Fearless Futures Podcast Episode 2: Is Inclusion the Goal? [Transcript]
Hanna Naima McCloskey: Hi, you’re listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. I’m your host Hanna Naima McCloskey, the CEO and founder of Fearless Futures and this is the show where we unpack and interrogate mainstream methods for equity and inclusion. I’ll be sharing new perspectives as well as alternative approaches we have developed and deployed working in daring companies across sectors around the world. Each week we will explore new angle you won’t want to miss, so stick around.
This episode will be exploring a range of words that are widely used in the inclusion and equity context in companies. There are five different words that I’m going to be unpacking and interrogating in this episode. The first is “inclusion”, the second is “diverse”, the third is “minorities”, the fourth is a little bit of a combo of “privilege” and “microaggressions” and then the fifth is “fear”. I’ll be looking at their underlying dynamics, their implications, as well as what we might be saying instead.
So there might be a problem with the term “inclusion” — which might be surprising, given that Fearless Futures uses, as a description, the term “inclusion” to describe the training that we do in organizations. We are, after all, an inclusion and equity education organization. We’re also really committed simultaneously to self-interrogation, and so it feels only right that I bring my attention and our attention to some of the underlying dynamics with the term “inclusion”.
What does it mean when we say that we are “about inclusion”? Well, it speaks to the idea that there are some people who are excluded and who are therefore on the margins. But what I’m really thinking about is: what is the dynamic that’s being spoken to, and what I see and hear and feel when I engage with the term “inclusion” is that there are some people in the center who extend their arms out, maybe an olive branch, [or] they put out a bridge to draw in and bring in those who are excluded. But what has really got me thinking here is that when we’re talking about inclusion, it’s still relies on those who are at the center [to] making that effort, and they get to decide who they include, when they include, the timeline they get to say whether they’re ready or not — because those on the outside, those who are excluded cannot, by definition, include themselves.
There’s something at the core of this term “inclusion” that I think we need to reckon with and recognize its imperfection, because it doesn’t destabilize enough the requirements of transformation and change. The other dimension of the term “included” is of course the assimilatory nature of what I think is supposed to happen, which is that people who are on the periphery who have been historically and presently are pushed to the margins. Their inclusion is often predicated on merging with that center. And again, this comes back to what I have already shared, which is the conditions for that inclusion very much rely on those who are already in a particular space. So we have a assimilatory dynamic to this phrase “inclusion” which I think we have to question — and perhaps confront and get honest about — which is: that might actually be what what’s presumed in many organizations, that might actually be the process that’s expected to happen, and I think that is a failure of not only using the word “inclusion” but also perhaps the very kind of framework in which this work is ultimately done.
The other thing I think that’s an issue with the term “inclusion” is: people often say we want everyone to feel included, we want this to be about everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone — and of course, if certain people are already centered and prioritized, then they don’t need to be included. They’re already there, but also the effort and the energy and the resource by definition needs to be extended to engaging with those who have been and are excluded. Therefore, this idea of “everyone” sort of flattens and raises the differential experience of the status quo. Some people are not going to feel included by acts that seek to challenge exclusion, that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing we can do about that, so to suggest that everyone will be included might not reflect the reality of that differential allocation of energy and resource, to reorganizing the way that our companies and organizations currently exist.
Diversity: the big D that dominates is “diversity”. The particular issue that I want to draw our attention to is this notion of a “diverse person”. Folks, that is not a thing. An individual in and of themselves cannot be “diverse”. Diversity exists when multiple different entities come together and there’s difference among them. So what are people saying when they say a “diverse person”? I think what they’re saying is that this person is somebody who inhabits an identity that has been historically and presently marginalized or experiences underrepresentation in some regard, and we can come to the idea of representation at another point, or that there’s somebody that experiences oppression. The word of “diverse person” is used as a substitute for the very specific language that would actually reflect what I think most people are talking about. It’s not only grammatically incorrect, but it also erases what we’re really speaking about when we’re meant to be thinking about [and] doing equity work in organizations. Do not refer to a “diverse person”, it doesn’t make sense, it’s not accurate, please don’t do it.
Another term that we hear frequently is the term “minorities”, and the main way that this word is used is to describe a group of people who represent a small proportion of the population and who aren’t, therefore, the majority. People often speak about ethnic minorities, for example, so those who in a particular population aren’t the ethnic majority. The issue I think that exists with this language of “minorities” is that it ultimately seems to communicate that there is a natural order to those who are present in our companies. That’s really ultimately about arithmetic: we’ve just got to count the right number that might exist and make sure that they’re in our company context. But, of course, people of color are the global majority. Women are a majority of the world’s population and yet they’re referred to as “minorities” as a description of the status quo. What I think we need to really draw attention to is that just being a numerical minority, or indeed being a majority, doesn’t mean that power naturally flows to that group just because they are many in number. There are countless examples of groups of people who are an actual minority who have managed to organize power in their favor. We might take, for example, the context of South Africa where 90% of the people there are Black, and yet an apartheid regime existed for much of the 20th century that was in service of white power and white control. All this to say that being a minority does not by definition mean the power isn’t in a group’s hands, just as being a majority doesn’t guarantee that power either, as we see in the case of people of color who are a global majority, and yet white supremacy is simultaneously a global phenomena.
So the issue in our companies isn’t ultimately one of numbers necessarily, but rather: power asymmetries, how power is organized, and how power is maintained for some groups at the expense of others. If we misapply an arithmetic analysis, it ultimately won’t serve our endeavor — if transformation is, in fact, the goal. And once more: the language we use frames the actions we take, which is why this is such an important part of the work that we do in organizations because it frames how we understand the world around us. It’s also the case that it will set the perimeters and the parameters of what we deem to be enough action if we’re in a particular arithmetic mindset, and then we might down tools at a certain point because we think “well, the numbers now are the way the numbers should be.” So what can we use instead in this particular context? We might want to use the term “minoritized”.
