A Few Steps Further

I was pleased to hear from my friend Austin that he felt inspired (or perhaps compelled is the right word) by a story I told recently, “Miles to Go Before We Sleep”, to write on the subject of diversity and inclusion in the Air Force and defense innovation community. His piece, “Path Before I Rest”, did a wonderful job of continuing down the path I had started on, and took its own turns into questions of inclusion and diversity through Austin’s eyes. I will now meander a few steps further down this path.

One of our values at Agitare is to “Demand inclusivity”. This value is rooted in the ideas that

  1. Diversity is an organizational and societal strength which increases systemic resiliency
  2. How accessible and effective we are is modulated by our level of representation to those who look at us from both outside and inside
  3. Inclusion is a moral imperative
  4. Inequity is a societal and organizational illness

Thus, an organization that pursues diversity, inclusion, and equity will be on the right side of history, with the added bonus of increased creativity and enhanced innovative capacity. 

Part of the reason I think we need to “demand inclusivity” is because I acknowledge that we are not there yet, and the default societal settings won’t get us there–not in our society, our government, our department, branch, or organization. I believe that systemic racism has existed in the United States since its establishment. Though morphing at times to mask its true function, and perhaps sometimes even being propagated unwittingly by those privileged enough to be blind to its agents and impacts, this system has continuously served as an effective interlocking web of impediments, obstacles, and controls–tangible and intangible–that prevent equal effort from resulting in equal reward, making a pure, colorblind meritocracy impossible. 

For me personally, the acknowledgment of such a system came from reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which taught me some stark historical and ongoing societal factors that I had grown up privileged enough to be ignorant of, and opened my eyes to the fact that the Black experience in America is something that my white, middle-class upbringing does not equip me to either fully understand or speak to with authority or objectivity. In fact, my position, identity, and experience in some ways undermine both my capacity and my standing to speak with authority to such issues. That said, I feel there is good in attempting to be the best ally that I can in this ongoing fight, because silence is support, and defensiveness–is worse. Though the facts of these matters can feel painful and provoke unhelpful reflexive reactions in those of us being told we have not entirely earned our privilege, it is important that we not allow such reflexes to get in the way of progress. 

As I tell my 13-year-old son all the time, “Just because you have a response doesn’t mean it is worth giving”. 

In my original piece at the start of this slow-motion correspondence with Austin, I describe how I watched an exchange between an Air Force senior enlisted leader and a Black Airman on Facebook that illustrated clearly to me how a White leader, operating from positions of advantage, of privilege and authority can have the capacity, confidence, and permission to effectively silence the lived experience of those whose experience is most necessary for us to engage in the difficult task of sense-making and move forward. The White leader in this instance was preaching from a place having already concluded that white privilege and systemic racism against people of color were myths, that therefore racism against Whites was of equal or even greater concern, and he was not interested in allowing the narrative of this Airman to contradict his fixed worldview. The Airman ended up departing the entire facebook group, having been drowned out, bullied, and intimidated by someone wielding more power than they ought to ever have been granted. The leader in this case was exercising belief in the way that James Carse describes it–as the point at which thought ceases and all new information becomes subordinate to the belief or is refused entry. 

In Finite and Infinite Games, Carse presents this definition of evil: 

Evil is the termination of infinite play. It is infinite play coming to an end in unheard silence. Unheard silence is not the loss of the player’s voice, but the loss of listeners for that voice. It is an evil when the drama of a life does not continue in others for reason of their deafness or ignorance.

The White leader in the example I shared had decided that the Black Airman’s voice should not be considered in play. He brought that Airman’s play, in that particular context, to a permanent end in unheard silence. Making sure that the voice and experience of others doesn’t threaten your beliefs – about your status, righteousness, and the systems which have treated you so well so you hold them dear – is evil. 

By this definition, I believe being an active impediment to the amplification, inclusion, and representation of marginalized voices is an act of evil, and will continue to be so long as this system – not a vacuum – is not a pure meritocracy, which it will likely never be. 

On Invisible Absence

One thing that Austin describes in his latest piece, and something that I have marveled at in conversations with him, is how very apparent the absence of Black voices and faces in leadership roles in Defense Innovation organizations is. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but it seems important to state that that absence is not something I have ever felt personally. I don’t have to notice things that have never impacted me. This is one of the characteristics of a system built for me. It’s design is invisible (which some designers might say makes its design perfect). This is another reason why a White person seeking to suppress that lived experience might be reasonably considered evil. Those commenting “but demographics don’t matter” do so from a position in which, on purpose or not, they are demographically privileged. They wield undue influence within the environment, and that influence carries with it a responsibility for intentionality and consideration.

