One of my graduate school professors, Dr. Janaki Natarajan, regularly challenged her Social Identity students with two simple questions that reliably test what we think we know:
In the 12 hours since receiving ethnicity results from my DNA analysis, these are two of the few processing questions I’ve managed to ask myself. After a dozen years of working across cultures of all kinds and feeling unfulfilled by limited knowing of my own ethnic origins, I’ve been at a loss in recent hours about how to make meaning of the raw data linking me to what might have been home in an alternate series of historical events. (See image above for a visual snapshot of my genealogy results by country/ region.) For whose benefit, after all, have I felt the need to identify ethnically? And, what purpose do my ethnicity results serve?
A global diversity client recently shared my cynicism about the commercialization of culture. Trending on social media at the time was a few-minute video clip of various people’s emotional reactions as their DNA-based ethnicity data were revealed to them. I’d watched it from my laptop screen and felt inspired to journey on my own “DNA discovery”. Of course, after I fell in love with the characters’ stories, the video turned out to be a damn advertisement. In discussing the commercial with my client, we agreed that a false claim was made; that simply tracing the lines of descent from our ancestors does not create cultural belonging. It’s when what's within the lines of our descent are colored by lived experience that we truly belong—in both the collective consciousness of the in-group and our own minds. While culture is of benefit to the individual, it is built for the group. Thus, this Chicagoan is not Central or West African because she read a report this morning stating that 18% of her genealogy links back to Cameroon, 16% to Côte d'Ivoire and 10% to Nigeria. Taking on an identity that is not my own may positively promote business interests, but it does not offer me the benefit of belonging.
"Whatever culture of the rainbow you represent, you, too, are enough to enter into the discussion on diversity— as you are."
Still skeptical about what the DNA results might reveal, I spit into a test tube and sent it off to a San Francisco P.O. Box for testing. As a Black woman born and raised stateside, intrigued by intercultural communication, often under-represented in global diversity circles and over-represented in national diversity circles, I expected that knowing my ethnicity would help define my place in dialoguing on diversity. When others shared family traditions rooted in specific cities or regions of long-established nations outside U.S. borders, I regretted that I could only say my folks were from Mississippi. I’d wanted something more to leverage my blackness.
So far, it turns out that my ethnicity results have served the purpose of grounding me more deeply in my racial and regional identities. I am a Black/ brown woman from the central region of the States whose ability to speak on national cultures and their sub-cultures is nuanced by my experiences along the periphery of ethnic identity. Whether or not I ever came to know that I am of Irish (13%) and Western European (10%) blood, I hold an equally valid—and even unique—position in understanding the complexity of race-based, ethnic and national cultures because I represent a people who was mixed and made in America. I am enough as I am.
Whatever culture of the rainbow you represent, you, too, are enough to enter into the discussion on diversity as you are. For whose benefit will you engage between the differences that matter—and for what purpose? Let’s talk!
[i] According to Ancestry.com, the saying, “Kiss me, I’m Irish", likely originates from an age-old legend that kissing the stone in the medieval Blarney Castle in Ireland— or an Irish person in lieu of the stone— will give one the power of eloquent and persuasive speech—and luck!
Over a pitcher of Sangria this past Thursday evening—with my own glass full of water for reason of my religion—one friend in the group that met at Café Iberico smiled knowingly as she told me that I have no concerns about job security as a global and local diversity professional. Nanye. Ninguna. Neniu. Though I wasn’t born an interculturalist, I converted long ago and I’ll die a devoted follower of my religion: Work.
I am not the only one in these so-called post-God, post-history, post-racist United States who has made a religion of my work. We’re generally a busy people who barter our health, time and true talent for a job. And perhaps, like other believers, I hold true to the promise that sacrifice now will be rewarded later. Though in the “hereafter” of my religion, the hearts of humankind are knit together[i].
If we’re going to make a religion of work, let’s make the maximum profit.
