The Problem With Inclusion

Inclusion is inherently about exclusion.

No matter what the particular subject — voting, education, technology, you name it — whenever we talk about the need to include people we implicitly acknowledge that the status quo is exclusive — that there are people who are currently not included in X, Y, or Z, but who could be.

That’s the language we use — those of us living comfortably in our own inclusion: “Not included.”

“Not included”, as though the exclusion of others was accidental or coincidental. Distant. Detached. Not intentional. Not active. Passive: not included…but not excluded either.

We’re not exclusion-blind, those of us who live in the mainstream. We know enough to hem and haw about glass ceilings, racial bias, queer acceptance, and…well, America still doesn’t really care about class differentials, but let’s pretend we do…Point is, more and more we see the systematic barriers. We see inequity. And we want to address it.

But we won’t, because we think “Inclusion” is the answer.

What is Inclusion?

Inclusion, as we talk about it today, focuses on bringing people who are currently outside of a structure inside, with no thought to what their experience will be once they get inside and no thought to what kept these people outside to begin with. This type of inclusion challenges the current structure (of an industry, an organization, a community, society, a way of doing things…), but it doesn’t change it. Instead, it looks to include those who are not included by creating diversity at points in the structure where diversity is obviously lacking. For example, changing hiring practices from “race blind” to “race aware”.

This approach to inclusion fixates on end-points, not origins. Symptoms, not sickness. Diversity hiring may increase the number of non-white employees at your organization, but it doesn’t take into account the quality of life for these employees, nor indicate their ability to succeed or gain stature or power in your service. Until something fundamentally changes within the structure and approach of your organization — until you’ve developed networks outside of white* networks, intentionally co-created an internal culture that thrives in difference, hired people of color and women in tip top and mid-level leadership positions, altered what leadership means, and maybe even reconsidered the way you frame and do the work that you do — you will be stuck working on end-point diversification. Forever. (I think of this model as Pokémon Inclusion. So you “catch them all”. So what? Who’s the one left holding the Poké Ball?)

More often than not, whether we realize it or not, end-point diversification is what we’re talking about when we talk about Inclusion. It’s what people in power (those of us comfortable in the mainstream) think inclusion is: bringing people who are out, in. (Bringing “communities” who are out, in.)

We can’t question the “in”, of course. We can’t look at what about “in” creates “out”. We can’t reflect beyond who is “not included” to what we are doing, individually, organizationally, systematically, that excludes.

To do that would mean doing things differently. And despite living in the age of Disruption and Innovation, that kind of difference seems terrifying. Huge. Impossible. That’s why our vision for Innovation is limited to particular types of technologies and particular types of skills — not the ingenuity and creativity that is human inherent. That’s why we value Disruption only when it creates new businesses. That’s why, when local governments ask how to modernize their public meetings and increase participation, we tell them to try livestreaming rather than ask if they’ve considered changing the time or the location or their governing procedures. That’s why we deal in tools and absolutes. Because we don’t actually want change.

We just want Inclusion.

How could we do differently? What does it mean to work on exclusion rather than inclusion?

Working on exclusion means starting at the beginning, not the end. It means examining the practices we have in place (the ones we take for granted as normal) and changing them so that we don’t just value diversity but require it to thrive. It means taking ownership of obvious failures (where we see the need to include) and examining the not-so-obvious failures present in the actions we take and the structures we create that prevent inclusion at their origin and generate exclusion in their operation.

It means building with, not for: making sure, especially when we seek to do work that aspires to any level of “social impact” or “public good”, that our actions don’t cursorily include the people we serve, but that we are the people we serve. That we are truly working together with people like and unlike us not just in the design and implementation of an idea, but in the ideation itself. That we are not just inviting people into the structures that already exist but that we are creating new structures and remixing the old together.

So long as we ignore exclusion and focus on end-point Inclusion — so long as we remain satisfied by mere presence as a measure of participation — we can look upon our efforts and feel satisfied. Because we are trying to do better.

I want us to try smarter.



image by “save by the bell hooks” — a national treasure

*Sub variously for cis, male, and other signifiers of privilege.

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