Safe Spaces vs Brave Spaces

The Battle for Inclusion in Our Nation's Cultural Conversation

By Dr. Brad McLain, Director of the Center for STEM Learning at CU Boulder

As the Director of Corporate Research for the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), my team and I work on building more innovative and inclusive cultures in some of the largest tech companies in the world. In this work, we face a dilemma: Should we be creating psychologically safe spaces for technical teams in the companies we work with, so that individuals can authentically and openly discuss their true personal experiences of their team cultures as a pathway to change? Or, should we be creating psychologically brave spaces for (wait for it)… individuals to authentically and openly discuss their true personal experiences of their team cultures as a pathway to equitable and inclusive culture change?

In practice, we have usually danced along this boundary to the tune of, “Well, it takes both, of course.” But does it really? Is there such a thing as a safe space to share your true feelings and even your harsher experiences at work without penalties or repercussions of some kind? Is there really a way to eliminate the risks of sharing your experiences of frustration, discrimination, exclusion, and even humiliation at times? In my view, the situation has recently changed dramatically…

If you are part of one or more marginalized identity groups — namely being anything other than hetero-cis-male-white within a patriarchal team power culture — the answer is an emphatic “no.” There is tremendous personal and professional risk in sharing your actual work experiences openly. And this has long been true. 

The risks include being labeled:

  • a “trouble-maker,”
  • a “complainer”
  • or “not-a-team-player.”

Even simply calling attention to the fact that you are different in some way can be risky, thus making your work life all the more complicated. The consequences may appear in the form of:

  • fewer opportunities for stretch assignments,
  • a lack of mentors or sponsors so important for success,
  • or lost promotions and advancement.

The risks can also be more subtle barriers to your interpersonal relationships, or even internal to your own sense-of-self – such as through the experience of stereotype threat, which is the fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes about a marginalized group you belong to and is known to reduce belonging, inhibit performance, and damage both physical and psychological health.

Majority group members, on the other hand, have a much lower risk (though not zero) for expressing themselves and bringing their “whole selves” to work, or for sharing their views (personal or professional) because they are implicitly validated even before they open their mouths to speak. This kind of privilege is mostly invisible to those who have it, to paraphrase the sociologist Michael Kimmel. Speaking as a majority group member myself, I can attest to this effect in the executive workshops we conduct as part of our work at NCWIT. And as an ally to more inclusive culture construction, I will often introduce myself with the elephant-in-the-room question — “Is the middle-aged white guy REALLY going to stand up and talk to us about inclusion?”

And my answer, “Yes he is. Not only do I study this as a social scientist, but I am a member of the group who generally has the most ‘position power’ to make change — and I am a member of the group who has the most changing to do, personally, if cultures are to change at all.”

So, the question is not: Why am I standing up to talk about this? The question is: Why aren't more majority group members seeing this as their personal responsibility to do the same?""

All that is assuming, of course, that people are honest brokers with good and fair intentions regarding inclusivity. The hard truth is that not everyone is — and that is more true now than it has been in the past three decades. Many in the majority have an unconscious or even a conscious investment in the status-quo, where their power and privilege are secure. So I ask again, as change agents of inclusive culture construction, should we be creating safe spaces or brave spaces for our efforts to drive change?

Now, along comes the twist. The anti-woke narrative that is currently snowballing through our nation’s cultural conversation is creating a safe space… but it is a safe space for open and self-righteous racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ+ hostility and exclusion.

This anti-diversity movement has been powerfully enabled and openly encouraged by the Supreme Court’s recent rulings to outlaw affirmative action related to race-conscious college admissions and women’s reproductive rights, all of which disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and poor people. Simultaneously, these recent decisions promote the right to bigotry, intolerance, and open discrimination if you claim religious “freedom.” It is also being introduced and boldly articulated in state legislatures as bills — and now laws — codifying and enshrining the right to oppress, demean, shame and deprive minorities of their rights, and in some cases, their existence.

What is more, this growing narrative is not-so-cleverly attempting to hijack the language of inclusion with claims to advance equity through “color-blindness” advocacy, or “leveling the playing field” (mainly for majorities ‘oppressed’ by DEI), or framing their efforts as “defending our children from dangerous ideas” (an age-old cry of the oppressor). Now, some are even absurdly touting the “benefits” of slavery for Black people so as to re-narrate the many horrors upon which our society was built.

These stances strategically ignore and purposely seek to dismantle and re-write the historical and cultural context of how our modern institutions, our norms, and our values systematically under-privilege those who fall into any category of “other.” This includes the intersectional identity categories of race, ethnicity, age, class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, body size, and more.

This changes things. The risks of speaking up for diversity, equity, and inclusion — or even participating in DEI initiatives — has gone up with this growing narrative. But the risks for NOT doing so are now even higher.

The tender-hearted cry for creating safe spaces to explore issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion must now be replaced with a clarion call-to-action to charge into brave spaces to confront this toxic narrative head-on if we truly believe in the elevating and noble promise of our purported American ideals. Among them: liberty, plurality, tolerance, and inclusivity within one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations. Is that not who we are? And if not, is that not who we want to become?

And it is a call-to-action for majority group allies above all. Creating a brave space to build more inclusive cultures at work is where to start. If you are a majority-group member in one or more ways, this is a call to learn more about the social science of belonging, the ways you can personally promote a culture that supports growth for all, and how to best author a counter-narrative to the anti-woke propaganda currently poisoning our cultural conversation. It is time to start using that implicit majority-group power and privilege to own and deliver on our shared responsibilities to one another as people, and to our collective identity as citizens of this pluralistic nation and of the world.

Want to talk about this more? I’ll hold an AMA on August 31, 2023 at 10 a.m. PT / 11 a.m. MT / 12 p.m. CT / 1 p.m. ET on the NCWIT Linkedin page. You can also join my team’s upcoming NCWIT Conversation for Change – The Criminalization of Inclusion: Spotlight on Anti-DEI Rhetoric – on September 6, 2023 at 10 a.m. PT / 11 a.m. MT / 12 p.m. CT / 1 p.m. ET.

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