Deconstructing your Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Journey

Deconstructing your Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Journey

The recent Oprah interview with Meghan & Harry stirred up many conversations within households, workspaces, governments, and all in between that you can think of. Some people were glad that they spoke up, some felt offended, some were shocked, some weren’t, some felt a sense of relief, others felt betrayed, others confused, some raged with sincere anger plus an exhaustive list of feelings generated by the interview. Clearly a polarizing outcome. I must also underscore that this interview came at a time when the world is still reckoning with racial awakening following the tragic killing of George Floyd. The outcome from this interview is no different than what has been happening over the last one year as the world scrambled to bring the necessary change to address systemic discrimination.

Many organizations, households & institutions undertook steps to bring awareness to themselves on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI). Some saw some success while others unfortunately experienced poor outcomes. Considering my work in this field, I have come across multiple experiences. Some people gained new friends through new perspectives while others lost great friends through this journey. Some will not discuss the topic out of fear for being labelled a racist/sexist/etc [insert any label] while others have lost the energy and patience to educate anyone on the topic. Some will not tolerate any ignorance that does not meet the current bar while others are confused on what it means to be privileged. Some will not tolerate any labels while others have engineered polarizing conspiracies. Some are completely overwhelmed by this awakening & have spiraled into a complete state of confusion while others have had the opportunity to learn however just simply don’t know what to say or how to be an ally. Simply, a hot mess. I felt compelled to discuss this current situation as I believe it warrants a conversation to bring us to a level of understanding that we can at least hear one another out.

In order to understand each other, I believe it’s important I distinguish the messaging out there which are equally important and complement each other. There is the advocacy work that is simply the call to action and very reason why we can have this conversation & how we ended up with social justice initiatives & human rights laws. Consider the civil rights movement, post colonial independence movements across the world, Black Lives Matter Movement, Me Too Movement, the 2020 Protests following the killing of George Floyd etc. The world would simply be a sad place without advocacy. Advocacy is a thought-provoking call to action that should drive us to a point of self-reflection. While it is tempting to jump to our defenses, our efforts are better served through curiosity, listening, empathy & understanding.

There is also the `developmental work’ that focuses on deep learning. This involves understanding where the learners are in their journeys and exploration of the topic in order to unpack and understand the complexity of the issue at hand. This approach needs someone that deeply understands this work to guide committed learners through their journeys.

I think it’s important that we are all able to distinguish between these two approaches & understand their functions as they are important considerations in our EDI journeys. As someone in this space, I am committed to meeting individuals, organizations, or institutions wherever they are in their journey. This is not to suggest that it’s open season for any ignorance and should simply never be tolerated. There are things that any reasonable person ought to know & we all have a responsibility to inform ourselves. While I choose to spend a good chunk of my time in the developmental work, I also complement it with advocacy work. Consideration of the two approaches has been largely effective for my own journey and my Clients.

Unfortunately, advocates do not hand pick their audiences and vice versa and honestly shouldn’t have to as the intention again is to bring a specific message to the listener’s attention. Anyone involved in development work will also attest to the fact that it’s pretty difficult if not impossible to hand pick your audience from a collective when you consider a Client Organization. I have always been keen to understand human behaviour and largely treat behaviour as an outcome. There is nothing we learn as human beings that we cannot unlearn so I view the current polarization as an outcome and not necessarily the recipe. If one plants an apple tree, cultivates & nurtures it, then one can only expect it to bear apples. This is no different than systemic discrimination. If our system plants & nurtures sexism, racism etc, well the apple knows no better. So how do we engage in a way that’s meaningful & effective to our listeners & (non-listeners)? How does the gaslighting help our current situation? How does name-calling or labeling move our current conversation? What are the implications of not labeling? Are we focusing on the surface when we look at current outcomes of our system? Where do we place the onus on messaging? These are all important questions that require deep learning and reflection. Let’s explore.


EDI conversations will always be emotionally charged and are bound to get the best of us. It can be pretty difficult to share your experience with a figuratively unresponsive audience especially when your life and livelihood is at stake. Having to live through the experience while others enjoy the privilege of just learning is telling. Keep in mind that these conversations on inequities did not start yesterday and so for anyone that chooses to advocate on this topic, you can only imagine how tiring this can be for them. It can also be very difficult for someone to understand something they have never lived through let alone any incentive to listen in to something they are unlikely to ever experience especially when their current environment reinforces the latter. I should underscore however that we all have a responsibility in dismantling oppressive systems. It is up to the individual to identify who they are and what their contributions can or should be. So how do we ensure that we’re hearing one another out?

The Bennett Scale

Dr. Milton Bennett created the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) which is simply a framework explaining people’s reactions to cultural differences. Dr. Bennett observed that individuals reacted in predictable ways when they confronted cultural differences. Using concepts from cognitive psychology to constructivism, he organized these observations into six stages of increasing sensitivity towards cultural integration which I have summarized below. In the first three stages of the DMIS model, the individual views their own culture as `centric’ (central to reality) and as they progress through their intercultural learning, their `centric’ views are transformed to `relative’ views (one’s own culture experienced in the context of other cultures). The Bennett Scale can be helpful in identifying and understanding our journeys through EDI in moving us from centric to relative transformations. I think it’s important that I highlight the context in culture. When considering culture, I am referring to those societal norms, customs, beliefs etc, that are generally a result of human interactions. I should however mention that any `differences’ experienced as a result of these human interactions would also apply be it age, race, gender, sexual identity/orientation, religion, geographic cultural identity, ability etc.  Let’s explore these stages further. 

