Inclusion Challenges: Respectability Politics

three people of different identity groups Photo by Keira Burton on

DEI, or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work is growing in its ‘popularity’ for staffed positions and strategic prioritization in workplaces. It is very possible that over the past few years, you have gone from participating in only required discrimination and harassment trainings, to sensitivity trainings, and possibly now more training and development around what it might mean to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. If not, it is likely you’ve seen or heard concerns about how to make that more prevalent in organizations.

Often when I hear conversations about inclusion, it’s meant as a proxy for a vibe like “being able to show up as your whole self at work”. I know for myself that comes with an asterisk, like automatic fine print that appears for all the things that, in my mind, are ‘obviously’ not appropriate to even consider showing up as. I have wrestled with questions like:

  • When is it appropriate to talk about or reference my queerness or queer culture? Do straight people know queer folks think there is a straight culture? Is culture around sexual orientation a slippery slope because it may fall into feelings of harassment or discrimination?
  • Would folks feel comfortable speaking about other romantic partners they may have as a part of their life? Am I complicit in privileging monogamy above all other relationship models in forcing people to choose how they represent their significant and/or committed relationships?
  • To what extent can I express my emotions and feelings about a topic without coming across as sensationalist or hyper-fixated? Am I downplaying my own reality and lived experience in order to better fit in? Are others working as hard as I am to reconcile when to choose efficacy over authenticity?

Often, I feel that we talk about inclusion in a maybe over-simplified way. We say we are making a space inclusive by allowing people to keep their nose ring in, or to wear a hoodie to a meeting. We’re being inclusive by using gender neutral language about partners, or letting people know they can bring a +1… in case they’re single. We’re being inclusive by remembering to ask the people of color at the table who are noticeably staying quiet on a given topic what they think about an issue. This are all good things to do, and help to create an invitation, but is it enough to claim inclusion as a practiced value?

Culture Traps

I’ve written a bit here before about some traps of white dominant or white supremacy culture (did we stop calling it that because it made people uncomfortable?). To me, the push towards emotional intelligence as business skill can be one of these traps (written about here), and I wonder and worry the extent to which the same can be true of inclusivity as a spacial norm or policy. As with emotional intelligence, when used as a trap it privileges white supremacy culture, but that doesn’t mean that people who are white are necessarily free of being harmed by it.

I want to clarify here why I’m persisting with the use of the term ‘supremacy’ rather than dominant. Dominance is both an assertion of power, and conveys a sense of having some kind of majority rule. The dictionary offers words like “most important, powerful, or influential.” It leaves out an assumption of correctness and merit. For supremacy, we find definitions like “the state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status.”

To me this is an important difference because white supremacy culture is not only referring to the dominance of these norms within our organizations and institutions, but it also notes that there is a sentiment that they are objectively more correct. Often when we are invited to think that it’s “only common sense” to respond in one way rather than another, there’s a good chance we are recognizing not just a dominant cultural assumption, but a supremacist cultural assumption.

Photo by from Pexels

What I’d like to offer here is that groups can actively promote inclusivity or reinforce exclusivity in their culture, norms, and policies. In professional spaces, this is largely informed by what we think professionalism is. In the case of emotional intelligence in the workplace, we may see overt conflict as unprofessional because it might decrease group harmony and slow productivity. Those are cultural values tied to professionalism, not a fixed definition of what ‘work’ means. For others, seeking to reduce conflict and tension at all points may feel akin to erasure where it is impossible for feelings or frustration to be seen, heard, or addressed. Unsurprisingly, this too may lead to decreased productivity, but in this orientation, the onus for repair is on the person having hard feelings and seeking disruption of the status quo. The linked piece, Yoga and Self Leadership: Why Corporate Tools Won’t Help Us, talks more about how this pushes the person already doing emotional labor to take on extra emotional labor in order to appropriately navigate their challenge in a way that feels safe to the group or individual, often playing to white comfort.

To me, this is strongly related to conversations of equity, as it’s instances where people are trying to exist beyond the constraints of white supremacy culture that lead to these challenges. This culture is designed to privilege people and groups and marginalized identities the least, so while there’s an incentive to violate the norms for personal authenticity and sense of freedom, there are often micropunishments and other consequences for doing so.

