From understanding identity to managing real people.
How to account for the plurality of our identities for the better.
I’m a cis-woman. I’m French, I’m European, I’m a world citizen. I am a Parisian at heart, a part-time Mumbaikar and a former Londoner. I stand for equality and fairness, for human rights and dignity. I’m trained in Philosophy & Ethics as well as in Social Innovation. I’m an entrepreneur, a creative mind and -hopefully- a game changer. And it also happens that I have what others have described as a “golden” or “milk chocolate-like” complexion.
My whole life, I have seen people try to put me into stereotyped boxes using aspects of my identity, like “woman”, “French” or “academic”, to judge my personality and abilities. And I have frankly enjoyed proving them wrong by constantly challenging myself to be in places where nobody was expecting me to be. However, being called “mixed-race”, “mixed-blood” or “mixed-background” always left me feeling quite uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with any kind of shame. I really like the color of my skin but it isn’t more meaningful to me than what it is: a physical feature. I have a medium dark complexion the same way I have curly brown hair, brown eyes, two arms and two functioning legs. Where some people see a heritage in the color of their skin, the proof that their identity finds its roots in a different land, I have no connection whatsoever with the African side of my family. Growing up, I drew my heritage from the history of the family I know and my African origin was never the most significant part of this storytelling. One might argue this is a shame but this is also who I am. It is absolutely impossible for me to pretend otherwise without simultaneously losing authenticity and disrespecting those who truly identify with African cultures.
In the realm of “fools”: identity disregard
In Identity and violence: the illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen underlines the complexity of our identities. As individuals, we belong to many “membership groups” that all represent fragments of our identity. The importance we give to certain sides of this multilayered identity over others relies partly on a conscious decision and partly on the context in which we evolve. For Sen, when it comes to identity, two pitfalls are to be avoided: “identity disregard” and the “assumption of singularity”.
Identity disregard consists in ignoring the way identity influences our decisions pretexting that individuals are first and foremost “self-loving […] rational agents”. More than giving an unrealistic depiction of what truly regulates human behaviours, this approach fails to address the different needs of a diversity of people. From a business perspective, it means ignoring that some collaborators are facing systemic discrimination and failing at efficiently providing them with the tools and platform they need to truly be included in the organisation.
Assuming singularity is also a questionable standpoint. Narrowing identity to a single feature such as race or gender means missing the opportunity to tap into the richness of one’s profile that, at an organisational level, brings more flexibility to the teams. Bluntly speaking, how can we expect employees to give their best at work if they feel undermined? You would be surprised to see how creative and innovative people can be if they feel they can tap into all aspects of their experience when working on a project. And the truth is we are getting more and more diverse. According to a Pew survey, in the US in 2017, the multiracial population was growing “three times faster than the rest of the country’s population”. Nothing new here: since in 2000, the Guardian announced that White people were to become a minority in the coming decades as inter racial unions were on the rise. In other words, the share of the population finding its roots in several cultural and ethnical backgrounds is increasing. And this is without accounting for religion, gender, social and economic background or sexual orientation.
More than demonstrating a lack of awareness and leading to missed opportunities, narrowing identities is a dangerous call to make. Sectarian violence relies on the idea that human beings are “one-dimensional creatures.” But nobody only identifies with one single aspect of their identity. How sad and boring would the world be if this was the case? If the lines were that clear and distinct, it would be nearly impossible to connect with people from other identification groups as we would have radically incompatible experiences of life. The reality is way more nuanced than that. We have different experiences but we also have common ones. And the very reason why we have the capacity to get along is because we have the ability to use this common ground to explore our differences and account for it. Reducing people to single identity traits by assigning them to exclusive groups only reinforces antagonisms and feeds hatred of the other by encouraging us to ignore what we have in common: humanity.
When discussing with some friends in the past few weeks, in the midst of the BLM movement, two words I have heard way too often are “yes but” followed by a wide range of justifications for what pretty much sounded like unconscious bias. But we need to accept the discomfort. It never feels good hearing that we have more or less consciously taken part in maintaining a discriminatory system. There is no pride in hearing that some people are killed in their sleep for having a different skin color, that others are shot for loving in a different way and that many are mutilated and sold for one chromosome difference in their genome. I wish I would not feel guilty whenever I look at a colored toddler in the street nowadays, wondering what kind of future is awaiting for the next generations. As a French privileged individual I feel this discomfort. As someone who constantly had to justify her skin color and cultural background, I understand the anger.
So what do we do now? First we check our privileges. Have we ever felt discriminated against? Are there some parts of our identity that people keep referring to and associating it with some stereotypically-pejorative traits? Do we feel safe in the public space? Or talking to the police? Second, we teach ourselves. As companies, we use available resources to better understand what it feels like being at the crossroads of identities in a moving world and we internally encourage our teams to do the same. Starting with creating space and opportunities for these discussions to happen through talks, activities or even using internal media to share resources on this matter. Last but not least, we learn to listen. Listening doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with. It means making space for different opinions to be expressed and be heard. It means giving yourself a chance to understand where the other is coming from and potentially finding a better way to address the issue that led you to have this discussion in the first place. When talking to someone who’s experience differs from yours, try to be open and force yourself not to reply straight away with justifications and oppositions. Ask “why” as much as you can and make sure to acknowledge the other’s feelings and experience: “I see where you are coming from”, “I understand this must be tough”, “how can I help?”.
At ila, we are proud to support companies in operating this cultural shift and accompanying their teams in becoming more flexible and inclusive as we believe corporations have their role to play in changing the way we perceive and accommodate each other’s identity. And we make sure that our company’s culture and internal processes reflect these values.
As a co-founder and a manager, I’m regularly checking in with myself. And I quickly arrived at the conclusion that I’m in a position where I can be an ally to the ones who are struggling way more than I do and ever will. I’m conscious that not everyone has the luxury to choose not to give too much importance to their skin color. The fact that I did just shows how privileged I am. But I also understand how important it is for all of us to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, we all are “mixed”. In the post Covid world, we will all need to take our responsibilities. As individuals, managers, leaders, company owners. Where will you stand?
By: Julie Sané-Pezet, Co-Founder at ila
As a multi-awarded social enterprise, our aim, at ila, is to champion a purpose-driven and socially aware workforce. Our innovative tailored programs and world-class advisory team have extensive experience working with HR professionals, leadership teams and employees to champion a diverse and gender equal culture in the workplace.
Visit ila at https://www.ilageneration.com/home to find out more about us, the work we do and how we can help you in taking the first step towards a new way of working.