Tag Archives: Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion

From Conditional to Equitable Inclusion: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation – by Carlos Cortés

Keynote Address for Unidos:
2022 National Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration of the U.S. Dept. of Energy

Thank you for inviting me to join you for Hispanic Heritage Month.  And thank you for providing me the opportunity to reflect upon a very important idea: inclusivity.
________________________

In 1999, Mayor Ronald Loveridge of my hometown — Riverside, California –- asked me to lead a new city initiative, the Mayor’s Multicultural Forum.  He also asked the Forum to begin by drawing up a position statement on diversity.  We called the document “Building a More Inclusive Riverside Community.”  The City Council adopted the document, making inclusivity a basic city principle.

That was more than two decades ago.  Today you constantly hear variations of that idea.  Take DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  As a diversity consultant, lecturer, and workshop presenter I often use those terms, sometimes without giving them much thought.  So when you asked me to speak on the topic of inclusivity, I had to make a decision.  Should I give a traditional Hispanic Heritage speech filled with the usual once-a-year truisms about Latino this and Latinx that?  Sort of a Hispanic Groundhog Day?  I decided no.  You deserve something more original.

So I reflected on the connection between the Latino experience and the idea of inclusivity.  This led me to an unexpected revisiting of my personal journey.  Those reflections helped me reconsider the idea of inclusivity.

I began by taking two words of DEI –- Equity and Inclusion — and recombining them into Equitable Inclusion.  Not conditional inclusion, but rather the idea that we all deserve more than just being included.  We deserve being included equitably.  That’s how you foster true belonging, not superficial accommodation.  As I thought about inclusivity, I identified three adjectives that characterize equitable inclusivity, three adjectives that I will explore through a Latino lens, drawing upon my personal journey.

Let’s start with the first word: authentic.  In 1933, my father, Carlos Cortés, a Mexican Catholic immigrant from Guadalajara, married Florence Hoffman, the Jewish American daughter of Ukrainian and Austrian immigrants.  I was born the next year, 1934, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, a racially segregated, religiously divided community, like much of the United States in those days.  I wrote about that experience in my memoir, Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time, referring to my parents’ unique-for-its-time marital combination.  This made them an odd couple, so I, too, became an oddity.

I later adapted my memoir into a one-person play, which I perform around the United States.  I’m going to present a brief scene from that play.  It takes place in the fall of 1949 at the beginning of my sophomore year, when I shifted to another Kansas City high school.     __________________________

On the first day of my first class the teacher calls the roll but not my name.  I raise my hand.
     “Excuse me, sir, you missed me, Carlos Cortés.”
     He reviews his list.
     “I called your name, Carl.”
     “But, sir, my name isn’t Carl.  It’s Carlos.”
     “That’s not what the school records say.”

So in front of my new classmates I repeat, several times, that my name is Carlos, not Carl.  Of course I didn’t win.  In fact, the teacher kicks me out of class and sends me to the principal’s office.  They call my folks.  Dad storms over to school.

Now Dad didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did…whhh.  I’m afraid he’s going to be furious with me for getting into trouble on my first day at my new school.  But he’s not.  In fact, he’s proud of me for standing up for my name, his name, our Mexican name.

Dad lectures the principal.  “My son’s name is Carlos.  His father’s name is Carlos.  His grandfather’s name was Carlos.  His great-grandfather’s name was Carlos.  And I’ll be damned if you’re going to call him anything but Carlos.”  After that, they didn’t.

Oh, I guess I ought to mention the class where this happened — Spanish.
_________________________

Of course Dad wanted me to be included and to feel included.  But he also demanded that this inclusion be authentic.  He insisted that I be included authentically as Carlos, not as Carl.

I now refer to such events as Carl Moments or Being Carled.  Carl Moments are situations where people encounter obstacles to authentic inclusivity.  When things happen that communicate to you that your inclusivity is conditional.  You’re welcome . . . but . . . or if . . . or sort of.

Unlike conditional inclusivity, equitable inclusivity incorporates the idea of personal authenticity.  But authenticity can create complications.  Sometimes you may be too ethnic; in other cases, not ethnic enough.

In 1968 I became a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside — UCR — and later chair of the Chicano Studies Program.  Along the way I developed a reputation as a public speaker on diversity matters, including the Latino experience.  Nobody called me Carl, but there was something else.

