By Arin N. Reeves
In April, Hilary Rosen, a Democratic political pundit on CNN, reacted to Mitt Romney's comments about getting advice from his wife on women's economic concerns with a comment suggesting that Ann Romney would know nothing about the majority of women's economic concerns because she "had never worked a day in her life."
Ann Romney responded with a statement on how she made the choice to stay at home and raise five sons — a choice that she emphasized was hard work. The battle for street cred on women's economic concerns raged from there with politicians, pundits and the like jumping in to agree that mothers who chose to stay at home to raise their children should be lauded for their choices and that politicians' families should be protected from personal attacks. Phew!
The media ran wild with stories about how hard moms work regardless of whether or not they work outside of the home and how many women in these economic times don't have the option of staying at home to raise their children.
Hilary Rosen apologized to Ann Romney and she accepted the apology. We all moved on, and in moving on without questioning what really happened, we missed the opportunity to tackle a thorny question that agitates many diversity and inclusion initiatives in workplaces. Who has the street cred to speak up when certain topics are raised?
Are working moms the only people with the street cred to speak up on women's economic concerns? Are men allowed to say anything at all about women's issues? On the racial front — are racial-ethnic minorities the only ones who are allowed to comment on the concerns of people of color? Can straight people earn the street cred to have opinions on gay-lesbian issues? More importantly, how far will we slice the street cred debate? Can black men speak up for black women or do you have to be a black working mom to have the credibility to speak for other black working moms?
In diversity and inclusion efforts, the diversity component deals with our different identities, and in any workplace, it is critical to have diverse voices representing different identities, heritages, backgrounds, perspectives, opinions, etc.
The inclusion component, however, is a skill that each of us must develop to recognize that identities do not automatically equal perspectives. Without this inclusion component, diversity efforts become formalized exercises in stereotyping — hire the Latino to represent the Latino perspective, hire the gay man to represent the gay perspective, hire the woman to represent the female perspective and on and on, ad nauseam.
This, after all, is the flip side of the argument that you have to be a working woman to talk about working women's concerns. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, that would mean that working women would have no credibility to speak up for working men, women who don't work outside the home could not express opinions about women who do, etc.
While diversity efforts propel us to seek out different perspectives, inclusion efforts should be equally propelling us to understand that different perspectives cannot be limited by identity stereotypes. If inclusion is about everyone in the workplace (and it is!), we cannot limit who says what about how the workplace should work. So, should a straight white man have a say in a workplace's diversity and inclusion efforts? Absolutely! If not, the efforts are not truly inclusive. Does including different voices in this way create tension in the workplace? Absolutely! Tension is a necessary precursor to change, if managed and led effectively, which is why diversity and inclusion efforts need effective leadership to be successful.
So, back to Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney. As long as we were discussing who had street cred, no one was discussing the real issue — women's economic concerns. What if Hilary Rosen could have disagreed with Ann Romney's perspectives on women's economic concerns without making the disagreement about whether or not Ann Romney worked outside the home? If Hilary Rosen did a little digging, she may find that while she shares an identity with working moms, she may not agree with all of their opinions. Similarly, she may find that she agrees with some of the opinions of moms who don't work outside the home even though she doesn't connect with their identities. The media hype made for good drama, but it obscured the very thing that the media says it strives to achieve — the elevation of ideas and discourse above identities and personalities.
The street cred debate is a flawed debate that is antithetical to diversity and inclusion efforts. When we seek diversity and try to impose stereotypes of who can or can't speak up on specific topics, we reify the very stereotypes that we are trying to eliminate. We need diversity, but we need inclusion and effective leadership to avoid reproducing prejudice all over again.
So, who has the street cred to speak up? Anybody who has the desire to engage in a productive discourse about important ideas. Or no one at all.