Cancel Culture to Coaching Culture: Navigating DEI Conversations with Author and Professor Kenji Yoshino

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Kenji Yoshino, author and Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, returns to the program to discuss his new book Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, which he co-authored along with David Glasgow. Kenji reveals the impetus behind writing the book and shares tips about how to navigate difficult DEI conversations. He also discusses some of the limitations of cancel culture and how to move from a cancel culture to a coaching culture. Discover a mature model of vulnerability that allows you to be fully authentic and the power of cultivating curiosity.

KENJI YOSHINO: What we realized is that we are really trying to move from a cancel culture to what we call a coaching culture, that all of us are going to make mistakes. What we worry about with cancel culture is that it's too punitive and it's too impractical, so that I could make one mistake and the only recourse that the culture thinks it currently has is to cancel me or ostracize me, whereas I actually might be susceptible to rehabilitation. I might actually benefit more from someone putting their arm around my shoulder and saying, "Kenji, that was really not great, but here's a better pathway." That's what we're trying to provide in the book.

As you intuited, we all write the book that we wish we could read. We were searching for guidance ourselves about how to find that shift from cancel culture to coaching culture, we didn't see anything out there that was directly on point. There were lots and lots of helpful resources and we stood on the shoulders of giants, but we didn't find anything that was exactly on point for us and so we decided that we needed to write it ourselves.


DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty.

Now, on to the episode.


Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode features the return of Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, and faculty director of The Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. In the conversation, Kenji talks about his new book, co-authored with David Glasgow, called Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity and Justice. You'll hear from Kenji about how to move from a cancel culture to a coaching culture and how to navigate difficult DEI conversations in a productive way. All this and more, and now onto the conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Kenji, welcome back to The Will to Change.

KENJI YOSHINO: Thank you so much, Jennifer. It's so great to be with you again.

JENNIFER BROWN: I am thrilled. You interviewed me, thank you very much, around my release back in October. What an incredible conversation that was, I encourage our listeners to go back and listen to that. It was a bargain we struck, that I would get you back on The Will to Change and you graciously agreed to, in light of especially your upcoming release, your next book called Say the Right Thing, which will be aired February 7th. If all of you are listening to this, it might already be out, but is where to find more information on Kenji's work.

But I'm just honored to be able to have this time with you and dig into what this book means to you, who you wrote it for, what do you hope it shifts in the world, also, how did you grow through the process of writing it, because I know, as fellow authors, we are transformed by the activity of clarifying what we really want to say. This book, like mine and others that are being written right now, are being gobbled up by the world. I'm just so thrilled to know that your voice is included in what people are digesting, because you've made such a difference to me in terms of my own thinking. You've really advanced the frameworks that I use to try to welcome readers and learners and leaders into this conversation to get more involved, to get more invested, to be more equipped. Your book absolutely does that.

Kenji, I want to give you an opportunity to reintroduce yourself to The Will to Change listeners. For anybody that doesn't follow you or hasn't heard me talk about you, which is probably not a lot of people, but who are you, what do you do these days, and which book is this in the lineup of books that you've written, all of which are worth very much worth a read everybody. But anyway, I'll hand over the floor to you to take us through that.

KENJI YOSHINO: Well, thanks so much, Jennifer, for that. I should begin by saying this is a very, for me, joyful reunion because I consider you a forever ally in this work and have learned so much from you over our many years of collaborating and being in conversation with each other.

To back up and introduce myself, I'm Kenji Yoshino, I'm the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, and I'm also the faculty director of their newly endowed Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. I want to give a shout out to our wonderful founding donor, Roger Meltzer, who is also, like you, an enormous proponent and ally in this work.


KENJI YOSHINO: Then the question I often get is how does a law professor get involved in DNI, and the answer is for a long time I wasn't. I just was writing about legal issues, primarily civil rights, particularly LGBT issues, but my first book, Covering, which I wrote about 15 years ago, tried to make the case that law was necessary but not sufficient, as you know better than anybody, Jennifer, that law is a meat ax that can create a floor, but anything we build above that is a work of culture. The law is never going to be able to catch up with interactions that are so subtle, so infinite and infinitesimal that no legislation, no court case is going to be able to resolve these issues. It really is about the habits of the heart that we embrace.

That was the thesis of this book, and that book, unbeknownst to me at the time, was going to change my life because it led me into the DNI world, because a lot of organizations came to me and said, "We think you're spot on about this and we're struggling with these second generation unconscious bias type issues and can you help us with that?" I was like, "Gosh, not really, because frankly, I'm trained as a lawyer." It was really just through being in deep conversation with people who were, like yourself, ahead of me in being steeped in the DNI world that I came to get my sea legs.

