The Illusion of Inclusion: Do you celebrate diversity and inclusion without doing the work?

Michelle Pope, MBA, EdD

While taking a virtual diversity and inclusion class at Cornell University, I was faced with an assignment that triggered raw emotions during a national crisis for our country. In this moment, I chose to be transparent with my classmates to ensure that we have an honest conversation about diversity and inclusion – or the difference between the two. As leaders, colleagues, and humans, we must begin to confront the conversations that make us uncomfortable. This was my opportunity to begin saying those things we typically shy away from. Exposing MY truth – and the truth of many other underrepresented minorities (URM).


When you’ve experienced inclusion, what were the behaviors that others showed towards you that made you feel both you were being treated as an insider and that your uniqueness was valued?

This exercise took some time for me to carefully consider my response. In light of current events, it was quite a challenge to reflect on a moment of “inclusion” when the majority of my experiences have been the polar opposite. Although I read this assignment a few days ago, I stared at my screen for a moment looking for an objective way to respond. 

So, when have I felt inclusion? Quite frankly, I have most often experienced inclusion in its purest form within my own community. However, in a broader sense, my ability to assimilate has been the best method to be included in environments where I am a minority. Unfortunately, my experience does not usually include an eventual adjustment in perspective as someone gets to know me. It is more common for me to experience differentiation and the burden is usually mine to determine the best method to breakthrough the barriers of unconscious bias. What does that mean? It means that I’ve learned how to make the majority audience comfortable with me. It may be a change in my dialect, carefully monitoring my non-verbals, carefully approaching conversations where I may need to pushback (so I am not perceived as angry), etc.  

This can be extremely emotionally and mentally exhausting. Especially when people who have not done the work to be inclusive are celebrating “diversity and inclusion”. 

So, when have I experienced inclusion? When I have owned it myself. Figuring out how to navigate environments and make others comfortable with my presence. I will rather be transparent for this because I hope it can become a lesson for us as leaders. What your minority employees present to you may only be a reflection of what they know you need to see to accept them.

Many diversity and inclusion activities tend to be superficial or self-congratulatory for the majority in organizations. The uncomfortable conversations or initiatives that drive tangible outcomes are often taboo. Without a close look at hiring practices, succession planning, review scores, and retention metrics – you have missed the mark for truly measuring and implementing DIVERSITY into your organization.

If your URM employees do not feel equally valued or heard within the culture of the organization – you have failed to truly foster an INCLUSIVE environment. My presence at the organization can certainly promote your diversity metrics, but I am more than a number. Now that I am “a part of the team” – what’s next? Can I share my experience without it being perceived as my ISSUE or something you can “help me let go of”? Will my contributions in meetings be equally credible, or must I partner with a white colleague for my recommendation to receive serious consideration?

What is the call to action? We are facing a unique time in this country where human beings are looking for more than words. Employees need more than ideas in your minds and on paper. They need action and conviction in your hearts. Photographic efforts to support diversity and inclusion are amazing ways to show unity, but what is the lesson after taking the selfie and posting my life experience as a hashtag? What’s next? Can you share the responsibility of inclusion with me?




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