Psychologist, author and professor, Dr. Tania Israel, joins the program to discuss her book Beyond Your Bubble, and why the country is so politically divided right now. Discover how our views of people across the political divide affect our ability to have a dialogue with them and how to share our views in a way that others can hear us.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Tania’s experiences with having “controversial” conversations (16:00)
- The limitations of having conversations on social media (19:00)
- The opportunity amidst the challenges (25:00)
- The various ways of responded when we feel emotionally flooded (30:00)
- Some misconceptions about anti-racism work (38:45)
- How to develop the skill and willingness to engage others (44:00)
- Why we develop communities around oppressed identities (48:00)
- How we can use our privileged aspects of our identity for good (54:00)
- Why we need to examine our motivations (60:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Tania, welcome to the Will To Change.
TANIA ISRAEL: Thanks. I’m delighted to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so excited to talk to you and learn about your book. And particularly at this very fraught moment in our society, gosh, I feel like I’ve been saying that now for many years, but also this year a lot, you have some particular wisdom that I think is going to feel very… at least enable us to feel, seen and heard in our confusion and in our growing isolation from each other and give us some tips and ideas about how to navigate these times and hold our relationships together even across differences of belief and identity. Really, it’s obviously something that’s happening writ large in our country let alone in our communities and our families and I know our workplaces which is where I focus the most, but tell us… First, take us back. We always share our diversity stories. Take us back to wherever you’d like to in your life where you experienced difference, you experienced exclusion challenges and if you can which I’m sure you’ve thought about a lot is how does all of that inform and fuel what you are so passionate about working on right now which is our ability to see and hear each other, understand each other, move forward together and all of that challenge?
TANIA ISRAEL: Yeah. That’s a great question. I describe myself as a bi-racial Asian-American, bisexual Jewish Buddhist feminist. I’ve got lots of identities. [inaudible 00:01:41] target identities. But I’m also a relatively light-skinned cisgender person who was raised with educational and economic privilege. It’s all of that. It’s all of the mix of things, but I also think in addition to all these labels that we use, I always think about context.
I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia which is on people’s radar right now in terms of thinking about diversity because now it brings to mind confederate monuments and white supremacists with tiki torches and all of that that happened. But when I was growing up there, it didn’t have that notoriety, but it was an interesting place to grow up because it’s in the middle literally the centroid of Virginia.
If you cut out the state of Virginia and you spun it around on the tip of your finger, your finger would be right on Charlottesville. It’s a college town, but it’s surrounded by rural Virginia. In terms of diversity, there are a lot of white people. There are also a lot of African-American people. There weren’t many people who looked like me, but I think that the fact that there was all of that diversity there and there’s also certainly… It’s an area where there’s a lot of people who are very connected to their church, but then there are people who are very connected to academia.
There were different viewpoints and different experiences that people had. There’s one public high school. Because of that, I think I just had exposure to and connection with people who had a wide range of experiences and views and families. I think that that’s helped me in my life because I don’t feel nervous about people who have really different views. I’ve lived among them.
Even though now I live in a bit of a bubble in Santa Barbara, California, I feel like I have an interest in and comfort with people who might be on a different side of political issues.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so helpful from an early age to have that kind of exposure. I kind of didn’t. I’ve had to make up for lost time. I think I really have in terms of my workplace advocacy and learning about our affinity networks and identities in the workplace that are underrepresented and just drinking that in and understanding even if it’s not in my experience, the experience of so many and studying that and then figuring out well what can I add to this in order to improve the outcomes.
You, researcher professor, what did you originally study? How has that morphed over time. Then, it’s led you to write this book about the bubble we live in beyond your bubble which is what the title is, but what did your originally study research teach around and how has that morphed over time?
TANIA ISRAEL: Most of my research is on interventions to support LGBTQ individuals and communities. I’ve done training for law enforcement. I’ve studied psychotherapy. I’ve created online resources and so a variety of different things, but mostly focused on people who are sexual and gender minorities.
One of the things about doing that because I’ve been working on that for the last 25 years. Things in our society have changed so much over that time in terms of LGBTQ issues. It’s really quite remarkable, but what I know is that even though things have improved considerably for some people, it’s still just as much as a struggle as it’s always been for some people.
There’s just a wider range of that experience now, but working on that issue has really put me into some conversations that have been more controversial. I’ve facilitated discussions about sexual orientation and religion. Like I said, I’ve done training for law enforcement on LGBTQ issues. There are issues around culture and sexual orientation and conflict.
I think that it’s really helped to prepare me for when the 2015 election rolled around and everyone realized, “Oh my goodness, there’s such a divide going on. We’re not connecting across the divide.” I think I had some skills and some perspective to bring to that for my work.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Why do you think our country… To what do you attribute that because there’s a lot of things going on, and it’s hard to know many of which are invisible? I’m always sensing there’s some manipulation going on. I’m not sure sometimes whether we’ve been encouraged to be so divided and for other purposes that we’re not aware of.
