Diversity sounds like a great idea when it goes well. Recent events in the USA highlight that there is still much work to be done. Few areas of life have the capacity to generate such heated debate, protest and riot, and engender such powerful primal feelings: anger, revenge, guilt, shame, innocence, grief, pity and loss. Now is the time for sensible, grounded dialogue, and the modelling of cooperative behaviour. Everyone has an essential part to play, particularly commentators and those in leadership positions – parents, community workers, managers, partners, celebrities.
Below we describe the foundations of diversity in human systems, and we explain why those wishing to support diversity must be willing to hear all voices, including the perpetrators and those who are seemingly “in the wrong”. To promote diversity we must embrace all that comes with diversity, including conflict.
This is a hard message, a true message and a challenging one. Polarising dialogue of “us” and “them” maintains conflict, fuels difference, perpetuates what it claims to want to resolve.
Before doing so, some personal disclosure is in order. Within our known family circle there are many groups represented, including black African, black Caribbean, Arawak, Indian, Pakistani, Irish, white English, Amerindian and white South African; Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Christian (several kinds); slaves, slave owners, priests, soldiers, academics, politicians, labourers and members of various, more conventional, professions; wealthy, poor, educated, uneducated, the old, the young, the disabled, the able-bodied; the colonised and the coloniser. These are part of our belonging, and in their unique ways, some conscious and some hidden, they inform our perspective.
Belonging and Exclusion
Belonging and exclusion is the starting point. Our need to belong is a non-negotiable deep human need. When it is taken away people suffer, their suffering impairs their wellbeing, it seeps out into the world, fans into society, and fractures to stratum on which we all stand. When our belonging is assured, life is excellent.
People naturally identify with others that are like them. This sense of belonging with others may come from social status, job, football team, race, belief, colour, family, nationality, school, hobby, gender, whatever. The family is the archetypal group of belonging which binds us most closely. As people tend to identify race and ethnicity as inherited characteristics, these too form strong, close bonds of association, identity, and hence belonging.
It is our fear of exclusion that holds systems together and works as a powerful motivator of behaviour. Belonging will allow a young soldier to shoot and kill another young man for his Queen and country. Belonging will enable a parent to temporarily exclude a child from the family – on the naughty step – as a form of discipline. Joe Biden’s recent comment, that if a black person does not vote for him, they are not truly black, sought to keep black Americans in check, a clear echo of historic bondage and servitude to others.
As systemic coaches, when we observe human systems, we are reminded that belonging is not simple. Belonging is not optional: we cannot check-in and check-out of our belonging at will or by force. We always belong to our families, our countries of birth, our neighbours, and to numerous other systems. Even if we left the country of our birth or walked out on our family, we still belong. We also observe that systemic identity prioritises the group above the individual. It has a group conscience, creating blind spots where the true reasons for people’s actions stay hidden unless revealed through patient, loving and skilful discourse. Unskilled discourse serves only to bury motives ever deeper.
Understand belonging and exclusion and you understand why diversity is challenging.
The dark side of belonging
There is a dark side to belonging and diversity cannot be fully addressed without embracing this dark side. Belonging can make us do terrible things, sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously. We see this in unconscious bias. We are just starting to comprehend how unconscious bias informs many aspects of our lives. Through the process of navigating our belonging and all the opportunities and stresses it affords us, whoever we are, we all acquire specific ways of seeing the world that goes beyond our conscious awareness. It is not possible to avoid them and still belong.
We experience discrimination when we feel excluded from one group because we belong to another. At some point we have all experienced it, whether it was in the playground at school, the absent invite to a party, separate bathrooms or being passed over for promotion. Modern society and its laws seek to minimise discrimination, to push back against the innate tendency we have to treat the different differently, to protect one’s own over the other. In a society with many different groups, and with people who simultaneously identify as belonging to different groups, there are multiple values systems in play at any one time, some seen, and some unseen.
For many, perhaps most people, fully acknowledging, accepting and embracing the dark side of belonging is a step too far, because it has the consequence that they too may be perpetrators, they too may have some of the qualities they decry in others. We see this often in media commentators and so-called thought leaders, whose currency is forged in righteous indignation at others.
