Last year, an organisation that promotes dialogue invited two authors to hold a “respectful exchange” about racism. I was one of them. The other was Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility.
I accepted the invitation. DiAngelo declined. And that was before she went viral.
White Fragility has become a bible for diversity advocates in institutional America and elsewhere. But DiAngelo owes answers to the executives who are now panic-buying her ideas.
Take the central claim of her book: that white people’s entitlement to feeling comfortable makes them defensive, even hostile, when conversations about race need to be had. No doubt, many white people fit that bill. However, it is not because they are white. It is because they are human.
I speak from personal experience. In the wake of 9/11, I toured the world to promote liberal reform in my faith of Islam. Before audiences of my fellow Muslims, I argued that the time had come to update our religious interpretations for a pluralistic 21st century. I also explained that Islam has its own tradition of independent thinking. As people of faith, we could rediscover that glorious tradition instead of turning to outside influences.
The “Muslim fragility” that I witnessed pained me. Most of my co-religionists did not want to hear about the need to change ourselves. Despite backing up my case with passages from the Qur’an, I was met mostly with denial, consternation, condemnation, and, on occasion, violent threats.
It took me years to appreciate that humans, universally, respond badly to being blamed. The primitive part of our brains give rise to the ego, and the ego kicks in as a shield whenever we feel threatened. For tough conversations to succeed, emotional defenses must be lowered all-around. Only then can people tap into the more evolved part of their brains, allowing reason to co-exist with emotion rather than being bulldozed by it.
This is why shaming white people for being fragile is both misleading and toxic. Misleading because everybody with a brain, regardless of race, can be tricked into oversensitivity by the ego. Toxic because drenching an environment in shame rarely inspires people to listen to one another authentically. More often, research shows, shaming humiliates and plants the seeds of animosity. It demeans one group to redeem the dignity of another, sowing resentment, fuelling self-censorship, and undermining collaboration. Beware any diversity and inclusion consultant who stays in business that way.
There is an alternate path to tackling systemic prejudice. More ethical, engaging and, ultimately, effective than to accuse white people of fragility is to promote — among all people — “honest diversity.”
Honest diversity replaces humiliation with integrity, as in wholeness. It recognises that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural. By contrast, dishonest diversity slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places. Once ensconced in these cages, individuals are flattened to a single dimension, vaporising all the rest that makes human beings capable of similarity as much as of difference.
This is where most diversity efforts go wrong. They obsess with demographics, asking, “How many folks of this and that type do we have at the table?” Of course, representation matters both to morale and to innovation. But the operative question is how to achieve representation.
Counting categories to measure success is a recipe for perpetual grievance because it inevitably leaves ever-narrowing niches out of the picture. Much better to cultivate diversity of viewpoint, which replaces silos with dialogues and thereby invites people into relationship. Yes, that means so-called white straight guys instantly belong. Yet their belonging takes nothing away from everybody else because wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.
In fact, the pursuit of different viewpoints changes the power game altogether, especially for historically marginalised people like me. Us-against-Them tribalisms demand to know whose side I am on. I am expected to swap one form of assimilation — “theirs” — for another kind of conformity — “ours.” But viewpoint diversity values me for my individuality. It liberates me from having to be an avatar of somebody else’s narrative.
And that is as it should be. Because even within identity groups, members will have varied backstories. As a result, they will also have different ideas and opinions. Recognising this is the remedy for essentialism, racial and otherwise.
So where does honest diversity reckon with the crucial issue of demographics? Are we simply to ignore lack of representation?
No; we fix it out of integrity. When organisations make diversity of viewpoint a genuine and stated goal, then for the sake of accountability, diversity of demographics will have to follow. After all, those of us who have faced patterns of exclusion will naturally develop perspectives that others do not.
The point is, honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfil that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction. That is because focusing on demographics erects walls.
Prioritising a mix of viewpoints, though, has greater potential to build bridges — and teamwork — across institutions. What are institutions if not the people who inhabit them? It is one thing to update HR policies; quite another to expect that they be followed consistently. Such expectations are bound to be disappointed when people do not relate to one another. Caring is a far more enduring motivator than compliance.
Some will allege that I just want to let white people off the hook. This ego-gratifying suspicion denies an inconvenient truth — that caving to the primal brain is not a whites-only privilege. All of us do it. Yale’s Jennifer Richeson and NYU’s Maureen Craig point out that Black Americans and Asian Americans become more conservative when they are reminded that Latin Americans are growing in number. The prospect of losing status triggers fear in everyone, everywhere.
Which is why it is not productive to snap our fingers, roll our eyes, and proclaim that white people should get over themselves. If leaders want to rise to this moment sincerely and sustainably, they would be wise to remember: people are humanised by being seen as individuals within communities, not as labels on legs.