Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Defining Dominant Culture in Your Organization: Name it to Tame it

Before we share the guest blog below, we want to acknowledge and stand in solidarity with the Asian and Asian American/ Pacific Islander community given the rise of racist violence and the attacks in Atlanta.

Sangita Kumar is the Principal and Founder of Be the Change Consulting, an organization that provides high quality learning experiences and consulting for organizations to reach their creative potential. I had the pleasure of working alongside Sangita years ago. She is a bold training designer and leader. Recently, Be the Change Consulting developed a four-month virtual training series featuring over 40 learning experiences that examine six areas of organizational practice to de-center white dominant culture and support organizations to build inclusive and equitable outcomes. Below is a guest blog by Sangita Kumar. 

By Guest Blogger, Sangita Kumar

What is Dominant Culture? 

We define dominant culture as the practices and beliefs that form the blueprint for behavior. In an organization, your dominant culture sends explicit and implicit messages to your team about what is important, valued, and rewarded. Creating intentional culture is a great way to ensure equity and inclusion.

Source: Be the Change Consulting

Have you ever heard any of these terms used?

  • “Let’s be Professional.”
  • “That wasn’t Respectful.”
  • “Please be Appropriate.”

What ideas come to our mind with these statements? Who defined the expectations of professionalism, respect, appropriateness? When and where did we agree to these definitions?  

When pushed to unpack what is meant by these terms, expectations often vary greatly from person to person. Our organizations are held together by invisible agreements, that often negatively impact those who hold identities outside the dominant culture. But it’s really hard to define - it’s like trying to describe oxygen - it’s all around us, we interact with it, but it’s so commonplace that it becomes invisible.

Why Dominant Beliefs are Often Invisible

Imagine you are walking down the street, a bus comes barreling down it and hits you. Now imagine you are laying in the street, bleeding and the bus driver comes up to you and says, “What are you doing down there?” You say, “You hit me with your bus!” Then the bus driver says, “No I didn’t, what are you talking about? When? Where? Prove it!” Now the emphasis is on you, the person laying on the ground and bleeding, to both attend to your wounded body, experience a traumatic interaction with the bus driver, and then figure out how to describe your visible trauma to another person who says it is invisible. This is a huge burden on you, to say the least.

This exhausting interaction is what happens when bodies of culture are hit by dominant culture. The bus driver, from their vantage point, can’t see what’s going on down on the street, or maybe never walks anywhere, so doesn’t even know what the dangers to pedestrians are. But the people walking around on the street know all too well the dangers of the bus, and the powerful ignorance of the bus drivers.

If this example is not resonating for you, you might be more like the bus driver in this example than the pedestrian. See what happens if you share this metaphor with three people - perhaps a woman, a Black-identified  professional, or anyone who identifies as neurodiverse, and see what they say.  

A great tool to define the running waters of dominant culture is an article called White Supremacy Culture, produced by Dismantling Racism. This article describes fifteen practices that often plague organizations and stem from a white supremacy belief system. They list practices like Right to Comfort, Worship of the Written Word, Paternalism, and Sense of Urgency. When I read them, right away very concrete examples of where these patterns of behavior live in my own organization spring to mind. -The more I get curious about the experiences of my team, the more examples I discover!

Source: Be the Change Consulting

Why Common Language is Critical for Antiracism Work

Without intentional language for these behaviors, we have busses driving out of control, and bus drivers with no clue of the impact of their actions. For those who are hit by a bus, we know that we will need to then describe what just happened, and establishing some common language before a conflict occurs can help bridge the gap between these divergent experiences. We need a common language because we don’t share common experiences. Giving language to our bus drivers can allow everyone in an organization, regardless of identity or position, explore where these practices show up and hold the labor of naming and taming them together. Wouldn’t that be a relief?

Dealing with the Shame that Springs Forward when we Name Dominant Culture
The work of visibilizing dominant culture in our organizations is bound to bring up an existential crisis for those who enjoy positional or identity-based privilege, because we will rapidly realize many ways that privilege helps us maintain a status quo, even though we can see the disproportionate impact on our teams, society, and the world at large. I personally struggle to take in the evidence of dominant culture in my own organization. It feels gross and embarrassing to get feedback on my own mental blindspots. And the more I am in this work, the more I realize that I can move from the heavy weight of embarrassment or shame into an empowered place. If I’m making it bad, then I can fix it!

How Privilege Creates Mental Blindspots

From time to time, we are asked by training participants to explain the rationale for this research. To understand this work will surely require all of us to grapple with the content. Everyone deserves the space to sometimes push back as a way to make better sense of the information. AND, for everyone in an identity that mirrors dominant culture - white people, cis-gendered men, able-bodied, those who speak English as a first language, or identify as part of the gender binary, etcetera… we can add our privileged identities in front of our questions, so that we take responsibility for what we probably aren’t seeing from inside the bus. Because someone from the street is likely doing the labor to explain it to us.

Here is what I mean: What’s different when you hear this question? As a white man, I would love to understand why visibilizing dominant culture is so impactful to antiracism work?

The struggle to understand all of this is a productive struggle. Onward!

Sangita Kumar is the Principal and Founder of Be the Change Consulting. She is a results-based organizational development consultant and facilitator dedicated to the empowerment of individuals and our communities. Sangita’s experience over the past 15 years ranges from coaching, professional development, strategic planning, program design, and curriculum development. Sangita holds a Masters Degree in Organizational Development, is a Certified Life Coach, and completed a two-year certification in Somatics and Trauma.

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