I recently attended a panel discussion on allyship: what it is (relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability) and how it shows up in the workplace. The hosts and panelists openly shared their experiences with racism and allyship — their vulnerability caused me to reflect on my own DEI journey.
I think the best definition of DEI is the table metaphor. Diversity is the process of bringing multiple perspectives to the table to enhance learning. Inclusion is the process of fostering an environment where everyone at the table feels comfortable speaking up. Equity is an outcome where everyone at the table is speaking up, respected and has equal opportunity.
After a lot of reflection, I’ve written a list of what I wish I knew when I was 18, the year I began to understand the magnitude of racism in the U.S., and the start of my DEI journey. My hope is that by honestly sharing my experience, readers will feel encouraged to engage more with DEI.
A few disclaimers:
- I’m a white person, and my lessons are intended for a white audience. Specifically, white people who are skeptical about racism, are struggling with what it means to be white or feel overwhelmed by DEI. I’ve been in all three positions.
- Some people of color may find this list informative, and some may find it obvious. I recognize that many excellent authors of color like Dax-Devlon Ross and Kimberlé Crenshaw have written on this subject, and their lessons likely resonate more with people of color.
- DEI includes many intersecting identities: race, ethnicity, gender identity, socioeconomic status, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, nationality and ability. All of them are important, but to keep my writing focused, I centered my lessons on race.
I’ve grouped my lessons into four categories: DEI, Race Relations, Being White and Allyship.
1. Like accounting or biology, DEI is a field of study.
You should not get mad at yourself for being unable to read a balance sheet, if you have never studied accounting. DEI is the same. DEI is a vast field of study with its own language, research and history. If you have never studied DEI, don’t dismiss it — be curious instead of frustrated. “The Power Manual” by Cyndi Suarez provides a great introductory overview of DEI.
2. Learning about DEI means learning about yourself.
One part that surprised me about studying DEI was learning how my identity affects me and those around me. Sometimes, other people put me in a box (“She is too young to lead.”) and sometimes, I do the same (“Everyone here is wealthier than me; I don’t belong.”). After studying DEI, I’m able to identify when others are cutting me short, and when I’m doing the same. This knowledge is a gift, as I can now take action to mitigate both.
3. DEI is a journey. We will always be learning.
Even though I’ve learned a lot by taking DEI courses, the education was piecemeal. The first time I heard the terms “anti-racism” and “Black Wall Street” were in 2020. I was initially mad at myself for not knowing these terms, but it’s important to remember the field of DEI (and its cousin, anti-racism) are vast. There is still a lot I don’t know, and that’s okay. I’m learning.
4. A person of color is not automatically an expert in DEI.
This is the same logic as assuming a tall person is good at basketball. If a person has not had the opportunity to study DEI (or chooses not to), regardless of race, they will not be able to speak to the field and all its nuances. It’s better to start by educating yourself. I recommend reading “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” by Emmanuel Acho.
5. When a person of color speaks about a racist incident they experienced, they are reliving trauma.
I had no idea racial trauma existed until someone mentioned it to me, which speaks to the depth of white privilege. Research shows that people of color may experience shock, shame and even PTSD symptoms after a race-related event — feelings that can be resurfaced when a person recounts the incident. It’s a really big deal for someone to share a racist incident with you, so respond accordingly with empathy (“That must have been terrible for you to go through.”) and thanks (“Thank you for trusting me with your story.”).
6. As a white person, I have several unearned advantages that should be universal.
I can turn on the television and see people who look like me. I can go to a hairdresser and find someone who can cut my hair. I can buy picture books and dolls featuring white people. Due to these small, everyday events, I spend my day knowing I belong. Yet these same events cause many people of color to feel alienated. Dr. Peggy McIntosh identifies more unearned advantages (and shares what to do with them) in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
7. Some 75% of white people do not have any family or friends who are people of color.
Until recently, the findings from this 2016 study applied to me. This was also the period of my life when I was most skeptical about the existence of racism. This is not to suggest you should drop your white friends. I’m pointing out that the people we talk to the most often reinforce our beliefs. This is especially true if our friends and family — our circle of trust — look like us. So if you are a white person with a white social network who is skeptical about racism (like I was), then listen to people of color. I
recommend Brené Brown’s podcast interview with Dr. Yaba Blay on identity to start.
8. Ask specific questions and offer support.
It can be exhausting for a person of color to explain to a white person why they should care about racism. People of color often field the question, “What should I do?” and sometimes they have to argue for their points to be heard. I’ve found that authentic support (“These protests have been overwhelming. I hope you are okay.”) and specific questions (“That comment felt uncomfortable. Did you feel called out?”) are more valuable for both parties.
9. When someone points out racism as it is happening, respond with thanks.
This has been one of the biggest lessons on my DEI journey. At several points in my life, I have been called out for being racist, and for a long time I responded with anger and disbelief. As a child, I was taught the U.S. was a post-racial society; this caused me to feel shame when I was called racist.
Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be Antiracist” helped me to see how widespread racism is, that being called racist is a learning moment, and that I should not feel shame when learning. Instead, I should thank the person for taking the time to teach me about racism.
10. Don’t underestimate the power of showing up.
“Showing up” means demonstrating solidarity for a group of people who are marginalized. I’ve struggled with the idea of attending a racial injustice protest because I felt like I did not belong. That I could not and should not contribute. I pushed past this discomfort and went because how we spend our time is meaningful. I don’t always say the right thing, but if I listen and speak from a place of compassion, then I develop connections I did not think were possible.
DEI is not just for people of color, but for everyone. Studying DEI has wonderful personal benefits (see point two above.)
Practicing DEI at work allows people to show up as their full selves, resulting in higher morale and performance. Yet white people often stop their DEI journey or deny its significance due to anger, guilt or shame. By honestly sharing my mistakes and lessons, I hope others feel like DEI is more accessible. I encourage my white readers to begin or continue their DEI journey through education and allyship. It’s never too late — start where you are.
Hannah Williams is the chief operating officer of Almora Advisors. She can be reached at [email protected]