I happened to be a güero: a light-skinned Latino.  Occasionally someone might say: “Oh, you’re trying to pass as white.”  No, I’ve never passed as anything.  I’ve just lumbered through life with the authentic skin my folks gave me.  But sometimes that’s proven to be a problem for others.

Once I was invited to give a luncheon talk at a statewide education conference.  The invitation came from an Anglo who had never met me.  On the day of the conference I introduced myself to him.  His face fell.  Caught off guard, he said something that others may have thought, but suppressed.  “Uh, we were hoping for someone, uh, a little darker.”  With help from Neil Simon’s film, The Goodbye Girl, I had a ready answer.  “This year I’m working on younger.  Next year I’ll work on darker.”

But conditional inclusivity can also go in other directions.  In 1979, my late friend Tomás Rivera became Chancellor of UCR, the first Hispanic chancellor in University of California history.  Tomás was not a güero.  After his first speech to the UCR academic senate, one professor remarked: “You know, I can understand why Governor Brown put a Chicano in as Chancellor at Riverside — for political reasons — but did he have to –- look so much like a Chicano?”  Tomás had been Carled.

Let’s examine these three incidents.  In each case somebody had difficulty dealing with individual Latino authenticity.  A high school Spanish teacher who deemed my first name too odd for inclusion in the classroom.  A conference organizer who considered my skin color too light to fulfill his needs and ethnic stereotypes.  A professor who could accept a Chicano Chancellor, but not one who looked too much like a Chicano.  That is conditional inclusivity.

I’m sure each of you has experienced personal Carl or Tomás moments, when something happened that communicated the idea that the authentic you didn’t quite merit equitable inclusivity.  And being Carled might not involve ethnicity or race.  It might involve sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or some disability.

Maybe a Latina whose colleague turns to her and innocently asks, “How do you say that in Spanish?,” forcing her to explain, maybe publicly, that she was not raised speaking Spanish.  62 million Latinos share commonalities, but we aren’t all alike.  Our personal authenticities vary.

So let’s move on to the second adjective: additive.  Equitable inclusivity must not only be authentic.  It should also be additive.  That is, inclusion in a way that “they” — whoever “they” are — become recognized not just as having their own special authenticity, but also having the capacity to add through their authenticity.  Not just accepted or tolerated or exoticized, but respected for what their specialness adds to the community, to the organization, and to our nation.

When I joined the UCR faculty in 1968, the campus had about 4,500 students, but only around one hundred Chicanos.  Many of them did not feel a sense of total belonging on that virtually all-white campus.  To help create their own ethnic space, they formed the United Mexican American Students.  Later it became known as MEChA.

But the MEChA students soon encountered a very new experience. One of the undergraduate students in my Chicano History class was named Woodrow Díaz.  But Woody was not a Chicano; he happened to be Puerto Rican.  This was several years before people began talking much about Latinos and Hispanics. Ethnically alone on campus, Woody asked if he could join MEChA.

The MEChA students embraced Woody. They made him an honorary Chicano, but he also remained supremely proud and forthright about his Puerto Rican identity.  nd MEChA turned out to be better for it, because Woody added a unique richness, dimension, and perspective through his ethnic authenticity. Woody’s inclusion in MEChA was additive, not just authentic.

Twenty-five years later, in the winter of 2000, my book, The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity, was published.  I was asked to give the plenary address about Latinos and the media at a national conference on Latino youth.

After my talk, a man named Chris Gifford and a woman named Dolly Espinal invited me to join them for lunch.  Turns out they were part of the team that was developing a new children’s television series, and they asked me if I would consider joining them as a consultant. I did and ultimately became the Creative/Cultural Advisor of that show, Dora the Explorer, and its sequel, Go, Diego, Go!”  For more than twenty years I have been working with the show’s multi-ethnic creative team that includes Hispanics of multiple backgrounds and national heritages. They all add unique perspectives.

As we developed Dora, the idea of inclusivity was central to our thinking.  The character of Dora had to be inclusive, a Latina inclusivity role model.  So we positioned Dora as an intercultural bridge-builder.  When she encounters challenges, she overcomes them by uniting other characters into a team, sometimes involving both animals and people.

