Book Review: Deep Diversity by Shakil Choudhury

This book offers an outstanding approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It tackles the issue of racism at the neuro-psychology level, and offers strategies and a practice for how to breakdown and rebuild our unconscious, implicit biases. Shakil Choudhury began his consulting career focussing on anti-indigenous racism, and this echoes throughout the book, and the learning that he passes along here is valuable across the practice of anti-racism because it focuses on the individual’s agency to see themselves and others differently.

In the book, he combines 4 key questions with 5 key skills that fill our toolkit on this journey to continual improvement, understanding and empathy:

  • What  are the influences of emotions in this situation, group or issue?
  • What are the influences of bias?
  • What are the influences of tribes?
  • What are the influences of power?

And the tools are: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, relationship management and conflict skills

You would be interested in this book if:

1) You were interested in neuro-psychology of in-groups/out-groups, implicit bias and emotional literacy, and how it plays out at an individual and cultural level
2) You were interested in narratives of changing cultural behaviours to be more inclusive
3) You were interested in developing skills and frameworks to make a positive change in your own thinking and that of your school
4) You were committed to deeper diversity and inclusion

Developing inner-skills and micro-abilities:

In many ways, this book is a call to action and a workbook for answering that call.

In the words of neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, “you can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living.” Deep Diversity emphasizes that we can change how we think and feel about others and ourselves, especially regarding racial issues, so as not to be unconsciously swept away by ancient brain processes and structures. (pg. 16)

How might we restructure our brain in these different ways? You may have heard about how to build capacity for compassion through a gratitude journal. Well, this isn’t far off. The brain can be trained. And the urgency is upon us to begin and/or continue this training.

When we apply the skills of Deep Diversity, we broaden our capacity for compassion: for oneself and for others. This, according to Choudhury, is our “secret power” because Deep Diversity is about difference and compassion is “The mental state of wishing that others may be free from suffering”, and so we must be curious about others and seek to understand their lived experiences.  Building a toolkit of micro-abilities and inner-skills builds this capacity for understanding and compassion.

The key elements of understanding and authentically engaging in relationships.

The Power of Emotional Literacy

Emotions do more than colour our sensory world; they are at the rood of everything we do, the unquenchable origin of every act more complicated than a reflex. (Lewis, Aminin and Lannon, A general Theory of Love) – quoted in this book Pg. 24

Emotional literacy is a super-power as well, because it allows us to respond, and not just move into a space of reflex/reaction. I’ve reviewed a few books already that center of emotional literacy, but this part of Choudhury’s work reminded me of Marc Brackett’s book “Permission to Feel”.

Choudhury identifies three unconscious emotions that influence our response to racial difference:
1) Tilting away/towards: we are inclined to tilt towards those that are most like us, and away from those that we perceive to be different.
2) Emotional Contagion: emotions are contagious, and we are designed to “feel the emotions of others”, to regulate our emotions with the people we are sharing space with.
3) Emotional Triggers: we can be triggered to react in a way that bypasses our thinking brain. When we come upon one of these triggers, we have a reduced ability to think clearly “…especially when dealing with those who are racially different than us.” (pg. 25)

This is the first of many times that he surfaces difficult neurological structures that feed into racism, but that can also be overcome with brain-training. “Learning to direct our focused attention to the internal workings of our mind is critical to living a life where our actions and choices are aligned with our values. Especially regarding issues of racial difference and diversity.” (g. 42)

He finishes this section with tools, and they are great. One that I will highlight here is “Self compassion helps us observe ourselves with curiousity rather than judgement… the key to developing any skill is practice and repetition.” (Pg. 45)

Breaking Neural Wiring

Bias is a built in feature of our brain that has been wired in for survival. However, as many of you reading this will know, we have outstripped the need for these internal workings through our progress and development of societies, cultures and technology. For example, it is vital for humans to recognize who is in “our tribe” and who is not. Way back in the day, this was a matter of life and death, and so identifying traits, behaviours were indicators.

Our unconscious mind is “on” at all times. One of its jobs is to continually assess the world around us, amking sense of what is happening in the external environment and looking out for threats. As a result, it continuously makes judgements on all things, including people. (pg. 55)

Now, however, we must break these neural pathways in order to build new ones that welcome difference and diversity. It is now clear that “…biased judgments are based on beliefs about social groups rather than on their actual behaviours.” (Pg. 55)

In this section of the book, he dives deep into the cognitive psychology of implicit bias and it is worth the read. I say it is worth the read because even our positive biases can cause us to do harm with the best of intentions.

