I spent most of last week at the 27th annual Forum on Workplace Inclusion in Minneapolis. “Making Waves” was the theme, and it was perfect.
Over the past 40 years, making waves is something diversity hasn’t done much of. A few ripples here and there maybe, but for the most part, diversity and inclusion have been doing what Forum keynote speaker and NPR journalist Maria Hinojosa very eloquently described as the American cha-cha — a few steps forward, a few steps back.
I rolled my eyes when she said it, nodding my head along with most of the room. But now I think I may have been prematurely rude about the slow and not at all steady nature of progress in diversity. Perhaps it was my fatigue talking. The constant need to sigh deeply in mild but contemptuous disgust — when I’m not rolling my eyes at the repetitive nature of diversity discussions — to cry out in anger and frustration or to just stare like a deer in the face of oncoming headlights.
Why did I suddenly have a change of heart? What convinced me that there may be hope in the slow, tortoise like progress toward equity and fairness in the workplace and in society at large? Three things.
One, what choice do I have? What choice does any of us — women, minorities, concerned white men, anyone who is tired of a biased, inequitable status quo — have? The more agile thinkers, the more consciously aware, those of us who embrace new and different without fear — we’re painfully aware of how fast the world is changing and the desperate need to change with it if we’re to not just survive but thrive. So, again, what choice do we have? Slow or not, the push behind diversity and inclusion is really the only game in town we should all be committed to playing — no matter how many extra innings it takes to win.
Two, Shonda Rhimes. This second reason actually has two parts. One, Rhimes gave a speech recently; she was among the honorees at the Human Rights Campaign’s Gala in Los Angeles, and she said she hates it when people talk about her success diversifying TV. It’s not about diversity, she said, which sounds rare or out of the ordinary, it’s about making TV look normal. “I’m normalizing TV,” she said. “I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary.”
The second part of my second reason was last week’s episode of Rhimes’ hit show “Scandal.” In it, Abby Whelan’s character, played by Darby Stanchfield, gave a gripping monologue to her TV boyfriend Leo. Leo had gotten himself into a sexually explicit pickle, from which he needed Olivia Pope’s help to get out of. Abby was writing her letter of resignation. He objected, saying it was him with the problem, not her. She corrected him. What you do affects me, she said.
She was in a powerful position as press secretary for the white house. That did not, however, exempt her from the double standards and enhanced personal scrutiny women in power are subjected to. She told him her platform wasn’t strong enough to stop people from endlessly mentioning him in every article about her, as though her existence was validated by having a powerful man love her. His love essentially gave her more worth, thus, when he went down, through no fault of her own, she would too. Even if you don’t watch the show, try and watch that one scene. It’s eye opening as far as gender issues are concerned.
Three, I saw a headline that read: “Black man found hanging from tree in Mississippi.” I couldn’t bring myself to read more. It’s 2015. I figure that headline pretty much said it all.
So, no matter how tired I am of doing the American cha-cha, no matter how silly I think it is that so many of those in power refuse to accept that people should be judged individually on character and performance rather than appearance or gender, I know I have to keep going.
I have to keep going, trying, slowly and steadily making progress, until headlines about black men hanging from trees are history, until Shonda Rhimes is judged solely for her fabulous storytelling ability, until making waves is something that happens on a beach, not at a diversity conference.