Then the next two books are really still about law, in that my second book was wearing my law in literature hat, looking at themes of justice in the works of Shakespeare. Jennifer, I know you have a background in the arts, as amazing opera singer. My cognate to that was being a creative writer, a poet. This is my desire to keep that part of me alive and merge it together with my background in the law. Then my third book, which was published about six years ago now, it's called Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial and was about the same-sex marriage movement and thinking about the role that the famous Prop 8 trial played in advancing the arguments of that movement.

This most recent book, when we were shopping it around, and I have a co-author for the first time in the wonderful David Glasgow, who's the executive director of my center, I kept saying to editors, "Whatever you think of my prior books, please don't anchor on them for good or for ill because this is a very different kind of book." One of the things that the prior three books all had in common, as different as they were, was that they were all very high concept books, like here's a new theory of discrimination or here's a new way of thinking about same-sex marriage or let me juxtapose Shakespeare and legal cases or jurisprudence.

Whereas, I said this book that I want to write, Say the Right Thing, is a screwdriver. There's no high concept here, the idea is really we just assume that you are on board with the project of being an ally of being a champion for DNI, so how do you actually make that real in your conversations with other people, because I think we're all so scared of saying the wrong thing that we can't bridge the gap between the desire to be an ally when we're in the advantaged or privileged position and effective allyship. We either dead end with regard to being so scared of saying the wrong thing that we freeze and we don't say anything, or alternatively, we are galvanized into action because we realize that silence is no longer neutrality, it's complicity in an unjust status quo and so we kick ourselves to say something and be upstanders rather than bystanders, but then we have that sickening realization that we don't know enough to be effective allies and we're bulls in a china shop.

What this book tries to do, as that screwdriver or multi-tool is to say, here are some very practical but rigorous tips and tricks that you can use in order to close a gap between that desire to be an ally in effective allyship.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. I never thought you'd write a screwdriver book, or you said a multi-tool book, but yes, this is what the world needs. I agree with you that the appetite has been awakened and the interest and the commitment, and we need to help point that in the right direction to make the most difference, and also to, I think, shortcut people's way in to feel I guess less uncomfortable, I won't say comfortable, maybe less uncomfortable, which I think is the only goal we can really have because it represents such growth, such a growth edge for people to be able to dialogue about these things from a comfortable and competent and confident place.

But what a journey, what an incredible opportunity that's ahead of all of us to sharpen our saw, so to speak, and to jump in and to be able to pivot and shift and be shaped, and yes, not get it right, perfect, whatever, and be okay with that. It's such an ego exercise too, it's so humbling to recognize that I'm having to lead without a lot of the answers and without the comfort and lead anyway, which is a beautiful thing when you see people do it. It's one of those things that's very breathtaking to me and I am always like, "How did they figure out how to do that? Can we have more of that in the world?"

All right. You focused on difficult conversations about identity differences, fear, the important role of aspiring allies, because we're only allies when someone in an effective community calls us an ally but the work continues. I guess, what did you think informs this book based on you and David and your backgrounds, even on a personal level, that informs this and feels very like your personal prayer to the reader and for change in the world? What makes it unique as a take on this topic?

KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah, thank you for that because I think that's a really great place to get to the core of the matter. I think both David and I wrote this because we felt this overwhelming fear ourselves. We're not above this, we're working through this as we write the book. I have this terrible fear when I'm engaging in these identity conversations because I'm scared either of hurting somebody I really care about or, in a more self-interested way, I'm worried that I'm going to say the wrong thing and get canceled or punished or be ostracized or penalized myself. I think, well, if I'm feeling that way, then I would hope that there are other people who are feeling that way as well. The most useful thing that we can do is to demystify this a little bit, because we're firm believers in the idea that there are tools to be had out there. What we want to do is to offer things that are shame free and rigorous and very practical. That's really what we wanted to do in this book to offer readers.

One more broad thing that I'll say, Jennifer, is that another thing that drove us was just looking at the tools that were available in the culture at the time when we started writing the book a few years ago. This is when the debate about cancel culture was at its peak and we really had an allergy to cancel culture from the get-go. I say that with the acknowledgement that, of course, for some people cancel culture is just consequence culture, some people deserve to be canceled. I'm not lying awake at night worrying about the fate of the worst wrongdoers with regard to issues of discrimination or what have you. I don't think I need to name names, but I think we know who they are. Sometimes people should have serious consequences needed out to them. But what we realized is that we are really trying to move from a cancel culture to what we call a coaching culture, that all of us are going to make mistakes.