Idolizing Work As Next-To-Holy—and Hyper-Sexualized
Even as it consumes us, we increasingly sacrifice ourselves for work. Like many other virtues to which people profess devotion and exploit, the so-called Puritanical work ethic of the 1700’s U.S. that influences our work culture has become simultaneously next-to-holy and hyper-sexualized in contemporary society. Witness this fascinating mix in the following “clean” versions[ii] of today’s popular music that are an ode to work.
In about the span of my lifetime, the ritual of work has gone from sacrilege to sacred. Some examples include the following pop-culture songs of the late 1970s and 1980s[iii].
Just about an equal number of years after the 21st century began as before it ended, our interpretation of the value of work—as reflected in the select sample above—has changed. No longer are we simply the object and work the subject. Work has become the protagonist that drives the plot of our lives, the “hero” of our story.
How to Make Religion of Work
If we’re going to make a religion of work, let’s make the maximum profit. Our professional accountabilities are often to discover efficiencies, assure quality, check and balance toward the “holy grail” of the bottom line. However, we are not reaching our best benefit because we’re missing the meaning of our martyrdom.
What necessarily defines work as a value is the act of creating; the “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something”[iv]. Just as some believe that faith is “the evidence of things not seen[v],” the profit produced by creating through work is not always tangible, but no less real. When we make a true religion of work, we recognize that the profit gained through work is in the process of craft for the benefit of ourselves and others—not in the product itself. In his classic work, The Prophet, by Lebanese writer-poet Khalil Gibran, he preaches work as worship: “…[I]n keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life/ And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. Work is love made visible.” Work is of most value when practiced with values.
By religiously practicing work as craft, creation and love—day in and day out—we can bring a character to our work that we may strive for in ourselves. This is the work in which I endeavor with people—that of personal choice and change—that necessary engages us with ourselves and with others. My job is to help people find motive and ownership in a brand of work ethic that is self-perpetuating in its benefit to the whole. It’s toward this practice of cultivation over consumption—day in and day out—that I partner with clients toward a multicultural mecca of sorts in which they own and do the work.
As a reflective practitioner of whatever your profession, how might making a fundamental belief of work in its true essence change how you engage between the people, places and purpose with which you work?
[i] Reference to Baha’i scripture, which reads: “…Strive ye to knit together the hearts of men, in His Name, the Unifier, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.”
[ii] Explicit versions of each song—with the exception of "Stressed Out"—more graphically demonstrate the point being made in this paragraph.
[iii] No “clean” and “explicit” versions of these songs are available online.
[iv] Source: Dictionary.com.
[v] In the King James version of the Bible, Hebrews 1:11 reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
In Chicago where I live, Spring is wedging its way through hard, cold soil and into existence. While many think of the process of becoming in warm, pastel colors, the labor of creation has a momentum that demands sacrifice of its environment before delivering the fruits of its effort. Listen to classical music composer/conductor Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) to hear the phenomenon set to music![i]
Animating the seed of potential within any circle of people is similar. Bottom line: To reap the promise of the collective, to what extent are you willing to invest in a growth process that necessarily requires varying degrees of tension, friction, shifting—before a metaphorical Spring begins to show itself in the renewed health, agility and vibrancy of your organization? At a macro level, “growing in diversity” means cultivating progressively authentic relationships between people who are currently—and will become—a part of your circle of influence. Whether or not you experience the differences that you and others represent as your authentic selves, they are very much alive.
Think of “growing diversity” as an exercise in managing change. Such growth is simply one brand of change management. And, increasing your skills-based capacity to change in any way for the better makes you more ripe and ready to endeavor in diversity toward an environment where the whole of people are welcomed as they work together to reach common goals. The more adeptly we are able to adapt to the world around us as it is—and as it evolves—the more we equip ourselves for growth that changes us and change that “grows” us.
Whether your day-to-day environment is diverse in ways seen or unseen, let’s agree on some ground rules:
Look around you. Are you surrounded by a metaphorical Spring in your day-to-day environment? Envision how that ecosystem looks, feels and sounds by considering a few of the following questions as they pertain to your context:
Manifest your profit, purpose or any other bottom line by establishing strategies, structures and opportunities for people to develop bona fide relationships—incrementally and over time. In the process, expect some growing pains—before and even as—your organizational culture progressively takes on a fresh vitality that attracts new faces and voices to your circle of influence. It’s the sustained quality of collaboration between people who are open to difference that grows your diversity on a perennial basis. Get growing!