Therefore, I sometimes find myself not really trusting how divided we are because some of it is manufactured in a way and certainly social media has had a big hand in that. I just watched the social dilemma on Netflix. If you haven’t seen that, very, very disturbing stuff. But anyway, how do you view the divide that has grown or appears to have grown and feels so intractable right now? This is particularly germane because we’re heading into election week next week.
TANIA ISRAEL: Absolutely. Well, some of that divide is real. And some of that divide is our perception of it. When we think about people on the other side, we’re usually thinking about people who we see in the media. On TV, they want to get conflict. They get people who are spokespeople for more extreme views. Often, what we’re viewing, it’s not dialogue. It’s not even debate. It’s more like diatribe. It’s just people sort of spewing out their own views.
That gives us a perception of that’s what it would look like, and people don’t want to do, that they don’t want to engage in that, but the other thing that people see, you mentioned social media. Absolutely, I think that has a lot to do with it because the other place that we’re seeing people’s perspectives expressed is on social media.
When we see it that way, before social media, we used to have actual conversations with people like that’s how we would communicate. You remember the good old days.
JENNIFER BROWN: I do. We’re of a certain age. We can remember those times.
TANIA ISRAEL: Exactly. In those days, we would have certain kinds of conversations. We would think about who we’re talking to. If you’re talking to this person who you know has similar views to yourself, you might use more shorthand than you might make assumptions about sort of what you both understand and not have to go into explaining everything in great detail and stuff.
But if you were talking to somebody who didn’t necessarily have the same view, you might have a really different kind of conversation with them. Social media doesn’t give us that. We’re having the same [inaudible 00:09:15]. We’re putting out there a message that we’re sending out to everyone. We’re not as nuanced in our communication around that.
We also seem to think that if we are commenting on someone’s Facebook post that we are actually having a conversation. That’s not actually a conversation. If things aren’t working on social media, that doesn’t mean that we’re not able to have these conversations. It just means that we need to have them face to face rather than Facebook to Facebook.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh boy, is that a sound bite? I love that. By the way, you’re going to be on… The today’s show tomorrow. I recommend you use that one. That was good.
TANIA ISRAEL: Excellent. I’ll make a note.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Facebook to Facebook versus face to face. It’s very true. In the absence of information about each other, is it very human to assume the worst? Is it very human in your research? Do we tend to put people opposite us or conflate information we might see and assume the worst?
I find myself doing that. Then, when I dig in, I’m surprised. I realize what I’ve done which I’m sure is conditioned in me by what… because social media is designed to work this way. We’ve got to stop. We’ve got to see ourselves responding to and being shaped by these tools which are very intentional in the way they’re trying to shape us and fight against that to say every single person, there’s no… I’m not sure that’s accurate to say there’s a group that all believes the same thing, and this person is part of that group 100%.
It’s almost never true. We are all variations. Even between my partner and I, we believe different things about a whole host of progressive issues. We tend to be on the same side of things. To see I call it the diversity within the diversity. Normally, I mean that in terms of identity, but the opinions and beliefs like the diversity of beliefs and political views, but the nuances are definitely erased.
I think you’re right that in that face-to-face, we used to be able to hold all of that nuance. I miss those days.
TANIA ISRAEL: Well, I will say that you’re right. We do tend to distort our views of people who we perceive as being on the other side, but we can’t even blame social media for this completely because there are decades of research showing that this is just typically what we do. It’s human nature, it turns out, to see ourselves as a sort of rational with well-grounded beliefs and to think that other people are illogical, they’re swayed by emotion, they’re unkind.
This is sadly just a human trait, but the good news about it is if we understand that, if we know that we tend to make those distortions, then, we have the opportunity to correct for them. I think one of the best ways to correct for them is by getting to know other people and really being curious and really trying to understand where they’re coming from.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That means pulling back when we want to comment or disagree, but truly listening is I think the truly generous kind of listening is without agenda. It’s powered by curiosity. I always feel that I have to shortcut my want to agree, disagree, fight or flight, all those reactions that we feel ourselves having and to truly sit with people in our lives that we care about.
That is a really hard almost thing to unlearn for some of us. Some of us happen to be better at it than others, but it really does feel it’s a lot of shouting. It’s a lot of, what do we call it, not bilateral communication, but really unilateral. It is not at all with the intent to learn without judgment, that neutrality piece. I’m sure that’s what you recommend. You actually provide models for how to think this, but is it something we…
Again, I always have this image of fighting against, what we’ve slipped into and crawling back out and fighting for the true listening to each other, it almost feels like we’re undoing a very bad and destructive habit, and we’re having to kind of re-pattern ourselves and really practice it as an exercise that, hopefully, we can climb out of this dark time in our in our country’s history especially and do a lot more listening, but I feel we’re sort of in a trough right now. How do you describe, I guess, the process of noticing, learning, changing, developing a new lens, if you will, so that we can of improve our competency with this?
