Two words we commonly use to describe our work at Leverage to Lead are human and messy.
DEI work is always both, which 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 the third and final part of our series, on the dehumanization of hierarchies.
The Hierarchies of Identity Markers
In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we explored what it means to see ourselves and each other fully, as flawed beings with emotions, pasts, and desires. One of the things that most gets in the way of seeing ourselves fully is the system we use to rank people’s identity markers. White at the top, Black at the bottom. Rich at the top, poor at the bottom. We do the same with people’s education, ability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, legal status, marital status, and so much more.
These hierarchies might make us feel safe momentarily as if we’ve figured out who everyone is and where they belong. But humans are never this neat or uncomplicated. And seeing our labels impedes seeing the full human. On top of that, when the lines get blurred or someone occupies their various identities in unexpected ways, the whole system falls apart. But usually, the damage has already been done.
Our Identities Are Not Singular
One identity marker does not make a person. Even if you see someone’s race instead of pretending to be colorblind, there will still always be the need to see the lived experience of their race as part of their humanity.
The Black male associate at your firm has had to show up a certain way all his life, contending with people’s discomfort or even outright fear of his presence. He has tried to fit in and been punished for being different. He has been mislabeled, overcorrected, and presumed dangerous. Also, he’s an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and identifies as Afro Caribbean. And he’s a father. And so on with his unique story. In other words, he isn’t just Black. He’s the sum of all his lived experiences.
All this means that if your company’s DEI initiative is only talking about how to be more inclusive for “Black employees,” then it isn’t designed for him.
Power and Suffering Hierarchies
In a recent episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, a disturbing scene gets at the heart of how identity label hierarchies dehumanize us. Full disclosure and trigger warning: not everyone on our team has watched the episode, and the scene, which includes a sexual assault, has been described by several media outlets as shocking.
In the scene (season 4, episode 7), the show’s main character, a handmaid, initiates sex with her sleeping husband. He wakes while they’re already engaged in intercourse, and says, “wait,” several times. The handmaid covers her husband’s mouth and continues, pinning his arm down.
The discussions of the scene have been revealing. When describing the encounter, many call it “assault” or “rape,” but some qualify it as “male rape.” Others say it can’t be rape at all. Considering that a handmaid is by definition owned by the state and regularly subjected to rape, some wondered if she were even capable of violating another person. Add to that the scene immediately before: the main character has just confronted one of her most vicious female captors and has returned exhilarated and vindicated from years of systemic torture. Then, add to all this is the fact that the husband is Black and the handmaid is white. Multiple hierarchies are in competition and the identity lines we want to draw are all blurred.
What’s notable in the post-viewing discussion is the absence of talking about either character’s story or their lived experiences, focusing instead on judging whose suffering is worthier. When we’re reduced to identity labels, others think they can decide for us what we’re capable of experiencing or not.
Hierarchies of suffering and power make us ask, who’s more of a victim? Who can we deny their suffering because of their identity label? Whose suffering threatens my victim status or place of power? It’s all just another way to reenact systems of oppression that are killing us.
When Normalizing Feels Like a Threat
An interesting thing happens when we tell organizations that they are not alone. Normalizing their DEI challenges, resistance, or frustration doesn’t always get received well. Usually normalizing someone’s experience brings comfort and relief, a feeling that you’re not alone or crazy. But part of the discomfort in hearing that your organization’s struggles are common is the pervasiveness of perfectionism. No one wants to hear that their humanity is messy, let alone that everyone else’s is too.
Another reason for discomfort is the unwillingness to let go of all these hierarchies of power, identity, and suffering. When we say, “everyone goes through this,” people hear, “you’re no different from those people you’ve been trying so hard to keep in a different category.” Seeing our common struggles means giving up our rung on the ladder.
This is one of the reasons we emphasize self-actualization in DEI work. The individual who can acknowledge that she is human and messy isn’t going to be repelled by other people’s messiness or threatened when her imperfections are seen. Only when we can hold space for our own full humanity are we able to hold space for others–and for all our differences, uniqueness, and the necessary discomfort that leads to authentic connection.
Seeing Our Humanity
Ultimately, we need to begin seeing the toxic constructs and hierarchies for what they are—tools of white supremacy culture. The hierarchies of identity labels are asking us to dehumanize ourselves and each other. The first step in dismantling racist structures is seeing and naming.
This is the part of DEI work that people worry will be mushy rainbow harmony nonsense. But we hope this series has made clear that seeing our humanity is some of the hardest, most rewarding, and most necessary work to be done.