[i] My own ears first heard the piece as a cacophony before being attending the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score program and gaining a true appreciation of this orchestral work.
Becoming True: Lessons Learned from Grand Daddy, Shakespeare & the Questionable Comments of a Diversity Coordinator
One of the memories that my family holds most dear of my Grand Daddy is the wisdom that he shared often through one of Shakespeare’s quotes: "To thine own self be true. And let this follow as the night unto the day."[i] Until hearing some questionable comments recently while in conversation with a Diversity coordinator, I had one, straightforward read of this saying. I now hold a deeper appreciation that I’d like to share with you.
All these years I had interpreted my grandfather’s saying to promote discovering oneself and following Heart. My own learning of Self and following my intuitive lead is a work-in-progress. I believe the process to be one of spiritual growth that will endure throughout my human life.
And then, I met a Diversity coordinator who self-identifies as a “white woman” who “live[s] in a bubble”. She disclosed that she is surprised when she’s told—and doesn't see how— race-based prejudice persists in our U.S. society. As a colleague in the field, a fellow woman of privilege and an African American who experiences what eludes her associate, I was intrigued that she had been matched with her role. But, here she was. And there I was, listening with alarm to learn more.
What I learned in reflection was a more nuanced interpretation of the above quote. Being true to ourselves is not to remain comfortable with who we are in the present moment of our lives. We are—and continue to choose—the values and beliefs that we learned through the cultures to which we belong[ii]. To hold these ideals as a reflection of our selves, we must necessarily become more than who we are today.
In speaking with this Diversity coordinator, I discovered only a small part of what she already knows to be true about herself. She believes in:
Being true to thine own self ain’t about acting in accordance with our current selves. It’s about acting in alignment with our higher selves. To what Self are you becoming true?
Dedicated to Mr. Leon Willis Watts, II also known as my dear Grand Daddy (Jul. 3, 1925- Feb. 29, 2016).
[i] The precise phrase in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet reads, “This above all: To thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not be false to any man.” (1.3.78-80).
[ii] As culture is a learned and shared set of values, beliefs, assumptions and behaviors shared by a group of people, we all belong to multiple cultures. Nation, region, ethnicity, race, generation, gender, dis/ability, religion or faith tradition are just some examples of culture groups.
Over the weekend, a 70-year-old Black elder and member of the Community of Practice that I co-chair for my local Baha’i[i] community declared that he was free. He explained that among those in the room, he was the lone retiree at liberty to speak truth publicly about the cultural differences that people allow to divide themselves. The rest of us, he said, were bound by our need to earn livelihoods that may likely be compromised if we offended others with the truth of how difference is treated with discrimination. Indeed, like my mother before me, I have been marked a "cultural 'mis-fit'"[ii] in the workplace and lost employment because I represented difference among my colleagues.
It’s true that heads tend to turn and lips seal when there is culture-based conflict in our workspaces. While many are competent at the work they do, they may not recognize, know how to effectively manage, or think it their place to reconcile “creative differences” that are at their root natural chances to skill-build toward collaborative working. Yet, let us remember: Culture is meant to make the world around us—and one another—more accessible. It's an adaptation that humans make to their environments in order to make meaning and feel connected in their shared beliefs, values, assumptions and behaviors.
We are most free in our being bound together because engaging between our differences with others allows us to move more easily in our worlds.
Accepting that which binds me has liberated me. From the age of six, I refused to buy the U.S. brand of liberty that we were sold. I kept silent every morning in class as my peers recited the concluding words of our national pledge of allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all.” I knew that the flag under which I stood did not represent one nation indivisible, yet I was not aware of the freedom that binding in struggle with one another brings. I had not yet experienced what one Australian aboriginal woman affirmed when she said, “…[I]f you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s[iii]). When we participate in the collective and continuous labor of acculturating ourselves with the patterns of how we and others work, we learn the skills of working across culture with anyone, anywhere.