TANIA ISRAEL: Yeah. I think you’re describing the struggle really well. The thing I see in what’s going on right now is as challenging as things are, what an opportunity this is. The people are really feeling motivated to do something different and to learn some skills that frankly will be useful to us in all kinds of other situations too.
I’m hearing the motivation from people, but the main reason people tell me they’re interested in dialogue across political lines is that there’s someone in their lives who they want to stay connected to, who’s meaningful to them, but people are also talking about how they want to persuade other people. They want to find common ground or some people say, “I just cannot understand how people can think or act or vote as they do.”
Any of those motivations that people have, it turns out that the best thing to do in those circumstances is to really try to understand the other person, that there’s no path from just putting your views out there to achieving any of those goals. It’s, of course, what we all want to do.
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.
TANIA ISRAEL: Once we have those motivations, it’s like, “All right. Then, what do we need to do?” The first thing I would say is be genuinely curious. Actually want to know where the other person’s coming from. I think even before skills, that stance is really helpful. People call it in the psychology literature, we call it intellectual humility. But I think about it as being righteous without being self-righteous.
There are ways that we can hold on to our strong views and values. We don’t have to compromise where we’re coming from, but we can still be interested in and respectful of other perspectives. That’s really important coming in with the right attitude. Then, once you have that attitude building on that with the skills, just the kinds of things that you’re talking about, in terms of listening, you want to listen to understand instead of listening to respond.
You do that by when somebody says something, instead of like shooting back with your contrasting perspective, you reflect back to them what they said so that you make sure you understood them and they feel like you understood them. That’s really important because then they’re going to want to hear more from you. The listening is really key there. In fact, just even giving somebody uninterrupted time to speak is something we do so seldom. It’s such a gift to really give that to someone.
JENNIFER BROWN: Why do you think there is a draw to dialogue in such conflictual times? I think of fight, flight, freeze, and appease. I alternate between probably all of those as most of us do, but you said just a moment ago, there’s an interest in connection. I know this year has just been singular in terms of opportunity to learn new things to truly listen to understand because we’re learning so much in 2020 about each other that I think is unprecedented because we’ve had no choice. It’s a year of tumult.
We’re looking into each other’s homes on Zoom. We’re learning about and having to reveal. I think it’d be more vulnerable with each other because, strangely, even though we’re socially distanced and over virtual networks, we are on screen. There’s many things you can’t hide on a screen.
I do wonder how do you understand what this year has created in terms of is it a new kind of appetite for dialogue and a new hunger to understand and to be understood? I think we’re in very new territory, and I’m fascinated about like what has been unlocked this year. Then, I’m really passionate about not letting things go back to sleep. Even as difficult as this is, I want to prop that door open with my foot and not let it close every day.
TANIA ISRAEL: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think about… Wait, we’re finally getting to the good stuff like this is the stuff that matters and what we need for healing, for moving forward, for understanding and hearing each other. It’s a very painful, but really special year.
TANIA ISRAEL: Yes, definitely. Let me unpack that a little bit because there’s so many ideas that you’ve got there. One of them you talked about fight, flight, freeze. These conversations can really push our buttons. That’s one of the challenges. Honestly, people tell me even anticipating having these conversations is difficult let alone actually being in them.
It’s important that we have some tools that we can use when our emotions get heightened. I always say just being aware of what’s going on for yourself is important. Notice if you’re feeling flushed, if your heart’s beating faster. Notice if your breath is getting shallow. Then, that’s the fight, flight, or freeze, but we can also do something I call the fourth one then forward. Fight, flight, freeze, or move forward.
You can move forward if you are finding ways of responding to that, that help to calm your body. You can take slow deep breaths. You can notice the feeling of your feet on the floor , the chair underneath you. You can touch your own arm or your hand just to physically ground yourself.
I think that the other thing that can be helpful in these situations is to keep in mind that your body is responding to threat, and our bodies are built to respond to threat as if every threat is a saber-toothed tiger. In these conversations, people feel threatened. They feel like their views an certainly their lives can be threatened. Sometimes, it feels like, but honestly in dialogue probably the greatest threat is that somebody is going to disagree with you in a harsh tone.
That is probably the worst thing that’s going to happen. It’s just remembering that can be important in terms of shifting that perspective and recognizing you’re going to be okay.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I hear you on that. Yeah. I have a weighted blanket actually. I was just envisioning as you were talking about calming ourselves and grounding ourselves something very heavy on top of you. I know it sounds strange, but they really do have a calming effect and parents with ADHD kids know this, but they’re really very, very effective, but, yeah. So, touching your body, reminding yourself of the physical world, the concreteness and also that you’re right, what’s the worst that’s going to happen and that rational mind that you can invite.