We considered making Dora ethnically specific: Mexican or Cuban or Dominican or Puerto Rican.  But I argued for a different approach: let’s make her pan-Latino.  A proud Latina, but with no specific national-origin identity.  Then let individual Latino pre-schoolers of all backgrounds –- and their families — identify with Dora in their own unique ways.

And that’s what happened.  In fact, not only Latino kids identified with her.  So did kids of other backgrounds.  And not just in the United States, but around the world.  Dora, a Latina, connected with all kids.

And she drew upon her ethnic authenticity to add to their lives.  Consider language.  You don’t have to speak Spanish to be authentically Latino.  But Spanish is a core element of Hispanic culture.  Speaking both Spanish and English is part of Dora’s Latina authenticity.

Because most of the show’s characters are monolingual, either in English or in Spanish, Dora constantly draws on her bilingual skills to build intercultural bridges.  And she reaches out to viewers by adding Spanish words to their vocabularies and encouraging them to use those Spanish words to help Dora and her friends overcome challenges.  In the process Dora continuously demonstrates the additive value of being bilingual and how this can contribute to greater inclusivity.

Sometimes inclusivity became the central theme of an episode.  Take the episode entitled “First Day of School.”  Tico and Boots set off for their first day of school.  But it’s not just any school.  It’s an inclusive dual immersion school using both Spanish and English.  So monolingual English-speaking Boots and monolingual Spanish-speaking Tico become more empowered because they are learning each other’s language.  In the process they also help each other learn language.  Their classroom inclusivity is additive.

Now let’s move on to the third adjective of equitable inclusivity: capacious.  As in capacity or capacidad.  Beyond simply being authentic or even additive, the idea of capacious inclusivity addresses a deeper, richer dimension: a more inclusive sense of we-ness.  Not a we-ness that forces you to surrender your special authenticity in order to be part of it.  Rather a we-ness that highlights its diverse parts while at the same time fostering a broader sense of mutual identification.  A we-ness in which we all become co-participants in the project of equitable inclusivity.  I am both me and a unique part of we.

I am currently engaged in a Latino project that pursues such capacious me-to-we inclusivity.  It’s called The Cheech.  The Cheech Marin Museum of Chicano Art & Culture, which opened in Riverside in June of this year.

Cheech Marin –- actually Richard Anthony Marin — has had an incredible career: stand-up comic; filmmaker; actor; and much moreBut Cheech is also a renowned art collector, specializing in Chicano art.  And he is a visionary.  Cheech, the Riverside Art Museum, and the City of Riverside have collaborated to create this new museum that features Cheech’s extensive personal collection and also mounts exhibits of other Chicano art.

I was honored by being selected as the Consulting Humanist for The Cheech.  In that role I am conducting a series of filmed Conversations at The Cheech.  At this point I’m not sure how these conversations will be disseminated, but they may become part of a documentary film on the history of The Cheech.  We’ll see.

Two weeks ago Cheech and I had an hour-long filmed conversation.  We explored many nooks and crannies of his art collector career and his role in creating The Cheech.  We also talked about the wonderful opening special exhibit, featuring the astonishing work of two brothers, Einar and Jamex de la Torre, especially their jaw-dropping two-story lenticular, which sits prominently in view as you enter the museum.  You can look at it endlessly, because as you move from place to place, the lenticular’s myriad images change to reveal fascinating surprises.

I specifically asked Cheech about his personal vision. Whom does he hope visits the museum?  His response was simple, elegant, and profound: everybody. He wants everybody to embrace Chicano art. He wants The Cheech to be a capaciously inclusive institution, in which people of all backgrounds immerse themselves in the specialness of Chicano art and become enriched because of it.

Cheech wants people to recognize that Chicano art is unique. but also adds to the broader world of Latino art. Symbolic of that vision is a section called Sala José Medina, named in honor of Riverside’s current state legislator. A former graduate student of mine, José has been a major force behind The Cheech as well as authoring the bill by which California became the very first state to establish an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation. José is a Panamanian American.

But Cheech also wants Chicano and Latino art to be viewed as central to American art, both art of the United States and art of the Americas. Art that is part of an expanding, more capacious vision of our nation. Art that is authentic, adds to the American story, and can bring diverse people together through a capacious reconceptualization of what it means to be an American.

Through capacious inclusivity, Chicano art and Latino art can become everybody’s art.  Not through surface enjoyment or the tawdry process of cultural appropriation, but rather through mutual respect, mutual enrichment, and mutual identification. Art that broadens our understanding of commonalities and differences not as antagonists, but as continuously interacting contributors to a more equitably inclusive United States of America.

