Doing DEI Differently: Intersectionality Is a Verb

By Nicole Carey

Since 2020, we’ve seen an undeniable shift in the corporate world’s stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Between 2018 and 2022, an impressive 75% of S&P 500 companies recognized the urgent need for change, bringing aboard Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) to lead the charge. A big part of this collective awakening? The heart-wrenching events surrounding George Floyd’s murder and the ripple effects of a global pandemic. Each laid bare the stark inequalities across race, gender, and health. In response, a chorus of voices demanded robust equity checks, urging companies to lay bare their commitment to genuine inclusivity. As a result, DEI found itself at the heart of organizational agendas, essential for navigating our rapidly evolving social landscape. From corporate boardrooms to educational institutions, the call for a more inclusive world has been resounding. However, as the demand for DEI practices has surged, so has the realization that these initiatives can be both a boon and a bane. Amid these shifts, several organizations rolled out training initiatives only to witness minimal impact. The recent Supreme Court decision, putting an end to affirmative action in academic settings, has further stirred hesitation. Companies are now increasingly cautious about placing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at the heart of their strategic planning. DEI can sometimes do more harm than good, especially when not approached thoughtfully. At the Indy Equity Collaborative (IEC), our mission is to redefine how DEI is approached, by leveraging intersectionality and relationality, for lasting positive impact.

 

DEI: A Double-Edged Sword

DEI, at its core, seeks to create environments where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued. It also works to shift power dynamics to increase opportunities for historically minoritized populations. Yet, without a comprehensive strategy, it can inadvertently perpetuate harmful narratives, create tokenistic representations, or marginalize those it intends to uplift. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Superficial Efforts: Many organizations jump onto the DEI bandwagon without a clear understanding or commitment. This can lead to superficial measures such as one-off training sessions that check a box but do little to shift ingrained cultural biases. Surprisingly, folks from dominant groups tend to believe that these trainings shift organizational culture and are therefore resentful when problematic behavior is called out. Therefore, the very training that was meant to bring awareness to microaggressions could lead to them becoming worse.

 

  1. Tokenism: Without depth and commitment, organizations might hire or promote individuals from diverse backgrounds purely to meet quotas. This can put undue pressure on these individuals and reinforce harmful stereotypes.

 

  1. Resistance and Backlash: DEI efforts, if not well communicated and integrated, can lead to feelings of exclusion among certain groups who feel they are being overlooked or that their challenges are being downplayed.

 

The Power of Intersectionality and Relationality

So, how do we combat these challenges? At IEC, we believe in two vital principles: intersectionality and relationality.

Intersectionality

In contemporary discussions surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion, the term intersectionality often arises. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist, this term was initially introduced to highlight the intersecting discriminations Black women faced due to their race and gender. Today, intersectionality has grown to encompass the overlapping social categorizations like race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and more that individuals might identify with, and which can result in unique modes of discrimination or privilege. However, understanding intersectionality merely as a concept isn’t enough. It’s high time we treat it as a verb—as something we do, practice, and embody.

Let’s delve into an example to understand this better: take a Black affinity group or an ERG (employee resource group). An affinity group or ERG is a gathering of individuals who come together based on shared characteristics, experiences, or goals. These commonalities could be race, gender, interests, professions, or any other defining aspect.

Imagine a gathering of Black individuals discussing issues relevant to their community. The overarching narrative may revolve around the challenges Black people face. Yet, even within this seemingly homogenous group, experiences and needs diverge sharply. Black men and Black women navigate different societal expectations and stereotypes. The experiences of Black immigrants, who may be grappling with both racial prejudice and xenophobia, are distinct from those of African Americans, whose ancestors have deep historical roots and traumas associated with the very foundation of the nation.

To illustrate further: compare the experiences of a Black trans Haitian refugee, who has navigated the hurdles of both gender identity and forced displacement, with those of a 60-year-old Black Baptist male minister, who may have faced challenges tied to his faith and racial identity in a different era. Their intersections of identity—their points of overlap between race, gender, sexuality, nationality, faith, and more—shape their lives in ways that are complex and multidimensional. How do they make space for each other?

