In many of my DEI workshops, I like to ask for audience examples of microaggressions, as it helps make these challenges personal. People we work with and respect have been struggling with these very issues, and we may not have known!
One time, a Black woman raised her hand and shared that her neighbor, a white woman, came to visit her. Upon stepping inside the Black woman’s house, her white neighbor amazedly said, “Wow, your house is so clean and neat!” The Black woman was upset, as this comment seemed to suggest that the white woman expected her house would not be clean or neat. Given the long history of antiBlack stereotypes that lambast Black women’s ability to lead and take care of their households, we likely won’t find it difficult to sympathize with her reaction.
The reason I bring up this anecdote is not to contradict or challenge the Black woman’s experiences, but because I feel that I can offer an addendum that will help us think more broadly about engaging in DEI-related conversations: what if her neighbor meant her words as a genuine compliment? Bear in mind that the motivation behind the neighbor’s words does not negate any offense or harm she caused! However, when we discuss DEI, it’s important to remember that we’re all coming in with different levels of experience and knowledge. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to slip up, and we might even be anxious and on edge, affecting everything from our language to our actions. And that’s okay! What’s important is that we offer others and ourselves the grace to make mistakes as we also emphasize the obligation to learn from them. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to give a person the benefit of the doubt and trust they had good intentions.
So, what if the neighbor did mean her words genuinely? How could she learn from the unintentional harm she caused? To give a broader example: what if we’re discussing the wage gap with a friend we trust and they make an offhand comment about how the real reason the wage gap exists is because women deal with more interruptions resulting from family obligations? As those of us on the receiving end process the hurt these words may have caused us, I think it is also worth pausing to ask ourselves, Did this person intend to cause harm here? Again, intent does not negate consequence, but considering the speaker’s intent can help us determine what our response should be. If we suspect the person we are having this conversation with was engaging in good faith, how can we turn these situations into learning opportunities?
In short, conversations regarding any and every aspect of DEI can be messy. They can be difficult. Ultimately, however, these conversations are worth having, and it is crucial for all of us to remember that people who choose to have these conversations often want to learn more! I invite us to consider the value of an environment where “mess-up” is simply another word for “learning opportunity.”
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.