A series of brainwaves – called by names such as N100, N200, P200 and P300 – are shown to be linked to a variety of racially based reactions. These reactions include greater wariness of those not like us, greater attention to in-group memberships, and our degree of motivation to update information about out-group members (pg. 64)

This section ends with a great toolkit to build capacity and confidence with language and approaches. He also puts forward excellent self-regulation strategies (i.e. responses) and compares them with negative actions (i.e. reactions). The purpose is to really use these practices and questions to get curious about one’s own biases.

The Tribe Defines Normal

The power to define ‘normal’ is one of those systemic powers, usually invisible to the dominant group itself. Invisible, but not withoutconsequences. It’s devastating to realize that being white makes one more likely to get appropriate emergency room treatment, or that having an Anglo-sounding name makes on 40-50 per cent more likely to get a job interview. It’s an invisible advantage, a momentum constantly working in favour of the dominant group, that influences cultural and institutional norms and values. (pg. 90)

I find myself referring to the people I work with in Cohort21 as my ‘tribe’. We set up the culture of collaborative sharing and caring about what we do and about the people we welcome into the program year after year. The Tribe sets up the ‘normal’, the ‘expectations’, and supports it, builds it, and protects it. I get it.

But when this is a societal thing, it is like water to a fish – we literally are breathing that culture. So, when George Floyd dies from strangulation, that is a literally analogy of the culture strangling him. The dominant tribe sets up the creation of sub-dominant tribes.

So, in-groups and out-groups are defined from the perspective of the individual (and group), and the concepts are very relative. We are simultaneously occupy a variety of in-groups and, therefore, out-groups. But on crucial aspect of this…is power.

This brings to mind the work of Peggy Macintosh and The White Knapsack. CLICK HERE for her 1989 paper. I was fortunate enough to be educated about this framework early in my educational career, and I hope that I acting with this knowledge of advantage in all I do.

It requires building a practice of empathy. This chapter ends with some excellent question and language to build empathy as a part of the Deep Diversity toolkit.

But, as a straight, able-bodied, white male, I know that I have access and am a member to the dominant tribe of our society.  It is what I do with this access, with this advantage, that really matters. This is the topic of the next section: Power.

Fight the Power…

Power – the distribution of socio-economic and political power – is what entrenches differences between groups, amplifying feelings of “us” and “them”. (pg. 102)

We have established that there are in-groups and out-groups and that empathy is the key to break down the barriers between them. Shakil Choudhury tackles this effectively in his work; however, what might we do when with institutional power?

Institutional discrimination can be identified by whether, over time, organizational decisions result in a disproportionate allocation of social, political, and economic wealth and benefit to certain groups over others, whether this occurs consciously or unconsciously. We have to ask, are all social groups treated fairly by institutional decisions and processes? The answer is an unequivocal no. (Pg. 104)

Powerful words. Our schools are institutionally set up to discriminate. So too are our government, health care, driving tests, and the list goes on. Because this is about the dominant tribe. This is why SAT and AP and IB ask for social-demographic information on their exams.  If you are interested in this thread CLICK HERE. So how might our schools respond?

The crux of the matter is that creating a space for non-dominant groups my be a conscious act. This explicitness is what gets people emotionally work up. For the dominant tribe, however, society already is designed in our favour – racial privilege, unconscious and therefor invisible, is taken for granted.

How might we support ourselves and others? We can take part in “Self-Education”. This requires of us to:
Self-study: dig deeper into the issues of race and systemic discrimination to better understand ourselves and our tribe in the context of the great whole
Learn through relationships: how might we connect, interact and just expose ourselves to different ethno-cultural identities to build personal connections and two-way relationship?
Formal Study: what professional development, courses or workshops might we take to support our broadening of perspective and empathy?

I was fortunate to take a workshop just last week entitled “Race in the Classroom” put on by the Global Center for Pluralism, where the purpose was to build confidence and one’s toolkit for having conversations about race and racism and to share perspectives in the classroom context. It was powerful. It worked. I say it worked because I am more and more engage on this journey of practice, prepared to make mistakes, prepared to be kind to myself, and prepared to be an ally.

The Power of Deep Diversity

As he bring the book to a close he summarizes with this:

The Deep Diversity lens can help us name, talk about, and navigate systemic racism. Asking the four gateway questions can help us uncovber those issues that may be more hidden or unconscious:

  • What  are the influences of emotions in this situation, group or issue?
  • What are the influences of bias?
  • What are the influences of tribes?
  • What are the influences of power?

The related skills – self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, relationship management and conflict skills – are the critical inner work tools we need to sharpen on this journey.

This is an excellent book to consider as we head into the next academic year, and even as we head into tomorrow, to make ourselves more thoughtful and empathic, and thus farther down the journey to deep diversity.

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