by Aiden Tsen
Disclaimer: this article is about a repeated observation, not any single organisation or individual. I’ve said all of these things to multiple people
I’ve mentioned in multiple articles (that I can no longer pinpoint) that I give advice to a range of different organisations about talking about diversity.
My main claim to being able to do so is my lived experience as an Autistic, multiply LGBTQ+ person with a chronic illness that led to them dropping out of university. In addition, I do also have professional experience with the disability charity KEEN London (which I’ve written about before) and working as a teaching assistant in various schools around London.
Since I don’t have a dedicated post on this, I thought I’d write one! Not least because I’ve been having the same conversation with lots of different people.
Before I lay into anything, I want to start by saying that if you want to improve diversity in your organisation or the world at large, I appreciate that…
Your intentions are great
Wanting to improve the world in terms of diversity is always a good mark in my book. As someone who’s part of multiple historically excluded communities, I really appreciate it.
The problem with this is that intentions aren’t good enough.
Firstly, I believe that ideas and intentions that aren’t acted on are worth less than nothing. For an idea or thought to be worthwhile, it at least needs to be brought to the way you work in the future. If not, that’s just known as a waste of time.
Secondly, I’ve noticed that people often seem to think that so long as they have good intentions, that’s enough. It isn’t–good intentions implemented without understanding are often tangibly harmful. I fully agree with the proverb “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
This happens a lot of the time with autism. While the Autistic community (made up of Autistic people) generally prefers ‘Autistic person’ etc, some members of the autism community (includes family members and professionals) think ‘people with autism’ is more polite. The most common argument is: “Your autism doesn’t define you.”
My thoughts on it in two sentences:
- When people tell you you’re weird your whole life and that’s for a nameable reason, you tend to want to claim the term (this will come up in a post later on this week too)
- If you say that, all that really means is that you’re the one defining me by it
In terms of how to implement diversity non-tokenistically, firstly it’s important to talk about…
Communicating about them
Firstly, as a multiply Disabled person who’s faced a fair bit of discrimination, I don’t trust anyone who talks about disability without saying what their stake is. This applies to race and LGBTQ+ matters as well.
The reluctance of the people you want to serve to engage honestly is a sign you’re not doing what you want to be doing. And it’s not especially conducive to working towards that either.
It’s difficult. Disclosure of personal matters comes at a cost, which I’ve learned and continue to learn. Especially as a Disabled person, you struggle more by definition! So I’m not going to say people need to disclose everything. I don’t.
Secondly, if you know you’re imperfect (which we all are, myself included!), then you should own up to that. For instance, what steps you’re currently taking to improve.
Organisations also often forget to mention what they’ve done to improve in the past. A track record is important and adds context for what people should expect of you.
Lastly, phrasing. Consider:
"The workplace is full of middle-aged white guys, and we need to improve diversity."
That sounds like a box-ticking exercise. I don’t like sounding like a diversity quota intake, and I work in this space. I’m willing to bet other people don’t either.
A better way of phrasing this would be:
"The workplace was historically full of middle-aged white guys. We need to improve diversity not only because it's been shown that more diverse organisations are more successful, but because we appreciate talent comes from every background and want to support you."
Delivering on them
If you don’t have any insight into the problem you want to address from lived and/or professional experience, don’t implement your idea (or become attached to one!) until you gain some.
Equally, if your work isn’t informed by the lived experience of the individuals affected most, then you’ve got your priorities twisted.
For example, I think anyone who prioritises the views of the autism community over the Autistic community is deeply mistaken. Of course, family members and professionals are affected by autism. However, the person who’s affected the most is always the Autistic person. If you’re able to help us, then that’ll transfer onto wider parts of the community, and anything done for the community broadly should be done with us firmly in mind.
Even if you do have experience or follow those sources of information, you’ll get it wrong. However, you’ll get it especially wrong if you don’t.
By jumping in with your idea before doing proper research, what you’re probably doing is increasing the amount of harmful discourse and ‘information’ out there. Or even if the content itself isn’t harmful, often you’ll be detracting from better work that’s already out there. The latter case is formally known as ‘positive tangible and negative counterfactual impact’.
So do your research.
Then you’ve got to collect feedback and actually act on it to improve. And when there’s inevitably a delay in acting on it, you’ve got to say you’re working on it because otherwise, people might think you’re ignoring them.
The four gradations of the things I say to people when operating in the diversity and inclusion space, from least to most critical:
- “That sounds absolutely amazing, how can I get involved?”
- “It sounds like a good idea, can you implement it though?”
- “Unrestrained and uninformed good intentions”
If I say nothing, it’s because I don’t think it’s worth my time to say anything. I’m a busy person and there are lots of ideas out there, so I will just find another.
If I say #3, it’s because I want you to improve. It’s also because I think you’re missing the point. It’s not my job to help you find it unless you pay me, preferably financially and/or career-wise.
Search engines exist, as does money. This work is tiring, so you’ve got to make sure not to exploit the communities you want to help. Otherwise, you’re just contributing to the problem.
This is a topic that I address in my work often, so the tone is definitely different from my usual posts! It really isn’t meant to be a read, though I will say that if you feel exposed, that’s probably worth examining. Right now, I’m not up to discussing it beyond a very short text exchange for free.
I hope that it’s been an interesting read, and that it gives a bit more insight into what I do and how I approach my work!
If you liked this post and don’t already, please do consider subscribing to my website via email at aidentsen.com. I believe this work is important for a better future and want to reach and help as many people as possible, so any support is greatly appreciated. Regardless, thank you for reading and big love [bisexual colour hearts]
This post was originally published August 16, 2021.
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