We are most free in our being bound together because engaging between our differences with others allows us to move more easily in our worlds. And, while it may not feel intuitive, the culture that we create for the places that we occupy—work teams, organizations, networks, communities--can effectively facilitate an experience in which we are free to be/come the full potential of ourselves, collaborate with others in ways that enhance our shared value and carry out the work of the day with meaningful and sustained impact. What other freedom supplies more people power?
For me, there’s magic in the way that drivers make way on the road when they hear the blare of an ambulance. In the culture of Chicago traffic—where my attempts to merge seem to come off as a declaration of war to some drivers—what happens when people hear and heed the call of an ambulance siren feels like witnessing peace on earth! The act symbolizes the value that we hold in others’ lives over our own agendas.
More important to me than whether people feel sentiments that seem to match their actions, is whether people act in alignment with value. As an Intercultural Trainer & Consultant, my job is to support progressive shifts in behavioral change toward values that people agree to work within. While beliefs may change over time through self-discovery, influencing attitudes is not something for which I take responsibility. If we imagine a world where people prioritize others, it’s a basic “rule of the road” that we act in parallel to what makes way for what we say we value: One another.
"Making way" is about both recognizing that we are one part of one whole and then operating in that reality.
Making way when we really feel like someone needs to “stay in their own lane,” is not about allowing them space. It’s about both recognizing that we are one part of one whole and then operating in that reality. Making way is an intentional decision to make meaning of mission by demonstrating the behavioral interpretations that match your values of service, team, leadership, diversity, etc.
For example: Over the past year, I have trained for Daimler[i] in a set of intercultural competence trainings. A worldwide rollout of trainings has been put in motion proactively to support knowledge transfer processes from various sites globally to the Philippines. At one of these recent trainings that I facilitated in Toronto, it took more time than participants anticipated to follow my instruction to “simply” self-identify and stand together as either Filipinos or Canadians. (Between you and I: It was a bit of a “set up”!) Filipino participants who had flown in from Cebu a few days before, quickly and easily took their place together. One of the managers from the Cebu team even offered to stand with a German expat who had called Canada home for the last two decades and didn’t quite identify as a local. And then…we waited…and watched. We made way for the process of the remainder of the group as they questioned, discussed and debated the extent to which they identified as Canadian among the employees with whom they worked side-by-side daily. The national dialogue about what makes one Canadian played out before us. In the process, the learning emerged: Our global—and local—work is now more complex because we have become more multidimensional. Making way breathes life into the living values of any group, and thereby increases the value of the group to cooperate well within the complexity they work. What values do you think were reflected in our making way?
If you have imagined a world of interconnectedness, you need not wait any longer. Welcome to our current reality, where every one of us and our needs are relative to everyone else and their needs. Making way is simply acting in alignment with the way the world already works. When people work together, things go better because it’s the way of our world. Invite me to partner with you as you make way for your own organizational values. May our paths cross sometime soon in this new year.
It may seem trivial, but it hurt me to “unfriend” someone on Facebook today. (Note for any late tech adaptors: Unfriending is a Facebook function activated by one click of the mouse that discontinues direct sharing of one another’s timelines of activity.) To punctuate the statement, I posted a public message on this person’s Facebook page that explained that their posts perpetuate too much divisiveness, prejudice and bigotry for me around the concepts of gender, race, religion and politics; that I had realized that these were not cyber-bytes of entertainment, but were dangerous; and that the day had come to unfriend. (See screenshot of Facebook post above.) I will no longer receive and read the rants of this person’s multiple, daily posts—sometimes up to a dozen or so everyday. One word: Superuser.
Still, this superuser is my friend.