So thank you for accompanying me on my personal journey of reflection.  The rest is up to you. All of you. Here’s our common challenge: can we make equitable inclusivity a guiding vision for our nation’s future? You can all play a part.

You can play a part by being proud and forthright about your special authenticities and by supporting the authenticities of others.

You can play a part by treating uniqueness as additive and by providing opportunities for others to draw upon their uniqueness to enrich our workplaces, our communities, and our nation.

You can play a part by expanding your personal capaciousness, by recognizing difference as an essential part of a vibrant whole, and by embracing otherness as part of the we-ness of a more equitably inclusive America.

I’m not suggesting that those things will solve all of the world’s problems.  But maybe, together, we can move the inclusivity needle further away from being conditional and more toward being equitable. Maybe we can reduce the number of Carl and Tomás moments and build upon such models as Woody, Dora, and Cheech. That’s our challenge. That’s my hope.

And I also hope I’ll have the opportunity of meeting some of you in person one of these days. If that happens, feel free to call me whatever: Mr. Cortés, Dr. Cortés, or just plain old Carlos. They all work for me. Just one request. Please don’t call me Carl.

July 4th Prayer – by Deborah Levine

Originally written for Generation 42 Global Reformers July 4th Prayer Service 

As we gather together virtually for the July 4th celebration, my first thought is to ask for the blessing of our Creator who has placed us all on this precious planet. Our faith leads us to a shared hope for a future where we can harmonize, not homogenize, at the intersection of race, ethnicity, religion, generation, and gender represented in this country. That hope was not a conscious one growing up in British Bermuda as the only Jewish little girl on the island. But I’m honored to now be recognized as a Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer by Forbes Magazine. And I’m both honored and astounded to be an Award-winning author of 15 books on cultural diversity and the founder of the American Diversity Report where I’ve served as editor for 15 years.

I’m astounded because my early dream was to be a ballerina, forever in pink ballet slippers. But God had other plans for me. Perhaps that’s why, even as a youngster, I was surrounded by diverse cultures and appreciated their artistic expressions.
Continue reading July 4th Prayer – by Deborah Levine

Belonging: A Key Ingredient for DEI in 2022 – by Kimberly Reed

The uncertainty of a global pandemic, racial injustice and isolation, and the virtual or hybrid workplaces all contributed to the changes in employee engagement trends, and places a significant priority on employees’ feeling a sense of belonging in the workplace.

In an ideal world, all employees feel safe and comfortable to bring their full, authentic selves to work. It’s hard for people to do their best work when organizational leadership doesn’t actively prioritize happiness, inclusion, and belonging. This is why it’s critical for organizations to level up on employee engagement, inclusion and belonging as they navigate a global pandemic and culture shift.

Continue reading Belonging: A Key Ingredient for DEI in 2022 – by Kimberly Reed

12 Steps to Diversity Recovery – by Susan McCuistion

Abstract

Our approach to Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is broken. We have done the same thing over and over for years, expecting better representation and more equitable treatment, all to no avail. In fact, many people still don’t know exactly what D&I is.

At every turn, there’s news about people being mistreated, excluded, and harmed. The social and political unrest often seem impossible to escape. Situations arise on a regular basis that create a social media nightmare for organizations resulting in public shaming and forced apologies. The mental, emotional, and physical toll this turmoil takes impacts us all, regardless of our role— victim, perpetrator, or observer.

We can’t fix the mess we’re in with a 2-hour training session. Creating a world that is truly more equitable for everyone is a process. It takes time and practice.

Cultivating compassion can help us nurture more connected communities and workplaces. On the surface, compassion sounds like a soft skill. However, compassion isn’t just about being kind to other people and doing nice things for them. Instead, it’s an active process through which we build skills and knowledge to understand what kind of help is wanted, rather than assuming what is needed.

This article is distilled from my book, “The D Word: 12 Steps to Diversity Recovery,” which is focused on building the skills needed to bring a more humanitarian approach to D&I using compassion and resilience.

Continue reading 12 Steps to Diversity Recovery – by Susan McCuistion

Here to Stay: Cultural Diversity & Inclusion – by Robert Maisel

The words “diversity” and “inclusion” are big buzz words in today’s society, and they should be as they are very relevant and important in today’s times. But although these words are often thrown around, it is important for us to think critically about what they mean. And to assess their impact on business and society as a whole.

