How to Make Sure Woke-Washing Doesn’t Hurt Your DEI Strategy

Chances are, you’ve had a conversation in the last few months where someone (maybe even you?) started jockeying for the title of “Number One Most Progressive, Best-Read and Least Offensive Person In The Room.”

The most “woke” of them all, if you will.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a snap-back when we haven’t used our language precisely. You feel like a little kid who’s been put in the corner. Class is now in session, take a seat and put on your dunce cap!

It’s this kind of competitive hyper woke vigilance that can actually undermine the DEI goals you’re trying to accomplish. Why? Because equity work requires constant learning and reflection, and when you’re scolding you’re not teaching. When you’re scared or stressed, you’re not learning.

To gather buy-in and build momentum to transform symbolic solidarity into meaningful action requires a whole other set of skills and behaviors that have nothing to do with retaining encyclopedic knowledge of all the harms and horrors of the world.

Before we start to sound too cynical, let’s be clear about one thing – we believe that language matters. There is a good reason why marginalized identities feel the need to shout this stuff from the rooftops after being silenced or ignored for so long. And using language precisely to minimize harm, maximize representation, and create psychological safety is essential to making collective progress and collaborating effectively.

But let’s be clear about another thing, too– there’s a distinct difference between a comment instructed to educate and a comment instructed to take someone down a peg, isn’t there?

The goal is not to constantly school people on the right thing to say or one-up others who aren’t “in the know.” No one knows everything about all identities. Which means no one knows everything about the intersectional way different identities are impacted by policies and processes. And it doesn’t help anyone to pretend you know everything, or to live in fear of being the next person “called out” for an inadvertently hurtful comment.

How do you know if your organization’s DEI initiative is performative? It’s easy: Words are said, but progress is not made. (By the way, how are you measuring progress?)

“Woke-washing” is a branch of performative allyship where individuals or companies co-opt a cause for commercial gain without making any real contributions.* When the brochure photos have superficial markers of diversity, but the About Us headshots are remarkably monochrome. The pronouns are added, but  old promotional practices stay intact. The land acknowledgement at the meeting, but no real interest in returning land or resources to native stewardship.

The capabilities your organization needs to develop an inclusive culture don’t actually need to be filed under a discrete category of “DEI skills.”

For example, here are a few core questions to ask that have nothing (and everything) to do with “DEI,” per se:

  • Do you know how to listen without interrupting?
  • Do your leaders know how to hold space for others without negating or minimizing what is shared?
  • Do your people know how to engage in healthy conflict and come out the other side?
  • Does honest feedback feel scary at your company, or is it a normal fixture of your culture?
  • Are decision-making practices clear, consistent, and communicable?
  • Do you have metrics in place that you regularly monitor to ensure that strategic goals are on track?

At BOxD, we bake DEI into every service, every engagement, every touchpoint. Whether you’re signing up for executive coaching, team-building, or full organization redesign, we embed inclusive principles and behaviors into every aspect of our work.

This work is simply too important to assign as homework, or to silo away from the rest of your organization.


The importance of being earnest: Navigating the dangers of woke-washing to make a meaningful impact on DEI

Tired of all the wokewashing? Want real results from your DEI dollars? Drop us a note if you’re interested in getting the whole kit AND caboodle for your company’s DEI strategy.

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