is afraid to speak out because 1) she doesn’t want to seem out of solidarity with her fellow Black team members; and 2) the team believes “the Black voice” has been heard.
Seen by the limited category of her race, she doesn’t feel safe to express her difference from those with whom she’s grouped.
Seeing the Humanity of Leaders
When we think about the way we’re socialized to see leaders—managers, executives, CEOs, elected officials—it becomes clear that dehumanization works up the ladder as well as down. We expect our leaders to be, at all times, competent, confident, in control, unflappable, error-free, and essentially beyond human.
Think about how we shame leaders for not having all the answers. How we punish them for making mistakes. And we justify this dehumanization with leaders’ higher salaries, increased power, and other apparent benefits.
Leaders themselves can easily buy into their own dehumanization, especially after a career spent striving, concealing their differences, fitting in, and growing more isolated with each advancement and success.
One particular conflict can arise when someone with a traditionally marginalized identity holds a leadership position. Originally from Ghana, Hilda is an English language learner, in addition to being a Black female immigrant. She’s made it into the C-Suite at her firm and is experiencing a first: her entire sales department disapproves of a recent territory move and resents her power to unilaterally make this decision. Hilda, used to occupying an identity with several marginalized markers, finds it jarring to be seen as a power holder. It feels like her position of power has erased her individuality, her history, and her struggles.
Power and authority are not inherently dehumanizing. But our responses to and expectations of those in power often are.
We’re Individuals and We Belong to Communities
At the root of white supremacy culture is toxic individualism and the related belief that “I am the only one”– who can solve a problem, get something done, or who has had a certain experience. Toxic individualism leads to isolation, rivalry, lack of accountability, and poor teamwork.
It also cuts individuals off from vital communities and affiliations.
Yet there’s a hypocrisy to toxic individualism: it often applies only to white individuals. In white supremacy culture, marginalized identities are grouped together and without thought to the spectrum of individual identities within that group. Consider the terms “Black culture,” “gay culture,” “immigrant culture,” “Jewish culture,” or “urban culture,” to see how such monoliths have become commonplace for many groups.
Where we belong and who we belong with matter deeply. As much as we value our individuality, our identities also depend on our communities. This is yet another paradox of our humanity that aches to be seen. Communities, unlike identity labels, are chosen and nurtured. They sustain us. The danger of identity labels is that they can impose categories that deny the very belonging we crave.
White supremacy culture also grants fluidity between individuality and community to whites, that other groups rarely experience. A recent discussion of the Tulsa massacre brought this to light for us. The Black community suffering in Tulsa demanded a response, accountability, and reparation. But “I wasn’t there,” and “I didn’t commit those crimes,” is a response designed to absolve white people of responsibility by claiming ultimate individuality.
On the flip side, the response to President Biden’s plan to earmark COVID-19 relief funds for Black farmers was met with outrage by white farmers who denounced the funding as “reverse racism” against white farmers. When convenient, whiteness can become a group identity. The bottom line is that white supremacy culture reserves the right to dictate group belonging or individuality for some only.
Seeing Everyone’s Full Humanity
Dismantling white supremacy culture isn’t just about a change in how we see marginalized people. It’s a radical change in how everyone is seen—privileged identities included.
During DEI work, sometimes we have to clarify that bringing to light race or gender bias is not designed to deny anyone else’s suffering. Our culture of scarcity and comparative suffering can make it sound like that. In reality, we’re emphasizing the human connection among us all and that DEI work is not a punishment for white people. White supremacy culture has long been punishment enough for us all.
If your organization is ready to start seeing and engaging more fully with everyone’s messy and remarkable humanity, contact anyone on our team today.