Working Alongside Versus Welcoming In: Moving Beyond Inclusion Toward Authentic Integration

Working Alongside Versus Welcoming In: Moving Beyond Inclusion Toward Authentic Integration

“It’s important that people understand that in some ways, the civil rights movement was a fight for access to public spaces… Although we do have access to public spaces — nobody says, ‘You can’t come in here’ — there’s still sense that African-Americans are not welcome.”

-Stanley Nelson Jr., Filmmaker

In the U.S., we spend a lot of time talking about whether or not it’s possible to live in a multicultural world or how the value of an assimilated world, the “melting pot” era, has passed. After the racist experience that two young black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson had to endure at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in April, many people are asking just what America we are living in exactly.

As filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr. (who has done racial bias training with Starbucks since) has commented, I believe that as nation, we mostly just got comfortable after The Civil Rights Movement instead of digging in and doing the hard work of integration required. We see evidence of this every day, certainly not only at Starbucks. These are not isolated incidents and some of us confront this everyday. It is inescapable. After each reported incident like this, the words of James Baldwin resonate:

“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, without knowing that this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Meanwhile, more and more teams and organizations are talking about the value of “diversity and inclusion.” When I use the word integration in my work with teams on diversity and inclusion, I am speaking about the integrationist view of the world (as opposed to say the “multiculturalist” view or “assimilationist” view) in Mark Williams’ 10 Lenses research. The definition of an integrationist is the following:

“Integrationists support breaking down all barriers between racial groups by merging people of different cultures together in communities and in the workplace. They believe that we can replace our ignorance of each other’s culture with a greater understanding and knowledge if we live and work together. Integrationists want our nation’s laws to reinforce this idea.”

This sounds excellent, but in most workplace environments, I observe that even the most well-intentioned integrationist is generally more interested, or more readily absorbed perhaps, in dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s” instead of navigating the “how” of meaningful and intentional integration work, affirmative action, and the work of upholding of civil and human rights.

I usually see one of two things happen.

Welcoming Integration

At one end of the continuum, I see leaders attempt to “welcome” newcomers into the dominant culture without depth to the diversity and inclusion work or commitment. I see little to no education by way of cultural competency and bias training to prepare for this shift, in quality or frequency. These newcomers represent change and more often than not, the dominant group or organization hasn’t allocated resources or spaciousness to begin the work required to truly embrace the change they have identified as the goal. An intention to be inclusive quickly shifts to being interpreted as tokenism and typically, and more importantly, feels like tokenism to newcomers. Members of the dominant group—who are positioned to do the welcoming—are not well prepared to hear and integrate these new perspectives and experiences, do not have the skills or resources to facilitate challenging conversations, and/or do not know how to use and appropriately acknowledge sources of new knowledge in equity work or in the work of the organization. I see this manifest in the impact of microaggressions and microinequities over time.

Attempting to Force Integration

At the other end of the continuum, when leaders mandate integration, they usually create some degree of harm on all sides by forcing the matter. Members of the dominant group typically stand on the edge of “tolerance”, when tolerance means “putting up with” the change associated with the newcomers the way you put up with a hangnail or put up with having to spend the holidays with a relative who has opposing political views. For folks who have been with the organization for a while, forcing culture change potentially communicates a devaluing of these folks and their contributions (within the framework that previously existed and was clearly valued) or, at worst, communicates that their time with the organization may be going to expire. In this scenario, microinequities and microaggressions against newcomers also pile up quickly, often in ways that need to be identified as such for both sides.

Practicing Integration Through Trust-Building

The simplest step toward real equity in teams and organizations is the most important one and is often completely missed: establish and frame mutuality. Cultural competence is the framework of mutual respect. I tell leaders, you have to prepare yourself and your team to truly integrate an “other” by embracing the needs, values, and value of the person and their perspectives being invited in. This takes cultural humility. To practice cultural humility, team members (especially leaders) need a cultural humility framework to support them as “inviters” to see the power they hold by their mere capacity to be “inviting” people into their work in the first place. Practicing cultural humility in an ongoing way requires self-assessment, acknowledgment of others’ work and contributions, and, at times, reconciliation and reparation work. This must be done working alongside newcomer leaders and teammates who you say you want to integrate into the team, recognizing their power and greatness as well. Trust cannot be built without mutuality.

To me, this is where the other, more positive definition of “tolerance” comes in, where leaders make space for another individual by seeing and hearing their needs and working alongside them to meet them where possible, making hard decisions and commitments around equity at the onset of any new piece of work or setup of a team. In this scenario, relationships are co-constructed and needs are openly discussed and addressed. Leaders build on the strengths of the existing team and help this team team collectively identify the value of diversity and equity so that so there is shared value around this work and that value is demonstrated in a consistent, ongoing way because it is built into the structures and practices of the organization.

