Learning to Say The Right Thing

“You can’t say anything anymore…” is a phrase-turned-refrain that I’ve heard and overheard so many times. There is an undeniable need to understand how to have better conversations about identity to help others be truly seen and known for all of who they are, more than the parts of them that are the easiest for us to know because of our limited experiences. I know that I can only empathize with experiences unfamiliar to me. Yet the refrain of uncertainty and a need for help across a chasm called identity or as some have termed it “identity politics,” has presented a dire need for guides through it. The language of bridge building offers a handy metaphor but suggests a one-size-fits-all solution which ignores the nuances within every person – which is part of why the chasm exists in the first place. I feel it important to add the disclaimer that, resisting the pull of colonial imaginaries of empire building, I won’t use terms like navigation, new frontiers, pioneering, uncharted waters, charting courses, and other discovery narratives in this review. Conversations about identity are not new, nor are they uncharted or recently discovered. Speaking from my own intersections, it would simply seem that more people are willing to listen and admit what they don’t know because we have more transparent mechanisms of accountability for those in or with power. It is a critical juncture that requires helpful tools to ensure we are honoring identities and intersections in parts to fully see the sum of someone’s humanity. Enter Say The Right Thing by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow.

Yoshino and Glasgow provide an in-depth guide to conversations related to identity, diversity, and justice. Their book offers much in the way of “how to” without the oversimplification of “if this, then that” language so common in business. It was among a list of recommended reads from Dr. Laura Mae Lindo, who provided an equity, diversity, and inclusion training during WPL’s latest Staff Development Day. There is much this book delivers in the way of conversation frameworks, habits, and restorative ways of seeing “the present moment” (code for: more questions than answers when we need the reverse).

We cannot help where we are in relation to issues of equity and inclusion (ie: still much to be done), but we can do differently where “better” or “more” feel out of reach. For example, it refines the languages of apology into something that is immediately actionable for leaders in business, laterally among colleagues, and other “professional” contexts: politics, education, executive board positions, and more. We know that ostensibly, power is in the hands of the community and people. We cannot deny however, the need for “doing better” to reach local ivory towers even where they do not graze the same stratospheres as with national or international corporations. The cases in this book accordingly speak to business scenarios that everyone might immediately see themselves within: What do you say to a colleague (or family member) who doesn’t just say something problematic but whose viewpoint is anchored in -isms? How do you gracefully opt-out of circular conversations to protect people beside you? How do you “agree to disagree” with someone whose perspective fundamentally denies your humanity and existence? How do you recognize skepticism in yourself or address it in others when someone shares lived experiences that you call unfathomable just because you haven’t experienced them? How do you stay curious when you get emotionally activated (and dysregulated) by the realization that you’ve caused harm? How do you separate unintentionally harmful behaviour with taking on an identity of one who does harm? The book answers these questions and more.

There have been many times that I’ve gotten it “wrong” because I’m still learning. One of my most significant learning curves has been knowing how to address problematic conversations as they are happening. The book helps with this very issue. It contains a chart of conversational strategies and helpful examples (pp.164-165) that would be considered appropriate by most human resource departments. Empathy has almost become a buzzword, where it has been levied (and sometimes hurtled) without its companionate kindness or the architectural compassion that facilitates it. The book presents readers with an important component of what can be challenging conversations: compassion for yourself, and the ways you will inevitably get it “wrong.” They offer not just practical tools but comfort to those who find themselves occasionally mired in the less glamorous aspects of the learning process.

My initial skepticism was met with a truly helpful, and immediately useful volume on how to do differently, and breaks down the mythos of “better” into a conversation location within our sights. Equity, diversity, and inclusion work is without a doubt challenging. Collectively, we’ve been taught over lifetimes that complexities should be reducible to a series of parts that we can consume and understand quickly, in the name of progress. When we talk about societal change, it is not just the machinations of markets or industry that are shifting. It is that the business of doing business is being called into question where it doesn’t recognize the common humanity we all share. Equity, diversity, and inclusion resist distillation which makes it incompatible with the notions of “progress” and simplicity that have been closely associated with upward return-on-investment trajectories. Ensuring that we tend to one another however, is an investment whose dividends may not immediately appear but do become visible in ripples of belonging, and feeling a spiritual safety about your person that allows you to connect to self actualizing forces of meaning and purpose. Leaders of social movements have said in myriad forms that we need one another. The pandemic highlighted this fact in bold letters and flashing lights. Say The Right Thing isn’t just about finding the right thing to say, despite its title. It is about finding out how to do right by one another to ensure that the connections we need are the ones we are capable stewards of creating. It offers much in the way of developing a framework to ensure belonging, and that no one gets left behind in the milieu or at the price of “doing better.”

Charlie C.
Programmer & Library Assistant, Main Library

Charlie loves to read across genres. His favourite part of working at the library is connecting people with resources to help better their lives and experiences; knowledge is a path to empowerment. Accordingly, he is interested in reading and borrowing adult non-fiction books related to almost everything. He enjoys reading about business, self-improvement, environmental sciences and spirituality/esotericism. Books that help ask big questions and invoke equally big wonder are among his favourites. Charlie’s other hobbies include writing, hiking, photography and cooking.