Recognizing heritage more than a month at a time
“So, Kevin, when are you going to begin planning the multicultural potluck?” a colleague asked me years ago.
I responded with a look. “Why would I plan a potluck?” “You’re the diversity, equity and inclusion manager, and it’s the most important DEI event of the year,” she said with a befuddled expression as if I didn’t understand the purpose of my job. “It gives people a chance to talk about their heritage and share the most important aspect of their culture: food.”
This sentiment—like many others that surround heritage month celebrations—continues to reinforce multiculturalism, a normative, oversimplified and often unrealized state in which various ethnic or social groups coexist without having to sacrifice their particular identities or traditions.
Too often, these celebratory acts are performative—and even disingenuous—because some descendants and members of the cultures and social identities celebrated still face implicit biases, prejudices and systemic oppression within the very walls of the organizations they work for. Agencies should also find balance of including employees from the identified group in programming without creating undue burden on leading all planning efforts, especially when there is a small membership group.
The real purpose of heritage months, be it Black History Month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month or Pride Month, is to recognize and amplify the contributions that different cultures and social identities have made to enrich and strengthen our country. These groups have not traditionally been acknowledged in U.S. history books, documentaries, stories or even children’s fables—all of which are meant to capture the essence of American values and traditions.
For clarity, performative behaviors—also referred to as performative wokeness or allyship—are surface-level activities performed for personal satisfaction rather than genuine activism intended to reduce the marginalization or oppression of a particular group.
To more authentically recognize those being celebrated as you prepare for upcoming heritage months or other celebrations of identity, we recommend you keep the following principles in mind.
- Tell their stories, all of them. Share intersectional stories of your employees within the same group. No one group is monolithic, but heritage month activities sometimes project a sense of uniform traditions. For example, the Afro-Latin experience is often missing from both Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month.
- Acknowledge the barriers. Continue to celebrate the triumphs and acknowledge the remaining barriers groups face daily in society and in the workplace. It’s hard to appreciate the milestones without discussing the struggles that certain groups have had to overcome. Most importantly, communicate how your organization plans to dismantle those remaining barriers for employees and the communities it serves.
- Don’t just celebrate, activate. To achieve the right kind of multiculturalism, all groups should have the social power to co-create cultural norms and values. Changing this power dynamic requires true, not performative, allyship.
James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” As workplaces plan heritage celebrations, they would be wise to embrace deeper and more realistic notions of multiculturalism grounded in the experiences of the groups celebrated. Heeding Baldwin’s words and using the tips above would be a good start.