Published March 15, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, artist, author, and consultant Tiffany Jana (Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions) discussed their work and newest book, a practical handbook that helps individuals and organizations recognize and prevent micro aggressions so that all employees and members can feel a sense of belonging. In conversation with Kaki Dimock.

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“This is an unreasonable manifesto. It’s unreasonable because it challenges us to take responsibility, to be kind, to dig in, and to change the invisible corners of our culture. We’ve got work to do. Unreasonable is precisely what we need.” —Seth Godin, author of This is Marketing

“This book skillfully uses stories and research to build a deep understanding that may actually be able to take something negative and turn it into an opportunity to productively come together and create more support, trust, and equity. Now that’s a feat! Jana and Baran have found a way to give shape and depth to a topic that is difficult to grasp and difficult to speak up about because of its subtlety. —Aimee Meredith Cox, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of African American Studies, Yale University, and author of Shapeshifters

CFA Institute

Thanks to CFA Institute and Bank of America for their support of this program.

Community Partners

Thanks to Center for Nonprofit Excellence, FreddieMac, and ReadyKids for their support in sharing this event.


MATTHEW GIBSON:  Good afternoon. Welcome to Acts of Exclusion: A Conversation with Dr. Tiffany Jana, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Matthew Gibson, Executive Director of Virginia Humanities, which produces the festival. Thank you for joining us.

A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. First, please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. Second, this event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. Third, if you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company, please visit, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. And last but not least, while you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festivals ongoing work at

We greatly appreciate the support of our sponsors for this event, CFA Institute and Bank of America. And we appreciate the help of our many community partners in sharing this event, including the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, Freddie Mac, and Ready Kids.

And now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. Dr. Tiffany Jana, author of Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions is a non-binary entrepreneur, awareness artist and pleasure activists. They use their work and art to create a loving embrace of people and culture that includes an emphasis on liberation through joy. You can learn more at

Kaki Dimock is an artist and a social worker currently serving as the director of human services for the city of Charlottesville. She believes we are always better together and her perspective is informed by her work with people experiencing homelessness, incarceration, poverty, and substance abuse. Subtle Acts of Exclusion offers a practical handbook that helps individuals and organizations recognize and prevent microaggressions so that all employees and members can feel a sense of belonging. Dr. Jana, Kaki, thank you for joining us today, and I now turn it over to you both.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Thank you.

KAKI DIMOCK:  Thank you, Matthew. Dr. Jana, it’s quite an honor for me to be able to spend the next 50 minutes or so in direct conversation with you. And I know a number of our viewers/listeners would do whatever they could to be in my shoes at the moment, so thank you for this. It feels like a great privilege to me.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  It’s such an honor to be at the Virginia Festival of Book. I’m so excited. Thank you, Kaki.

KAKI DIMOCK:  Speaking of books, you are a PhD, you’re an expert in B Corps, you’re an artist, you’re the founder of a much sought after first consulting firm specializing in DEI issues. You’re a Yogi, you are a proud new dog mom. How is it that you decided to make room in your busy life and busy brain to write books?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  It actually started as a way to get my thought leadership and methodology in the hands of more people as my speaking career really started to take off. I would attempt to stay behind for as long as I could to speak to as many people as possible and I thought … I hadn’t sought out to be an author initially, but I thought, folks really want to hear more. They want more and not everyone is going to be a client. So I thought, let me see if I can get this stuff in writing.

And one book begat the next book and I really love … I love reading and I like books that not only enumerate the challenges that we’re facing, but offer clear-cut solutions towards improvement, particularly in the kind of self-help way. So it’s a combination of business and how can I as an individual be more thoughtful as I move through the world. So it’s been an utter joy to be on this journey of authorship.

KAKI DIMOCK:  Well, congratulations to the rest of us for you being willing to do that, because your books do offer. This book in particular offers a very practical and accessible entree to talking about microaggressions. As we’re entering the next period of time talking about them, one of the things that your book does is ask us to consider expanding the language around microaggressions or replacing the language around microaggressions to call them subtle acts of exclusion. And that was done very intentionally. I wonder if you’ll talk a little bit about why you wanted to make that language shift and what motivated that.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  My co-author, Dr. Michael Baran and I both agreed. We’re practitioners in the same field, different companies, but we agreed that the terminology, the nomenclature of microaggression was itself problematic because it immediately puts people on the defensive. And just like calling someone a racist, if you assert microaggression as this is what has happened, it doesn’t open people up to a space of learning and a space of curiosity and openness.

So we wanted to rebrand the term with something that was a little bit more value-neutral and just plain descriptive. They are acts of exclusion, they are often subtle, though they don’t necessarily feel subtle to the people on the receiving end of them, but they tend to be subtle because they spring forth from our center of unconscious bias. So most of the time we get defensive about Subtle Acts of Exclusion or SAE for short because whatever it was that we just said or did, we weren’t intending to cause harm.

We didn’t realize that a term was problematic. We weren’t thinking about the fact that as a man, I just cut off a woman in conversation in a meeting, it was a human being human. And so we wanted to create space for learning, create teachable moments, create language that was a little bit less alienating.