Many large companies are hiring for diversity in race and gender, amongst several other categories. But why, so often, is culture left out of the equation? Should it be? Definitely not. And here’s why.

Continue reading Here to Stay: Cultural Diversity & Inclusion – by Robert Maisel

Future of Diversity Amid Pandemic – ADR TOWN HALL

ADRThe American Diversity Report (ADR), an award-winning digital multimedia platform, offered a virtual Town Hall featuring a distinguished panel of experts to discuss the future of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in education and employment amid COVID-19. We thank the many donors who made this event and ADR’s next year possible. CLICK to see List of ADR DONORS 

“For 15 years, ADR’s dozens of writers from around the U.S. and the world have provided Inspiration, Instruction, and Innovation expertise.  We recognize that COVID-19 requires an innovative approach to Diversity, Equity  Inclusion,” said Deborah Levine, ADR’s Editor-in-Chief and award-winning author of 15 books.

CLICK SEE THE TOWN HALL VIDEO.

Continue reading Future of Diversity Amid Pandemic – ADR TOWN HALL

My Lifelong Journey as a Trailblazer for Diversity & Inclusion – by Deborah Levine

Why I created the ADR and
Why we need your support

When asked why I created the American Diversity Report (ADR), I’m tempted to answer that diversity is in my DNA. I was brought up as the only Jewish little girl on the 24 square miles of British Bermuda in a family that immigrated from Russian territories. When we moved to New York, I was bullied for my colonial British accent and found comfort in the music, dance, and folktales of diverse cultures. I played the violin, performed ballet, and wrote stories and poems to express my sense of exclusion. When illness prevented all other expression, reading became my world and writing became my voice.

Two decades ago, I had to resign my job as an executive director of a Jewish Federation because I’d almost died on a mission to Uzbekistan, diversity again surfaced as my passion. But this time, I wanted to leave a legacy that would change the world. I created the Women’s Council on Diversity along with a community Global Leadership Course and a Youth Multicultural video contest. But of all my creations, the American Diversity Report is closest to my heart.

I persevere in this endeavor despite ongoing health challenges. I’m now in my golden years and have endured major surgery resulting in my being unable to speak for years. Unfortunately, I’ve also suffered through mourning the deaths of every member of my nuclear family. May they Rest In Peace.

I’m grateful for my life and the ability to continue my father’s legacy as a U.S. military intelligence officer who liberated a Nazi death camp during World War II. In addition to being the founder and editor-in-chief of ADR, I have served as the executive director of Jewish Federations, created the DuPage/Chicago Interfaith Resource Network and the Southeast Women’s Council on Diversity.

While working in Tulsa, I was trained by the FBI in addressing and responding to hate groups after the tragic Oklahoma City bombing and destruction of the Murrah federal building by white supremacist domestic terrorists. I currently serve on the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and the Chattanooga Council Against Hate. My latest book is titled “When Hate Groups March Down Main Street: Engaging A Community Response”.

Deborah Levine at her book signing

In addition to being an award-winning author of 15 books — and being named by Forbes Magazine as a top “Diversity and Inclusion Trailblazer” — I am still humbled by the honor of giving people a voice through the ADR. It’s a privilege to engage every day with people of goodwill in tikkun olam (which in Hebrew means “repair of the world“).

The ADR has benefitted the workplace and communities locally, nationally and globally for the past 15 years. The ADR has always been free of charge as part of my lifetime efforts to help foster humanity’s understanding and acceptance of diversity, inclusion and related issues in our increasingly multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic nation — and, indeed, the world.

I’ve had no greater calling in my quest to shape a better future than the ADR. Not only does it deliver a vital message about the importance of diversity and inclusion, but it helps make our world a better place for all people. The ADR is needed now more than ever, as current events attest.

My goal is to ensure that the American Diversity Report will continue to provide a valuable public service as an educational and informational online media platform and training resource for a new generation of leaders — and for every generation.

CLICK to join the Boost the American Diversity Report Campaign.

The funds will be leveraged to expand the award-winning ADR platform, which hosts a diverse writers community of more than 800 articles, podcasts and community projects like ADR New Beginnings. The funds will also boost the ADR’s reach and readership of expert articles covering timely issues of race, color, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, generational differences, and thought leadership on diversity and inclusion.

