Identity is dynamic – what matters is what matters to us

Who am I? At first blush identity seems straightforward. There is some set of characteristics, both inherent and learned, both chosen and given, which defines my identity. Identity seems to come from within. To understand identity, however, we also need to look out, to the environment.

When I lived in Alabama, I was a Northerner. Now that I live in Germany, I am an English speaker. Previous to living in these two contexts, these aspects of my identity were not particularly salient because it was normative to be a Northerner or an English speaker. Moving to these new environments prompted me to reconsider my identity.

Mariann Märtsin has put forward the notion that when we undergo a life transition such as moving to a new place, we are driven to make sense of it and this includes adapting our sense of self to incorporate our new relationship to those around us. To understand identity, then, we need to appreciate that although it feels constant – I am me, I was me and I will continue to be me – identity is something we are creating and recreating all the time. Aspects of ourselves may always have been with us, like my Northern-ness, and yet it can sometimes take something outside of us to trigger our awareness of them.

That identity is constructed and that such efforts at construction take place as the result of life events, should influence how we do our diversity and inclusion work. For example, in my case, this has involved an awakening to my privilege in the US as a Northerner and in the world as a native speaker of English. As such my advocacy can seem suspect, inauthentic, patronizing or self-serving. My presence alone can stimulate feelings of being one down. I need to be conscious of how who I am can stand in the way of my being a catalyst for people forming more empowering personal narratives and claiming the full richness of their identities. This mindfulness around identity being constructed and relational is the diversity dividend.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Identity is dynamic – what matters is what matters to us

Inclusive leadership starts with self-leadership

In my very first post on The Diversity Dividend, I talked about how critical it is to be aware that diversity is personal, to understand that it is about each of us and who we are, as well as being about others. What I didn’t talk about there was that how we act on this knowledge is also vital. For just as we can recognize the diversity within our families, teams and classrooms without taking steps to build an inclusive environment that allows everyone present to thrive, we can also see diversity in ourselves without embracing or validating it.

In part this is because awareness is often nothing more than registering that something is present. This noticing can be relatively free from judgment. For example, compare “I smell something” — awareness — with “Mmm, what is that delicious aroma?” or “Eew, what stinks?” — evaluation. Similarly, when we become aware of multiple aspects of our identities, we likely also decide which identities make us proud, “Mmm,” and which we are more likely be reticent about sharing with others, “Eew.” Therefore, although we most often talk about diversity awareness in terms of its positive impact, noticing some characteristic or feature about ourselves (or others) does not commit us to affirming or celebrating it or to contemplating how we can leverage it to produce more effective performance. To get there, we need to think in terms of inclusion.

So imagine the self as a meeting. The various parts of you show up and the meeting is therefore quite diverse. But is it inclusive? Only if the environment is one where the barriers to contributing are low, encouragement to participate is high and this holds across the board. Further, the meeting of the self needs to be structured such that different approaches are valued rather than stigmatized. In addition, these approaches are supported not to be nice or as a form of tokenism, but rather because they have qualities that all the meeting’s attendees deem valid.

Both diversity and inclusion need to get personal. We need to acknowledge our multi-faceted identities, the “Mmm’s” and the “Eew’s,” the gifts and the challenges. If we find new information threatening, we can endeavor to stay open, curious and appreciative, rather than trying to suppress or reject the knowledge of our personal diversities. We can treat ourselves with compassion, celebrating positive steps and progress made, rather than giving into the pressures of comparison and conformity. Having established an inclusive atmosphere in our internal worlds, this self-leadership skillset can be transferred to understanding and honoring others in our external world. This is the diversity dividend.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Inclusive leadership starts with self-leadership

Privilege, or, when you look right, you can get things wrong

In 2012 I moved to Germany seeking a complete change of scene through immersion in a new language and culture. What it took me a while to grasp was that due to one aspect of my identity – my physical appearance – I was being treated differently from your average newly arrived immigrant.

Sure, it helped that my accent isn’t particularly strong and that I am good at filling the blanks in conversation from a previous career working with individuals with language disabilities. But the bottom line is that because I look right, I’m allowed to get things wrong. People here don’t typically pause to wonder if I might be a competent speaker of German. Instead, if they think about it at all, they may wonder why someone with such looks, I have German heritage on both sides of my family, doesn’t express herself more fluently and doesn’t always appear to understand what’s being said to her.

Something I had no part in, the genetic mixing that created my appearance, means I can pretty much take it for granted that people will speak German with me. Furthermore, I can usually expect patience and understanding if I stumble and stutter and the native speakers I encounter are mostly willing to persevere in conversing with me in spite of the challenges.

Why is this a story about diversity? Because diversity encompasses privilege and this is a story about privilege. My fitting the mold physically means that on sight and without any action on my part, my status is assumed to be that of “German speaker.” This presumption means that I don’t have to battle to be recognized as having the ability, or the right, to speak. Indeed, it requires very little from me to maintain this first impression of competence.

Because I didn’t anticipate enjoying a privileged status, I have had to learn not to take it personally when I am treated differently from other non-native speakers with the same or greater command of German, as this frequently says more about the beliefs of my conversational partners than it does about me. Thus, although I can feel proud of managing an entire interaction without using English, I must always be aware that the opportunity to do so may in large part be due to the positive bias my looks engender in those with whom I come into contact.

This heightened awareness of my privilege, and its connection to an aspect of my identity outside of my control (i.e., something unearned), has triggered reflection upon and discomfort with how qualities such as skin, hair or eye color, gender or clothing style can be crucial to how we judge worthiness. When possession of certain attributes makes it a certainty that we get a place at the starting line and exhibiting others means we never get to compete at all, we all lose. Some highly adept individuals get overlooked and can never contribute. Meanwhile, those who are selected miss the chance to test their abilities to the utmost on a level playing field. To change our approach to one where we go beyond surface characteristics such as someone “looking the part” and base decisions upon genuine appraisals of competence based on talents allows us to reap the diversity dividend.

Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Privilege, or, when you look right, you can get things wrong