What we worry about with cancel culture is that it's too punitive and it's too impractical, so that I could make one mistake and the only recourse that the culture thinks it currently has is to cancel me or ostracize me, whereas I actually might be susceptible to rehabilitation. I might actually benefit more from someone putting their arm around my shoulder and saying, "Kenji, that was really not great, but here's a better pathway." That's what we're trying to provide in the book.

As you intuited, we all write the book that we wish we could read. We were searching for guidance ourselves about how to find that shift from cancel culture to coaching culture. We didn't see anything out there that was directly on point. There was lots and lots of helpful resources and we stood on the shoulders of giants, but we didn't find anything that was exactly on point for us and so we decided that we needed to write it ourselves.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's so true. I can relate to that in why I've written the things I've written and come up with the models, because I am the learner in the same exact equation that I'm teaching. I'm curious, I don't want to ask you to reveal certain perhaps mistakes or missteps in how you've actually become more agile in your own learning journey, when you get feedback have you noticed, because inevitably I'm sure you've gotten it, I've gotten it, have you noticed growth in yourself in terms of how you manage it? Because one of the things I was curious of is the defensiveness when missteps are pointed out and almost training ourselves out of that response and putting something new in its place in terms of how we respond.

I know to me, I don't know about you, it feels like a battle. My id gets activated, my primal protectiveness gets activated, my ego certainly gets activated to protect, to deny, to avoid, to be hurt and make it all about me. I go down that little fun rabbit hole, and yet, I think seeing things is half the battle and naming them. Then also not feeling alone is part of the battle too, to say I'm not alone in my struggle with myself.

But then you talk about retraining and I wonder, I struggle with this when I bring up the topic of privilege, for example, even just to take the air out of the balloon so that I can have a conversation about a different definition of that word that is more productive, more helpful, more constructive, but the defensiveness is such a barrier in and of itself that I don't even feel like the learning can begin unless we neutralize that in ourselves and also as teachers. What do you recommend about that work we have to do ourselves and what's worked for you?

KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah. My role model in this domain is my colleague here at NYU in the Stern School, Dolly Chugh, who's a psychologist.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I love Dolly.


Yes. She's written two wonderful books of her own, one of which just came out, but in her first book, The Person You Mean to Be, she directly addresses this issue of saying how do we get over our own defensiveness. She has a couple of tips and tricks along the lines of let's adopt the same growth mindset that we adopt in every other domain, of not saying, "I'm not good at pronouns," but saying, "I'm not good at pronouns, yet," to kick ourselves into the growth mindset. Also, more directly on point for DNI, stop thinking about the world as being divided into good and bad people because that's a game no one can win, because either you're in the bad person category and that's not great or you're in the good person category and you either get complacent or you become really terrified that your good person status is going to be taken away from you when you inevitably make that mistake. What she encourages us to do in that first book is to say let's think of ourselves as good-ish people who are together.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.

KENJI YOSHINO: That's been incredibly helpful.

I have to say the thing that has been most moving to me, Jennifer, that Dolly has done has actually not been in her written work, but something that she did when she came to guest lecture in our class here at the law school, where she put up a slide where she said, "Look at this terrible professor who did all of these non-inclusive things." That professor confused people of the same social group with each other, misgendered a transgender colleague, had a syllabus stacked with white men without actually interrogating that, engaged in all these different forms of non-exclusive behavior, the list went on. As you can probably intuit, the next slide was, "And that professor was me." That was just such a powerful way to kind of open the class.

We talk in the book a lot about our own mistakes, in part because we were so inspired by the psychological safety that she created. So that I talk about how when I was doing an audit of my Socratic methodology in my constitutional law class and I would call on men more than I would call on women, so that I was pretty confident, as a aspiring ally to women and the female students in my class, that this would not be something that I would fall prey to, but I read some material on the fact that this was still something that professors did so I had my wonderful assistant, Corey Conley, sit in the back of the class and audit me. Sure enough, I unfortunately was calling on men more than I was calling on women. It pushed me to the systemic solution of saying, "Let's randomize this, hand me a randomized list before every class and I'll call down that list in order to cure this," and then that ultimately fixed the issue.

