Experiments in being an advocate for diversity and inclusion: what keeping quiet for a while has taught me

In most of the spaces I inhabited in Northern California, I had the privilege of being surrounded by very well-trained advocates for racial, class, gender, and a number of other forms of diversity and inclusion. The workshops, classes, community, and work events I frequented were excellently facilitated by people adept at leading the group through the setting of shared agreements. Once we had collectively affirmed those agreements, the facilitators and participants could lovingly but firmly call out — or rather, call in — any behavior that breached those agreements.

Even in situations where there were no explicit agreements in place, such as social gatherings, there was always someone more hip than I was to such matters who was willing to say something when anyone’s bias showed. In the rare moments when I did find I wanted to raise my own voice, usually online, I had people who could help me adjust my language before posting anything, and back me up once my words were out there.

These scenarios felt very safe and very comfortable. I benefited from the work of others; I could fully show up because I knew that what I shared would usually be received and held respectfully by the facilitator or the group itself, or that at the very least, someone else would intervene if anyone failed to check their privilege or veered into prejudiced territory, consciously or otherwise. And I trusted that my own missteps would be skillfully reflected back to me, giving me the opportunity to raise my own levels of awareness.

***

All that changed when I moved to Auckland. The only time I’ve been in contexts that involved substantial group agreements have been when I myself have initiated the process of establishing them, and they’ve often been abandoned by the groups in question shortly after we’ve “committed” to them. While I am usually not the only person who flinches at racist, sexist, homophobic, heteronormative, ableist (etc) comments, I am frequently the only person who speaks up.

Having had very little practice at being That Person, I really struggled to find that nearly-impossible balance of vulnerable, “real,” and passionate enough for people to pay attention, but not so “angry” that I made people uncomfortable, and not so personally invested in the outcome that I would burn myself out over time. In most cases, I wasn’t even consciously choosing to blurt something out, and I certainly didn’t have the benefit of time to carefully consider my words; they were often spontaneous reactions borne out of the realization that nobody else was going to say something, but for goodness sake, didn’t SOMEBODY need to?!

For years, I believed that my economic privilege meant that I have the responsibility to speak truth to power at every opportunity. Maybe that is true. Maybe it isn’t. The truth is probably lot more complicated than that.

And so I got riled up. I cried in meetings. I pushed too hard. I got a reputation. I cried at home. I got overwhelmed. I lost sleep. I kept at it. Until I couldn’t anymore.

Something happened at work — a workplace I did and still do adore, for the most part — that made much clearer the decision of whether or not to speak out… at least, in that particular context.

At the first meeting of a vaguely-defined Diversity & Inclusion Forum, I asked if there might be any support available for those of us fielding concerns from colleagues who didn’t want to go through the official channels. The answer was an emphatic NO.

It was made clear that nobody, myself included, was to serve in such a role, and I was told to stop immediately. I tried to explain that I had not CHOSEN to take on this role; people were coming to me because they didn’t trust the official channels, and I didn’t want to leave them without support. That said, without proper training or support for myself, I didn’t know how to avoid taking on or feeling somehow responsible for all the pain my colleagues were expressing to me. I knew about the danger of burnout, hence my request for support.

I firmly believed that people in need — the people coming to me — deserved welcoming ears and arms, especially if they had concerns with the official channels, or didn’t feel comfortable, say… going to their boss with concerns about their boss’s behavior, or going to the HR department when numerous requests to that same department had previously gone unanswered.

I appealed to the importance of acknowledging the impact of power dynamics, authority structures, and unconscious bias. I tried to explain how difficult it can be, especially for members of marginalized communities, to come to anyone at all for help, particularly if they feel their job might be at stake.

Whether those running the meeting genuinely couldn’t understand me, didn’t like what I was saying, didn’t like the way I was saying it, or something else entirely, they weren’t having any of it. They wanted to turn the conversation back to planning multi-cultural lunches and other celebrations. I gave up trying to make my case… in that context, at least.

After my in-person attempts failed, I pursued an email exchange, with similarly-limited success. Ultimately, the head of HR and the brand new Head of Diversity & Inclusion called me into a meeting (talk about a power imbalance!). Over Google Hangouts, they essentially asked me to tone it down if I chose to attend any future meetings of their Forum, as I was “making the majority of participants uncomfortable.”

This was devastating. I felt betrayed by the very system being set up to address the issues I cared so much about. I also felt very much alone, and STILL without the support I had been asking for. A few work friends told me that although they admired my courage, they warned me I’d better decide whether this was “a hill [I was] willing to die on,” and reminded me about a few former colleagues who had also been passionate advocates for similar issues… who were no longer with the company.

At the time, my ability to stay in New Zealand at all was connected to my job, so I found myself in a bind. Given the choice between potentially risking my visa by taking my cause further, I chose to bow out of the formal diversity and inclusion efforts at work altogether.

Instead, I set about finding a supportive community outside of work, and to seek out other forms of self care.

***

Those are some of the conditions which led me to walk through the doors of the Auckland Buddhist Centre. Between Buddhist practices (including meditation and the cultivation of lovingkindness toward myself and others) and a year of psychotherapy, I have been creating more space and choice around this perceived obligation that something “needs” to be said at every opportunity to build awareness about the impact of certain behavior, and that I am the person who needs to do it.