The Fall edition if the ADR begins in September. Therefore, I hope to reach our funding goal by August 31 with your generous help and kind support. Please join me in my mission to Promote Diversity, Foster Inclusion and Counteract Hate. Together, we can make a real and lasting impact for the betterment of society during these troubling times and for all times.

I will thank all the ADR contributors in the September newsletter, but I can’t thank you enough for your kind consideration to make a lasting real-world difference by supporting diversity and inclusion efforts which are needed now more than ever.

Thank you and God bless you.

White Allyship and Racism – by Joseph Nwoye, Sabah Holmes, Margie Crowe

 Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Racism is real; it has always been on display even if some continue to deny its existence. Our society has accepted, allowed, sanctioned, and even encouraged discrimination and violence against Black people for over four hundred years. When we see or hear people chant Black Lives Matter, they are essentially saying that sanctioned or unsanctioned, covert or overt racism, continued discrimination, conscious or unconscious and violence against Black people must come to an end. These people who have seen and experienced racial inequality in all aspects of their lives in a society where the discriminatory practice is embedded within federal, state, and local communities recognize how profoundly their lives have been affected on a daily basis and in some cases, lives that have been lost.  Continue reading White Allyship and Racism – by Joseph Nwoye, Sabah Holmes, Margie Crowe

Trends and Challenges: Systemic Diversity Panel

What’s Next for Inclusion?

Systemic Diversity Panels share ideas, articles, research and resources that reinforce our quest for diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice. The Systemic Diversity and Inclusion Linked group allow participants to share their work and encourage them to do so in a manner that is consistent with the group’s vision for peace, equity and social justice for all.

CLICK for Systemic Diversity Panel Podcast

This group is committed to sharing ideas on effective policies and practices to eradicate misconceptions and biases in diverse workplaces, and thus promote positive work environments for all people. We also profile members and their work that aligns with our  vision. See interviews at Systemic Diversity and inclusion Group.

Deborah LevineDeborah Levine (Moderator)

Award-winning Author (14 books), including Un-Bias Guide for Leaders and Religious Diversity at Work | Speaker/Trainer & Coach | Founder/Editor: American Diversity Report |
Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA (See her Bio)

Joseph NwoyeJoseph Nwoye, Ed.D (Partner)

Diversity & Inclusion Consultant with Unique Ability to Address Unconscious Bias, Inclusive Leadership @ Work & Beyond | Author of three books, including the most recent, Cultivating a Belief System for All (See his latest interview)
Montgomery Village, Maryland, USA

Colonel ReginaldColonel Reginald Hairston

Proven Senior Level Leader | Multiple Years Experience Setting Strategic Direction and Managing Change | Innovator | Author of Simple Man’s Leadership Guide
Chesapeake, Virginia, USA

AtenaAtena Hensch

Inclusive Diversity and belonging Specialist | Unconscious Bias | Gender | Cultural Intelligence | Certified Trainer
Geneva Area, Switzerland

 

LouiseLouise Duffield

VP @GatedTalent | SEO | Executive Search | Social Media | Branding | LinkedIn Optimization | LinkedIn Profile Writer
United Kingdom

What Makes Someone Latinx? – by Susana Rinderle and Addy Chulef

It’s More Than Just DNA

Camila, a successful professional, grew up in Buenos Aires with an Argentinian mom and a Guatemalan dad. Her native language is Spanish, and she dances tango and sips yerba mate.

But when asked about her cultural identity, “Latina” is not her first answer. “Because my grandparents are European Jews who migrated to South America and I grew up celebrating Jewish traditions and learning Hebrew, I feel more connected to Israel than Argentina,” she says. “I am a Latina, but I’m other identities too that mean as much to me.”

In an era when diversity goals categorize people into simple identity boxes, Camila’s story is not unique, and raises questions: What makes someone Latina? Is it DNA? Parents from Latin America? Who has the right to claim a Latinx identity?

Susana, one of Camila’s colleagues, has a similar experience but a different story. A fluent Spanish speaker with dark brown hair, she studied, worked, and lived in Mexico for many years – including dancing and singing backup in a grupo versátil band. Most of her closest friends, romantic partners and godchildren are Mexican.

