We partner teams and organisations to have the conversations that matter, to create cultures of inclusion that benefit everyone. The first steps in this work are to clarify why inclusion is mission critical to purpose, and to begin building the psychological safety necessary for authentic engagement and participation.
What do we need to unlearn to unlock belonging?
1. We need to unlearn the tendency of turning away from difference, and instead practice non-judgemental curiosity.
2. We need to unlearn the tendency to deny ‘Diversity Discomfort’, and normalise it.
3. We need to unlearn the tendency to please those in power and uphold the status quo, instead of naming what we notice.
I’m really thrilled to have this time with you now, and I’ve titled my talk ‘what we need to unlearn to unlock belonging’, and really, I’m hoping this will be a little bit of a personal sharing with you of the things that I’ve learned, the things that I know, from living quite a lot of my life as a brown person in a white world.
I want to start by taking you back with me to the 23rd of February 2017. I was on my way to visit a supervising psychotherapist, because I was doing a course and I needed someone to supervise me. She had sent me quite detailed instructions in advance of how to get up to her therapy rooms… because you had to arrive and park in a certain place, and then you needed to walk up some particular stairs, up to a front garden, and then she expected me to wait in this area of her front garden before the session… and because when you don’t always necessarily feel that you belong, you want to get it completely right, I was being careful to do what I had been told.
So I was pretty shocked when I found somebody shouting at me from the house and saying, “Hey, what are you doing there?” And I had to say, “um… I think I’m your next client?”
She was older than me, she was more professionally experienced than me, and she was white. She had more power than me in this new relationship that was beginning. So we never spoke about it. I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, but if I’m really honest, I was pretty keen to get out of the discomfort myself.
Now I want to fast forward – sorry, I was hoping I wouldn’t actually get upset, but… never mind… fast forward 3 years, 3 months, and one day, and the videos of George Flloyd being murdered circulate around the globe, and I wake up to find so many people articulating what it’s like to be a minority in a majority space and I was, (Pffffffff), completely shocked by it. It felt like memories of racially charged experienced came flooding back into my mind like PTSD for the shell-shocked, these memories still had this visceral power to move me, and I had no idea where they were coming from. My wife, who’s here today, is white, and she was saying, “what’s going on?” And I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t speak.
And this talk is not meant to be about big, dramatic acts of racism, and it’s not even meant to be about the micro-aggressions that leak out when people hold deeply-seated prejudicial beliefs, but I want to share a little bit about what I’ve seen and observed about how we’re socially conditioned to keep power in its place and maintain the status quo.
And the starting point for me for this talk, now actually almost 2 years ago, was thinking about the story of 'The Emperor’s New Clothes'. There was something in it which was resonating for me so powerfully, and I think probably I could summarise it by saying that I did kind of political reading of it. (I used to be an English teacher so maybe that’s not that surprising… and maybe it’s helpful because sometimes it’s good to have a story to hang things on.)
So if you don’t know the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s about a vain leader - and we know lots of those - who is obviously insecure in his position, so he’s looking for beautiful clothes to cover his nakedness, to cover his insecurity. And that makes him vulnerable to be duped, to be tricked, by fraudsters who arrive saying that they have the most (beautiful) cloth that anyone has ever seen. But interestingly, this cloth also has the ability to sort out those who are competent at their jobs, and those who aren’t. A really interesting fact of the story, I think.
And so he doesn’t want to admit that he can’t see this beautiful cloth, because he’s insecure, because he’s at the top of a hierarchy, and when you’re in a hierarchy, you live by the sword, you die by the sword, everybody is insecure. So he pretends that he can see the cloth, as do his courtiers, those around him. And I realised, wow, that’s… of course they’re going along with this because their privilege is dependent on their proximity to power, so they’re not going to admit that they can’t see the cloth. And if you know the story well, you get to the end, and it takes a small boy – and in my kind of political reading of it, I’m thinking, this is the one character who’s not invested in the status quo, he doesn’t realise he benefits from the status quo, so he goes, ‘But he’s not wearing any clothes?’ And he points out what everybody else knew, but nobody was saying.
And I started off by thinking to myself, ‘Ah, it’s about the boy’… how do we become more like that boy and able to name and say what we see, but actually as I’ve worked my way towards getting there I’ve realised, the only way to the boy is realising that we’re also the emperor: that we all carry this insecurity from being within hierarchical, unfair social structures that mean that we all collude in the status quo.
So there are three points that I want to share with you out of this, that I think I’ve noticed and that I think we need to unlearn:
The first of which is that I think we need to unlearn this tendency to turn away from difference.
I actually grew up in a really multi-ethnic part of London, and I used to go on the tube a lot. And my favourite thing about going on the tube was people watching. Noticing the diversity all around me. I loved the fact that every shape and size, every colour, every culture, young people, old people… rich people, poor people, are sitting with you on the tube. And yet somehow, nobody looks at anybody else. Nobody makes eye-contact. And in those days, it was before smart phones, people would read newspapers, people would read books, people would have ‘walkmans’ in or ‘diskmans’ in, ah, they’d even look at the floor or close their eyes over making contact with the people around them. And the only exception to that would be really young children. And they might be in a buggy, they would be with their carer, and they would follow their curiosity and look at whatever interested them. And my favourite times on the tube would be when there was a 2-year-old sitting opposite me, and they would look at me, and I would make a face, and they would be like, “oh my gosh! Somebody’s connecting with me! Oh my gosh!” And we’d make faces… and there would be these secret little moments of connection.