Denial: At this stage, people view the world through their own cultural lens and are generally disinterested in cultural differences & thus have a limited capability to understanding or responding appropriately to cultural differences. They operate in broad stereotypes and generalizations and may act aggressively to eliminate difference if it impinges on them. Other cultures may be avoided by maintaining psychological and/or physical isolation from difference which can also be done systematically. A few examples to consider would be genocides, slavery, colonialism etc including the ripple effects today & sentiments some may still hold on these notions.

Defense: At this stage, people view their culture (or an adopted culture) as the only good one as they recognize other cultures exist. The world is classified into superior vs inferior or `us’ vs `them’ clusters. People tend to be threatened by cultural difference and tend to be highly critical of other’s cultures regardless of whether the others are their hosts, guests, or newcomers to their society. The others are belittled with overt negative stereotyping. This has been largely evident by far-right nationalism group movements & a reality for many Black People and other historically marginalized groups as portrayed in media and our society. The same goes for patriarchy & sexism. A variation in this stage can be seen in reversal where one’s own culture in devalued and the other culture is romanticized as superior. For those in reversal, they can be highly critical of their own cultural group while protective of other cultural groups. A great example is when people outside of the western world place a high value on the western way while devaluing their own ways of life. Reversal may look interculturally competent on the surface however lack the understanding or knowledge of the `cause’ to the `othered’ group and maintain an `us’ vs `them’ mentality. This Defense/Reversal stage was described as `polarization’ by Dr. Mitch Hammer who developed the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) model which simply refined Dr. Bennett’s DMIS model. In today’s landscape, this polarization is highly evident everywhere in almost all social constructs.

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Bennett Scale- Source: Intercultural Development Research Institute.

Minimization: At this stage, people recognize superficial cultural differences and are driven towards universalism by emphasizing similarities as opposed to difference to minimize polarization. People take the view that a simple awareness of the fundamentals in superficial cultural differences is good enough to get by. By focusing on similarities, strangers become more familiar & less threatening. People’s understanding of intercultural learning is based on similarities. Common phrases used in this stage are “We are all human beings”, “We’re all the same”, “I do not see colour/gender”. As people move from the defense stage, they may feel enlightened and view any discussion on difference as stereotyping. A good chunk of the world is stuck on this stage where people generally recognize and appreciate difference but that’s as far as it goes. Non-dominant groups can also be stuck in this stage as a coping mechanism where they minimize differences in order to fit in as this creates opportunity for them and perpetuates itself when passed on to other groups as `keys to success’. What they fail to realize is that similarities are culturally influenced. We all have unwritten set of rules for success in our workspaces/society which we like to think of as `meritocracy’. Most of us consider ourselves to be objective however we’re not as objective as we think we are. Within meritocracy, we all assume that those unwritten rules of objectivity are culture neutral which is largely never the case as the dominant group within the meritocracy simply influence the culture and set the performance yard stick.

Acceptance: At this stage, people move from a `centric’ to the early stages of a `relative’ approach to world views where their culture is experienced as a number of equally complex worldviews. While they may not necessarily agree with all the ways, people at this stage accept the existence of culturally different ways and are able to pick up on similarities and differences across cultures. They tend to be curious about other cultures and are eager to learn which reflects a desire to be informed. Individuals may struggle with reconciling differences they view unethical from their viewpoint, nevertheless, those differences are validated and considered. This is a crucial step to adaptation.

Adaptation: At this stage, people are able to expand their own worldviews and adapt their behaviour accordingly to their cultural environment. They have an enhanced sense of empathy & frame of reference to convey messages across differences in a way that is understood and understand while criss-crossing cultural boundaries. People in this stage may `code switch’ in order to communicate more effectively in other cultures and generally becomes unconscious for most. People with a centric mindset are generally confused how people in this stage are able to adapt without losing their identity.

Integration: At this stage, one’s experience is expanded to include movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. People’s cultural views are marginal where the understanding that any central view of a particular culture is a limitation, allowing them to navigate effortlessly from one cultural worldview to another. Identity is experienced as a process of construction and not necessarily as a thing one has/not.

Having now covered these transitions, we can now see how and why there may be polarization in the current EDI discourse. We’re simply not speaking the same language as our experiences and understanding within this journey are different. While someone may assume taking the stand of `all lives matter’ to be a great choice to universalism and bringing people together, they are generally confused when confronted with `racist’ labels. The same goes for a lesson on `White Fragility’ for anyone within the `centric’ stages of their intercultural learning.

It is also possible to integrate on one of these aspects (for example racial equity) and be completely oblivious on others. Being able to integrate on one issue does not automatically qualify one on others. 

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last 50 years is that not calling anything for what it is will never be helpful. It is therefore incumbent on us as individuals to identify who we are and understand how our environments have shaped us.

Our world views and capabilities are limited by our experiences and therefore, it is important to commit ourselves to learning differences. Intercultural learning requires commitment and intention and cannot be limited to one approach let alone one person. One cannot teach culture. In order to learn culture, one must immerse themselves in it and listen with empathy recognizing the only limitation is centered on us (that includes what we have learned, been taught (or not) & our experiences). One trip abroad or a culture awareness session will not cut it. This journey is difficult, it’s uncomfortable but it’s necessary in order to grow. When we normalize differences, we open our minds to endless opportunities for growth and learning where everyone is allowed to thrive by bringing out their best authentic self. I hope this article has been helpful for your EDI journey. Feel free to leave me your comments below.

Author: Kevin Kamau, is the Founder and President of Kamau Consulting Group, a Management Consulting Firm focused on creating opportunities for inclusive participation through Inclusive Leadership.

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