Throughout these explorations I saw the benefits of keeping quiet on issues of prejudice and/or bigotry. While my blood pressure would still rise every time my internal alarm bells started ringing, it was a huge relief to avoid completely the reactivity, defensiveness, “oppression olympics,” or downplaying that inevitably followed my attempts to draw attention to whatever insidious thing I had witnessed.

Throughout this period of relative outward silence, I have been working to better articulate to myself why I find these forms of justice so important, not just to me, but for the benefit of all. I have been studying more effective methods of communicating my experiences, feedback, and suggestions to people who may or may not be receptive to hearing them. I have identified a number of people who are modelling the the type of person I want to be, and best practices for the types of offerings I would like to contribute… to the institutions that I am a part of, and to the world as a whole.

Meanwhile, I have spent a lot of time getting to know my indignation. When it shows up, what it feels like in my body, what happens if I let it be rather than letting it take over, or worse, try to push it away. I’ve gotten more familiar with a sense of resentment, one that is connected to a story (only partially true, if at all) that I tell myself: “it’s not fair that I’m the one doing all the work, while the people in positions of power and authority don’t even realize they have work to do.”

An incident on a recent retreat, combined with the deep Brahma Viharas practice we were there to learn, uncovered new dimensions of grief and sadness, the likes of which I hadn’t connected with in some time. I grieved the absence of those allies I used to have everywhere who stuck their necks out on behalf of me and so many others. I grieved for having hidden that element of myself.

Other griefs came to visit. A visceral, intense homesickness, that missing of friends, family, and that particularly Norther-Californian cultural bubble, but mostly for the plants, animals, and landscapes amongst which I most consistently took refuge. A deep disappointment that my current refuges are still marred by the conditions of colonialism, patriarchy, whiteness, ignorance, arrogance. Throughout an entire Puja ceremony, all that grief flowed out of my body as tears.

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

***

Through that experience I’ve come to realize that I’ve let the pendulum swing a little too far in the direction of not saying anything at all, too far toward staying silent in the face of injustice. It feels a bit like a denying an important part of myself. There’s also a sense that I have dishonored my own integrity every time I chose to complain to someone not related to an issue that’s come up, rather than initiating some sort of direct conversation with the people involved.

Particularly at the Buddhist Centre, I wonder how many opportunities I’ve missed to help create the Sangha (spiritual community) I want to be a part of, by being it. Furthermore, I sense that I’ve been collecting (misinterpreting? unwittingly inflating? inventing?) so many examples of concerning behavior that they’re starting to tint my perception of what’s really going on. Is it a safe space to share my full self? Is it not? Is any place truly safe? Are these even the right questions to ask?

The questions I’ve been sitting with about my own motivations and behavior seem more fruitful to plumb: have I taken the Buddhist lessons (Be Equanimous / Cultivate Contentment / Speak Harmoniously) too far? At what cost? Have I fallen into the model-minority trap of “being a good Buddhist” in order to falsely prop up my own sense of goodness, of psychological safety? Have I prioritized a relatively comfortable silence around these issues to the point of selling out, letting myself and others down?

It’s clear that I’m being called to start talking more openly again about race and class and misogyny and colonialism etc etc etc, though I’m experimenting with doing it a little differently this time. More one-on-one conversations, and less embodying the stereotype of the Angry Woman of Color in group situations… though I still fall into that habit, and I still resent how damaging that stereotype, combined with its best friends, White Fragility and Tone Policing, can be to fostering healing and true connection within a diverse group.

While it’s been really lovely to have had conversations with Buddhist friends recently about my current struggles and intentions, this has not been without risk or consequence, either. I wonder if people will start pigeonholing me as “that diversity advocate” (as the head of HR at work had done) when in fact, there’s a lot more to me than that, even if it’s true that I often feel like that’s where I have to start to feel safe getting into the rest of it.

While several supporters have told me they’re glad I’m bringing energy to the inclusion work, far fewer have offered to join in, which does stoke those feelings of loneliness and of carrying a heavy burden alone.

I’ve also found the conversations I’ve had lately quite draining, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the bottled-up things waiting to come out! This is part of the reason I’ve decided to experiment with writing more; perhaps having something I can easily share, that people can read and respond to in their own time, will lead to more meaningful reflections on all sides in a way that having the conversation in real time cannot. I imagine communicating in writing will lessen the impact of being interrupted, dismissed, talked over, or reacted at in the moment, though who can say what the net impact may be of leaving my words open to the scrutiny of the internet.

There’s another possibility too: perhaps writing things out will mean that I feel less compelled to talk about them, creating more space for the conversations that can emerge next? Now that I’ve been rediscovering my voice on these matters at the Buddhist Centre, might I start speaking again at work? That feels a lot farther away from where I sit now, but still a lot more possible than it was two years ago.

I imagine I will still occasionally get riled up, cry in meetings, push too hard, get a reputation, cry at home, get overwhelmed, lose sleep. At the same time, the possibility of showing up differently feels exciting. I’m so curious to discover what ends up working best to both express what I am called to share, while also leaving enough spaciousness to keep me and my conversation partners engaged. Regardless of the format, I want to show up for these conversations, which feel so critical to our collective liberation. Will you join me?

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