KAKI DIMOCK:  Certainly I have been in the room with folks who have just heard microaggression and just aggression being embedded there. Their little lizard amygdala brain immediately goes into defensive mode, and then they’re not hearing anything else. And so Subtle Acts of Exclusion as you indicate is incredibly just more descriptive of what we’re talking about. This idea about intention versus impact has been a source of conversation, at least in many of the community conversations around racial reconciliation I’ve been a part of.

I really have noticed that white women of privilege, a group of my people, tend to cloak themselves and comfort themselves with a focus on their intentions, neglecting to consider or acknowledge the actual true or deep impact. And so why do you think the shift in thinking about others … from thinkingabout ourselves, rather to thinking about others, is so hard for folks, particularly in this kind of conversation?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  I think it begins when you start with the place of intention, we’re beginning with the place of assuming and believing that we’re good people, so it’s a character indictment. We want to be good people, we believe that we’re good people. And as long as we can stay grounded in the, “Well, it didn’t mean any harm,” then we protect that bubble of goodness. And the challenge is, if we are good people or we’re aspiring to be, then we need to care very deeply about the impact that we are having on other people.

And when we get feedback that says, “Someone has been harmed by my words or my actions,” the intent while noble, sure, has less value than the harm that’s been caused. So we’ve got to be able to move our egos aside, it’s about ego and pride. We’ve got to get that out of the way and recognize that a human spirit, a human being, a person has been injured. We have a hard time doing it because admitting fault is hard anyway, and in the case of Subtle Acts of Exclusion, you’ve probably been called out by someone else.

And the only worse, one thing that feels worse than realizing you did something wrong is the embarrassment and humiliation of doing it in front of other people. So if I can hide in any little corner that presumes my goodness, I’m going to stay there and be safe. But one of the things that I like to offer into that space is that, when you have been given the valuable feedback, whether it’s directly from the person who’s been harmed or from anyone in the environment who says, “Hey, you know what? That term, we can’t really use that term anymore because it harms people with disabilities.”

Even if the injured individual’s not in the room, we have to recognize that it is a sacred sharing, because we’re putting so much on the line when we call another human being to account. When we’re willing to fray the relationship with reality and say, “Hey, you know what? This thing that you said or did, you might want to reconsider that.” I think it’s sacred because it presumes that you’re behaving out of character

I know you to be a good person, I experience you to be a wonderful person, and this is not consistent with what I know of you. So when someone shares that with you, that’s one of the hardest journeys of being a human, is seeing, and experiencing, and knowing yourself the way other people see and experience and know you. 

We can think whatever we want about ourselves and who we are, and our actions, and our motivations. But if that’s not the experience that other people are having, then how much difference does that really make if we’re causing harm? Even without intending to, we are harmful people. So it is a sacred gift. It is even more sacred when the person who’s been caused harm, when the subject of the SAE, the subject of the subtle act of exclusion is willing to make themselves vulnerable to share with you because …

Especially if it’s a workplace environment or any kind of professional environment, I’m putting my next promotion on the line. I’m potentially going to be labeled as a troublemaker. You’re not going to want to be my friend. I’m putting so much at stake in service of your growth and development, because the reality is, if you are, we’ll just go with race. If you are a card-carrying, flag-waving racist, I’m not going to tell you about your subtle act of exclusion, because I know you don’t respect me, and I know that you’re so entrenched in those beliefs that it’s not going to make a difference.

If someone calls out your microaggression, it means that they believe that you are capable of doing better, and that you are worthy of that input that potentially puts the relationship at stake.

KAKI DIMOCK:  There’s a legitimate bad-ass in Charlottesville who says, “Feedback is love.” And it doesn’t always feel like love, but if you can step out of yourself to receive it and then embrace it, it means that there’s somebody who is willing to take that risk for you and asking you to take a parallel risk back. And that, if you use the expression around vulnerability and thinking about vulnerability, I think is for me, a key to thinking about humanity and relationship.

And it is particularly tricky to do that in the workplace and think about where and how vulnerability shows up in a work context. And thinking about feedback as being, at least about respect, if not about affection for somebody is an interesting way to think about that.

One of the questions that I had thinking about the book and reading the book was, how to take what you know and move into action. One of the conversations I feel like I have a lot in Charlottesville with colleagues, with staff, with community partners and collaborators is around, and I’m going to say white women, but it’s certainly not just white women, but about a kind of paralysis, that if there’s an awareness of being a perpetrator of SAE or worse.

And then saying, “Now I don’t know what to say, when to say, how to say, what to do. Maybe I can’t say anything. Maybe I’ll just be quiet,” those kinds of things, which of course are not constructive either for relationships or for work. But moving from this complicit silence and bystander status into action and into allyship. And you provide some pretty clear instructions about how somebody can make that conversion.

I wonder if you’ll talk a little bit more about why that’s important, but also what you think the steps are to getting there.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Yeah. Everything related to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, I like the acronym JEDI, because it means I get to be a JEDI worker. Everything related to JEDI requires that personal work first. And the challenge with the personal work is that you are going to bump against your ego, you are going to bump against your failures. And if you are doing the work well and doing the work sincerely, you’re going to make missteps. I fail every day in a diversity way.

I’m widely considered some kind of a diversity expert and thought leader and I have to call in my own SAEs on a near daily basis because we are all fallible. So we got to start with ourselves. We’ve got to have some cultural and intellectual humility and recognize that no matter how good you are, and no matter how learned you are, and how intelligent you are, your capacity for missteps in this is just of the way that the human brain functions.

