It’s a symptom of our hypersensitized, polarized times that almost no one feels fluent speaking the language of race or gender. It’s a minefield out there, even for those of us whose stock in trade is covering those topics.
Though I’m a woman of color, I’m always checking myself, at times terrified that I’d be labeled a racist, sexist, or other “ist” for using the wrong terminology or being too frank. According to my daughters, I’m a walking disaster. “Mom, that’s so inappropriate,” is a refrain I hear all the time. (Note to self, “fat” is a verboten term).
Sometimes I feel the language police are out to get me. How can anyone have an honest conversation when we’re afraid to open our mouths?
But Kenji Yoshino, constitutional professor at New York University School of Law, told me that it’s not all a bad trend. “As a man, I feel I do have to be more careful than 15 years ago—but that’s good. Before, the discomfort would be borne by the woman. There’s now the democratization of discomfort.”
And though “some students are to the left of me and scaring my colleagues,” Yoshino said that “most are in the silent majority and are more nuanced.” That said, he added, “extremes are taking over the debate.”
How timely that Yoshino, along with colleague David Glasgow (they’re also co-founders of NYU Law’s Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging), have a new book, aptly titled, “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk about Identity, Diversity, and Justice.”
The ‘Platinum Rule’
The book starts with a personal note. “We are both gay men who spent our formative years in the closet,” they write. “That suffocating silence led us to search for a more powerful way of communicating.”
They also fess up that they’ve been the offenders: “Our own failures in these current conversations have given us more sympathy for the people who fumbled when they talked to us all those years ago about our gay identities.”
The result is a book that’s organized around seven “user-friendly principles.” Among them, readers are urged to embrace difficult conversations, build resilience, disagree respectfully, and apologize with authenticity if the occasion calls for it.
At heart, it’s about applying the Golden Rule—the book calls it the “Platinum Rule"—which the authors define as helping others “as they would wish to be helped ... by carefully reflecting on their needs.”
So is this book—a manual of sorts—vital at this juncture? Or is it making those who are predisposed to promoting diversity and inclusion even more self-conscious?
Closing the Allyship Gap
It’s a bit disheartening that we now need instructions to talk about such vital issues (for those in a hurry, the book provides strategy charts and quick takeaways). It’s bound to dampen the honesty and passion. But that’s where we are, I suppose.
I don’t think the advice in the book will knock anyone’s socks off (is there anything new under the DEI sun?) but parts of the book struck home.
I’m particularly fond of the section on allies—or those who fancy themselves as such—namely those “who don’t know enough about the relevant issues, lack humility about gaps in their awareness, and don’t take the perspectives of nondominant group members seriously enough.”
Also noteworthy is the discussion on the “white savior” who “liberates the natives from the bad whites, armed with exactly the right morals and ‘redemptive je ne sais quoi’.” That brought back memories of law school when a White male student insisted that the reason minority students didn’t participate in class was because they felt oppressed by the White establishment. When I objected to his simplistic explanation, he fired back at me: “You just don’t realize how intimidated you are.”
Overall, the book is a solid guide for those who want to engage in discussions of race, gender, and sexual identity in a more sensitive, meaningful way. But that targeted audience is exactly the problem: It’s essentially preaching to the choir.
Aren’t those who really need to upgrade their diversity game—i.e., folks who think diversity is unnecessary or that they’re already enlightened on the subject—likely the ones who’d have none of this?
“If the only people who read our book are the ones interested in closing the allyship gap, it would be a huge win,” Yoshino responded.
But there’s a careerist reason that even diversity skeptics might want to read the book. “I think some will seek out the advice for self-interest reasons because they want to know what to say,” he added.
“A lot of people have their arms crossed when we start a training session—they are ones who are usually forced into the room—but when we tell them this will help you become a better leader, they relax,” Yoshino explained. “People who seem resistant are not bad people. We try to move from a cancel culture to a coaching culture, and there’s relief that it’s not a shaming session. We tell them this skill can be a learned skill.”
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