“Minoritized” describes the process by which a group is made into a minority in certain contexts, even when they might not be the minority. We know that that’s because that’s how systems of oppression play out [by] denying a particular group access to resource and participation, among many other things, while conversely elevating a different group whose their binary opposite in most of the ways that systems of oppression are set up and endorsing their legitimacy and their value. Of course, other words that we can use instead of “minority” or “minorities”, and if we don’t feel comfortable with “minoritized”, we have so many other [words]: we could say “people who experience marginalization”, “people who experience in equities”, “people who experience (insert any ‘-ism’ that you like)”, or “people who experience oppression”. There are many, many alternatives that are far more accurate than using the language that’s often misapplied of minorities.
There are two terms that I snuck in that I would love us to kind of examine and interrogate, and those are “privilege” and “microaggression”. Again, to be totally clear and up front, we at Fearless Futures use the term “privilege” to describe a particular advantage that a group can have access to and be granted based on their social identity. We use that in our work. We don’t use “microaggressions” so much, but I think they come together in the thinking I have around this and that I’d love to share, which is that “privilege” and “microaggressions” have the effect of erasing and visibilizing the systems of oppression that produced those outcomes. Often in our work, when we’re talking about a system of oppression, we might talk about the positive outcomes that a group are afforded because they aren’t subject to that system of oppression, and that’s what “privilege” is. It’s a very localized, individual, interpersonal positive outcome from the existence of that system of oppression.
“Privilege” can be a term that really rile some people up — because they haven’t confronted directly and sufficiently the nature of oppression and how it operates. They might have all sorts of feelings about this term “privilege” and how it doesn’t reflect the hard work that they’ve done in life, and so on and so forth. While it can be useful to generate, sometimes, the required conflict that very profound moments of learning require, it also has a simultaneous response, which is that it denies or erases or invisibilizes the system of oppression that produces that privilege, which I think is something that can be dangerous, but also can be tactical in maintaining the status quo. It takes our eye off the wider system and has us focus very locally, perhaps in ways that mean that the other structures that we could be taking action against remain in place, and we know that they’re the enforcers that are a key ingredient of that system of oppression.
“Privilege” is, again, a localization that invisiblizes these wider systems and, I would say, has a tendency to have us take our eye off the ball. We just start to see things based on our everyday experiences, which I do think it’s important to highlight and visiblize as a tool, so long as we honor the root system of oppression. “Microaggressions” are the of flip side of that privilege. Again, for me, I think there’s a diminishing dimension to the pervasive violence of systems of oppression on people’s everyday experience to reduce them down to everyday experiences of a microaggression. I think it allows those who benefit from systems of oppression (who may be engaging in these so-called “microaggressions”) from seeing the ways in which they’re participating in something larger than acts that perhaps could be seen as easily excused, or should the microaggression itself be found to have an antidote — perhaps the person can change their localized interpersonal behavior — that somehow it therefore absolves them of wider consciousness and action in relation to the system of oppression. This isn’t to say that these terms should be banned, but it’s perhaps to invite us into a new inquiry as to where we wish to use them, how we wish to use them and whether or not we can be much more specific in identifying the ways in which these very benefits and/or microaggressions are produced and the role that structural inequity plays in these phenomena.
Finally, [there is] this idea that fear is the reason why oppression exists. We hear this all the time. People will say in our workshops “oh, the reason this oppression occurs is because people really just fear (and then insert group that experiences oppression)”. And you know what? I just don’t buy it, because it doesn’t make any blooming sense. We take the example of any system of oppression — if we think about anti-black racism, for example: the idea that white people were “fearful” of African people — black people from Africa — they were so fearful that they got on boats and enslaved, kidnapped, human trafficked millions of people from their homelands to other parts of the world, such that they could then institute laws and policies that turned those people legally into their property, and so on and so forth. I mean, the idea that there was fear at all in that is an absolute nonsense. It’s not about fear, it’s never about fear. Systems of oppression do not emerge because of fear. Men do not fear women, and therefore, the “fear” that men have of women meant that they turned them into property, commodified them, denied their participation in institutions and education because of their “fear” of women. For “fear” to have any sort of validity, there needs to be an absence of power that can be exerted in a particular situation, and in all of these contexts, any oppression (that lack of access to power) does not feature. Fear cannot feature. To use fear as a justificatory explanatory answer to what we’re seeing totally misdiagnoses [and] misanalyzes what we are being confronted with. Systems of oppression are designed. They have a very clear purpose: that purpose is to accumulate power and control at the expense of another group. These are historical processes that play out in the present. And “fear” has no place in our analysis — except for those who are the subjects of those systems of oppression who have extremely real and valid fears of those who perpetuate the system, those who have power within that system (whether they recognize it or not) and of the structures that produce the conditions of violence within which they’re living. That is the only context in which fear can legitimately be spoken of in the context of inclusion and equity work in companies or in the context of exploring and analyzing oppression.
So, with that run down, those are the terms to interrogate — potentially push to one side, [or] maybe put in the bin! If they’re not useful, we might not need to be wedded them. I’m certainly going to be doing some deeper thinking about our organization’s use of the term “inclusion” and it’s dynamics and critique in that space. I encourage you to do the same, and let’s see if our language can shape our actions so that we’re engaging in much more impactful, urgent and powerful movement for transformation.
Thank you for listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. If you like what you hear be sure to subscribe, rate and share this episode with a friend. If you’re interested in learning more about the work that we do it fearless futures, please visit our website fearlessfutures.org. ’Til next time.