The biases that undergird all of these subtle acts of exclusion are by nature unseen by us. They are unconscious, they are implicit, they are things we’re not aware of. So we have to do that personal work. And part of the journey is to stay in curiosity. It is very daunting and it is, and it can be very limiting. I try not to use the language of paralysis because that is an actual disability, so I want to just say that it’s limiting because we don’t like to focus on our failures.

But we need to stay in curiosity, because when you think about the protected categories and the demographics that are most adversely affected by our unconscious biases and by our microaggressions, there is no escape hatch. There is no opting out for the people whose lived experiences, these are every day. Your subtle act of exclusion may feel like a one-off to you and something that if you just say nothing, you can sidestep and you can avoid it.

But when you are, I’m five times intersectional, so when I’m non-binary, African-American, invisibly disabled, all of these things going on, that means that I’m the subject of SAEs on an ongoing, continual and incessant basis. I don’t get to opt out. So stepping and staying in allyship, moving from bystander to ally means taking action. That means allowing yourself to be curious and vulnerable enough to make the steps, to keep trying.

And yes, you will fall down, but then you get up, you dust yourself off, you apologize to whomever you have harmed, and you just try to do better next time. But I like staying on the aspirational side of things and I like to motivate with joy and inspiration, but I have to sometimes give you the tough love. 

And if your answer to, “oh my gosh, it’s so hard to love people and treat human beings with dignity and respect. And I’m too old to change my language and use new inclusive pronouns, so I’m going to say nothing,” I have to challenge your allyship. I have to challenge your motivation and say, “Wait a minute, are you really that person that you say you are? Are you really that person that you aspire to be? Are you that person that your children, your grandchildren, your friends and posterity can really look up to? Did you do the hard thing?”

So we have to stay in curiosity, we have to do the hard thing, and we have to be willing to speak up. Not only if it happens to us, but speak up when it happens to other people, because there are numerically far more bystanders than there are people who are the subjects of the SAEs. How many of us have been in that meeting where we’ve heard someone use a term, or say something, or do something that we just felt like, ewww! 

We knew it was icky, we knew it was not okay. But we sat there, we put our heads down. We scribbled in our journal, we doodled and we just kept moving. That serves no one. Not the person who needs to grow and learn from that moment. Not the other bystanders who could have also grown in that moment had someone used that teachable moment, that SAE accountability moment. And certainly not the person and the people who were harmed.

KAKI DIMOCK:  One of the things we, an expression that you used, you swapped one phrase out for another, and I was hoping you would share more about it. You said, “call in” instead of “call out.” I wonder if you could make the distinction between those two things, both in terms of its intention and the way it’s done, and also why it matters.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Calling out tends to be much more heavy-handed, much more visible, much more public, and often calling out feels like it’s laced with vengeance, it’s laced with something that is not pretty. And for the longest time, I believe that there was really no place for calling out. And one of my mentors, Lily Zheng, a diversity practitioner, she made it clear to me that no, sometimes calling out is required. Particularly if you’re talking about like a business or a brand that refuses to accept the calling in. That won’t listen and that continues to cause harm over and over again. Sometimes calling out is the only thing that people will respond to. 

I’m an advocate for calling in first, and calling in often begins with a private conversation. So one of the rare advantages of this Zoom life that we’re all living. Say we’re in a Zoom meeting. We’re going about the tasks of our daily business, an SAE happens.

A bystander can hover on the little family box there and go to the person, message them directly and say, “Hey, I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm by it, but you used this term,” and whatever. So you call them in privately. Calling in is about leading with grace and is about giving a person the opportunity to, like in Japanese culture, to save face, to maintain their dignity, and to make a better choice and/or apologize, do whatever needs to be done. But it can be done in kind of a sacred little bubble.

Calling in can also happen in a group context, and that’s why we include later in the book, the SAE accountability system. So if an organization says, “You know what? We recognize that we’re all humans, we’re going to initiate microaggressions from time to time, but we’re not going to allow that to break our culture. So when it happens, we’re not just going to let people languish  in their despair and be lonely in their pain. We’re going to call it in, we’re going to speak up and we’re going to learn and grow together. And the expectation is when it happens, we say something and that’s a group norm that we establish.”

So calling in is about saying, “Okay, you are human, I am human. This thing happened, let’s see what we can do. Let’s see if we can move forward together.” Calling out has a much more, eww, just has a different kind of tone and we’ve all seen it.

We’ve seen call out culture, and then the extreme of that, cancel culture. So calling in is something that is just much more gracious and it is much more relational. Can we stay in relationship versus immediately dismissing someone because of their failure or their mistake?

KAKI DIMOCK:  Seems to me like when we’re talking about vulnerability, that vulnerability and shame often go hand in hand for folks. And folks in shame are not able to either be curious or to be responsive generally. It’s really difficult to move past that. But if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can also be curious and you can also be learning and those kinds of things. And it seems to me, the one way of ensuring that you’re sticking with a vulnerability platform and not a shame platform is you’re calling in structure and the idea that it’s a routine.