If equity is the “what” we’re after, the “how” is about creating a shared, trusting, and dynamic process towards transformation and organizational change involving all team members.

For diversity and inclusion leaders and/or consultants, this means we have to address the current mental models and mindsets of team members and then move along with them strategically to the next phase of culture change. We must create an environment conducive to integration in partnership with organizational leaders. All team members must work to cultivate trust and reliability, not on the basis of past strong relationships or performance, but current relationships. This is what creates the foundation for the best possible new outcomes in policy and practice. Small changes and shifts in behavior and practice support the case for change and lay the groundwork for new experiments and practices worth testing.

I write from my personal experience and my professional experience at once. When I consult with teams, I can guide a team or an organization through the process of doing deep equity work. I am effective because I believe all work about equity and justice values and loves each individual and that supports the safe and brave spaces we have to create to do our shared work in a new paradigm of mutuality. However, when I find myself at the center of an issue around equity as an African American woman of the global majority, I need my sisters with me steeped in unpacking our shared internalized oppression and its manifestations, and I need my allies and accomplices steeped in unpacking their role in upholding oppressive and exclusive culture and practice.

“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Before working with a client and over time, I ask, is this team or workplace ready for integrating diversity and how can I facilitate their readiness? Will the work I do with this team be taken seriously, valued, and compensated fairly? Will this organization take care of the materials, energy, and knowledge I share with them and give proper attribution and attention?

Like many diversity and inclusion consultants, I am always assessing the risk of potential damage as I’m focusing and planning on hoped for outcomes. There are social and financial risks we take that are more easily seen and then there’s the psycho-emotional toll of ongoing microinequities and microaggressions which happen, all of which is much harder to see. We have the research showing how the cumulative effect of these things leads to depression, isolation, feelings of exclusion and all too often exists. I also watch for situations in which the necessary groundwork hasn’t been done. When folks are transitioned in too soon or without proper care during massive organizational shifts, people are inevitably set up for a “bait and switch” situation. This is where an attempt at inclusion never moves beyond “including” and “tolerating” (as in “putting up with”). For the person of color or underrepresented person, the negotiation quickly stops being about the work or the value of their product or service, but survival.

For diversity and inclusion consultants, whenever we start to do equity work with leaders being led into or who hold an integrationist perspective, there is the additional danger around the potential backlash and/or the appropriation of ideas and work. This can be navigated when the work is intentional and the partnership is mutual, courageous, and authentic. In my trainings, we unpack  the “shadows” or bias of the integrationist and how actually without them, important work cannot be accomplished. Working with Mark Williams’ research, I explain how both the strengths and weaknesses of the integrationist leader are biases at work. I support leaders to be attentive and intentional. This is why I look for committed partners in equity and justice work so that when the (un)expected happens (and it will!), we do the collective work of working alongside one another to tackle bias, stereotypes, and assumptions. The goal is to lift up empathy, share the heavy lifting around important conversations, and of course, do our shared work.

Where to Start

To leaders who genuinely value diversity (and equity!) and who want to work towards effective and true integration, my advice is this:

  1. Be intentional about how you are in relationship to who and what you are inviting in (and the power and privilege you hold). This matters not just for the integrity of the work you aim to do; again, this work is about survival.

  2. Please watch and share the “Story of Access” video Stanley Nelson made for Starbucks and read more about this work here. It’s one small step to intentional integration of African Americans in a country whose foundation was to dehumanize and commodify the African American. Unchecked bias, especially with lack of intentional education, training, and environmental context, will result in incidents like the Starbucks incident.

  3. Have the courage to talk about issues of equity and continue the hard work! Avoidance is never the answer because it typically only leads to exponential microinequities and microaggressions.

Everyday interactions and microinequities may feel small at any given moment, but they do repeat and often grow into macro events when they go unchecked. I encourage brave and authentic conversations in which we can lean into our discomfort and conflict in dialogue and allow culture and dynamics to evolve. This is essential to any change effort, and of course, change is intrinsic to integration.

Out of conflict rises the best opportunity, innovation, and growth... when faced.


Ibrahim, Shamira. “Black Loiterers, White Lingerers, and Starbucks Coffee.” New York Magazine. 24 April 2018.

Kohn, Eric. “Starbucks Commissioned a Film About Bias Training That’s Risky and Essential — Watch” IndieWire. 30 May 2018.

Nelson, Stanley. Story of Access (Youtube)

Torino, Gina. How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health. Center for Health Journalism. 10 November 2017.

Williams, Mark. The 10 Lenses: Your Guide to Living and Working in a Multicultural World. Capital Books. November 2001.

Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice.
Ryan-Hart, Tuesday. Method: Shared Work.

© 2018 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

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