The U.S. population is rapidly changing, which means the American workplace is as well.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, over 33 million people in the U.S. identify as two or more races. That’s 1 in 10 people, meaning multiracial people are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country.
Yet, in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives at work, we often focus on specific groups of people who fall into “one race” categories. Even these discussions tend to be one-dimensional and linear.
How often do we discuss the cultural traditions across the African diaspora and what that means for our employees? Without an outlet, how can South Asian employees discuss the relationships between their ethnic and religious identities? What does it mean when a popular television show like Mythic Quest can poke fun at a half-Thai, half-white American-identifying character for not being perceived as anything other than “white” with limited mainstream discussion?
To get beyond the surface of racial-identity recognition and advocacy at work, we have to consider our changing racial and ethnic categories, as well as create space for open conversations and self-identification.
Not Seen, Not Heard
In Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, Lama Rod encapsulates the problem with “color blindness” and “I don’t see color” workplace attitudes. Specifically, he explains, “identity is wounding only because we survive in places where difference remains invisible instead of being seen or celebrated.”
When we don’t have the space to talk about our identities in positive, supportive environments, we may internalize that our difference is imagined rather than real, our struggles are individual instead of structural, and our authentic self-expression is unimportant and undesired.
For this reason, many race scholars emphasize that a workplace culture of ignoring and suppressing our racial differences is part of a broader conspiracy of silence, one that upholds existing power structures that elevate white people at the expense of people of color.
The reality of being rendered invisible is even greater for multicultural employees because so much of the discussion about race gets slotted into preexisting categories that do not encompass the full spectrum of diversity in the U.S. today.
As a white-assumed Hispanic cisgender woman with an invisible disability, I regularly confront the challenges of racial identity, which connects me to a whole population of Latiné Americans struggling with their identities.
In the 2020 U.S. Census, of the 25 million people who identified as “multiracial,” 17 million marked their identity as “Latino” and “two or more races.” Notably, in 2010, only 3 million Latiné people identified as multiracial. According to The Washington Post, “Latinos in particular often find the census confusing because there is no racial category for them.”
This challenge is not limited to Latiné people. Native and indigenous employees, those who identify as “mixed” and people of color who have assimilated are vulnerable to having their racial and ethnic identities erased or devalued.
Recognizing Racial and Ethnic Identity Inclusively
Solving our collective challenges around recognizing racial and ethnic identities, including multicultural identities, is an ongoing process that will evolve and change as identities do.
Nevertheless, there are a few interventions that we can put in place at work immediately that will lead to a more inclusive environment.
- Overhaul surveys: The existing census categories do not work for so many different groups across all social identities. Instead of using them, put together your own self-identification survey for employees where they can not only select from the categories you have included but also respond with specifics through an “Other” or “Free Response” option.
- Cultural-competency exercises: The lunch-and-learn education format is woefully underutilized, usually reserved for special emphasis months and more general topics like “how to be an ally.” Focusing on making lunch-and-learns specific and exercise-based can help create greater awareness and improve cultural knowledge. Example topics might include “Understanding Chicano Identity,” “Polyculturalism: How Chinese Tradition Influences African American Culture,” and learning about which Indigenous tribes are active in your area, what their languages, traditions, and goals are, and how environmental racism impacts them.
- Cultural holiday recognition: Floating holidays are a must-have, not a nice-to-have. Make sure your PTO policy includes two to three paid floating holidays to start. However, just having the benefit isn’t enough. To be truly proactive, use a tool like Percent Pledge’s Google Cause Calendar and then supplement it with your own research on religious and cultural holidays. Once you’ve shared that calendar with all employees, preferably with descriptions of each event in the body, encourage employees who identify with those cultural or religious identities (which is often, but not always, tied to one’s race and ethnicity) to use their floating holidays.
- Self-identification: Get in the practice of naming your own identities and encourage your leaders to do the same. Just as you might name your pronouns at the beginning of a meeting, try a statement like, “My name is Alida, and I identify as a white-assumed Hispanic cisgender woman with an invisible disability.” It’s important to note that some people will not name all their identities for fear of “outing” themselves or wanting to keep those parts of themselves private for other reasons. That’s why starting by naming yourself and giving people the opportunity to respond is a more inclusive option.
It’s important to understand that many workplace behaviors and strategies that we learned at the beginning of our careers no longer apply.
Simply put, we cannot interact with our colleagues the way we were taught in the past because that world no longer exists. To create inclusion and belonging in our company cultures, we must let go of the past and instead imagine a better future. Then, we can get to work at bringing it to life today.
Alida Miranda-Wolff is the CEO of Ethos, a full-service Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging transformation firm and the author of the forthcoming book, Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations That Last.