And so you begin to develop the muscle of trust for each other, that it really is a calling in and not a calling out, and that the relationship gets preserved in that process. It’s very, very elegant. I said to you on Friday that it’s a very kind approach for the human beings who are involved in it.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Yeah. I’ve seen, and worked with, and come across a lot of diversity practitioners in my day. My field, my industry is just riddled and fraught with this blame and shame approach. We’re going to find everything that’s wrong about you, you as individuals, your organization, and we’re going to just lead with this deficit-based model. And my whole approach to diversity work is, no. Inclusion is an asset, diversity is an asset.

We’ve got to optimize our relationships and optimize our systems and structures by calibrating and removing some of that subjectiveness and some of that bias that’s been embedded in our institutions and create something that is more holistic, and caring, and a loving embrace of humanity within our institutional structures. We have the capacity to do that. We built these insensitive cold structures, we can rebuild something that is much more human-centric, and that is much more compassionate about the experience of being human.

Because at the end of the day, it is so hard to people. It is so hard to be a people, and especially right now. Our cultural fluency is having to expand by leaps and bounds in order for us to show our fellow humans the basic respect that they deserve, much less a loving embrace. And expanding your cultural fluency, particularly for those of us who are adults is extremely hard.

You look at these kids, I’ve got a 13-year-old and embracing new pronouns was so easy for her because it’s all she’s ever known, they don’t even think about it. But those of us who are fully formed adults, we’ve got to grapple with all kinds of old entrenched notions, and messages, and ideas, things that are bad information, and we’ve got to rewrite our programming. And that is a very, very big ask.

That’s why I believe the workplace is the biggest learning laboratory that we have outside of structured education and we’re not leveraging it for our collective best. And we need to do better about doing that. Not just hope that everybody’s home training is on par with the most respectful behavior and just hope that everyone works it out, because that’s not how it works. We’re all at different places and we all need help growing in this way.

KAKI DIMOCK:  I can hear people in my life, in my head saying, “But what about accountability? Where’s the accountability in the context of a loving embrace?” And I think I hear you saying that they’re the same thing. But I wonder if you could share more about how accountability gets embedded in that process.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  There’s different levels of accountability. Again, JEDI work, everything starts with me. I wanted to say paralyze before as an adjective. I wanted to use that and I stopped myself and I named it. So very frequently, probably before the hour is done, I will step into a pile of diversity dung and have to own it. So personal accountability is about like… If you read Subtle Acts of Exclusion and you read any of these myriad books that particularly authors of color have put out around anti-racism, but anything that is inclusive of the human experience.

Once you read these things, and you watch the documentaries, and you start to have this education, you cannot unsee what you’ve seen. So when you initiate an SAE, you’re going to know it. It’s going to pop up in the back of your head and our first instinct is hope that no one caught it. Don’t do that. Personal accountability, as you say, “Oh, wow. Old programming is rearing its ugly head again. My bad. What I meant to say was,” or, “a more accurate descriptor is,” whatever.

So personal accountability is the first step. Then interpersonal accountability, so all of our interpersonal relationships, whether it is your spouse, whether it is your sibling, your child, your friend. We have a tendency to… say, racist Uncle Bob. Racist Uncle Bob has been coming to Thanksgiving and saying all kinds of inappropriate thing, and sexist Uncle Bob too. Jokes and comments about women, about sexual orientation, about people of color.

And in order to preserve the relationship with Bob, we’ve said nothing. We’d been like, “That’s just Bob.” We can’t do that. Interpersonal accountability means I love you enough to let you know that I know you can do better, that you can be better. And we maintain that kind of cycle of calling in baby steps. We’re not trying to change someone or make them vote differently. You let them be who they are. You stay in curiosity. You hold them accountable for what they say and they do.

And the ultimate accountability sometimes is that you do have to walk away from that relationship. But if you, a person who Uncle Bob loves is not willing to call him in and hold him accountable and say, “Bob, I’ve been trying to be as gracious as I can these last six years, but you insist on saying these really hateful things. And I’m very intentional with my energy and I cannot be around anyone who is going to insult, and belittle, and mock people who I consider family and friends and part of my sacred human experience. So when you’re ready to come back and be more respectful to the people that I care about, I cannot wait to be back in relationship with you.”

That’s the ultimate trigger to pull, but it is an important one for interpersonal accountability if it gets that far. And then finally, that group accountability, workplace is my laboratory, so I always default to that place. In the group accountability, as employers, we have a responsibility to take care of the human beings who have stepped up and volunteered for pay, and sometimes volunteered for no-pay to help build our mission, to help do whatever it is that we do in the world.

We don’t get to treat people like cogs in a machine anymore. This is not the Industrial Revolution. We do not get to mistreat people because we’re having a bad day. This is not the institution of enslavement. We are talking about a new age of humanity in which people know that they deserve and actually have legal protections for being treated well within the context of the workplace. So as leaders, we don’t get to ignore a sense of belonging. We don’t get to ignore a sense of psychological safety. That needs to be a baseline standard. So organizational accountability means, we have to tie things like leadership and executive compensation to people’s ability to motivate, to lead, to inspire and to behave inclusively. If there’s no accountability within JEDI-related practices, then it’s all talk. It means nothing.