But it takes a while to think the amygdala is hijacking. I’ve always feel like the body’s response starts this cascade. It’s like you have to ride it out. It’s not like you can just decide to make it stop. You have to ride it. Then, it’s got to work its way out of your system eventually. Then, you can look at something in a calmer way. I’m sure there’s many biological reasons for all of that and chemical reasons that you teach about.
TANIA ISRAEL: It’s helpful to try to correct those distortions to begin with so that we’re not so afraid of the person we’re going to be talking to or what that situation is going to be. It’s a conversation. Of course, if it is actually a dangerous or potentially abusive situation, yeah, get out of there. That’s not the time to be having that conversation, but most of these conversations are not that. You’re talking about it’s a time for learning. I think people are opening up to learning.
I was just reading, so you want to talk about race. It’s such a great book in terms of helping to guide people through that, and people are wanting to talk about race, but, oh my gosh, what a challenging thing for us to discuss in our society. Often, when we’re thinking about diversity and wanting to reach across and understand somebody else’s perspective, we’re often thinking about these types of diversity in terms of our identities.
I think also understanding diversity of thought can be important and can be really valuable. So, understanding where other people are coming from in terms of their values and their views and what are their moral priorities, I think, can be really useful.
I will also say that these conversations like having the tools, having the skills is not a mandate to have dialogue. It’s an opportunity. You always get to decide whether or not you actually want to engage in this conversation with this person because I know people say to me, “Well…” When you’re talking about calming yourself isn’t that just tone policing and like do I have to really always be on and explaining to people why they should treat me as a human being.
It’s obviously challenging. I sometimes will speak more to what allies should be doing in these situations if they want to try to reach out to their friends and their family members and help them to understand more about the issues. People who are particularly targeted by certain things aren’t necessarily… It takes a lot of internal emotional resources to live that every day. Sometimes, other people are really the best folks to take up that opportunity to have dialogue.
JENNIFER BROWN: I so resonate with that. I’ve been thinking a lot about the partnership between those who are fatigued, angry, frustrated, need self-care because of how intense all of this is. Those of us who may be able to help lighten the burden and the load of this moment. I think that’s the question that many aspiring allies are asking. I say aspiring because it’s not ever a done deal. It’s a process.
But I do want to dive more into that, and I’m really glad you started talking about this because we have this supply and demand mismatch it strikes me that, the need for allyship is so critical and so tremendous. It’s all I think about every day. Then, the fatigue, there’s a fatigue around like I can’t participate in it because I’ve got to go and restore myself because this is very difficult to be me right now.
It’s a really interesting, I don’t know if it’s a mismatch. Maybe I didn’t characterize that correctly, but how can we bring… I guess the question is how can we match this effectively so that the capacity that exists that’s not being utilized on the part of those who may not be struggling from a direct lived experience as much right now is brought to bear to help the situation because I feel there’s so much kind of hesitation and polarization even between the side that might benefit from support because it gives rest. It gives assistance. It gives further resources. It gives partnership to feel less alone that not left alone to fight your battles every day is a tremendously amazing feeling.
As a LGBTQ woman, I think about my straight allies. I think about my male allies. I smile. It just gives me this feeling that I am not alone. If I needed to activate that, I could. Anyway, then, there’s this whole group of people who are waiting to be activated and don’t know how to activate right now. I sit in the middle of all that. I think about it a lot.
Honestly, it’s maybe book number three. Yes, indeed. If I can write it, maybe I can figure it out. I don’t know.
TANIA ISRAEL: No. It’s one of the ways we try to figure things out. We all write the books we want to read.
JENNIFER BROWN: Isn’t that true? What do you advise in this moment that’s so we need each other so much and yet we’re so polarized and not understanding what we need to know about each other at the same time? That’s what it feels like.
TANIA ISRAEL: I think that Black Lives Matter has really brought some of these issues into clearest view in terms of what’s going on. I know what I’ve seen happening sometimes on social media is that some of my white friends will say things like, “Oh, I’m unfriending all of my racist family members, and that’s see how anti-racist I am.” I go, “Oh, no. Don’t do that. You actually have access to them, and people of color don’t. I want you to be having those conversations. I want you to be engaging.” Yes, I know it’s hard, but to me, that’s actually a stronger ally position, but this is some of that piece about social media where people are just putting a single message out there because really I think what you might want to do is say to your friends of color like, “I am here for you. You are right. This is a huge problem.”
Then, you want to be able to say to your white friends and family members, “Let’s have a conversation.” But if you’re only able to say one thing out there publicly, it gets really difficult to do both of those things. That’s where I think we can’t just rely on social media for all of our communication. We need to take it off of there and actually have dialogue with folks. I think that’s a big part of it, is just keeping in mind the opportunities that we have as allies and not cutting off those opportunities to try to show people that we are with them by disconnecting from those spheres of influence that we have.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that is exactly not the right thing to do although it might feel an escape from the discomfort which is human. We want to avoid the discomfort, I think, but to notice that I’m performing wokeness, it’s not a word I love, but like that, “Hey, look how much I’m in solidarity with that I’m willing to do this, that I’m willing to do that.” It can be misapplied, I think, in the hands and the hearts of those of us who are really new to this whole conversation. I just think that we’ve got to back up to go forward right now.
TANIA ISRAEL: Sure. The other complication with all of this is that we all have aspects of ourselves that are more vulnerable. It’s hard not to focus on our own vulnerabilities and all this. I remember after the 2015 election, somebody said, “Well, what do you think we should do about intersectionality?” I said, “I have all these target identities. I can lay them all out.”
But right now, if I am not black, brown, poor, transgender or undocumented, then my job is to be an ally I have a lot of vulnerabilities, but they’re not the ones that are particularly being targeted right now. My job is to be there for other people. We need to, I think, acknowledge where we have our vulnerabilities and our target identities, but I think we also have to recognize where we have opportunities to support other people in other communities even as we recognize that we’re not the most privileged.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yeah. The whole privileged question, oh my goodness, there’s so much fear around admitting you have it even there are some people I’m like, “Well, maybe I can see you have it, or maybe I might make assumptions that you do. It’s not like you can hide, but at the same time, we cannot assume we see all of who somebody is in the invisible diversity dimensions. I’ve been continually checked on my own bias as I look at someone and say, “Oh, they would never get it. They don’t know what this is about.”
I work with so many executive teams teaching this stuff. I think it’s so important to open the door and build a container for sharing, for exploring everybody’s diversity dimensions and not making it like Kenji Yoshino says the pain Olympics.
I think we’ve got to, at the same time, not create equivalencies, but we also have to encourage people and give them some sort of way forward to understand how they do connect into this conversation because I think overall this conversation has been the province of those of us who’ve been most marginalized, most underrepresented. We’ve had to carry the water. We’ve had to educate. We’ve had to lead all the functions and workplaces. We’re always the one either volunteering or we’re on the committees or we lead the initiative.
I think we’ll look back at this moment and wonder why our strategy wasn’t more effective in terms of engaging everyone about this topic because the result that I’m finding now as we sit here is there is vast numbers of people who think this doesn’t have anything to do with them, that it’s not an opportunity, but it’s sort of more of a chore or that they’re so awkward because they don’t know anything about it and therefore, they don’t know how to interact with it. It’s just a sheer, a total lack of exposure and skills.
Then, you get to the willingness to engage. There’s skill and there’s will. I always think about… I call this podcast the will to change because I’m fascinated with, like, it’s going to be important to not just build skill which to me is the behaviors and the actions, but the will to me is about the about emotions and about… Think about the willingness to do something. What gets in the way of willingness? It’s fear. It’s hesitation. It’s overwhelm. It’s awkwardness.
It’s, I think, fear of not being perfect or good at something, I think, is a really big thing. I know I covered a lot of things just then, but when I talk about privilege, I try to say privilege with a small P, like let’s stop weaponizing that word and just talk about the things that give us greater ease, greater permission, greater access to do something, say something, challenge something, take a risk and not have as much of a consequence.
To me, that can come from a whole lot of places of privilege. Anyway, I wondered if that’s the way you think about. Also, I would really love to know how you view as you’ve awoken to all the pieces you have to employ as somebody who creates change. You’ve already described some of privilege and how it feels for you as well, but I do think we’ve got to do a more thorough job in a more inviting conversation around all of that because allyship comes from recognizing and seeing all the privileges that enable us to either have tailwinds behind us or headwinds facing us.
That to me, that leads to humility and gratitude for some of the things that I’ve been given because I wouldn’t argue I earned all of them. That speed my way. I somehow think if leaders could mine that and neutrally consider it, like not be ashamed of it or not how to be attacked or there’s so much noise around it that I almost feel like the work can’t be done, and I worry about that because that’s the work that has to be done in order to move forward together.
TANIA ISRAEL: Yeah. Let me talk a little bit about privilege. Then, I’m going to want to get back to you were talking about the will to change. I want to talk about the will. In terms of privilege because I feel like I’m so obviously a mixed bag in terms of my various identities, but the identities that I learned to talk about most easily were my target identities and particularly being a woman, being a person of color, being bisexual. because there are narratives around that, there’s literally a day about coming out.
Then, you get to hear everybody’s coming-out stories. There’s a narrative about being a sexual minority. I was a women’s studies major. There’s fields of study. I know we’ll say like everything that’s not women’s studies is men’s studies. That’s true. At the same time, there was a degree that I could get. There was a way to talk about things and to analyze things.
There’s also community around these things. There’s community around being a person of color. All of these things had sort of ways of talking and ways of bonding with people. Now, if I look at all of my more privileged identities, being a currently able-bodied person, being a US citizen, being relatively light-skinned raised with economic privilege, all of these things, I don’t have community that is overtly about these things. I don’t have narratives that are comfortable to discuss around the privilege that I have.
I think that that’s definitely one of the things that makes it challenging. Anyone who does work in diversity and privilege knows all of that. The thing that I’m really aware of is that even as somebody who’s got target identities, it’s been so important to recognize the privilege that I have. It’s a different challenge recognizing privilege for people who are strongly associated with target identities, I think.
People who aren’t so strongly associated with target identities who either don’t have as many of them or they’re not as visible or they’re not as connected to those communities, I think that’s a particular challenge in terms of how do you actually get somebody to understand privilege if they’re not even thinking about that construct at all, but there are people who are thinking about it a lot, but they’re thinking about how they don’t have it.
But even those of us who don’t have it on some dimensions have it on other dimensions. I really think it’s important that it’s not like these people have privilege and these people don’t. You can only talk from one angle or another. I think that we all have to be able to recognize where we have privilege. It just might be different doing that if you’re strongly connected with a target identity or if you’re not.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That’s exactly how I describe it. You’ve added a lens, I think, I’m going to utilize to say we just don’t have as much of the language and the education and the community. We’ve learned to tell our stories. I think the narrative and though we don’t have a lot of role models, that’s one of the problems of being in an underrepresented identity is, but to make up for that, we have found each other, and we’ve had to fight, I think, for our stories and for our truth, for survival.
When you do that, you get more practice, I think, at sharing your story I now come out as LGBTQ plus, but it doesn’t really impact me to do that anymore. I’m not taking the risk that I used to take years ago. I feel I have the strength of a community behind me as well. I know how big it is. I know I’m the Trojan horse, and I have this army in me. I understand the business case for equality and all these great things that we are now aware of.
But you’re right that we’re in the infancy, I think, in terms of talking about these other identities that many feel perhaps shame around or guilt around. I ask how can we not weaponize this, but how can we name these and then how can we activate around them? How can we actually turn it into real ally behaviors that make a difference to outcomes for others?
Instead of sort of sitting with it and feeling bad and not talking about it. I don’t know what your advice would be to leaders, but would you say maybe share a little bit all the dimensions that make you who you are including some of the ways that your life has gone perhaps smoother and don’t hide from it, but if we name it somehow, I feel like I don’t like the word normalized, but it might usualize, my preferred word. It might increase competency in others around us to start to talk about this more openly.
Then, what do I do with it? It wasn’t just given to me randomly. I think of my mom saying to whom much is given, much is expected. I heard that I’m not sure that she meant it to be applied and the way I’m applying it, but I feel very called because there are things that are easier for me. That comes with a responsibility. It comes with an accountability. It comes with an opportunity. It’s perfect for this moment to think about that in that way because there’s such a need.
TANIA ISRAEL: Yeah. I appreciate you sort of contextualizing that piece about the language and the community and all of that. A lot of that comes out of survival like you do that because you have to. That’s not an advantage that people have.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh yes.
TANIA ISRAEL: What do we do about it? That’s a great question because the exploration of privilege, I think, is so important as a step along the way because I think if we don’t understand our privilege, then, we’re going to believe that everything we have, we got out of our own work. If anyone who doesn’t have that, they just didn’t work as hard. They didn’t deserve it as much.
It’s, of course, not to say that we didn’t work hard. It’s never saying that we didn’t work hard, but it’s just recognizing that other people haven’t had the same advantages that we’ve had. It’s not separating ourselves from them and saying, “Okay. We’re good. They’re bad,” because we’ve got what we have, but I think that’s only the first step. I’m not sure if the sort of testimonial aspect of it is the most important piece.
What I hope is that people can understand their own privilege so that when they have that privilege and they’re in positions of power, they use that power and privilege to try to equalize the playing field. I actually think it’s more of a what do you do about the structure of things. Then, what do you do about how you portray yourself because we’ve got to change those structures if we want to actually change the conditions that people have that sort of maintain the privilege.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. For sure. We talk so much about the structural, the challenges that I think some of us with kinds of privilege can challenge the structure in very unique ways. That is definitely incumbent on leaders. I think it’s especially difficult. I wonder what you think about this that it’s hard to sense the water that you swim in. It’s also hard to spot the biases in policies and processes and systems in order to root them out when you have not been negatively impacted by them.
That’s not sort of a visceral direct experience for you. Then, the water you swim in is invisible. Those systems have also benefited you. There’s sort of a reverse incentive in some people’s minds to reverse incentive to challenge something where you don’t know what the alternative looks like because I think also we’re building the plane as we fly it.
It feels also the extent I know that bias exists everywhere in organizations in every process and… It’s everywhere. You talk about the water we swim in.
TANIA ISRAEL: The thing about lack of awareness of privilege, we can think, “Okay. Well, wouldn’t it be better if you have privilege just not to acknowledge it,” because, hey, awesome you have privilege. You get advantages based on whatever group you belong to that you didn’t actually have to earn. That sounds awesome, doesn’t it? But that doesn’t sound awesome to me. It certainly doesn’t sound awesome if you’re a leader who has to make decisions about things because it means there’s a whole chunk of information that you’re not taking into account when you’re assessing what the situation is.
If you’re running a business and you’re not aware of privilege and the way that’s playing out in your organization, you’re making bad decisions. Not being aware of privilege, I think, really disadvantages people in leadership positions especially.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. At the same time as people will say, “Well, I don’t want to give up something that I have to make room for someone else.” It’s like the exact opposite of what you just said. It hurts you and your viability and your relevance as a leader, as an organization to do this badly or not at all, or to dismiss it and work against it which is still happening.
It’s not infrequent that I get the question about, Jennifer, are you saying that I have to hire this person or this demographic. Do you have to have quotas? It’s a meritocracy. The whole road we go down over and over again which I’m super tired of fielding all that, but to me rather to apply your skills rather than judge that, I’m trying to be curious about why that is still in the air and why perhaps people may be saying that to me, but imagine the number of people who are thinking it.
Then as an educator, I think, “Okay.” I have to acknowledge that this is still there. It’s still a belief. It’s still rather pervasive. How do we meet people where they’re at in terms of what their assumptions are. Then, move forward from there because if I give them the 3.0 and I haven’t backed up and solved for that.
I risk leaving a lot of people behind. We risk leaving a lot of people behind. That concerns me.
TANIA ISRAEL: That gets me back to the topic of the will and the will to change that you were talking about. One of the most interesting things that I’ve learned in doing this work about dialogue across political lines because my work didn’t start as a book. Actually, after the 2016 election, the first resource I created is something I call the flow chart that will resolve all political conflict in our country.
JENNIFER BROWN: Bless you.
TANIA ISRAEL: [crosstalk 00:48:46] optimistic like that, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We have to be.
TANIA ISRAEL: Exactly. I thought, “Well, I’m going to help people to be more intentional about whether or not and how they’re going to have these conversations.” Then spoiler alert, the flowchart did not actually resolve all political conflict in our countries. I had to do more. Then, I created a workshop.
I did a two-hour skills building workshop. As I did that workshop and in the conversations with people in that workshop, I would ask them what are your motivations. I thought, “Great.” If I know what their motivations are and then I teach them the skills and then I can just keep bringing them back to their motivations for why they should use the skills, here’s what I learned.
I learned that people sometimes want more than one thing. In terms of their motivation, they want to maintain this relationship with somebody, but they also want to feel validated, and they want to be able to just freely express their opinion. I was like, “Oh, right, people have more than one want.”
I think that as you’re asking what should allies do, how should leaders do these things, we get back to this issue constantly. Yes, allies want to do what’s going to be most helpful for the communities that they’re trying to support. They also want to be comfortable. They don’t want to have to have those difficult conversations with their family members.
It’s like they’re in that dilemma. Leaders and people with privilege want to retain the privilege that they have, but they also might want to make sure that they’re taking all the information into account as they’re making those decisions. I think it’s important that we recognize our varied motivations and where they’re in conflict with each other so that we can be more intentional about where we’re going to direct our energy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. Can you imagine being able to hold all of that at once?
TANIA ISRAEL: It is a lot.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. It is a lot. But it’s a twist in a way of the business case, we always call it in this work which is the appealing to self-interest which is the, hey, we’re recruiting and retaining from a very diverse world. We want the most innovative teams. We want people to not just come, but to stay. We want to grow our talent and enable feeling welcomed, valued, respected and heard so they can thrive and make their contributions.
We also want our talent pool and our workforce to reflect a diversifying world because if we don’t and we miss that, we’re not going to anticipate who our customer is today and tomorrow because we’re not going to have the right people around the table feeling seen and heard and feeling the psychological safety that we all need to create and to contribute.
I have to make the arguments a million different ways. That’s always what I advise people. I know it feels like twisting ourselves up into pretzel. It doesn’t feel fair honestly to have to honestly make anything but the moral argument which is, hey, do you want me to be safe as a LGBTQ woman in the world. Do you care or do you not? That seems very basic to me. Sometimes, the business case can feel like you’re selling out because we shouldn’t have to make it yet again and also that we are arguing for our literal viability and safety and right to thrive in the world.
It can feel very personal. Sometimes, I get a little upset about having to… I hide it well, but I’m like, “Am I really having to argue for my ability to be safe and to thrive?” I don’t get it, but we’ve got to again speak people’s language and speak to maybe multiple wills that they have going on that might be contradictory.
I like that. What can we work with in someone who has what might seem to us to be, I don’t know, contradictory wants and needs, but maybe if we can identify several things going on for someone, how do we work with the piece that is useful for, I think, for the inclusion equation, I guess.
TANIA ISRAEL: One of the things that motivates people is to do things that are consistent with the way they see themselves. I’m thinking about the work that I did training law enforcement. One of the things in the mission statement of this police department was making everybody in the community feel safe. One of the things we really drew on was it might mean that you have to do different things to make different people feel safe because people are coming in with different histories of community, of violence in terms of their individual experiences, in terms of their family community, all of that, in terms of their vulnerability.
We were doing stuff around LGBTQ folks. Even if you haven’t done anything personally, people are coming in with these experiences of having been bullied or being concerned about that. Then, you say, “Okay,” because that’s your mission statement. That’s what you want to do. It might look different for different people in different communities. I think we draw on what people’s own values are. We have to go with what their values are, not necessarily what our values are because sometimes we want to make an argument that way. We can be very much like this is about my survival.
I know people talk about this. They say, “I can’t have these conversations with people because that other person, they don’t even think I exist or I should exist. How am I supposed to talk to them about that?” Then, it depends. If you want to have that conversation, then don’t you want to know why they’re thinking that or how they’re understanding that? I think sometimes we’re so focused on making our argument that we’re not hearing what is the basis on which they have that perspective or they’re making that determination.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that’s so spot on. If we have different political views on our families, it can feel very personal to say the way you vote invalidates or puts me in danger, but I know that you love me. This is this kind of cognitive disconnect that I think a lot of us feel. Then, of course, what happened with news and misinformation has, I think, misinformed along the way and just talk about distortion distorted a lot of these truths too.
But it can only be sorted out in conversation. I really love coming back to that. It may feel old school. We don’t even talk on the phone anymore, but I would love a return to that because and even just I know it’s hard on the pandemic, we can’t do it, but even like experiencing somebody else across from us and looking into the eyes and reading the body language and really like adjusting as you go, there’s something really powerful and important about being physically near someone as well and having these conversations also harder maybe in some ways because it’s not at the arm’s length of a digital interaction or phone call, but it’s, boy, I hope… Do you foresee a day when we return to creating more dialogue in that kind of circumstance given that we’ve become so just tech enabled in every possible way?
TANIA ISRAEL: Absolutely I think especially right now in the middle of a pandemic, people are really excited for when we’re able to reconnect with other people. Again, there will be opportunity in that. There will be opportunity in that to connect with all kinds of different people. Even right now, like I said, making a comment on somebody’s Facebook post is not actual communication, but even talking on the phone gives us more information in terms of tone. You can really get more from that. Then, if you’re able to connect on Skype or Zoom or Facetime or whatever and you can actually see the other person, you’re not in the room together, but you can pick up more on body language and whatnot.
You can be socially distanced with somebody and have a conversation. There are ways that we can do it now, but my gosh, when we’re actually able to be together again, I think that’s marvelous potential because we’re just going to be so excited to be in the same room with other people.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ll never forget the feeling. Yes. It’s so true. What a lovely note to end on that we miss each other and on a cellular level, on a human level. I hope that the being able to value things that we maybe took for granted in the past will also enable us to come together differently now that we’ve learned what we’ve learned and what we’ve been through. I say often and I believe that the pandemic kind of opened up our eyes to each other’s lives and I think built some empathy that then enabled us to literally see on our screens the murder of George Floyd differently.
It landed differently. It was more powerful. This arc of this year has deepened our seeing of each other. We’ve talked a lot about the polarization, but I think the opposite has happened too. I’m always just really trying to encourage that, and I’m trying to say in the work world, nobody wants to go back. We want to go forward in a different way. We want more empathy in our workplaces. We want more vulnerability. We want more transparency. We want to bring more of our full selves and have that not just stigmatized, but sought, desired, appreciated, valued because these are things that we all kept below our water line historically because we had so much shame, I think, about things, but that has all of a sudden become visible.
That is such a gift. I don’t think there’s anything we could have done to create that besides what happened this year. There’s nothing we as humans could have done. It had to be done to us. Maybe, I think it was done for us frankly. I’m sure you agree with that. It was done for us. It was a huge gift. We can’t squander that gift. We have to really carry that with us and not lose the spirit of it and cherish it, cherish the value that has happened for us, the gift that we’ve been given.
Anyway, I love this conversation, Tania. Please, tell people where can they find your work. Now, by the time this airs, unfortunately, your today show appearance will be behind us which is tomorrow morning, but I don’t know. Maybe, you’ll be sharing it in social media. We can give a watch. I’m sure people would love to do that.
TANIA ISRAEL: I’m sure I will be sharing on social media. On social media, my work on dialogue is a BYB Dialogue for Beyond Your Bubble Dialogue. You can also check out my website taniaisrael.com, and all of the various things I do end up there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Thank you for the work you do in the world. You’ve taught me so much today. I’m sure our audience is just going to love this. You’ll have a lot of new fans. Thank you, Tania.
TANIA ISRAEL: Thank you for everything you do. This was so great to get to talk with you.
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