The complexity of identity is on our minds lately.
Like all of you, we’ve been following the media coverage of Gabby Petito. Her death was tragic and her disappearance deserved our urgent attention. And we wonder how her identity made her disappearance more urgent, more moving than the many missing indengious people in Wyoming. We also hear the persistent messages of whose lives matter and whose don’t, while we wait for equal coverage, concern, and urgency for missing people of color.
Then, in a recent meeting, we saw different identities and different realities clash. Three colleagues were reminiscing about living in the same city in southern California. Two Black women lamented having lived in such a predominantly white place. The third colleague, an Asian American man, noted that demographically, the city is actually predominantly Asian and that their perception felt like an erasure of him. Maybe perception is nine-tenths of reality. But what if one reality doesn’t even recognize the existence of another?
Also, in thinking through the U.S. exit from Afghanistan this August, it’s clear that so much of our identity as Americans has been entangled in our military operations. Who we want to be, who we say we are, how we want others to see us—this all shapes how we see or ignore the casualties, the cost, the shrinking possibility of success.
Reality isn’t just observable facts. We shape reality with who we say we are, who others say we are,
Facts Are No Match for Identity
All this gets us thinking about how identities interact during DEI work. How they sometimes clash. And how they motivate us, blind us, and consciously and unconsciously guide our actions.
We see acting on our identity in organizations where people are invested in being “good.” They gather data and analyze metrics around diversity, they hold training sessions, they read books. None of these are bad things to do in your organization. But when they’re married to your identity, then digging past these limited actions gets hard.
Asking whether these “good” actions are actually impactful actions gets uncomfortable because who they say they are is at stake. When we lead with our identities, we naturally seek out affirmation and avoid challenges of who we think we are.
And when facts contradict our identity narrative, it’s the facts that most often lose. We’ve seen this up close with persistent claims of election fraud and COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which seem less to do with facts and more with whom they align with and against. We see it in the worn narratives backed by shockingly little data. The idea that poor children hear 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 is based on one study of 42 families. Our definition of crack babies was based on one study of 23 infants. It’s not hard to see the bias in both these narratives.
What’s more disturbing is to look back and see how quickly these stories gained traction and then embedded themselves into the identities of the poor and Black Americans.
Identity Ranking and Assimilation
A client once asked us which identity markers matter more, and which ones could their organization prioritize. For someone in the throes of difficult and vulnerable DEI work, the question isn’t absurd. It’s pointing toward their desire to organize challenging information. The problem, we replied, was that we can’t see each other (or ourselves) through a single lens of race, gender, class, etc.
Identity is intersectional.
Another danger in identity ranking is comparative suffering, which is another way of ascribing identity to someone. We see men in organizations, especially white men, not given space to show up with emotions, needs, or painful histories during DEI work. They are constrained by our culture that believes men do not show vulnerability or need help or admit when they don’t know the answer. They are seen as undeserving of their pain because of all their privilege. Knowing those parts of them will not be seen or heard, we’ve seen these men often resort to argument, explaining, conflict. It’s almost as if they’re saying, Since you’ve already decided how I’m allowed to show up, I might as well lean into that role.
Our pain exists in proportion to our unmet needs.
We may need to do some inner work on where those needs come from, who they’re impacting, and who is ultimately responsible for meeting them, but they are as real as our feelings, as real as our humanity.
We dehumanize anyone whose needs we dismiss.
The other side of the coin is assimilation, which happens when we decide which of our own identity markers matter more or less. For a southerner, it can mean deliberately changing their speech because of the bias of being perceived as less intelligent. It can mean diminishing any one part of our identity that makes us feel targeted because it makes the dominant culture feel uncomfortable. For a biracial woman living in a predominantly white Midwestern city, moving to DC disrupted her identity as Black. The Black community in her new city didn’t identify her as Black. Her demand to be seen as Black– as her claimed identity–came through her hair, which she grew large, and which refused to go unnoticed.
Identity is the Story We Tell
We commonly advise clients to tell stories. During job interviews, tell a story about the time you demonstrated your value of growth and learning. When preparing to interview candidates, get curious about their stories and write questions to elicit them.
People remember a story and thereby remember you as a person. Storytelling is how we engage our humanity and how we share it with others. In the face of seemingly intractable bias, storytelling is how we claim the agency to be seen the way we want. And storytelling can counter a false narrative better than refutations or facts.
But first, we have to be equipped to tell our story:
- Our ability to own and shape our own story is only as good as how well we identify with our emotions.
- If we have emotional awareness and agility, including holding space for the difficult and painful, then we can fully embody our story.
- When we can acknowledge our pain, integrating it into our story instead of trying to deny it, we grow empathy for ourselves.
- Empathy for others is only possible when we offer empathy to ourselves.
- We connect to others through empathy. It’s the only lens that lets us see another’s full humanity and see when that humanity is being denied.
What could be a better catalyst for real action, equity, and inclusion?
Living the Story Behind Our Values
It’s not an exaggeration to say that storytelling is foundational to our work at Leverage to Lead.
Transforming organizations begins with a group of people who have gathered together to make change. We explore all of their stories, which embrace differences and reveal commonalities. In this container, everyone has a chance to be seen and heard, to show up with their emotions and their histories, to be given space for their full selves. We help people listen deeply. We create abundance where there was once scarcity: there is more than enough space and empathy for everyone.
Let’s be clear: this takes time and vulnerability. When people ask when we can get to the “real work,” we say, unequivocally, this IS the work.
And then we talk about values. Not just the ones we want to claim, but the ones we want to live. The ones that will let everyone in the room live with dignity and fullness.
If you or your organization are ready to dig into identity and values work, we’d love to talk with you about how they can transform work cultures. To learn more, contact any member of our team today.
The Leverage to Lead Team
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint, Founder and CEO
Kim Ho, Head of Human Resources
Aubery Jones, Head of Talent Advisement
Dione Lee, Director of Finance
Melody S. Gee, Freelance Creative Content Strategist