This is one demonstration of how individuals can suffer for trying to exist as though they are operating in an inclusive space.

Shields of Respectability

So many don’t. Folks from many cultures and backgrounds, including many white people, construct professional identities and personas that fit into a particular culture to accomplish their goals. We fall into the politics of respectability, where we earn influence and favor based on how well we embody, navigate, and execute on white supremacy culture. This relates to white supremacy culture norms, but also plays into gender performance, manner of dress, style of speech, what we value in our free time, how we spend our money, how we engage in relationships, plan our family, align politically, and on and on.

The more carefully your persona and professional identity is constructed, the more exhausting this work can be. Often, for people of marginalized identities to “beat the odds” means to have learned how to do this well. In the article “Death by a thousand cuts: The health implications of black respectability politics”, Lee and Hicken (2017) introduce respectability politics this way

 the politics of these behaviors – or the “politics of respectability” – involve the regulation of individual behavior to public presentation based on the strong desire to refute negative racial stereotypes and “…presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards” (Smith 2013).

The idea of creating an inclusive space, team, or culture is not possible so long as it’s felt that these kind of politics need to be played to garner basic respect and legitimacy. Since we are in the midst of the COVID public health crisis, and a reckoning of the public health crises regarding gun control and police brutality, it seems worth noting that the rest of their article is focused on the health costs of employing the vigilance required to engage in respectability politics. Lee & Hicken focuses on the experience of Black individuals, but I think it is key to point out that, as before, no one is fully exempt from these norms. While white and lighter people may have the privilege of being seen as representing only themselves rather than being representative of their racial group some how, the scales of meritocracy are used to judge people broadly. The meaning and attribution is what differs based on positional and identity privileges.

Their chief findings in this article are that:

vigilant thoughts and behaviors are associated with poor self-reported health and greater risk of chronic disease and depressive symptoms. Our results suggest that engaging in behaviors that have been linked to the narrative of Black respectability politics can have important and possibly enduring health consequences for all who are forced or who choose to utilize them.

Lee & Hicken, 2017

The stress response causing these chronic conditions is the same that can be soothed through practices of restorative yoga (check out Dr. Gail Parker’s Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma), mindfulness, and other practices that help to calm the parasympathetic nervous system and adrenal response. Unfortunately, secondary exposure to trauma, discrimination, and harassment can also reinforce the need for a vigilance response. For every healing practice a Black or other marginalized person might partake in, there are nearly countless secondary inputs that reinforce that it is not okay to show up as you are. As a personal example, deciding where to get my COVID vaccine was in part based on how many potentially racially targeted risks I would expose myself to by having to drive further from the city. For those that work to resist self-suppression and chronic vigilance, they are effectively forced to choose the fight response in advance, recognizing that how their ‘fight’ shows up also must be regulated within the bounds of acceptability, but authentic enough to feel they are not giving a piece of themselves up.

That your Black and marginalized peers are exhausted is not just a saying.

Assimilationist Threats

It’s important to understand here that assimilationist views that value respectability politics can be taken to be a direct public health risk based on the above. Assimilating into respectability politics here would assert that not only is it important to engage in these vigilant behaviors, but that in fact those behaviors may improve upon how you would otherwise show up in these arenas, or the world at large. Not only does this force internalized racism (and other internalized oppressions), but it may also link to developing chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression.

To create a world where we are all able to live our own lives authentically, inclusive of others, and in ways where we can equitably belong, work must be put in by those positioned to restructure the institutions and containers we exist in. Each time leadership is reactive to accumulated harms experienced by an identity group, this represents the perpetuated feelings of discomfort, of a struggle to feel heard and respected, and in many cases, the physical harm that may be taken on in order to try to exist and contribute in those spaces.

Yes, I hope everyone who feels pushed to the margins can access yoga, mindfulness and other healing practices to help mitigate the cumulative effects of microaggressions, micropunishments, and vigilant coping, but this can’t be the solution.

Note: I wrestled a lot with the language of ‘inclusion’ in this piece and did some pulse checking on my instincts with this piece by Dr. Cynthia Alease Smith: “Inclusivity, Inclusive and Inclusion: The Paradoxical Framework of Simultaneous Reality and Fantasy.”