I’ve been asked a lot why I feel the need to be so candid and vocal about diversity and inclusion, social justice, and other related topics.
While these questions sometimes stem from simple curiosity, I often sense hidden sentiments in how they are posed. Two main themes consistently emerge: irritation and fear.
The irritation typically comes from those who most benefit from our current status quo. These are the kinds of folks who recognize that injustices exist and enjoy envisioning a world in which everyone is equal and no one has to feel isolated or alone in their workplace.
These individuals often have great intentions but are usually unable (or unwilling) to accept that racism is not a topic that can be compartmentalized. They are happy identifying the problem but shy away from engaging in ongoing conversations about solutions outside of contexts that they themselves created. In other words, they are uncomfortable showing solidarity and reflecting on their actions on a day-to-day basis. And so, they wonder why I have to keep making their lives more complicated with my predilection for speaking up.
On the other hand, the fear usually comes from my peers: fellow BIPOC citizens who are trying to build lasting success within a complex and often exploitative capitalist society. (Some are likely shuddering at the very usage of the term ‘BIPOC,’ which is quickly becoming a staple of lip service). We recognize that being vocal about these topics is inherently risky. Others’ annoyance may lead to a misinterpretation of one’s intention; what is meant to be a constructive criticism can sometimes come across as troublemaking.
With that in mind, folks like me are used to biting our tongues for the sake of survival. Life is stressful enough as is without having to worry about losing one’s paycheck in the name of progress. The world has enough martyrs. Why not just let this one go?
I understand both of these perspectives well. For much of my career, I tried to embrace reticence by adopting a ‘pick your battles’ mentality. But that attitude is now gone.
In the pursuit of authenticity, I wanted to share why I’ve chosen to use my voice in this way.
FIRST: My identity as a human and a citizen is more important than my role as an employee or worker.
Please don’t get me wrong: little can match the satisfaction that comes from collaborating with my colleagues and utilizing my innate skills to bring a vision to life and make an impact on folks’ lives. But at the end of the day, no matter how passionate or eager to roll my sleeves up I am, the world is much larger and more complex than the work that I (or any of us) do. And the stakes within our country and our world are legitimately life-and-death for many, many, many people. I am privileged to be employed and embarking on my professional journey. It would be irresponsible — some may even say reprehensible — for me to simply focus on my to-do list when so many are so clearly suffering.
SECOND: What happens in the workplace can never be fully separated from what happens in the “real world.”
The pervasiveness of racial injustice and the hyperconnectivity of the modern world make it impossible for us to ever fully separate our professional interactions from our personal identities. And there is simply no denying the fact that when a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed Black man, or a white terrorist murders a host of AAPI civilians, our nonwhite colleagues are going to be affected. Compartmentalization is a luxury of those who are privileged enough to have their racial identity be the societal default. Those of us from underrepresented and marginalized communities live every second of our lives partially defined by the fact that we aren’t white. An interaction does not have to explicitly be about race for it to add to someone’s pain or reinforce subtle dynamics of inequality.
THIRD: I truly believe we have an opportunity to build a better society and culture.
Often folks stay silent about inequalities because discussing them can make one seem overly critical or negative. “We know it’s bad,” people think. “I’m exhausted from even thinking about how bad it is. Can’t we talk about something else for once?” Trust me, I get it. These can be painful and tiresome topics to consider. But the thing is… they don’t really have to be. As workers, we already know that there is deep satisfaction from being a part of something bigger than one’s self. We recognize that if we are intentional with our actions, play to our strengths, trust our teammates, and hold ourselves and those around us accountable, we can be successful. If we can embrace this attitude to advance our careers or ensure our company’s success, surely we can bring the same can-do spirit to building a world where everyone feels safe and welcome in their own skin.
FOURTH: Many people feel like I do…
… and there is power in numbers! I don’t think my voice matters more than anyone else’s, but I wholeheartedly believe that everybody’s voice is important. I want to live in a world where we actively participate in constructive conversations about how we can make labor and life more equitable and enjoyable for all. Instead of just imagining such a reality, I can choose to live it. Hopefully in doing so I can inspire introspection, encourage others to join the conversation, and ensure that those who feel unsupported by their employers or immediate circle know that their frustrations are not in isolation.
FIFTH: I know my worth and I am unafraid of challenges.
Some think that by advocating for more proactive and ongoing support for workers of color I am jeopardizing my career — that I will be overlooked for opportunities by folks who are scared off by my candor. (My mother’s a member of this camp!) This was one of the main reasons I used to be worried about speaking up. While I still recognize the risk, I am no longer concerned. For one, I know the value I bring to any organization with my prowess, perspective, and passion. I also know that the people I want to work with share my vision of a better world — not just in the abstract, but as part of their everyday practice. If any sentiments I express make someone not want to work with me, I likely don’t want to work with them anyway. Most importantly, I know if I keep living by my values and doing my best every day, I will always be able to surmount any obstacles that arise along my path.
I wish I had a perfect way to conclude this piece — one flawless sentence that could summarize everything I think and feel about all of this. Truth is, I’m going with my gut. And it isn’t without hesitation — I’m quite wary about being pigeonholed as ‘the diversity guy.’ (I suppose I’ll have to ideate on what else to discuss here to balance it out!)
But I’ll keep using my voice however I can. I hope you will too.