Here are another few words: Complicity. Negligence. Violence. These are practices as common as rice and bread and fufu and pasta in our world. Among the smaller and larger horrors far and wide—in our houses, our communal places, our cities and our hearts—it is the daily and continuous montage of seemingly insignificant acts of indifference and hate by ourselves and those we love deeply that scare me most. And, the complicit, negligent and violent response of our relative silence. So for months, instead of initiating actual conversation with my real life Facebook friend, I toyed with the logic and language of this person’s posts by making counterargument posts and “hashtagging” witty, contrary phrases. It was only last week that the opportunity found me, and I gathered the courage to tell someone I love that they stand for so much that I stand against.
One of the “likes” on my unfriend post was made by one of this friend’s sons. My friend's daughter LOL'ed when I texted to tell her the story; said that she had “unfollowed him long ago”; and welcomed me “aboard.”
There’s a boundary that is creating me. Usually, it’s the other way around—people create boundaries. Though, I have not wished to reach the farthest frontier of my willingness to consume words rooted in ideas that terrorize my sense of wellbeing. I am a professional interculturalist! [Insert sarcastic tone.] For better or worse, if I have learned anything from professional elders in the field, it’s that I am to be ever culturally relativistic; never surprised by the horrors fed by cultures that humanity creates; always willing to bend to another’s understanding as I engage with them in an effort to unearth their assumptions if not help them see another side. I first felt rumblings of this boundary a few years ago at a job that was not a fit for me. At that time, I questioned my commitment to the work; feared that I was allowing my mindset to become old and crotchety. And now, I trust that the boundary defines my very commitment to the work.
Still sitting with the personal impact of the broader, bolder meaning of my action. This friend is someone who has known me since birth.
Ever-willing to engage in a productive conversation, and increasingly inclined notto bend until I break under the weight of dialogues that flow only one way, I feel steady and calm in my decision. Unfriending is not just for Facebook. It’s whatever peaceful protest we may make to slow—if not stop—the spout of hate and indifference that runs into, and muddies, all our lives. Take note of the messages that enter the “inbox” of your mind; sort them based on usefulness; and make small statements of action that represent grand stands for what you believe. Who will you unfriend?
Dedicated to my dear uncle, who I unfriended today.
Also featured in the Mar. 2016 edition of SIETAR USA News (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research).
Nov. 1 marks the first of two, back-to-back Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead). It’s a lively holiday celebrated throughout Latin America—and especially Mexico, where it owes its historical roots—that honors the dead and the belief that death is a part of the continuum of life. This year, on the anniversary of my grandma’s transition, I’m delighted to share with you a few lessons about connecting across differences that we learned together.
I called her Gammy. She made “slap-yo-mama” good bread rolls from scratch; had the softest, smooth skin that smelled like Oil of Olay; and talked nonstop without coming up for air. Being “politically correct” (P.C.) was not her thing, and I’m not even sure she would heed the concept if she was aware of it. Gammy had more important things to do—like connecting mind to mind, heart to heart through real conversation.
When we attempt to be P.C., we disempower ourselves and others by underestimating our intellectual and emotional abilities to respect others and manage dissimilar ideas at the same time.
Her non-P.C. modus operandi offered many a chance to ask, listen and learn about what she meant by what she said. Before I departed for travel to India, she asked if I spoke Indian; Gammy gifted me a pendent in the shape of a Christian cross the first Christmas after I declared as Baha’i; she identified as Colored until the day she died. We did not agree on all of her opinions, though Gammy allowed this difference of perspective to be a point of connectedness between us.
We do no one favors when we’re politically correct. When we attempt to be P.C., we retreat from the authenticity of our words by speaking in ways that do not fit our meaning; shrink our minds to conform to the latest trend; disempower ourselves and others by underestimating our intellectual and emotional abilities to respect others and manage dissimilar ideas at the same time. If language reflects mindset, what does your language say about you? Strong people and stronger relationships are made from the way we engage with one another when differences occupy the space between us.
Speak freely like Gammy, who was never too old to open her mind to understand something new—whether or not she accepted it as her truth. She was, however, more charming than most and could say almost anything with her radiant smile. However freely we choose to speak relative to our environment, there is promise in using our own words; owning the impact of those words; and recognizing that how we respond to differences of experience speaks volumes about the power of our minds.
