By Tre’vell Anderson
What does inclusion mean to you?
To me, inclusion is actively taking steps to break down barriers to someone’s full and complete participation in a space or community.
Diversity and inclusion have been a cornerstone of your career. What changes, or stagnations, have you observed over that time?
I think in today’s political climate it can be really easy to feel like society is regressing, like all of our time and pain and effort has been for nothing. But it absolutely, unequivocally, has not. Working in colleges, I’ve seen a significant shift towards valuing diversity and creating inclusivity, not just in activist spaces but as a broad cultural norm among younger people.
What challenges exist, if any, in the work you do and how do you strive to overcome them? Can you specifically discuss some of your work around disability inclusion?
We are all working within the limited framework of our own lived experiences. As a Deaf queer activist, I have plenty of experience with oppression and discrimination — but I am also white, and as a white person I simply don’t navigate racism in the way that a person of color does. I can contextualize and empathize with people of color because of my experiences as a member of other marginalized communities, but I will never have a lifetime of firsthand experience to draw from and inform my work. Even within a shared identity, no two lived experiences are identical, so in doing this work we are all inevitably going to encounter blind spots and gaps in our knowledge. These gaps aren’t the challenge. The challenges come from how we react to them in ourselves and others.
When I hit one of my own blind spots and subsequently say or do something that limits someone’s full and complete participation in a space, I reflexively want to minimize or excuse what I’ve done. Not because I don’t care. In fact, the opposite. Because I know how it feels to have been on the receiving end of intentional and unintentional oppression, it’s hard for me to admit that I’ve contributed to that feeling in someone else. Because I work so hard to tear down barriers, it is hard for me to admit when I am building them up for other people. The problem with that is that we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge; I can’t let my pride get in the way of the work. The only shame in making a mistake is not taking steps to correct it.
In that same vein, you have to allow the people around you to correct their mistakes and learn. I think there’s a culture of expecting perfection in activism, and of letting perfect be the enemy of progress. We treat other people’s gaps as indelible personal failings instead of opportunities for growth. For example, I could dismiss you as an ableist bigot for not knowing that “hearing impaired” is an offensive term in the Deaf community, or I could send you some resources on Deaf culture and give you tools to be a more effective, intersectional activist.
To be clear, I am NOT saying to take intentional oppression with a smile. I am not saying that there aren’t instances where “cancel culture” isn’t warranted. I am saying that we are canceling people when we could have educated them, particularly within activist and social justices spaces, spaces that are by definition built of and by people commited to progress and justice.
As a comedian, how does that intersect with your activism and advocacy?
The two, for me, are fundamentally and inextricably intertwined. Comedy is how I cope with injustice, the lens through which I can refract my own experiences of oppression and disenfranchisement and turn them into something I can manage and talk about day after day after day.
Comedy is also an incredible tool for activism. A good joke can assuage the discomfort of a difficult subject, communicate a perspective that might be unfamiliar to the audience and highlight the absurdity of bigotry all in one fell swoop. And at its very basest, people are more likely to listen to me if they’re laughing.
Why is it important for companies to make an expressed commitment to LGBTQ+ and other intersectional forms of inclusion?
There’s a meme or shirt or whatever I see online all the time (that I love) that says something like “I can’t explain to you why you should care about other people”, and to be honest when I work with corporate clients to do diversity and inclusion training this phrase is always in the back of my mind. I think if you’re self-selecting out to attend my workshops or speeches or reading this article you, as a person, have some fundamental understanding of why you should care about other people.
But even if you don’t, and you think I’m a bleeding-heart liberal and you only care about the bottom line, these are markets that aren’t being served. If you corner those markets first, you will retain a significant share of that market even when others catch up. Even if it’s solely performative or profit-driven, the effort you put into engaging those communities and meeting their needs will pay off. Subaru deliberately and explicitly marketed to the lesbian community in the 90’s. I’m a queer 26 year old in 2020. Guess what kind of car I drive?
What’s the best piece of advice you give or have received about working in diversity and inclusion?
People tend to think of “accommodations” in terms of disability and treat them as a benevolence, a gift graciously bestowed upon the accommodated by the person in a position of power or privilege that they are inconveniencing with their request. But here’s the thing: we all make and receive accommodations every single day; accommodations are changes that we make in our behavior and environments to allow the people around us to participate more fully and comfortably. I’m a morning person but I keep it down when my roommates are asleep. My sister is a vegetarian so her boyfriend doesn’t take her to a steakhouse on their anniversary. I’m hard of hearing, so you emailed me these questions instead of asking them on the phone. These are all accommodations, and they’re not a gift, they’re not a burden, they’re not an inconvenience. They are what you do when someone is a part of your community. Full stop. And accommodations should never be a matter of “can or can’t” — they’re a matter of “how.” Be flexible and creative in creating access, and never let perfection or convention get in the way of progress.