By Dr. Nika White

President and CEO, Nika White Consulting, Best Selling Author of “The Intentional Inclusionist®” and “Next-Level Inclusionist: Transform Your Work and Yourself for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Success”

As individuals, we each have our own story of how or why we engage in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While some of us may be far along in our DEI journey, others are just now joining the conversation. To better understand someone’s lens and perspectives concerning DEI, it benefits us to know an individual’s mental model. Understanding mental models allows DEI champions and allies to be better positioned to influence the likelihood of others engaging in inclusive leadership practices. Because mental models can vary, contained in this article is a breakdown of a few examples and signs to help identify them.


Active Opposition

Active opposers are typically deeply rooted in their choice to be a strong opponent of DEI. These are the people whose minds cannot be changed and are committed to disrupting the work of DEI. The potential for engagement is slim, and often leads to the determination that the energy of trying is in vain. My advice is to let them be – there are far too many other people that can be persuaded. Putting our energy into changing the minds of active opposers can cause burnout. The best way to interact with these individuals is to not engage in heated conversation and to show them love in the best way you can, not hate. In the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Light drives out darkness.

Passive Unawareness

These are the people who are unaware and cannot engage in the work DEI, simply because they are uninformed. Passively unaware individuals can be identified by their lack of engagement in the conversation and their inability to recognize the severity of the problems that loom of equity and equality.

If you notice a group discussing the lack of brown and black people on a panel, and this person doesn’t engage, bring them into the conversation. After getting them to the discussion, if they share, they don’t have much to add to the subject or don’t have the point of view to weigh in; we can infer that they are passively unaware. This is an opportunity to connect and expose the individual to broader perspective. Reach out to have a one-on-one conversation. Ask questions, share your personal investment in DEI, and listen. Make sure to listen to learn.

Passive Awareness

Passively aware individuals are the ones who can appreciate that attention is being given to the work of DEI, but see it as someone else’s responsibility, the bystander effect. To illustrate passive awareness, we can use the same situation from passive unawareness.

If you notice a group discussing the lack of brown and black people on a panel, and this person doesn’t engage, bring them into the conversation. After getting them to the discussion, if they express they realize it is essential, but trust other people to get the job done, we can recognize passive awareness. They see this as the work of someone else instead of taking ownership to help solve for inequity. Often time, this disengagement comes from feeling that DEI is about marginalized communities. If someone doesn’t identify with a marginalized community, they may be dismissive about their personal accountability.

Because this person is aware of the need to value DEI, they can be persuaded to deepen their engagement and begin to see themselves as part of the solution. Meet them where they are. Invite them for coffee or tea and have a chat. Ask them questions to suggests entry points of engagement in DEI that feels comfortable to them as they start an intentional journey of modeling inclusive leadership. This is an opportunity to show their voice matters. They can serve as an ally and be an advocate for change for those in their circle of influence.

Active Awareness

Our actively aware mental modelers are the ones who know this work is necessary and are actively working to advance it. These can be our DEI practitioners, human rights activists, social justice workers, but they are also regular people who work to advocate for others daily. These individuals work to bring others to the forefront and to make space at the table to center voices that are rarely heard from.

Active awareness can be practiced by speaking up for silenced voices, self-education through books, documentaries, discussions, etc., and pushing for equity and inclusion in personal and professional spaces. Because the actively aware are so involved, they are the key champions to bring the passively unaware and passively aware to the party.


Overactive Awareness

At times, active awareness can go a little too far and even sometimes hinder the efforts to advance one’s engagement in DEI work. Those who have hyper awareness are often early adopters of the work or they have been victimized in such a way that they are headstrong about the work and wish to see results by any means necessary. An example of overactive awareness is cancel culture. If a person/organization shares something offensive, exclusionary, or politically incorrect, this mental model will cancel the person/organization. Instead of extending grace and allowing for correction, growth, and progress, these people automatically ostracize.

We are all human. We are GOING to make mistakes. By going to extremes when a person or organization makes a mistake, we push people further away from this space. While we need to hold people accountable to change and learn from their mistakes, we must extend grace and avoid being overactive or aggressive because aggression will only be met with aggression. When this occurs, we lose all opportunity to influence change and increase the likelihood of behavior change. Sure, you want people to do the work of DEI, but do you want them to do it despite or because of?

To recap, our mental models for DEI are: Active Opposition, Passive Unawareness, Passive Awareness, Active Awareness, and Overactive Awareness. Now that we have identified mental models of DEI, we can recognize where people are in their journey, and collectively work to individualize our approach to bringing people along on this journey to create a more equitable society.

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