Thus, practicing intersectionality means recognizing and validating these diverse experiences. It’s about understanding that within any given community, there are multifaceted identities and experiences that intersect in myriad ways. It’s about ensuring that when we create spaces, like affinity groups, we’re not just acknowledging broad struggles but also the specific challenges faced by individuals due to their overlapping identities.

By actively enacting intersectionality, we push for spaces that are inclusive in the truest sense. Spaces where a Black trans Haitian refugee feels as seen and heard as a Black Baptist male minister. It requires more than just understanding the concept; it demands active effort, continuous learning, and genuine empathy. When we “do” intersectionality, we create an environment that recognizes, values, and addresses the intersections of everyone’s experience, ensuring no narrative is overshadowed or left behind.

 

Relationality

Relationality is about seeing individuals and systemic injustices in relation to others, their environments, and larger systems. By emphasizing relationships, we ensure that DEI efforts don’t exist in silos. I just conducted a coaching session today with a professional who was struggling to incorporate DEI training into her daily work.  However, when we broke down the issues she sees in the problems she is trying to solve, she quickly realized that diversity, equity, and inclusion can be present in every initiative. It’s a commitment to understanding how systems and relationships either empower or marginalize individuals. Relationality does not mean that we provide the same solutions for every population or even in the same measure. Different communities face diverse problems that require a targeted approach.

The concept of relationality, as emphasized by Natalia Molina, underscores the idea that to truly understand our own experiences, it’s vital to understand the experiences of other groups. It revolves around the principle that our identities, experiences, and challenges don’t exist in isolation but are intertwined with, and informed by, those of others. This understanding can be deepened using the same example of affinity groups.

In the context of affinity groups, imagine different groups representing various identities within an organization. Each group, based on its unique identity, faces distinct challenges, has its own narrative, and advocates for its specific needs. However, when we practice relationality, we realize that these narratives are interconnected. The oppressive systems—whether based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, or any other category—operate with similar mechanics and underlying structures.

For instance, while the specific challenges faced by a Black affinity group might differ from those of an LGBTQ+ affinity group, both are fighting against systemic discrimination. Their struggles, though distinct in nuances, share common roots in prejudices, biases, and societal structures.

 

By practicing relationality, affinity groups can:

  1. Recognize Shared Struggles: Understanding that while the manifestations of discrimination might differ, the foundational oppressive systems are often the same.

 

  1. Create Synergy for Advocacy: Instead of each affinity group pushing for change in isolation, they can intentionally collaborate, combining their strengths and advocating for broader organizational change. This unity amplifies their voice and increases the potential for impactful change.

 

  1. Foster Mutual Respect and Support: Recognizing the interconnected nature of struggles fosters mutual respect among different groups. An allyship is formed, where groups can support each other during pivotal moments.

 

  1. Develop Comprehensive Solutions: With an understanding of the broader landscape of challenges faced by various groups, solutions can be more comprehensive and holistic, addressing the root causes rather than just the symptoms.

 

  1. Promote a Unified Goal: While each group has its own specific needs and challenges, the overarching goal remains the same: dismantling oppressive systems. With relationality, the focus shifts to this larger goal, pooling resources and efforts to create a more inclusive environment for everyone.

In essence, relationality is a call to step out of our own experiences and see the bigger picture. It’s an invitation to see the threads that connect us all, to understand that in the grand tapestry of human experiences, every thread is intertwined. By doing relationality, especially in contexts like affinity groups, we not only understand and advocate for our own group but also create a unified front against the larger oppressive systems, harnessing the power of collective effort and understanding.

 

IEC’s Commitment

Founded in 2020, in the wake of a global movement for racial justice, the Indy Equity Collaborative was not just a response to a trend. It was born out of a deep-seated belief in transformative change. We understand that change begins with individuals and leaders. Our support to various organizations encompasses DEI learning & training, executive coaching, strategic planning, and research/assessments. By ensuring that organizations look inward and align their internal culture with values of diversity and equity, we aim to create spaces that truly reflect and serve our diverse community.

DEI, when approached holistically and thoughtfully, has the power to create transformative change. It’s not just about quotas or checkboxes. It’s about creating environments where every individual feels valued, understood, and empowered. It’s about changing our course for the future. By doing intersectionality and relationality, we aim to create a world that is not only diverse but truly equitable and inclusive. Join us in this endeavor. Let’s do DEI differently.

 

 

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