And I found myself thinking, “Why is it okay for these children to look around and make eye contact and notice, and not for anybody else?” And then I realised that it’s because they don’t realise that visible differences carry social meaning. That actually, for the rest of us, we get burned. We realise that actually, the way that people look can be interpreted as “better-than / worse than”… we have learned to associate attention with judgement. And for these children, their noticing was uncomplicated by evaluating, they were just practicing non-judgemental curiosity.
And that’s the first thing I’d like to say that we need to learn, we need to unlearn the turning away from difference, and we need to turn towards this practicing again of non-judgemental curiosity.
The second thing I think we need to unlearn is we need to unlearn this tendency to deny what I’m going to call ‘Diversity Discomfort’. Because without prolonged proximity the unfamiliar scares us. And actually that is normal! We need to re-normalise that. We need to say, everybody feels like that. That’s why when we go to parties or big social venues we gravitate to people who are like us in some way, there’s something similar, and it may not be to do with ethnicity, it may be to do with class, it may be to do with education, it may be to do with, um, a whole set of identities, but that is normal.
And when I lived in this city that I mentioned before, where there were not many black people, one of my children was so young, and I remember a black person walking past us in the street, and he hugged me tightly and he went, “I don’t like that man daddy… He’s blue.” And I thought, gosh – he hasn’t even learnt his colours yet - but he’s learnt to notice his diversity discomfort.
And, the problem is, if we don’t acknowledge that, if we don’t acknowledge that discomfort then we make it really difficult for people in the minority. Because it’s like The Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation, they are seeing something, they know it, they can feel it… and actually so can everybody, but everybody else is pretending that they can’t. And that’s the problem with the colour-blind idea, it denies diversity discomfort. And actually I spend time often talking with individuals or groups talking about diversity, and if in the beginning session I say, ‘How are we feeling coming towards this?”, and somebody says something like, I’m really nervous! I’m like, thank God! Because you’re naming what everybody is feeling. And if you’re not naming it, you’re loading all the weight of responsibility for bringing it up onto the person who’s going to find it hardest in the room to talk about it.
So that’s the second thing. We need to get over denying our diversity discomfort, and normalise it. And the other thing I want to say about that is that, again, that we need to create containers that are safe for people to surface difference. And if anybody is denying the discomfort, it’s not a safe container.
And the third thing that I want to talk about is the fact that we need to unlearn this tendency to please those in power instead of saying what we see. And this is where we land with the little boy that we all celebrate at the end of the story.
And I want to take a minute to zoom into a specific situation that somebody told me a couple of years ago, before Covid, before the murder of George Flloyd. And she was a very educated, articulate, successful, professional woman who had gone along to a conference, and she arrived and she thought, ‘I think I’m the only person of colour in this space’. And it was a big conference, and she made her way down to the front row, and she actually sat pretty much in the middle of the front row of the entire conference, and there was a row of white men sitting on the stage in front of her, who were the hosts. And as the conference began she said the hosts invited the delegates to please turn to the person next to you and just, you know, introduce yourself and say what you’d like to get out of the experience. And in that moment, the person to her left and the person to her right turned the other way and started having a conversation. And as she was telling me about this, she was quite upset about it, and she wasn’t complaining, she wasn’t moaning, she was just trying to contextualise that she’d had a bit of a week. And I thought to myself, how sad that in that moment these two white men – as it turned out, white men get a lot of stick, I’m not trying to beat the white men stick – but they were sitting next to somebody who’s got an individual and generational set of experiences of exclusion, and yet they both turned in the other direction. And I thought, how I wish that that story was the other way round: that both of those men had turned to her and gone, here’s somebody different from me, with a different perspective, talking to this person might enrich my life, enrich my worldview, I want this opportunity, and had the awkwardness of having to… you know, fight for her.
She then said she started waving at the organisers at the front, trying to get their attention to say, I’ve got no one to speak to, could you intervene? And she said they just ignored her.
And my guess is that what was going on in that moment is not that they were hugely callous or evil people, but that this racially charged situation going on in the front row was just enough in the periphery of their vision for them to deny it. For them to deny the discomfort that, ‘what does that mean? This is going to cause a scene? Oh, this is a bit awkward. This could ruin my flow. And it gives the plausible deniability to think I can’t quite notice, it’s not quite my problem.
And the third thing is that she didn’t feel that she could interrupt the people either sider of her, and I wonder if the men on the stage felt that they couldn’t come down and interrupt them either. They were having their little ‘pally time’, they were having their little meet and greet session. And we’ve learned not to disturb those with privilege and power and instead choose not to say what we see.
So to sum-up what I’d like to say is that I think we need to unlearn these behaviours because until we do there are going to be so many people in our society who feel that they’re invited to the party and yet they’re locked out. And until we can invite them, we miss out on what they notice, we miss out on what everyone can contribute, to create the sort of communities and organisations that we need for the world to thrive.