KAKI DIMOCK:  I hear you calling for an evolving idea of what work is, and I like what you’re describing, I’d like to be there. I’d like to help create that space for the folks who rely on me for such things. And I wonder how, or what advice you might give to leaders, and both positional leadership and the small-L leadership can do to help create that kind of context where the practice of calling in becomes the norm, where people have that sense of belonging, where there is that kind of psychological safety.

We’ll get to some of these questions, there’s a lot of questions in the chat that really speak to contexts that are not safe. And so I’m wondering what advice you would give to leaders to how they might influence their workplaces to look more like the space that you described.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  2020 was incredibly informative. What I would say to leaders is I would say, “What did you do during a global pandemic to protect your people who were all hurting and suffering?” That workplace of the future looks like we actually care how you are doing from day-to-day. That is your mental health. That’s your emotional health. That is your physical health. That is your general wellbeing matters at our institution.

What I saw emerge as really inclusive and elegant leadership during the pandemic was, leaders who stopped, who took time to check in with people, to create spaces for gathering and togetherness, virtually to change, and in many cases, obliterate what the work week looked like in favor of allowing people to be where they needed to be and do what they needed to do to survive, and then also maintain their livelihoods. So we saw everything that we knew before we just got thrown to the wind and suddenly we had people having to be caretakers for humans of all ages within their households.

We saw people who … The percentage of Americans who are on some kind of antidepressant or mental health support, counseling, whatever was already staggering. And so we had this crisis of mental health, the organizations that created space, that offered mental health support, that listened to what people said they needed and then responded in kind, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for radical revolutionary leadership, people who are willing to center the human heart, the human mind, and the human experience over the service and the product that we have to produce.

Because the bottom line is this, we have piles of data that tell us why diversity, equity and inclusion is actually good for business. We can move the business case for diversity aside and just talk about doing the right dang thing for once. That’s where we are, the social justice model of inclusion. But here’s the thing, when you take care of people, people take care of you. If you are a leader who genuinely cares, even if you don’t understand the plight of a black woman in your workplace.

When you ask and you express concern, and you create space for me to let you know that I’m not okay, and then you don’t punish me for that, but rather embrace me for that and allow me to have what I need in order to do well. That’s the kind of workplace that we need to be looking towards, where we get to co-create from a place of wholeness, from a place of love, and from a place of people being well.

KAKI DIMOCK:  I’m sure you’re aware of this, I’m going to get the reference wrong, I’m hoping you’ll correct me. But in 2019, a major study was done around the corporate losses for exclusion, the cost of exclusion. And it was something like $14 billion, it was extraordinary. And so there’s a business cost to that, creating a space that is hostile for sure, but also, maybe just riddled with SAEs and not particularly overtly also.

And Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, I think, speaks to that about what both the business and community cost is to that, and I’m interested in talking about your book, of course. But that book really does also speak to the general cost of not doing this. And so there is a moral compass that should be driving us towards this view of each other as we’re bringing our whole hearts to each one of these endeavors.

And there’s also this really very practical cost that if we could find our way to look at both, my guess is there’d be more business from taking proactive steps. One of the questions that’s actually come up a couple of times in the Q&A section is some variety of the question, how do you call someone in who has positional authority over you?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  This is precisely why we advocate for an SAE accountability system. I think all of my other books already have like the Society for Human Resources extra credit, the continuing education credits. We’re getting that for SAE now. But we really want organizations to, like book club read this together for leadership to embrace it because the best way for people to feel comfortable calling folks in who have positional leadership is an invitation in the form of, we’re going to embed SAE accountability in our organization and establish that as the norm.

Absent that, it certainly is challenging, so even for organizations that haven’t embedded an SAE system, I would encourage inclusive leaders to invite people to call them in. If I, as a leader say at our meetings, “Hey, I just want to let you all know that I’m on this inclusion journey. I’m far from arriving at any particular destination, but I’m learning and I’m trying. I recognize that I have a lot of blind spots and I’m going to rely on you all to let me know when I’ve initiated an SAE. Obviously we all know that these things are not intentional, but if we don’t bring them to our attention, then we can never grow and we’ll continue to make the same errors over and over again. So please call me in if necessary.”

That expressed sincerely will open the door. If you have to do it absent that enlightened leadership invitation, you have to tread lightly, so I would say, don’t do anything that’s going to put your career at risk. Don’t do anything that’s going to feel unsafe. Don’t do anything, if you exist in an environment of retaliation, which unfortunately many of us do, then it’s not a good idea.

The next best step if you do not feel safe doing it is to engage allyship. Particularly if something has happened in full view of other people, identify who your allies are. Whether they have a demographic representation that reflects the leadership, that might help. It could be you also get a lot of different leaders, managers, supervisors, who are allies who have less to lose and more relational power, that they could actually do it on your behalf.

Enlist the assistance of other people, and then worst case, not worst case, but another scenario would be to find a way to provide anonymous feedback. The last resort for SAEs is human resources. The whole point of my work is to try to get humans to have interactions with each other, because if organizations set out an intention to provide people with the space to share their experiences and to make them okay amongst themselves, you would have far fewer EEO lawsuits, far fewer HR complaints. But we’ve just created spaces that are not safe for doing that.

If you have no other recourse, you go to human resources and you do it. That way you might also be able to get guidance, advice and support without having a formal complaint and launching that entire process. But I’d say stay safe. Trust your gut. We are listening to our somatic systems in the ways that we could. Your body is incredibly informative. And if your body is telling you something like it is not safe to speak up right now, trust that. Trust that first and then get support from other folks if you can.

