“You shared a lot about yourself in your book. Is it hard to be so vulnerable?” asked an audience member last week in Vancouver.
I responded as best I could but sometimes the most obvious questions are the ones that make me stumble. As it turned out, vulnerability became a key theme at the West Coast launch of Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them last week, on Oct 20th.
And, it’s a big part of my book. I write about emotionally burning out in my early 30s and how that, in unexpected ways became a gift —helping me prioritize, be more responsible for my choices, and forcing me to bring better balance into my life. I also give examples of when my own prejudice reared its ugly head, resulting in me underestimating or reacting negatively to people because of their names or what they looked like.
I do this both in the book and in my workshops for a couple of reasons. For one, I believe that our vulnerabilities have to be r eframed as strengths, our mistakes considered opportunities for learning. This is especially true when we are dealing with issues of diversity—be that race, identity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, etc. In order to learn about one another— and about ourselves—we have to make mistakes. Yet mistake making is uncomfortable, filling us with difficult feelings such as shame, guilt, or anger.
The antidote is compassion and learning to accept our selves—including
our shortcomings and misjudgments—with compassion and kindness. There’s a spiritual paradox here: accepting ourselves “warts and all,” in fact, is the fertile ground in which personal change can actually occur. And this is critical to unlearn the unconscious biases, attitudes and preferences that all of us have absorbed in society—regardless of our good intentions or belief in fairness— that help perpetuate systemic discrimination in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
Secondly, exposing my own flaws as the facilitator-teacher allows for others to step into their vulnerability. Often in such diversity and inclusion workshops, people are then more willing to discuss their own biases, reflect on times when they reacted in ways opposite to their beliefs and discriminated against others. My disclosures also become an implicit invitation for others people to share their own stories of struggle, to recall times when they were marginalized or mistreated.
The stories in every workshop are different, and in Vancouver, it was more of the latter that emerged. One participant shared the struggles of being bicultural, of having their foot in two different
cultures yet feeling— and being treated—like an outsider in both. Another shared their experiences growing up as a racial minority in a predominantly white context and realizing that even seemingly minor things— such as musical or dance preferences— had to be hidden in order to “fit in” to the mainstream. Another participant grew emotional, identifying how unusual it was to find positive role models of their own racial background, and so was doing autobiographical research to address this invisibility.
I felt honoured to be in the presence of such deep sharing and stories. I also believe this is an essential step in the kind of social transformation needed to increase our sense of inclusion, to reduce unfairness and inequity in society. As Brené Brown captures this in her simple yet powerful words: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with almost 100 West Coasters at the book launch and follow-up workshop the next day. This could not have been possible without the wonderful team at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Intercultural Communication who sponsored the event, led by Karen Rolston and Joenita Paulrajan. Thanks also to my dear friends Parker Johnson and Sheelagh Davis who assisted in getting the word out as well as the generous people at SIETAR BC (Society for Inter-Cultural Education, Training and Research, British Columbia).
Author, “Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them,” (Between the Lines, 2015).