Understand, accept and embrace the dark side of belonging and you enter a space where the challenges of diversity can be understood, accepted, and embraced.
The authors of devastation can also be innocent
Embracing the dark side of belonging leads to realisation: the innocence of belonging is capable of outrageous violence. In Germany, during the war, people were able to do horrific things in perfectly good conscience. Yet if behaviour is judged only by appearance, without further inquiry, then the truth remains unspoken. Our conscience is a deep-seated and mostly unconscious experience of our innocence and guilt that directs our lives. It invites certain behaviours and dissuades others. The ancient survival pressures of the tribe are ever present.
Realise that violence can be perpetrated innocently and we realise that the challenges of diversity cannot be overcome by subjective judgments, for the innocence behind our judgments are as capable of perpetrating violence as the actions which they judge.
Belonging and the wider field
In the wider field of belonging, beyond the direct experience of the individual, we remain connected. Many of those reacting strongly to George Floyd’s killing have no direct personal experience of police brutality, yet they identify with those who have. Many of those who are expressing guilt and shame at the treatment of black people have not themselves directly hurt any black person, yet they feel and identify with those who have. This too is a familiar phenomenon, just as citizens of a nation may take pride or feel shame in their government’s actions, even though they have had no direct part in them.
Reach into the wider field and you find a resource far greater than the individual, than the immediate group or tribe; you reach into a space that binds us all.
How do we include the other?
You might then wonder if it is ever possible to transcend these patterns of belonging that support a homogenised world. Is it ever possible for the child of thieves to learn not to steal? Although it may not be possible to transcend our most significant belongings, there are ways to learn and imperfectly abide to new patterns, if we dare.
Embrace radical inclusion
Be brave and invoke radical inclusion. By radical inclusion, we mean the attitude that all voices and opinions, however challenging they are, have a meaning, a place, and a value. It is an essential tool in any conversation about diversity. All voices must be listened to without judgment. When we seek to silence others, we stand in judgement as if we are somehow superior to them. Such judgements are born of shame and insecurity with regards to our sense of belonging. To silence the voices and opinions of others excludes them, and displays the very attribute that diversity opposes.
Radical inclusion is challenging, no doubt. Yet anyone who wants to facilitate dialogue or teach or train others to understand diversity needs to embrace it if they are to avoid perpetuating what they are trying to end.
Listen to the perpetrator as well as the victim
When we silence marginalised voices, we silence the truth-tellers, we silence the voice of the system and it will bring us to a rude awakening, like the noxious fumes under the stairs. When we are courageous enough to acknowledge all the different voices in the system, we can garner a sense of all the different values in play, and we can identify what is needed for change. The voices of the perpetrator have the same value as the voices of the victims. If we listen carefully, we notice that the line between them often blurs.
Listening to all the voices, including those of the perpetrator, is hard. Yet if we refuse to do so, we become perpetrators ourselves.
Embrace conflict as well as harmony
Conflict is as much a part of diversity as harmony. Suppose you belong to football club and a church choir; both meet on Saturday afternoon to practice. Which do you choose? Whichever it is, your innocent loyalty to the one you choose will cause guilt towards the other. Guilt and innocent, conflict and harmony: diversity must include both.
And so, it is that conflicting systems of belonging can at times be uncomfortable, and yet it is this discomfort that forces us to grow personally, and collectively in our social and professional relationships. If we engage in our discomfort not merely with our minds, but also with our hearts, the conflicting systems of belonging can also yield alignment, resonance and safety. In this way, the child born to a family of thieves can see that her innocent loyalty to stealing puts her in conflict with her systems where theft is not a value – her friendship circle, her school, her community, humanity even. She can now choose not to steal.
Embracing conflict is uncomfortable, yet it is here that we find the learning, growth and change. To turn away from conflict is to turn away from diversity.
The authors are systemic coaches providing individual, couples and team coaching and holding workshops, including diversity training, to enhance professional performance and work-place wellbeing. All their coaching and training services can be delivered online. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org