But I've also been in situations where, I don't know if we've talked about this before, Jennifer, but I was in a leadership diversity and inclusion class and in the first three classes I confused the only three Asian women in a class and called them by each other's names, so triply mortified. One, I'm a leadership diversity expert, two, it's a leadership diversity class, three, I'm of Asian descent myself so I've been on the wrong end of the stereotype of Asian Americans all look alike. Here I was purveying the very harmful stereotype that I had been painfully on the other end of. By class sort of three, I apologized to the individual woman, class four, I apologized to the whole class, should have been sooner, obviously, but it was what it was.

I think when I tell those kinds of stories, I have the same kind of experiences I did in that class, or really both classes, but particularly the second class that I was talking about, which is it created a form of psychological safety in the room for the professor to say, "I was a source of non-inclusive behavior. I humbly apologize. I would ask you to be my allies moving forward." I think oftentimes when we are confronted with the kinds of resistance that you talk about, our instinct, at least my instinct, is to marshal all my best arguments about why that person should be less defensive and why this isn't really what I'm talking about when I talk about privilege, I'm demystifying the word privilege, I'm being super analytic and bringing my studies and what have you.

But what I'm finding more and more is that the best way to ask somebody to lower their shield is to lower your shield first. Instead of actually going on the attack and launching into all the litany of studies that I have that show that privilege is actually a very useful word or it doesn't mean what they think it means, I think it can actually be much more effective for me to say, "Can I tell you about a time when I messed up?" and to say I'm actually willing to cop to the fact that I'm not just going to walk around saying, "Oh, I'm a goodish person," but then otherwise pretend that I'm perfect. I'm going to say "I'm a flawed person. For example, here are some things that I have done that if I had a time machine, goodness, I would go back immediately and try and change those things. Those are the things that keep me up at night and make me writhe whenever I even remember them." But I think leading with those examples can make the world of difference.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, beautiful. I love it, I love it. Personalize it, yeah, I do the same thing. I just sense that it deescalates, and you said personalizes role models' vulnerability, and throws your lot in with the audience, like you were talking about earlier, bonding with the learner to say, "Hey, this is me too," which is counterintuitive I suppose, because people like you and I are there to be the authority figure with all the answers that do this perfectly. It takes some bravery to at the same time be somebody who's an author and looked to for that to stand up on a stage and say, "I am in my own learning path," and to share too, being open about different kinds of privileges also feels very risky, to say, "Here's how I grew up. Here's what I've come to realize has sped me along or an obstacle that I haven't had to face," and just showing what that sounds like, what are those words.

I just really wish leaders, someday maybe, because it still feels so scary to people, I can sense their, "I could never do what you've done. I could never say what you've said, because I feel like it's going to open me up to criticism," someday though, we may be able to have a more accurate and honest conversation about all the puzzle pieces of who we are and that leaders may stand in front of us. In doing that, they will win trust, they will benefit, they will move the way people feel about them in a positive way. But right now, it's sort of a liability. That's the assumption that if I admit this, which, by the way, oftentimes we think we're hiding things that we're really not hiding to. I don't know, we're probably not telling the truth on that. But telling on yourself is what I hear you saying. I think that is a new kind of leader that particularly younger people, you work with a lot of students, I wonder what kind of leader are younger generations looking to follow, to admire?

I know you believe that these things that we're talking about need to be part of the DNA of leaders who inspire, I don't want to say followership because I prefer to think of things more democratically, but leaders who can inspire trust in order to get things done, big things done, with all that good diversity that we can take advantage of. Do you believe fundamentally, and do you say to leaders when you speak, "This is do or die, this is change or die. Here's the ingredient I'm giving you and I'm writing about that can really help you meet and exceed this moment in a resonant way that will be effective with others, particularly those young people that you know so well."

KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah, I definitely think that this is a critical leadership capability. I keep going back to work that Robin Ely has done around mature vulnerability, where she asks us to disambiguate the concept of vulnerability, because I think we generally associate openness and vulnerability with a kind of infantile vulnerability where you're really powerless. I think that that is what you're putting your finger on when you say it's ironic, or seemingly ironic, to be vulnerable and to also be an authority. The way in which Ely response to that is to say that sort of seeming paradox is, as you yourself were saying, is not really a paradox, because you can have mature vulnerability, of embracing that vulnerability not because you're weak, but precisely because you're strong. It actually shores up your authority to say, "I'm willing to be fully authentic and fully human, and that makes people actually more likely to follow me and trust me."

I think I have benefited from the wonderful students that I have and the intergenerational conversations that I'm privileged to have every day, because I do think that increasingly, it's a cliche, but it's a cliche for a reason, that younger generations are asking more and asking particularly this, that authenticity, that vulnerability of the people who purport to be their leaders.

