In life and in situations at large, the way out is through - it’s that keep at it attitude, for the win(FTW). However, when you are a kid who discovers that showing up fully self-expressed makes you a target for angst and hostility - staying the course, does not feel like the good way out. As a kid, I didn’t have braces, big glasses or look like Urkel, but I was picked on, pretty much every time I opened my mouth. I was not so typical, and that not-typical-ness made me an easy target. I was a girl and I was loud. I didn’t have much regard or awareness for the importance of building meaningful friendships. I was literally oblivious to what would make me likable to others. I wore my hair short. I was attentive and super vocal. I desperately wanted to be the teacher’s favorite and have all of the right answers. Furthermore, It always seemed that I was alone in my struggles. Singled out by others, and then feeling isolated, feeling pain, and feeling different - was my normal, for years (and still is sometimes). I was held back from recess as punishment for not remaining still in my chair. I was in detention for shoving a boy, who was badgering me, followed by warning after warning on the volume of my voice. Struggling, when things seemed effortless for everyone else, was the situation. Eventually, I realized that my FTW survival tactic was blend in and get thick skin, for the win.
I got good at the - look away, ignore, pretend that nothing is happening, turn the other cheek, change the subject of conversation, just smile, apologize and move on... But, my getting good at not engaging and raging - didn’t halt the actual getting picked-on. In early high-school this group of boys would taunt me - mocking how I held myself, and the speed in which I shuffled down the hallway. I really liked wearing ball caps on backwards, and that lead to teasing and name calling. I was made fun of for my outfit choices. I was unwilling to supply my younger brother with beer or drive him and his friends around in my car, so his friends would call me gay, as an insult to my character.
And, let’s face it, I never actually became masterful at truly tuning out hate. I just learned tactics to dampen conflict. Hate seemed to keep finding me, and thus I kept running away from it.
Turning my back to hostility, steered me toward people, groups, environments, jobs, and organizations where it seemed super unlikely that I would not be the one, who was different. This meant that I sought places where people looked like me, thought like me, did things I liked to do. If I looked for places where assimilation seemed highly probable, which meant i blended in, and meant avoiding diversity, I could consequently avoid being hated-on - and not just cope with the pain that followed.
The compounding impact of leaning into my desire to avoid being othered coupled with desire to seek out a sense of belonging, was a network of people around me that were, literally, just like me. I found myself in communities of white, wealthy, highly privileged, gay, jewish, urban dwellers who were educated, voted blue, get their media fix from NPR and the New York Times - amongst those who have traveled often and far, who have health insurance, who are interested in healthy habits, and who do not differ on whether or not, civilian gun laws in the US should or should not be sensibly tightened. In my world, the everyone opposes the religious right, and has an sincere interest in their own unconscious bias.
When I was 22 I got heavily involved in a yoga organization - I first participated in every yoga training they offered, and then worked for the organization. This group was so attractive to me - I aspired to be like all of the senior leaders. I associated qualities inside myself that were alike to others inside of the organization. I was attractive, didn’t wear a ton of make-up, was athletic in stature, was stylish, had boundless energy, was really curious and open to new things, was seeking deeper meaning from life - and so was everyone else. I looked, sounded, and felt totally typical. There was a strong commonality amongst everyone in the group - the lens in which we saw the world was glaringly similar. For maybe the first time in my life, I really felt like I fit-in, and it was the best feeling in the world. I wasn’t waiting to be picked-on or bullied, I wasn’t putting on a mask and tense with anticipation and desire. I was at ease, and able to relish in a feel good environment.
When an organization/brand has a strong specificity within the people they attract [and aim to attract], they intentionally or unintentionally breed exclusivity. If you don’t identify with the core-sameness of the group, you are likely a culprit of exclusion from specificity. If you are an employee or consumer akin to the unique set of specific qualities emanating from the brand, then it is likely that you feel seen, identified-with, a sense of attraction, a desire for immersion, a sense of belonging, and maybe a need to attach. The “omg,yes,that’s me!” draws you in and feels good. On the other hand, if the essence that is projected by the brand is something that you aspire to identify with, yet the identity(s) that you claim are not represented - your pull toward the brand will be less substantial. History teaches us that when we see ourselves as different, we approach with pause, will-I or will-I-not be welcomed?
Inclusivity occurs when people who fit the brand image and those who don’t fit the brand image feel welcomed. Diversity occurs as we expand brand messaging to attract a more diverse crowd. But diversity does not bread inclusivity, sometimes diversity breeds assimilation. Sometimes diversity breeds segregation. Exclusivity is prevalent when those who want in (1) knock on the door but are not welcomed inside (2) are not encouraged to come to the door and knock (3) walk right in, but look around feel ‘othered’.
In 2015 I was participating in a leadership training with this yoga organization. It was a classroom style setting - the facilitator was presenting with slides, my peers and I were sitting in rows, in chairs. The facilitator presented a scenario to amplify her message - the example was gender normative, gender binary, heteronormative, and absolute. I felt instantaneously isolated. I was in a place where I had a history of feeling the utmost sense of belonging, through the absence of feeling othered, and her words landed like an earthquake in my body. Everything was not copesetic, I could not relate to what she was saying. When I took a look around the room at my peers, I immediately saw that the intensity of my feelings was different, and was not what was happening for the rest of the room. I was in my seat, unsure if what was happening for me would be welcomed or shunned. In this moment, I had a choice - use my voice or don’t. Contribute a point of view that was different than the one being presented, or don’t. Continue to allow my individuality to be over-ridden by my desire to belong, or risk being ‘othered’.
In the year following that experience, I was at a conference, where the c-level HR exec took the stage, and in her speech she said, something like — show of hands, who considers themselves a minority? Even with pause, I didn’t raise my hand. I am gay. I am jewish. I am in recovery from a childhood of gender representation discrimination. I was also the only gay jew in my peer group, also within my bosses peer group. But, I could easily pass as one of the majority. The majority of my peers where het-norm female identifying athletes and I am a white female identifying athlete. I was not privileged to declare myself as a minority, I have the privilege of looking like I fit in. In this situation, wealth, education, priviledge, assimilation, and the color of my skin stopped me from identifying as a minority.
I wrestle with a strong desire to emphasize what makes me fit, and not what ‘others’ me. I value connection over (just about) everything.
Coming-out, speaking-up, standing-proudly-in who you are - means getting really real about what makes you, you, and then embodying the value of it. When we choose to nurture our appetite for assimilation over cultivating courageous communication - we hose our communities and organizations of the positive impact that diversity inherently generates. When we couple the capacity to speak about who we are, with vigor and a true willingness to risk, that in order to find connection you don’t need to seek or draw-out sameness.
I am still afraid of being being picked-on, teased, mocked, and misunderstood when I speak-up. But I know that no one sees the world exactly as I do. And, it might be my job to use my point of view as a tool to generate diversity and risk emotional pain for the potential of positive transformation.