Beyond Buzzwords: Having More Conscientious Diversity Discussions

Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell hosts CLE on diversity with Nita Mosby Tyler

Nita Mosby Tyler began a talk about diversity by showing her audience a cartoon: Several people on a small, leaking boat with some on one end of the boat trying to plug the leak and the others saying, “I’m sure glad the hole isn’t in our end.”

Mosby Tyler, founder of The Equity Project, spoke last Tuesday at an event hosted by Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell called “Rethinking Diversity: Where Do We Go From Here?” She discussed considerations for increasing diversity, such as fatigue, implicit bias and the importance of defining diversity in the first place that move beyond buzzwords.

She had the audience come up with captions for the cartoon. A few of their ideas: “Ignorance is bliss.” “We’re all in the same boat.” 

Ultimately, Mosby Tyler used the picture to explain that diversity requires reconciling that people bring their own, quite different perceptions to the same circumstances.

“Don’t ever think that the worldview is where you sit,” she said.

Mosby Tyler spent much of the time talking about diversity fatigue, a term for emotional exhaustion that comes from years of work to increase diversity and inclusion but not seeing much progress.

Diversity fatigue put simply is, “I’m so tired of fighting,” Mosby Tyler said. There are a few keys to combating diversity fatigue, she said: Identifying the source of it and pinpointing what triggers it personally. 

She had the audience discuss among themselves how they see diversity fatigue manifest itself and then share some of their thoughts. 

“A lot of times [it’s] when people don’t show up, they don’t participate,” said Karen Hester, former executive director for the Center for Legal Inclusiveness. “They’re tired of doing the same old thing and not seeing change going on.” 

Jack Trigg, named partner of WTO, said he gets frustrated when clients say they want more diverse teams in their legal representation, but then come trial time they only want him to try the case.

“Clients have to buckle up and be willing to be totally committed,” he said. “Because if enough of us try enough cases, I hate to break this to clients, but sooner or later we’re going to lose. That’s one of the tragedies of being a trial lawyer, and just because a younger attorney tried it doesn’t make any difference.” 

Mosby Tyler has a few diversity fatigue triggers of her own. Having grown up in the Jim Crow-era South, she said she feels it particularly when other people discuss their own experiences with discrimination or exclusion that she doesn’t feel are as egregious as “drinking out of a colored water fountain” or a “cross burning on your college campus.” 

“What I start doing is comparing what they just said to my own lived experience around discrimination. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just saying … That’s what a trigger can do to you.” 

She also talked about understanding the differences between terms such as “equity,” “equality,”  “diversity” and “inclusiveness,” which often get used interchangeably. 

Particularly, diversity and inclusion get lumped together as a buzz phrase so frequently there’s a shorthand term for it: “D&I.” But the two mean quite different things, Mosby Tyler said. 

“The key difference is this: Diversity can be accidental. It actually happened today; when you walked in the room, you changed the ratio of the diversity of the room,” she said. “Inclusion is never an accident. You meant to do it.”

Developing an inclusion strategy should actually come before trying to increase diversity, said Mosby Tyler. “The last thing you want is to invite a lot of different kinds of diversity into the practice, and you’ve not prepared the table for that diversity to arrive.”

She explained that a meaningful strategy to increase diversity requires defining what diversity means. Mosby Tyler acknowledged having an expansive definition is an uphill battle because the roots of diversity efforts  in the 1980s defined it as “everything that’s not white,” so it makes sense that people automatically think of race when diversity comes up. 

“An example that I will give you that’s an opportunity for all of us is, watch your language,” she said. “When you say, ‘I don’t see any diversity,’ I don’t care what the room looks like, in effect you’re making a judgment call about what people’s diversities are.”

So don’t just say a room has no diversity, Mosby Tyler said. Pinpoint more specifically what kind of diversity is lacking: If there’s a room full of white men, identify that the room lacks racial and gender variance. She said that kind of specificity in conversations helps combat perceptions people might have that diversity isn’t a personally relevant topic to them.  

“The more we can be explicit about what we mean [the more it] invites people ultimately into the conversation about diversity, or that they see themselves in the definition of diversity.” 

—Julia Cardi

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