JENNIFER BROWN: I'm glad you agree. It's really shifting and many are getting caught up, realizing that they don't have the competency or the confidence or the resilience because of the defensiveness. To me, there's a correlation. The defensiveness peaks, which prevents us from actually hearing what we need to hear and also wastes our time because we spend time in defensiveness instead of time taking something in and cultivating curiosity.

You write about curiosity in the book as well. Cultivating curiosity, I get asked that question all the time because my answer usually is, "Where am I in the journey, Jennifer, how can I move?" I say, "How curious are you almost as a discipline," because a lot of us have to learn, we have to set goals for ourselves to learn about identities that are not ours. I don't know, I have a wellspring of curiosity, luckily. I wake up curious, so it's a funny question to get because I love learning. But I don't know, tell me your attitude on curiosity. Do you think it's a naturally occurring thing? Is it a learnable thing? I know you agree it's integral to what we're talking about, but what is the practice of curiosity to equip us to be that resilient, listening, empathetic leader whose ego isn't triggered and we're managing the pieces of who we are? How do we bolster that curiosity habit?

KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah, no, I so appreciate this because resilience and curiosity are, as you know, the two cardinal virtues that we believe people need to have before they even step into one of these conversations. Just again, to pan out a bit, the book divides itself into seven principles, and the first principle is to avoid the basic conversational traps. It's this avoid, deflect, deny, attack notion of when you feel threatened, do you actually go into one of these avoid, deflect, deny, attack modes, or do you go into this more vulnerable, more mature actual head space.

In order to actually avoid those four conversational traps we think two qualities are necessary, and those are principles two and three respectively, of building resilience and cultivating your curiosity. Resilience, I'll leave aside for now, but I hope that it's a really hopeful chapter for people because it's not like a finger wagging, "You should be more resilient," but to say allies need allies too. Let's actually think about how we can be helpful to you in the way in which you talk to yourself, the way in which you build your own networks in order to be more resilient as an ally.

Then to your question, curiosity is such a critical capability. I do think that it admits in degrees in terms of the natural curiosity people have just in general, but also with regard to DNI issues, but anyone can grow their curiosity. We have three different scenarios in mind where we're thinking about curiosity. I think the easiest, most intuitive one, Jennifer, is when you don't know something and you know that you don't know it. I know that I don't know something about many different communities. I was asked a couple of years ago, and this is actually one of my prouder moments, about how masking in the neurodiversity context related to covering. At the time I had no idea what masking was. I was like, "Ugh, this is going to sound really terrible because masking sounds a lot covering."

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it does.

KENJI YOSHINO: Ultimately I realized that it was a form of covering, but I was like, "I don't know what this term is and so I should just cop to that." I just said, "I have no idea what this is, so let me admit that and I promise I will cultivate my curiosity after this." That was the right response, adopting the posture of, A, admit it when you don't know it and then go out and learn it. That's very simple, when you that you don't know.

I think the second situation is a little bit trickier, it's when you don't know that you don't know. I think oftentimes we're caught out because we don't even know that there's a body of knowledge to be had there. This is Donald Rumsfeld, there are the known unknowns and then there are the unknown unknowns. The unknown unknowns are much scarier and dangerous because you don't even know, so how would you cure your ignorance if you're not even aware that the ignorance exists? The most helpful tip that we've gotten here is the epistemologist, here we go to the humanities rather than the social scientists, where Kristie Dotson, the philosopher, says, "Imagine in these DNI conversations that you are in a nuclear physics seminar." Many of your listeners, with my luck are going to be nuclear physicists or something."


KENJI YOSHINO: If you're a nuclear physicist, imagine that it's some other arcane body of knowledge that intimidates you, like literary theory or what have you. But I'm intimidated by nuclear physics, I know that if I put myself in that posture and I'm listening to a lecture on nuclear physics that I'm be really careful about assuming any knowledge. Even if I think I understand it, I'm going to kick the tires on it, I'm going to review it in my own mind. I'm going to talk to other people and say, "I think I got that, but did I really get it right if the person is more expert than I?"

What she recommends is that we put ourselves in that learning posture whenever we're in a DNI situation, where instead of assuming that we know, which Cheryl and others have pointed out, we assume, against our own best interests, that we absorb this information. Simply because I've lived in a multiracial society, I may assume that I know a lot about race and racism in American society, whereas what I really need to do is to kick myself into that learning posture of I'm in a nuclear physics seminar, this is not a familiar world to me so let me actually take it from the beginning and question everything that I think that I know, adopting that posture of radical humility.