KAKI DIMOCK:  My incredibly smart team at the Department of Human Services has been working on anti-racist skill-building groups for the last year and one of the… we came to this natural ending for the year and we did some reflection on how it went. One of the pieces of feedback we got from our black and brown colleagues was that we had centered whiteness in the creation of the anti-racist groups, even when we said very intentionally, we’re not going to do that.

Trying to figure out how to back out of that and try to make it right, because we do want to continue doing the work. It’s on my mind about how we do any of this work without centering the dominant person who might be the perpetrator of the SAEs. One of the questions in the Q and A really reflects this, which is, does your focus on calling in take care of the perpetrator of the SAE’s feelings more than a subject? And how do you reconcile that?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  No, I don’t think that it does, because what it offers is an opportunity to center the relationship. Right now we have a critical mass of particularly white people, so dominant folks. Who are setting off on these courses to learn more and more out of necessity or out of desire.

If we can position ourselves as co-conspirators in the education of folks like, no, it’s not the responsibility of underrepresented folks and underappreciated for folks to educate white folks and the majority folks or whatever the case may be. It’s not actually majority, because people of color are people of the global majority, POGM, thank you very much. It’s all a matter of perspective. But no, I think that it privileges relationships and it privileges a a sense of safety.

Remember, it’s a first step. I’m not saying that calling in is the only way to go and that sometimes things don’t have to escalate beyond that. But what I have seen on the terrain and what I’ve seen in my experience in 25 plus years doing this work is that when people work to expand their cultural fluency and you create a sense of psychological safety and accountability around, not just reading about and taking a bunch of classes and checking a bunch of boxes, but actually showing up in the workplace differently and being accountable, new behaviors, what I have found is that it creates a much more healthy workplace in general.

People are both less likely to continue to cause harm when they realize that there is accountability, that folks are looking and that they will speak up. And you’re also just more likely to mitigate things like, I identify as non-binary but people experience me as a black woman. My tone does what it does. You’ve seen me gesticulating this entire time. I get passionate and excited and if people experience that as angry black woman, their problem. But if I’m employed by someone else, what I consider their problem when I own my own business, it becomes my problem when you experience me in that way.

If we create the accountability and we learn how to do the compromise in this calling in space, then it creates opportunity for relationship building and for fluency building across those differences that can destroy careers. I encourage people to call in because I want you to have a career. I want you to get promoted. That is about you and your wellbeing.

Now, there’s a difference between a subtle act of exclusion and an overt act of racism, an overt act of sexism, an overt act of transphobia, anti-trans sentiment. That’s very different and those things, we don’t protect people in those instances. We need to hold people accountable and sometimes that’s a lot less gentle.

But I can understand why folks might feel like that is centering the experience of the other person. I’m a doctor of management and organizational leadership. I’m concerned with the health of the organization. If we cannot create… A diversity initiative is not a diversity initiative if there is not space for everyone. It’s an affinity conversation if just the black and brown people are having a conversation.

It’s not an inclusive diversity conversation unless everyone is having a conversation. What I’m trying to do is create room for everyone to have their say. When we’re centering whiteness and we’re centering the person who’s done the thing, then there is no circling back with the person who was harmed and there is no checking in with them, and there is no restitution. Calling in is about a feedback loop where we’re actually checking in and making sure that everyone’s okay. Centering whiteness, centering leadership and centering the oppressor, there’s no room for you to speak up when you are the underrepresented person.

KAKI DIMOCK:  I really appreciate this focus on relationship. For me, all good work happens in collaboration and collaboration requires relationships, and so I really do appreciate that building blocks. One of the comments in the Q and A is really related to this issue around accountability and how you measure a leader or anyone’s activities, efforts, impact on creating this culture of belonging and inclusivity.

I think in, particularly thinking about HR and thinking about rewards or punishments from the context of work, being able to measure your impact is pretty critical. I think there’s a lot of work still being done for us to figure out what the tools and metrics are for doing that. I’m wondering if you know of any resources in the world where people are doing that well.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  I’m personally obsessed with metrics, so one of my companies is Loom Technologies and we use a tool called Loom The Culture Map. You can find that at, where particularly we have different assessments for small organizations. But particularly for large organizations, there is nothing about the human experience at work that is impossible to understand. We want people to leave their home stuff at home and just come to work and do their job.

But the human experience, it’s not an impossible thing to understand. We can measure things like emotional intelligence. We can measure things like leadership capacity. We know what these things are but we’re not privileging that, not even when we hire people. We’re not asking people how well they create a sense of belonging around them, and can they share stories that demonstrate that. We’re not talking about how you individually motivate and lead people and how you demonstrate your own inclusion? We don’t do that.

We hire and promote for technical competency and we need to start privileging interpersonal skills. I hate it when people call them soft skills. I like interpersonal skills. Because those soft skills can break your entire culture and send your company into bankruptcy. I don’t take on any short-term clients for instance. Because what it takes to get to what you’re talking about, to get to that next level accountability, requires long-term institutional change.