For decades, many people have assumed Susana is Latina — but she is racially White. While Latinx multiracial heritage includes White Europeans, Susana has no Latin American DNA. Can she declare she is culturally Latina? 

The Impact of Latinx Multi-dimensional Identities

Identity – one’s sense of self – is a core and ancient human need. For millennia, identity has been synonymous with belonging, and belonging synonymous with safety and sustenance. This belonging was granted through the happenstance of one’s birth – random genetics and geography.

What forms our identity today is far more complex, nuanced and dynamic. Navigating a world where name and appearance don’t always indicate affiliation can be disorienting. However, as growing trends in migration, interracial mixing and cross-cultural contact continue, learning to navigate this world is a must-have. Latinxs are the vanguard of a trend in multi-identity that will affect more people over time.

This trend presents three major challenges:

  • Multi-identity people face challenging cognitive and social complexities. As genetic and geographical borders blur, more people have more identities to manage. Managing them through “code switching” can require greater awareness and brain power as well as skill, which can be stressful or confusing. While there is freedom in identity fluidity, there is also limitation in the loss of a singular personal point of reference.
  • Multi-identity people disrupt traditional identity categories. While many argue that the U.S. penchant for racial categorization is divisive and outdated, brain science indicates that we do notice physical traits in others we categorize as racial, then assign qualities based on those traits. Connecting identities to outcomes helps institutions track whether or not their policies and practices are equitable. But when identities become increasingly blurry and fluid, such data lose their usefulness. Eventually institutions will have to redefine what “diversity” means, and re-examine how to track equity and progress.
  • Greater disorientation and disconnect for everyone. Not always knowing “what” another person “is,” nor having clear norms for how to identify someone, presents a new challenge for our species. People may be less likely to engage deeply with one another for fear of making a wrong assumption. Those with multidimensional identities can experience exclusion or bigotry towards their non-visible identities. They also bear the burden of managing others’ confusion and questioning when those identities are revealed.

Creating inclusive environments for multi-identity individuals

The following six practices can create more inclusive environments for multi-identity people:

  1. Don’t be afraid to be unsure, or to guess. Noticing that you’re not sure about someone’s identity, and maintaining curiosity, will keep your brain from solidifying around the initial assumptions we all make when meeting someone new. Have fun inside your mind trying to guess, but be careful about guessing out loud until you know someone better.
  2. Be curious and listen for cues. This isn’t stereotyping, it’s discovery. Learning about another person’s identities and seeing all their selves respects their full humanity and creates connection. Listen to how they talk and what they say. If they trust you, multi-identity individuals will give you clues about who they are.
  3. Consider asking. If rapport and trust have been built, most multi-identity people appreciate the question. It shows that you understand identity is important to them, and that you want to know all of their selves. Steer away from clichéd questions like “Where are you from?” and try “May I ask, how do you identify culturally?” Avoid direct or continued probing if the person’s body language indicates discomfort.
  4. Catch and check your assumptions. Camila recalls her first Mexican restaurant experience in grad school where her friends asked her what she’d recommend from the menu. She answered: “You probably don’t want my advice. Tacos are shoe heels, burritos are donkeys, and fajitas…means ‘girdles!’” Another approach might be, “Camila, I’m not sure of your background, do you have any insight into this menu?” Pay close attention to nonverbal feedback to gauge how your good intentions are received.
  5. Focus on what a person’s identity means to them, not what it means to you. An identity label is an entry point, not the entire story. Once you discover someone is Brazilian, you risk damaging connection if you immediately start talking about your trip to Rio. Balance curiosity with respect – the other person may not be interested in satisfying your curiosity. Avoid treating them as your personal tour guide or cultural interpreter (“Your dad was Mexican? How did he treat your mom, was he ‘macho’?”). Such conversations aren’t taboo, but they will emerge organically as trust is built.
  6. Reflect the person’s identity back to them. Spell and pronounce the person’s name accurately and avoid shortening it or creating a nickname. Not everyone named Pamela likes to be called Pam; some who pronounce their name as “George” spell it “Jorge.” When in doubt, ask. Never contradict or tell someone how they should name or identify themselves.

Multi-identity people like Latinxs play a critical role in bringing the “should” reality of identity closer by disrupting what “is.” Camila, Susana and others like them embody a new approach where identity is defined by both embracing and transcending the simple facts of a DNA test.

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Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect anonymity.