The last way we want you to adopt curiosity is to interrupt the running commentary of skepticism. This is a Columbia education professor, Derald Wing Sue's line, where he says we all have this internal running commentary of skepticism. If I, as an Asian man, say to you, well, let's not make it you because you're probably too enlightened for this, but I say to another colleague, "I went to a restaurant and I wasn't seated even though I was the first one there and a white couple got seated in front of me. I believe that I was a victim of racism," then the person might be very sympathetic, but it's very human for that person to have the internal running commentary of skepticism that goes something along the lines of, "Well, maybe they had a reservation and you didn't, or maybe the maitre d' just didn't see you and you saw them," and so on and so forth, so coming up with lots of alternative vaccinations other than bias for what occurred.

What he says is, we all have this. We have this just world philosophy, where we just assume that the world is fair. What we really need to do is to understand that this is watching someone on CNN and there's a scroll crawling underneath them of text, just as a chyron goes by. When I say I was a victim of discrimination, the chyron says, "No, he wasn't," and then you have to learn to ignore that chyron.

The slogan, "Believe women," as we argue in the book, does not mean believe every single woman all the time and never take the word of a man against the word of a woman if it's a sexual assault dispute, that's not what it means. What, "Believe women," we believe means is try to interrupt that chyron that's scrolling across the screen when a woman says, "I was a victim of sexual assault," of coming up with all the other alternative explanations that were not sexual assault that we intuitively produce. Interrupting that internal running commentary skepticism is a silencing or quieting the noise that prevents us from having real curiosity.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Can you name the author that you just quoted around that concept? I want our listeners to make sure we make a note of this.

KENJI YOSHINO: Derald Wing Sue is the professor of education, who's brilliant, and the book is Race Talk.

JENNIFER BROWN: Race Talk. You just explained that human behavior, that natural human behavior, if you're human you're biased, and if you're human you have the running skepticism chyron. It just really helps, these kinds of understandings and aha moments, they don't let us off the hook, but they name something so powerfully. I think it takes it out of the realm of I'm a bad person because this happens to me, more that this is my running of the brain, but then we have that choice then to re-pattern ourselves, but also acknowledge that chyron may never stop running, but we can see it. We can say, "I see you. I see what you're doing, and I see that you're doubting somebody's lived experience when they share it with you." You're not staying in a realm of not just curiosity, but taking something in as truth the first time you hear it.

It's not for so many of us to be arguing with people about how it feels to walk through the world in their identity. My partners Filipina American, we've been together for 25 years, and the stories she used to say, the comments of, "Oh, your English is so good. Where are you from? No really, where are you from?" I hope we all know this is what happens. I, in the early days, I was a little teeny, teeny DEI hopeful consultant, I definitely had the skepticism. This is one of the most powerful teachings that I'll say to people, to say, "Listen, believe people, inquire about their world. Imagine the differences between that experience and yours in the exact same scenario." I say same storm, different boats. If we could get people to, but those lenses that we have on all the time, it's so difficult to take them off for even a second, let alone make that how we move through the world.

You'll never lose your lenses, you'll always remember, that there's no danger there of making it about learning about other people's experiences and taking that in. Then I think reflecting those experiences when we have the opportunity to be in a room, to be the one who's being heard, to represent that, not for people necessarily because I think people's experiences are best articulated by them of course, but if it does come down to you, are you prepared? To be prepared, you have to have been so curious and seeking of information and not spending time arguing with it, but spending time taking it in and thinking about the next time that you may need and want to wield that as a tool, as an aha moment, as an understanding builder, as a challenge.

I just think life is about efficiency, and I don't know, look, it's good to notice our reaction to things, good to notice because there's a lot of really good information in that about where you are in your evolution, but also, time is very precious and I think we have a lot to learn instead of a lot to resist. Speaking of that, I want to also ask you, you have a whole piece on are we allowed to disagree. Oh goodness, I know where you go in the book with this, but I do want you to address to the whole values question versus expectations for leaders in workplaces. I think sometimes it does just come down to imagining that people need to show up and adhere to DEI commitments and expectations and may believe different things personally, and that those two things can coexist, I think. I think it's hard, but I think it can happen.

But anyway, I do wonder about disagreement and what is a legitimate disagreement and where do we go from this place that still leaves us in a trusted relationship, I guess. For example, there's disagreements between people who are the call-out culture versus the call-in culture. There are disagreements in every aspect of right, left, center, about what the best tactic for change is and whether you are standing up loudly enough, how you are standing. There's even disagreement about whether somebody that looks like me can do DEI work, and that's a hard disagreement to navigate, feels very personal. But again, the beauty of our movement, if you will, our work is the diversity of points of view that we all bring to this and we're all needed and there's always someone that needs to hear our message. There's always someone that can be changed by our or your message, but each one of us is going to resonate differently with different listeners and learners.