One of the failures of my industry is that we don’t have any unified standards. We don’t have many barriers to entry. Anyone can just wake up and say, hi, I am diversity trainer. Come and get trained. For the past 10 years, I’ve been developing a set of metrics and testing a set of metrics and we have a methodology that works. We’re looking at the interaction between people, we’re measuring the equity gap between experiences and engagement and belonging by demographic.  So I can tell you whether a white millennial female and a black baby boomer male are having similar experiences or not and I can disaggregate that around 80 different interpersonal competencies across something like 20 different categories.

Really nuanced stuff, really complex measurement, but really, really important because what you do is you set a baseline for all of the various diversity equity and inclusion skills and competencies that you want to measure, and then you set goals for closing whatever the gaps are that exist over time. When you do things like, we have this wholly inclusive process for creating a Jedi vision statement, where everyone in the organization gets to chime in on creating the statements, a really cool process.

What you end up with is a vision statement that didn’t get created by five people in leadership in the ivory tower, that got created by everyone. They know where it came from, it feels right, it reflects their values and their experiences, but it defines the day-to-day lived experience of the employees. Leaders are great at creating vision, mission, values and things that are outward facing to the customer.

But we’re terrible at saying, how do we want these good, amazing people who work with us to feel at work every single day? What is the experience that we want them to have? Once you name that, it’s very easy to define behaviors and characteristics that we can then quantify and calibrate whether leaders are doing them. As your diversity initiative matures, you’ll have all kinds of programming and opportunities for engagement.

Are people participating? Are they leading? Are they showing up? Are they encouraging people? Because you can have a wonderful diversity initiative, but some leaders will check out and say, “You know what? I don’t care about this. This is not part of the work. I’m not even going to give the notices to my people and I’m going to penalize them when they show up and participate.” That person does not get rewarded for that behavior. But that is one of the top three things that causes all diversity work to fail.

First one, insufficient buy-in from the top. Second one, the failure to define clear, measurable goals. These ambiguous goals will get you nowhere and that is the same as saying, we don’t actually care about diversity if you’re not setting quantitative goals with dates. The last one is accountability. You can spend as much money as you want. You can have the most robust plan in the whole wide world. But if a toxic executive who belittles people and treats people badly is never held accountable for his behavior, then you’ve just wasted millions of dollars on diversity work and you’re just going to have a revolving door of protected category folks who don’t feel safe in your environment.


I certainly have seen a team of organizations tackle this… identified DEI strategies, education, layered nuanced, processes for staff to go through. But their measurable goal is about diversity and representation, which doesn’t match. It’s unpacking it, to be perfectly honest and it’s not actually moving it towards this, and so in that way, it’s performative. There’s been a lot of conversation in the year around what performative messaging is and isn’t, and certainly after the murder of George Floyd, we saw a lot and lots of performative messaging go out from lots of kinds of organizations.

It speaks to organizations’ disingenuous engagement in this process. There are certainly individuals who are called in or called out, and then can make the situation lots worse by apologizing, making people responsible for their mental health, asking for caretaking or apologizing in a way that’s completely disingenuous. What kinds of strategies do you have, particularly in your calling in framework, for addressing that somebody who responds performatively?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  If we’re talking about leadership, then they need executive inclusive coaching. There’s only so far you can go on the journey of expanding your cultural fluency by yourself. A lot of us are reading and watching and doing all these things on our own, that’s great. But if it stays in the realm of the personal and it stays in the realm of the academic and the cerebral, you’re only doing part of the work. All you did was take the first step.

The next step is interacting with people and testing these things out. Like my first book, Overcoming Bias was like, step-by-step, how do you identify your bias and a series of exercises that you do to help mitigate those things and interrupt them. Leaders, because they have such an outsized impact on organizational culture, they really need a different level of accountability. They’ve got to be able to work with somebody who understands inclusive behavior and who they can bounce things off of and say, “All right, so this week I was focused on giving people honest feedback. I tried this and here’s how it landed. It worked, it didn’t work. What should I do differently?”

But folks who are on that journey where everything that they see is going to be really visible, because the whole organization is watching to see how you react, and if you react poorly, then no one’s going to feel safe and everything that you’ve tried to do is just going to be stifled. I think that that individual leadership support is really important. Then if that is unfeasible for any reason, there’s also group interactions that you can do.

What I love about being an author is that a lot of people have created book club experiences and that’s been really, really beautiful to watch. The accountability to yourself, you’re going to give yourself an A. But if you’ve got a group of people that you’re working with and you all can bounce things off of each other and you have accountability to go out and try these things and to share, then that can create a feedback loop that can allow you to have more integrity in your responses and interactions as you’re learning and growing. 

KAKI DIMOCK:  I think those contexts, those group contexts, group learning, also is a way to cultivate the curiosity. If you were doing it, you just have to read this book in a slightly defensive  mode from the beginning. That those groups allow you to experience and experiment with your own vulnerability, which allows you to develop that curiosity in a safe way, that can translate into social risking and other contexts. I completely agree, I think those group contexts really elevate the opportunity for learning and transformation.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  That’s precisely why I try to make sure that these books are really written in a way where you can experiment with these things. They are an invitation to do something and to do something a little bit differently. The group interactions I think are just incredibly valuable in that context.

