Seeing Our Humanity is a 3-part series on how equity and inclusion depend on being vulnerable humans.
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 begin our 3-part series with what dehumanization looks like and why we’re all so afraid of our messy humanity in the first place.
What We Mean by “Seeing Our Humanity”
Our humanity is our individuality, our autonomy, uniqueness, dignity, and human rights. It demands to be seen fully, treated with respect, and exist in connection with others.
Though we may default to thinking that dehumanization only happens during egregious acts like genocide or slavery, dehumanizing isn’t reserved only for overt brutality. It happens when we willfully or unconsciously erase one part of a person’s humanity as described above.
For example, in our Talent Management work, we hear organizations ask for “an Asian female attorney,” without concern for the individual candidate’s personality, set of experiences, abilities, or value. This turns a person into an instrument for a company’s diversity initiative. Seeing a person for only their race is dehumanizing. Pretending not to see their race is dehumanizing. Denying anyone their full rights, experiences, expressions, emotions, and privileges is dehumanizing.
Why We’re Afraid of the Messiness
Our full selves contain pain, fear, trauma, regret, anger, joy, resilience, pride, hope, and a myriad of experiences, strengths, and flaws in-between. It’s messy and imperfect. Most of us have been socialized to fear and stigmatize the complicated humanity of ourselves and others.
Early on, we learn to put on armor. In an unsafe world, we do what we can to protect ourselves, and that usually involves shielding our humanity from potential harm. We try to make ourselves invulnerable to avoid being exposed or wounded. This behavior carries into school and then work. How often do you let your colleagues see your vulnerabilities? How often does anyone in your organization fully own a mistake, admit when they don’t know the answer, or confess that they’re struggling and need help? These behaviors also point to the white supremacy culture value of perfectionism. When maintaining dominance and privilege depend on being perfect, our very humanity becomes a liability. We end up hiding it or even trying to deny it entirely.
The Price of Avoiding Our Humanity
All this armoring up does lasting damage. Our abilities to navigate difference and tolerate discomfort become atrophied, just like an unused muscle.
In his book, What Happened to You?, Dr. Bruce D. Perry describes our brains’ response when exposed to something completely new and unfamiliar. Essentially, novelty activates our body’s stress response, and we prepare ourselves for fight, flight, or freeze. In other words, difference makes us feel unsafe, and so our own brains try to get us away from what’s different as fast as we can. This response, combined with our armor, means that meaningful encounters with difference don’t stand a chance of doing what they’re supposed to do–pushing us to expand our range of what’s “normal” beyond our limited selves. In short, without intentional and conscious work, we remain stuck in our comfort zone and biased against whatever lies outside it.
What’s the antidote to our own brain functions? Perry says it’s simple: exposure. Repeated and controlled exposure to novelty forges new mental pathways to tell your brain, this person is not a threat. This person is actually safe, friendly, smart, funny, strong, capable, imperfect, and a human, like me.
But the kind of exposure matters too. It has to be authentic and meaningful. The armor has to be off because connection happens through vulnerability. And because the armor keeps us—ironically and tragically—from connecting with ourselves, it hinders any real connection with others.
This is how an organization can “perform” anti-racism without ever improving the lives of their Black and Brown employees. They can hire more diverse teams, do the right training, and put the right policies in place, all without ever being in relationship with the Black and Brown people who work for them. Without ever seeing them as individuals with their own stories instead of simply as another Black or Brown employee.
Seeing Ourselves First
Disconnected from our own humanity, we are incapable of connecting with others. We can’t engage their humanity if ours remains suppressed or ignored. And every time our humanity slips through the cracks in the armor, as it inevitably will in the form of mistakes, omissions, failures, or limitations, it will feel terrifying. It will feel like a failure.
Can you see how perfectionism is rigged to ensure that we fail, just by being human?
Perfectionism is a constant roadblock for DEI work. It makes people uncomfortable when we share our humanity. It makes people cringe when we ask them to share theirs. After a lifetime of surviving perfectionism by trying to make themselves as inhuman as possible, people feel like they’re being set up when we say, you’re human like us. They can’t believe they’re being asked to and allowed to show their full selves.
Our work at Leverage to lead is to build a culture where people not only acknowledge but embrace our humanity, shortcomings and all. Here’s what happens when our work succeeds: People’s shortcomings surface and they don’t topple us or shame us. In fact, they don’t hold any power over us at all. I know which world I would rather live in.
In our next article, we’ll dig into the external structures that reinforce dehumanization, and how our work aims to dismantle them, one encounter at a time.
If your organization is ready to create a culture where your people can put down their armor, show up fully, and feel safe enough to take real innovation risks, contact anyone on our team today.