Anyway, disagreements, what's your attitude on that advice? Are they okay? Are they productive? How do we handle them? Can we live with them? Are they good?

KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah, absolutely. The middle two chapters of the book are about apologies and disagreements. In a weird way, the apologies chapter was much easier to write because it's like, "Okay, you've done something wrong, you admit that," and then bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, here are the four elements of a successful apology, the recognition, responsibility, redress and remorse. The disagreement one, for all the reasons you described, is much harder, because if you actually have to disagree with someone and say, "I don't think either on the substance of the issue we're on the same page," or, "I don't think, even though we agree on the substance of the issue, we don't agree with the tactics through which to execute on the substance and so I'm not your best ally in this situation," is one of the hardest things to say, but I think critically necessary.

To the point about are we allowed to disagree, of course, we have to be allowed to disagree. In fact, we're going to dry up the entire well of allies if the only option an ally has is either to roll over and agree or alternatively to apologize. There has to be some running room in there for an individual to say, "I respectfully disagree with that."

The thing that I found most transformative about this chapter, and I have to give my co-author, David Glasgow, the credit for this, is something that he developed called the controversy scale, where he just intuited that there are different kinds of disagreements, so that if you and I are disagreeing about tastes, like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, or which Netflix show is better, or which sports team is better, then those are actually going to generally increase our intimacy. Those are disagreements where we can razz each other about our taste in trashy TV shows. Mine are probably trashy, yours are probably very high eyebrow, Jennifer, but we can razz each other about that and rib each other about that and we'll get closer. Nobody thinks that this is high stakes.

But as we scut over to a different point in the controversy spectrum, which goes from tastes to facts, to policies, to values, to equal humanity, the temperature is going to get hotter and hotter. By facts, I mean literal, who, what, when, where, why, journalistic facts rather than fights about values by proxy, as in alternative facts or what have you. When we get to policies, I think it gets even more heated. Should we have affirmative action or not? Should we have a DNI policy or not? People disagree on those issues. You and I obviously don't, but others in our institutions might. When we move over to equal humanity, that's when things get most dire, when somebody feels like the very disagreement calls into question their belonging within the community.

What David points out is that one of the reasons these conversations go so wrong is that the two parties who are having the conversation are at different points on the controversy spectrum or the disagreement spectrum. Very often, the more advantaged ally person is in a leftward position. They're having the debate as a matter of facts or values. It might not even be an ally, they just disagree, but one person is an, "I'm disagreeing about facts and policies," and then the other person's like, "Well, that's actually a debate about my equal humanity." This is the line that's often, I believe, misattributed to James Baldwin, we can disagree, but if your disagreement calls into existence my equal humanity and right to exist, then we're not really having a conversation anymore.

What we say is we don't need to go over to where the other person is. Oftentimes, as you say, that's impossible because we can't imagine our way entirely into the skin of another human being, but at least acknowledge that you're having a different kind of disagreement. When I was having debates around my earlier book about same-sex marriage before 2015, before same-sex marriage became the law of the land, I had to have countless debates, as I'm sure you did as well, about same-sex marriage and the popular sphere. Then people would often say to me," Kenji, we know that you're in a same-sex marriage, but can you have this wearing your constitutional law professor hat as a matter of law and policy," because that's the terms of the debate. I was like, "Of course I can," and I did.

But I remember thinking time after time, wow, my party opposite could have done themselves so much good if they had just said to me, in addition to all the other stuff that I just quoted them as saying, "Kenji, I'm going to have this debate as an issue of fact and policy, and I know you are too when we're on the stage, but I just want to acknowledge to you in the green room before we go on that this is a matter of equal humanity to you. It lands differently to you than it might land on me," that would've made a world of difference that would not have prevented them from making any of the arguments that they wanted to make. The fact that they were unable to do that and in fact wanted me to paper over the fact that this was an issue of equal humanity to me made the disagreement less respectful from my perspective.

Now, when I'm on the ally position, I'm trying to have that respectful disagreement. I always try to say, "This is an issue, a fact or policy for me, but I realize that this may actually touch on something that you know experience as part of your equal humanity so I'm going to try and be mindful and respectful of that while we have this conversation. Please let me know if you feel like I've violated those terms of respect." That could actually transform the conversation and allow the disagreement to proceed in a much more respectful way.

