Words Matter: Relating to One Another – Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality

Words are powerful, and the frame or perception around them is even more powerful. Building inclusive workplaces to support a trust-based corporate culture includes a look at how we understand, relate, and speak to one another. 

The following piece was written while I was hosting panels about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, prompted by my observations around words and word choices when we discuss diversity, inclusion, and company culture.  

Words Matter: Relating to One Another – Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality 

Working and speaking on diversity, inclusion, and changes needed in a corporate culture tends to stir up emotions, deep-seeded fears, passion, and sometimes even anger. Pain and suffering abound in our world, caused by being held back, tamped down, passed over, and abused because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and physical and emotional disabilities. 

Anger happens when someone gets called out for certain behavior, using certain words, speaking without thinking from where they grew up, how they were raised, or what was considered “okay” or “normal,” using words that have been in our language unchallenged for decades. The thing is, there is no such thing as normal. I don’t think so anyway. 

Shame happens when someone is called out for using language that offends or troubles someone, often with high adrenaline and emotions from the person doing the calling out. It’s a slippery slope. 

When this happens, we first need to look at doing harm and intent. 

I’ve become accustomed to seeing passion from both sides in this arena, and I’m constantly learning as I continue to write and speak on these subjects. 

In this realm, you have to know that what you say and how you say it will be scrutinized. Every word you choose has the potential to be thrown right back at you. 

While this is by nature a “shades of gray” arena, certain words are abhorrent and should not be used. Do we need that list? I don’t think so. Other words have undergone changes in meaning and context, and are being removed from our vernacular as awareness and feedback grow around them. Now that we are aware of this need, changes are happening in real time, meaning a word you may have heard last year or even last week is no longer accepted. 

The widely acclaimed author and speaker Brené Brown (the world’s foremost researcher on shame), addresses this and speaks globally on the topic. 

I’ve read many letters in which one word she used to describe something struck a nerve with someone and rubbed them the wrong way. These disconnects are always going to happen. What’s important is how you deal with them when they do. Brené writes about this extensively in her books and blog, and I’ve seen many articles written to her and around her on this subject. 

There is a now-famous quote from her book Braving The Wilderness, where she talks about using the word “gypped,” and the time a fan called her out on it. Brené responded that she didn’t know the racist background of the word and suggested that the fan who did the pointing out should have done so with more civility and less emotion. Brené noted the shame she felt and that shaming on either side of any situation is harmful, which I appreciate. 

While recently re-reading her book, I decided to use that story as a launching pad, and did a little digging. My research led me to find and appreciate this quote from entrepreneur, activist, speaker, coach and founder of AwakenMichelle Kim, about the about the Brené Brown incident. 

“When someone reacts to what you say or do with intense emotion, before asking them to please be respectful, try to understand where that emotion is coming from. Because the moment you ask for civility from someone you just harmed (albeit unintentionally), you’re putting the burden of emotional labor on the person you just harmed. You are asking them to put their raw emotional reaction aside to communicate in a way that makes you, the person who caused harm, want to listen. You are asking to have your dignity intact when you just stripped the other person’s. You are asking them to disregard their history of being treated without respect so you can listen better.” 

The Latin phrase primum non nocere (first, do no harm), makes a good point. Most people know it as part of the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors but it applies to all humans. The point here is that sometimes you don’t realize you are harming. That is where intent comes in. You can be the most mindful person on earth and still accidentally cause harm. Regardless of intent, learning about the harm we cause is sometimes a big surprise. It’s all about the lens we look through and our experiences of the world. Michelle makes a good point about understanding harm and intent. 

I’ve witnessed this pointing out and high emotions happening in every scenario - the workplace, between friends and family, and even/especially at events where we’re talking about Diversity and Inclusion and building trust-based workplace and management styles. I’ve been on both sides: I have done the pointing, and someone has pointed something out to me. 

How does intent temper content? 

The exact same words can yield 180-degree differences in the response they get. Depending on who’s talking and what else they’re saying, calling me a girl can get you a hug or a punch in the face. The same is true for my reaction to being called thick, curvy, or a big girl. I have a mirror. I don’t need judgement, hostility, passive aggressive insults, or “the neg” from someone who’s just finished the latest pickup artist book. 

I do find it better to be civil and loving when calling someone out when something strikes a nerve, but I may not always be in a place to access my best conscious mind at that moment. People get tired and eventually they get fed up. That moment gets piled on top of countless other moments of embarrassment, stress, including years and decades of injustice that bubble up, ambushing and sabotaging our best conscious mind. It happens, and those unfortunate moments have the potential to create long-term residual pain. 

I’m grateful we are in a time of great revolution regarding how we speak to one another - what words we use, understanding where the anger and passion come from, and also finding the empathy in these situations. 

We all believe we inherently have empathy. 

Sadly, you can never truly know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, what pain and suffering are behind their smiling eyes, and how certain subjects are difficult to talk about until you hear, listen, and comprehend. Only from that point can you decide to build empathy into your DNA, your story, our story really, as I believe we are all connected. Truly understanding the full, unique story of a person may be unknowable, but we have to commit to trying. 

I’m doing a lot of deep learning around the word Intersectionality. I like this explanation from YW Boston

“Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of the prejudices they face. (Oxford Dictionary)

In other words, the intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “female” and “black”) do not exist independently of each other and that each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression. 

For instance, a black man and a white woman make $0.74 and $0.78 to a white man’s dollar, respectively. Black women, faced with multiple forms of oppression, only make $0.64. Understanding intersectionality is essential to combating the interwoven prejudices people face in their daily lives.” 

I think that this lens, this directive, this theory is the one to understand in building diversity, inclusion, and positive corporate culture programs, sessions, panels, meet-ups, and conversations we have together around the dinner table, the water cooler and in private conversations with friends. 

Who we are is not defined by any one characteristic. 

We are defined by thousands of things, which means how we view the world and how we maneuver through it takes every color in the rainbow and every hue within that spectrum. We are complex and layered and tangled. 

I believe this work to find our connective tissue is important. Yes, it absolutely is work, and worth every minute of effort expended. 

Words matter, people matter, pain matters, and what matters most is love, spreading heaps and heaps of it and remembering the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

As I move through the days of this life, I hope to keep these ideas in mind, while remembering to give benefit of the doubt, in effort to understand and heal the pain crippling the fascia of our world. 

A caterpillar undergoes a complete metamorphosis before it becomes a butterfly. The human race is in its chrysalis, and I know there will be beauty coming out of it. That is one of my deepest hopes, anyway. 

The Awaken Blog on Medium is also a great resource on the subject of creating compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations.