How many times have you witnessed the following or something like it?
You’re on yet another Zoom call with those coworkers you used to meet once a week for lunch. As the meeting rolls on, you notice that Jake is doing that thing again—the one he says he’s been working on. He’s got a pen, and he’s tossing it from hand to hand. Working on his fidgeting? you think, he’s been working on that forever. Then, you notice that your friends Maya and Aaron are sharing their thoughts with you in a private chat.
Aaron: Check out Jake—paying attention like always.
Maya: I wish that pen would break. Sure would break up the monotony.
Aaron: Yep, Jake, inking another deal.
Maya: You mean his shirt!
Then, lots of LOLs and emojis flying back and forth—all meant to communicate that although Jake might be working on his distracting fidgeting, it’s not working.
So what do you do? Is it okay to laugh? To participate? Is there really anything wrong with a couple of coworkers making light of someone else’s behavior? After all, the person being targeted has no idea. He’s just sitting there, tossing his pen from hand to hand, trying to cope with the boring call—just like you are—but with a pen.
DE&I work is complicated and we are not immune.
Here’s the deal— as people in the DE&I space, we are not immune to toxic environments and the “mean-person cliques” creeping into our own spaces. We are not immune to the various factors that can be considered a toxic culture. And it isn’t our fault.
For most of us, the moment we entered into any community (school, place of worship, family, etc.) our experiences encapsulated a toxic culture- one where shaming and dehumanization were not only accepted, they were rewarded (either openly or privately).
Think about a time when you were a kid, and an adult told you that you were better than someone else or nicer than someone else, or better looking. Or maybe they just said, “Don’t be like Marlon.” Or, “It’s not Pedro’s fault; he came from a dysfunctional family.” Those little moments elevate one at the expense of another, and at the moment, they probably made us feel special, closer to power, and farther from the unfortunate object of the conversation who was probably not within hearing distance.
And didn’t those incidents serve as models for what came later: the cliques in high school that included some while excluding others, the sports teams, drama clubs, fraternities, and sororities that separated the world into those who were good enough and those who were not?
So it’s not surprising that when we witness people engaging in this type of shaming, we either remain silent, or worse, join in. Or worse still, we lead the charge.
As people in the DE&I space- part of our mission is to disrupt toxic cultures. We need to be hyper-vigilant and hyper-aware, and we need to be courageous. This means speaking up, calling a halt to the conversation, stopping the shaming, and standing with the person being shamed.
“But I’m only calling out the behavior to see if I’m the only one who is seeing it.” It’s true. There are times when I am in a meeting and will text a colleague as a self-check. “Did I just see what I think I saw?” “Did Annette just say that?” I do this because sometimes, I’m not sure if I got it right, and it’s easier to react with confidence if I’ve had my impressions validated.
But here’s the tricky part. An authentic check-in can quickly turn into something much less worthy. When I allow my well-intentioned question to morph into an exclusive group chat, or when I and my equally well-intentioned colleagues spend our conversation analyzing and privately shaming someone, it’s time to ask, “Are we erasing or contributing to the toxicity of the culture?” “Are we the solution, or have we become part of the problem?”
It takes courage and commitment to fight the everyday toxicity of the kind of public and private shaming described here. But if that’s you, and if you’re committed to the work and open to refinement, then I invite you to come along for the journey.