JENNIFER BROWN: That would feel so good, you're so right. It's a caveat, it's a positioning, it's a disclaimer, it's a reassurance. What I feel when I hear those words is ... It's also, I would imagine this conversation might trigger things of feeling less worthy, of feeling criticized, and so it's pausing to acknowledge this is hard terrain, but I really like that. I really like that as a ... I wonder if we could have that as a business practice. I wonder what it would take to have people get comfortable with that language and say it on a regular basis with confidence and have it come across and be believed, by the way, not just an exercise.

KENJI YOSHINO: Yep. We're all about authenticity in this entire choice set of saying if you can't apologize authentically, then we would much prefer you to have a respectful disagreement. Really, if you can't do either of those things, then we would prefer that you not even try, don't even frame it as anything other than what it is.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, agreed. I totally agree.

Oh my goodness, this book is so full of good stuff. I hope everyone listening is noticing the pearls just coming by, they're fabulous. I've learned so much in this conversation about also additional books and authors and voices I need to follow up on too, Kenji, so thank you for that. I hope you get this out, I know you're probably very busy and booked with speaking opportunities this year, in 2023, and I'm excited to have you out on stages and be getting this into people's hands and giving them so much generosity and assumption of positive intent as well. It's something that I've always felt like we are aligned on, in terms of believing in the hearts of people and the capacity and the capabilities of people, and also the humility to see ourselves in the same position, not in a position above.

But I think this is another thing that's falling about the hierarchy as we question it in so many areas of society, is what is the role of the teacher? It's the expertise, but it is the authenticity and the humility to join in the learning process too that I think in and of itself is teaching. I just love that I witness you doing that beautifully, and you always have, and you really put yourself out there personally as well as that space holder, and yes, the expert, and yes. Congratulations on the book.

So people can find you, let me verify this,, everybody, more information. Then the book, February 7th. Anything else you want to leave us with, Kenji, any calls to action, things to hold, encouragement that you might give to the audience as we begin yet another year of, yes, post-pandemic, but not, and certainly economic upset and furor and uncertainty and chaos in the business world? What would you anchor us to as we close?

KENJI YOSHINO: I think just a deep hopefulness about allyship as a paradigm. This book is really about allyship, and you yourself have written so eloquently about it, so I know you share my optimism about this as something that could really transform the landscape. I think the one thing that is so heartening above everything else is watching a huge amount of allyship that we've seen. I think that the thing that is different about DNI today from when it was we started this work is that systematically, white individuals are going to Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate rallies, men are going to the Women's March on Washington, cisgender and heterosexual individuals are being allies to the LGBTQ+ community, people who are able-bodied are being allies to individuals with disabilities. That's what's changed.

What this book is really trying to do is to advance that hope and to say, when you step in as an ally, there are better and worse ways of doing this, there are more effective and less effective ways of doing it. Hopefully this is a small contribution in advancing the ball that I think already has a lot of momentum, which is people having the desire to be allies, but hopefully this book will allow them to translate that into effective allyship.

Then the last thing I want to say, Jennifer, to end with, is just a note of gratitude. You have been a forever ally to me and the work, and I really look forward to our continued conversation and friendship with each other.

JENNIFER BROWN: What a wonderful partnership and alliance we have. Even though we never see each other, I feel you're always with me. I've been deeply impacted by your teachings, like I said earlier. You gave me so much language for things that I wasn't clear about, and it's one of the biggest gifts we can give each other. You don't have to be a professor and someone as illustrious as you, I think each of us are such teachers. We had that beautiful moment about curiosity and believing people. I think all of us need to teach from our lived experience, this is the job we have and we may be fatigued, we may be tired, we may be super frustrated and angry about the pace of change, and that is completely justified, but at the same time, our time is now to witness to what we've heard, what we've experienced so that others can learn and take that in with curiosity and humility and all the things that we've described today.

Now is the time for a next generation of teachers and expanding what we think of when we think of who are the experts, who are the gurus, who are the teachers. It's all of us and we're going to make this better, but we need to make sure each other are heard and we are heard. We need to make space for that. Thank you for the ways that you do that.

Everybody, look up Kenji and follow up. I would say get in touch, I know you're very busy, but maybe LinkedIn is the best way if people have questions or opportunities you. I know that you're reachable, and certainly you can reach out to me, everybody, to get in touch too. But Kenji, thank you so, so much and congratulations.

KENJI YOSHINO: Thank you so much, Jennifer.


JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to The Will to Change: Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next time with a new episode.