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Interrogating “other”: Inclusion has not been enough

Interrogating “other”: Inclusion has not been enough

The recent reaction to the shootings in California highlights the othering of Asian Americans. Asian Americans are variably set aside as a model minority, “privilege-adjacent”, with expectations of a malleable, hard-working, “invisible” group of individuals. Such monolithic stereotyping inevitably fails to contend with the true diversity of the Asian American experience in the United States.

“Other” relates to an “us vs them” mentality that Madeleine Albright suggests is at the root of last year’s January 6th U.S. Capitol riot. “Other” is always outside of me or us, and implicit bias is often the root of the perception of “other”. “Other” might be based on ethnicity, political stance, gender, sexual orientation, or physical appearance.

My daughter is ethnically Korean but is culturally American. During a school lockdown drill, she was inadvertently locked out of her homeroom building. Not realizing the lockdown was in effect, she tried to pull open the door, and a passing staff member asked, “Do you go to this school?”

My daughter, a student at that school for seven years, was instantly and implicitly perceived as “other”, as someone who did not belong. Inclusion, on that day, was not enough.

Diversity training itself, when focused only on theory and not actions and behaviors, can lead to greater harm and disengagement, as argued in an Op-ed in The New York Times by Jesse Singal, author of The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. A respondent, John Albin of New York, sagely wrote in, “By upholding race as a valid descriptor of people, diversity training upholds the very basis of racism.”

Diversity and inclusion alone generally assume that an existing group will take in an “other” that will then fit in with established norms and promote conventional culture. Inclusion may look nice, but it often does not allow for authentic, full self-expression by minority individuals. Instead, minorities are expected to be “well-behaved”, as viewed by the majority.

Diversity and inclusion can also become performative. Schools, workplaces, and organizations often focus on diversity, increasing numbers of underrepresented groups without truly acknowledging or supporting the individuals for their valid achievements, recognizing their unique needs, or allowing their voices to be heard. Diversity training itself likely falls short if we are not aware of structural racism, sexism, ableism and the universality of implicit biases and the subsequent actions and behaviors that tend to follow.

To be sure, you may argue that inclusion is a place to start. But we are past the starting line now; diversity, equity, and inclusion have been promoted since the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Let’s move toward true belonging, as promoted by john powell. Belonging can only be achieved by recognizing differences, by interrogating the meaning of “other”, by truly seeing what I do when I perceive someone as “other”.

My daughter’s school never probed why she was seen as “other” that day, despite the school emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion. There was no apology for making my daughter feel as though she did not belong, although the school did acknowledge the error in not guiding her to a safe space. Behavior matters. Let’s move diversity and inclusion efforts beyond theory and push for not only awareness training but also appropriate accountability and actions.

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