KAKI DIMOCK:  We have a question. I’ve been trying to reframe a number of the questions in the Q and A, but this one I’m going to read directly to you. It’s more related to you and what inspires you. It’s often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Who have been the giants  and pioneers in your life, both literally professionally and personally?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  My mother. My mother is the reason I do this work. Dr. Deborah Egerton is a pioneer in the diversity equity and inclusion space, and she is my singular hero. She’s still doing the work. We’re actually working on a book together, but she taught me everything that I know. It is because I had this beautiful brown momprenuer that I learned how to do what I do and knew that I could go out and get a doctorate degree because she’s got one too.


What’s that experience like having her for a mom?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Wonderful, because my mom has always been… I got made fun of as a child because everyone else was hating on their mom and my mom’s always been my best friend. She is the most brilliant person I know, so it’s amazing to get to work with her.

KAKI DIMOCK:  If you do a person related to the conversation we’re having about this, or  earlier about group learning, group context, do you have any specific resources around group learning that might be useful for groups? You mentioned book clubs and maybe reading Overcoming Bias or Subtle Acts of Exclusion together in a group, but are there other things that you might recommend?

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  There are some, like I have a partnership with a microlearning organization called Blue Ocean Brain and they took Subtle Acts of Exclusion and turned it into a micro learning experience, And they’ve got diversity and unconscious bias resources and that’s a really great one because training by itself is insufficient. If people can just go through a training… We TMI Academy, so if you go to, TMI Academy has self-serve, single-serve, and organizations can go through them, opportunities for people to go through and learn the different things that they need to learn about inclusion. 

But the micro-learning platforms allow you to have that ongoing feedback, so you’ll get a daily or a weekly ping that reminds you and sends things that are relevant. That’s what you want to do, you know, you don’t want to stick to just books or just a group format. You want to come at it from lots of different angles.

If you haven’t seen 13th on Netflix, if you haven’t seen, When They See Us, if you haven’t checked out all the different ways that information is available to us, that’s what makes it stick and makes it a little bit easier for you to access it when you really need to.

KAKI DIMOCK:  There’s a couple of questions in the Q and A related to thinking about the one human race versus thinking about all of the kinds of diversity aspects of us, diverse aspects of who we are and how we are in the world. And also thinking about diversity as a monolith. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the benefits of seeing us as varied and unique, and what that does for your perspective or for the workplace or for relationships, as opposed to thinking about it in a colorblind oneness.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  I grew up as the only brown girl in most of my educational contexts. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. I was born in Texas, then I went to school in Germany. I went to German school, and very quickly I traveled all over the world as a young person and saw so many differences in the human experience. The way that we eat, the way that we dress, our cultural expressions. Those things are important because we are strongly identified with them.

I definitely believe and want to believe in the one human race phenomenon. If race is a social construct, then why do we keep labeling ourselves as such? That’s always the argument. Well, the challenge is people like you and myself, Kaki, we are working in spaces where if we don’t have those differentiators, then we’re never going to know when we’ve made progress. We can’t scrap the system. We need to be able to know, why is the wealth gap and all of the indicators of wellness and human wellbeing and health, why are they widening between the races at a time when we’re more technologically advanced than we’ve ever been?

We have to keep that going and I think that it’s beautiful to recognize that we are an amazing tapestry of diversity. But that doesn’t change the fact that fundamentally, we are all human and we’re not doing enough to center that. I think it’s a both and. We can both honor the individual cultures and identities because they are so… You can experience me in any way that you want and how many people have said to me, “Tiffany, I don’t think of you as a black person.” Or heard me on the phone and before the internet expected to see a white person and were shocked and surprised. “Well, I don’t see color.”

If you don’t see color, then you don’t see the fundamental defining aspect of my experience that makes me as much who I am as anything else. Like yes, I want you to see my intelligence. Yes, I want you to see the things I’ve done in the world, but if you don’t see my blackness, then you don’t see me and that is disrespectful and limiting.

KAKI DIMOCK:  We’re coming near to the end, but I did have one last question for you. For me, I leave our conversation really thinking about belonging and about our curiosity. And wishing to carry those things forward in my personal and professional life. I wonder if you have some last words for us as well.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Yes. I will leave you with my favorite last words and that is, as you are moving along this journey, have grace for yourself and have grace for others. It’s hard to be human. We’ve already established that, it’s hard and every single one of us is going through all kinds of things. Some of them are really difficult, some of them are wars that we’re fighting and some of us are doing really well. But there’s always something going on.

Have grace with yourself, you’re going to stumble, get back up, dust yourself off, make whatever restitution you need to make and keep going. Then have grace for others because it doesn’t matter what your demographic identities are. You are just as likely to be on the receiving end of an SAE at some point as anyone else. Have grace in those moments when it happens, because the next time, it will probably be you.

KAKI DIMOCK:  Thank you very much, Dr. Jana. This has been a really exciting hour and I’m sorry to see it end.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Thank you so much for having me.

MATTHEW GIBSON:  Dr. Jana and Kaki, thank you both for what has been an incredible, joyful and powerful conversation. I want to thank all of you for watching and engaging today and hopefully for taking what you’ve learned back to your work, your offices and your lives. Please consider buying Dr. Jana’s featured book from your local independent bookseller or using the link that was provided in the chat earlier. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at Thank you again, Dr. Jana and Kaki. What an amazing time together. Thank you.

DR. TIFFANY JANA:  Thank you.

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