Questions about identity-specific groups often come up when we talk about inclusion. These could be based on race, sexual orientation, age etc. Identity-based groups are often viewed with caution and the accusation of exclusion. Afterall, we don’t want to go “backwards”.
I’d like to suggest they are often necessary and helpful when creating meaningful change.
Many companies have Employee Resource Groups based on identity (LGBT, women, Aboriginal people, people with disabilities), and often they include allies. Many schools have GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) but they too usually include allies.
Allies are important.
And sometimes it helps to have an identity-only group or meeting. Here’s why:
Sometimes we need to be exclusive to get to the heart of an issue, to allow people the space to really share how they feel, and to ultimately support inclusion.
Marginalized groups (people of colour, LGBT people, people with (dis)abilities, etc) don’t often have the opportunity to speak amongst themselves about issues that impact them within a forum that can make an difference (I’m not talking about a gripe session over lunch). And it can be hard to have a frank conversation about race and racism, homophobia, ableism, etc or just the reality of being a person of colour, gay, or living with a disability (etc) in our societies, because we often have to manage the emotions of white, straight, or able-bodied (etc) people – from ignorance to guilt to outrage. Managing those emotions undermines the conversation – and the possibilities they can help to create.
We see and experience the world differently because of our identities (like race, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, etc).
We are impacted by systems and society differently because of our identities (like race, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, etc).
In an identity-based group, we can talk about things frankly, without having to explain, apologize, or take care of others.
In a work setting, and as a part of creating change and a more inclusive environment, identity-based conversations can help to surface issues we may not hear elsewhere, and give us clues to deeper issues. It can be a tool to help people feel safe enough to share what’s going on for them, what’s important, what they are concerned about (things we may otherwise not hear about). This information can help to address an issue or move an organization forward.
Identity-based groups aren’t meant to keep us separate, but to ultimately help us move closer together, by creating greater understanding.
For marginalized identities, these opportunities are more important than for dominant identities (white, straight, able bodied, etc), because dominant identities carry power and privilege that one taps into no matter who else is in the room. Power and privilege give people the safety and the permission to speak up (and be heard), no matter what.
Just in case some of you are thinking that I’m advocating for segregation, that’s not at all what I’m saying. The opportunity to speak with and share ideas (and even more importantly, concerns) with people we share a marginalized identity with can be an important component to help create meaningful change. Creating a forum to hear voices that are often silent (and silenced), and using that information to inform change and raise awareness in a broader context can help to create environments where everyone is heard, seen and valued for who they are and what they bring – and where the biases and unconscious biases that filter in and create experiences and systems of inequity are seen and addressed.
Copyright 2015 Annemarie Shrouder
Speaker, Author and Facilitator on issues of Diversity & Inclusion
Radio Show Host – Creating Families