The Cover Up: On being a prop in the system we claimed to dismantle

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Credit: finehumans.com


This essay is the first in a series on having conversations about legacy oppression, confessing complicity, reducing the harm we cause others, assimilation racism, building emotional resilience, and the practice of knowing and telling the larger experiences of our lives. The authors founded a consulting group focused on identity in 2014.


In our work, we seek to differentiate ourselves from “diversity and inclusion” consultants by expanding the definition of interracial relationships as a way to address societal inequity. We believe in order to create safe and equitable spaces, it is essential to first be present and connected with our own experience of the world and understand the way our identity (race, gender, class, ability, family, etc.) impacts how we move through it.

Diversity and inclusion trainings often review definitions and information without asking for behavioral change. Even if they challenged people to change behaviors, there is no long-term accountability. People learn more words while subsequently disconnecting it more and more from themselves and their own participation.

The truth is, at The Good Peoples group, we never wanted to do diversity and inclusion work: it has been proven time and time again that it does not create equity or safety.

Sydney Olberg (left) and Liana Maneese, founders of The Good Peoples Group + Center on Interracial Relationships. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Sydney Olberg (left) and Liana Maneese, founders of The Good Peoples Group + Center on Interracial Relationships. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Stanford and Harvard sociologists published a study over the summer that found workplaces are actually more segregated now than they were a generation ago despite all the shiny diversity and inclusion training boxes that have been checked.

Diversity and inclusion, the “postracial” perspective, emphasizes the importance of “goodness” over justice.

Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. in a TV appearance said: “America’s not unique in its sins. I think where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. There are communities that have had to bear the brunt of white Americans confronting the danger of their innocence, every generation. Either we’re going to change ... or we’re going to do this again and again...”

In Pittsburgh, this denial of personal responsibility and truth showed up in our workshops. It almost always resulted in some sort of fallout within the businesses, organizations and nonprofits that hired us because these conversations create defensiveness.

It played out as more intense interpersonal violence targeted at people who spoke out in the first place or were vulnerable during our trainings. Those who wanted and continued to push for change further rely on “coping” skills: self-abuse in the form of drinking, drugs, no sleep, physical exhaustion, and relationship issues when they brought this relentless experience of workplace oppression home with them. It is another tool of white supremacy at work.

They still felt ostracized as the organization placed blame on the individuals, the “rebels,” rabble-rousers, and not the systems and policies that perpetuate abusive and violent workplaces.

There is no clear roadmap for navigating anti-racism. These are our experiences, and we know we aren’t alone in them. The hardest lesson we have learned in our identity navigation work at The Good Peoples Group is that we are not absolved of responsibility. We are sharing these observations not only to demonstrate problematic behaviors from our clients but also to highlight ways that we participated in perpetuating unsafe and harmful situations while doing the work that we intended for good.

This is where we found the conflict with our personal integrity. Our trainings were inadvertently part of a practice that deepened interpersonal harm, and the most marginalized people at these workplaces felt the fallout from the trainings more than anyone. It is one thing to teach definitions; it is wholly another to teach people the skills to navigate the actual on-the-ground interactions in an interracial space.

In one instance with a client, Black female co-workers said white co-workers “talked to them like they aren’t human, like dogs.” These same white co-workers sat in the room and heard the conversation, but didn’t realize they were in fact those abusive co-workers. That’s cognitive dissonance. This is what happens when people know but don’t do, when people don’t see their own ability to cause harm.

Traditional diversity and inclusion trainings further marginalize people and reinforce privilege because they often still center on preserving whiteness. Many seem to focus on getting people to “catch up” rather than offering truth and moving forward without guilt. They are also expensive and require people to work for an employer that’s able to afford to bring in trainers to do the work. Most people’s motivation for this work stops at their desire to look good or be good. They have not yet discovered their own deeper motivation and need to commit to this lifelong work.

That’s why we decided to reimagine how we will work with people in the future and how it can be accessible. That way, we believe, commitment wouldn’t live in an employer’s desire to avoid public relations problems.

Real commitment to growth lives in our interpersonal relationships. If relationships are the mirrors of ourselves, then we must start with personal responsibility, navigating our own identities through the way we navigate our relationships with others. This responsibility exists at an interpersonal level; we can no longer hide or externalize the conversation about “diversity and inclusion,” creating programs for outreach, diversifying our website or creating more programs for “at-risk” youth.

We’ve shaped our new curriculum to talk about interracial relationships. It is not by coincidence but built into the very fabric of the United States policy that interracial relationships are exploited and oversexualized. Interracial relationships, in reality, extend beyond fetishized romantic relationships; they include friends, parents, children, co-workers, business partners, and the barista you see every morning that makes your coffee. When we talk about interracial relationships, we have to talk about all the ways that race and other pieces of identity intersect with power and how we have internalized messages about worth. We have to acknowledge the historical context. We have to talk about how emotional conflicts, abandonment and entitlement have divided us from our own humanity and other people’s humanity.

The goal of relationships is to stay connected if it is possible. One workshop is not enough to do this difficult work. Our new work philosophy focuses on engaging people at the individual level to recenter their agency in personal relationships.

The relationship framework inherently frames the goals around how to stay connected without sacrificing ourselves. We have investment and accountability in relationships that don’t exist when we exclusively discuss systemic-level interventions.

Because of the way oppression has manifested, relationships have been the last place people look to do this work of reclaiming our humanity. Our society sends the message that the more we seek to understand intellectually, the more we can solve problems, the more humanity we reclaim. Our interpersonal relationships are the mirrors to the unexamined parts of our own lives. We have a responsibility to make spaces safe for ourselves. We have to create an environment where we can thrive while still giving the world what we can offer.

Liana Maneese and Sydney Olberg founded The Good Peoples Group + Center on Interracial Relationships. They can be reached through their website at thecenteroninterracialrelationships.com, Instagram, or Facebook.

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