On “All Lives” and “Diversity of Thought”

Two particular linguistic instruments I see often employed in conversations about diversity and inclusion are the phrases “all lives matter” and “diversity of thought”, and I’d

I believe that due to the fact that White voices are not at risk of being silenced in the same way as the lived experience of Black Americans is actively and systematically silenced, despite how some may feel, bringing up their suppression as an equal concern is itself an act of suppression. In response to the refrain “Black Lives matter”, saying “all lives matter”, in the context of the current level of risk to Black Americans, is thus a suppression tactic. This is an instance of strategic veiling, in which feigned objectivity need only pretend these issues exist inside a vacuum, without history or current societal configuration – a configuration which we actually require marginalized voices to help us make sense of. On this issue, the contextualization of the Black experience in America and in our organizations is an essential step that we, especially our leaders, need to engage in intentionally.

In a vacuum, saying that all lives matter likely wouldn’t be offensive to anybody. But if one person is drowning, shouting down the cries of “save that person – they are drowning” with “nobody should drown” is hardly helpful, and effectively suppresses and silences the voices that most need to be heard on the issue of the person who is actively drowning. Being blind to context is a common factor (or intentional tactic), and while some are willfully blind–actively rejecting and suppressing the experiences and observations of those equipped to see things differently–most experience a lack of awareness of their own blindness, and to tell them they are blind triggers defensiveness and reflexive habits of suppression, such as I saw with the White senior enlisted leader. 

Another veiling tactic often employed in discussions about diversity is when somebody brings up the concept of “diversity of thought”. There are a few reasons why I cringe at this phrase, but most often it’s because someone invoking it is expressing that they are not willing to consider demographic factors like race or ethnicity when it comes to diversity, inclusion, or equity. While diversity of thought is important, it should not be considered a proxy or substitute for intentional diversity and inclusion efforts.

Saying “diversity of thought is actually what matters” is a way of saying “it’s ok that we’re all white guys though, right?”. It gives us permission to continue to populate defense innovation leadership almost exclusively with white males so long as they have “diversity of thought”. I found it telling when, in a conversation with Austin, he revealed to me that the subject of thought diversity was rarely brought up around him. I was incredulous, then confused, and then realized that Austin’s blackness might factor into whether people felt safe or comfortable suggesting that his race doesn’t matter. Have you ever talked to a person of color about your righteous colorblindness? They might not appreciate it, and I think most people know that. 

Of course diversity of thought is important. This fact is both obvious and not a threat to the emotions or status of those with existing privilege within our systems, and that’s likely why so many more are on-board with its importance. We’re still getting there with convincing many of the importance of demographic diversity. But choosing to support only “diversity of thought” is, in effect, supporting and defending a system which will continue to fail to represent marginalized populations in the ways that it ought unless we take action. It is a way of saying “let’s focus on whether we think the system is ok” without considering the overarching cultural context or whether the outputs of the system result in consistent patterns of poor representation, which Austin describes in his piece.   

It is another way of saying there is nothing wrong with the status quo and how it advances or suppresses the inclusion and representation of any. It is a way of declaring that we exist in a pure, functional meritocracy, which will lead you to some pretty unfortunate and often racist opinions if you follow its logic only a short distance. If the system results in unrepresentative outputs, and there’s nothing wrong with the system, then there must be something wrong with the inputs…

A recent report from the Air Force Inspector General into racial disparities found widespread differences, year after year, in how Black Airmen are treated as opposed to those of other races. Representation in leadership positions, especially within the Innovation community, is abysmal. If we only consider diversity of thought, we willfully turn a blind eye to the present state of things, in which a vast swath of people are clearly, systemically and systematically suppressed, silenced, and excluded. 

I am hopeful about the future, but not because I am sure that a better future is coming. I believe we’re going to build it–one heavy brick at a time. One heavy conversation at a time. 

These are just a few more steps down the path of this particular conversation, and I’d like to invite you to join us as we walk.

Or perhaps start on your own path towards a similar destination… just be sure to bring someone along…

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