Malii Brown is an Intercultural Trainer & Consultant who has built her career over the last ten years connecting and engaging people across cultures.
Something I said caught her attention before it caught mine. One week ago today, I was on an informational interview by phone with the head researcher of a Washington, D.C.-based, international, non-governmental organization that is in consultative status with the United Nations. My interviewee opened the conversation with one question: “Tell me, what are you working on?”
“Myself!,” was my immediate response.
...Any technical-based or other professional development is a solitary effort to refine ourselves as the most high-powered tools we operate in the workplace.
I hadn’t meant to be especially witty or profound when responding. It was my authentic answer in that moment to a common question. I am a professional continually growing and grooming myself to be prepared for the opportunities I earn. If you and I are making an effort to do our jobs better, we have another thing in common: We are making an effort to be better. When we endeavor to improve our work performance, aren’t we simply improvingourselves? Informational interviews, networking, mentorship, research, goal setting, feedback and any technical-based or other professional development are a solitary effort to refine ourselves as the most high-powered tools we operate in the workplace.
Supporting people as they make practice from principles is one of the key roles in my own work. My intent in inviting the conversation I reference above was to learn how my interviewee’s organization practically applies the faith-based principles that guide them. In the professional environments I encounter as a Consultant, organizational values, vision, mission and ethics represent principles for action—or inaction—that colleagues locally or globally don’t necessarily share or similarly interpret. Identifying that difference, understanding it and managing it toward increased professional connection and engagement between people is what I do well, and the process through which I guide clients.
Embody the principle. To whatever extent we consider ourselves an individual player or a part of a collective whole, something internal shifts and we "become" so that the work process external from us may evolve. When we get better at doing something, it’s because we get better at being someone.
What are you working on?
My name was recently referred for consult with the President and CEO of a U.S.-based agency who is scheduled to speak with leading Human Resource professionals about her work in Talent Management and toward immigrant integration in the corporate workplace. I lay in bed last night thinking about what value add I might offer. Human capital + Diversity + the workplace seemed to me to be the basic factors for this HR audience. While context will be key to my consult, a principal message arose for me: Diversity (D) is about quality (Q) of the whole (3)[i].
Depending on how we define, welcome and act in Diversity [ii], it can yield an all-encompassing, 3-D quality to what we do, how we do it and who we become in the process.
I am not a mathematician, but I think D=Q(3) adds up as a calculation the way it does in our real world. Describing variation within the whole—and not Minorities of any kind, themselves—diversity among a group is a strategic advantage because it, a) creates a formula that can be utilized to elevate how a group thinks, works and innovates; b) adds the potential of productive differentiation to the resource of people power; and when seen, valued and leveraged, c) creates new possibilities for the dynamic of the group and their work product. Depending on how we define, welcome and act in Diversity[ii], it can yield an all-encompassing, 3-D (three-dimensional) quality to what we do, how we do it and who we become in the process.
Perhaps you’ve heard those conversations. The ones where the term “Diversity” is the association that comes to mind when talking about the workplace value of people who are more closely associated their ethnicity, (non-English) home language, race, sexuality, physical abilities, etc.—than the predominant culture[iii] of the employee pool. In other words, diversity itself is mistakenlyidentified as those people who are more pigmented, linguistically-skilled and/or otherwise traditionally marginalized portions of our population—in relation to the “everyday” employee. How can we call out this limiting inaccuracy when we hear or see it? As a word, “diversity” is about variation within the whole; as a concept, “Diversity” is about the benefit of the whole group that is directly proportional to the way that diversity is valued.
So, I share with you—and perhaps with this potential client—the approach of collaborating on the needs, and developing the strengths of, the whole. Any group already represents (in/visible) diversity. What differently diverse group dynamic may positively and industriously influence your professional community? It’s areas of opportunity for strategic learning and growth? It’s latent potential to become more? Talent[iv] is developed in the synergy among people. Beyond the potential of homogenous groups, Talent brought together in more heterogeneous groups offers a spectrum of resource not before possible.
What are your thoughts on how we reach the next dimension of Diversity?
people. place. purpose.