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How Are You Showing Up to Support Anti-Racism Online?

Your digital body language shows how inclusive you really are

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The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in our streets correlates with the rise in anti-Asian hate speech in our digital world. In recent months, we’ve seen a sinister side of this unpleasant truth. Cue Reddit, 4Chain, Discord — the list goes on — bigots are free to say what they’d like behind the comfortable mask of a digital screen.

Thankfully, we’ve also seen a rise in online activism, organizing, and community aid in a way that I personally had not experienced since 9/11. After the attacks, people who looked like me — brown-skinned, vaguely “Middle Eastern” or Indian — were treated with instant suspicion in public spaces. My own father, a tall Indian man, experienced someone calling the police on him at a local community center. Being profiled is never a pleasant experience, but it especially hurts when it happens to you and your loved ones.

After participating in the racial injustice conversation as the world went remote, I found myself asking: In a year where most — if not all –- communication happened online, how do we foster inclusion and equity across race, class, ages, genders — from behind a screen?

We see the press releases, social media, and statements from CEOs promoting digital diversity and inclusion in virtual settings, but the unfortunate reality is that all too often these efforts are performative buzzwords that ring hollow. We now embed digital body language cues into our interactions that make or break a sense of inclusion. Digital body language are the cues and signals we send in our digital communication — including our punctuation (or lack thereof), the timing of messages, the channels we use, who we call on in meetings, our backgrounds on video calls, and more — that make up the subtext of our messages. The problem is that most of us are doing so blindly, accidentally, and to be honest — we’re just plain doing it wrong.

Here are three tips from an Asian American management coach on how to actually drive true inclusion and solidarity at work and at home:

1. Discuss differences

No one benefits when we pretend that our differences don’t exist. We shouldn’t be ignoring or erasing our unique backgrounds, experiences, or personalities in the name of inclusivity. On the contrary, we should be celebrating cultural differences and turning them into advantages.

What community knowledge do you have that you can share? What digital resources can you share to help bring other Asian Americans up the ranks in your organization? Many organizations have DEI affinity groups that use channels like Slack to share information, spread awareness, and create a space for people to support each other. Does your organization have DEI affinity groups? If so, are you involved? If not, how can you create them?

Learning how to pronounce names like “Rajesh” or “Zhang” correctly is not trivial, they show respect and value. Wishing your Asian colleagues a “Happy Lunar New Year” and “Happy Diwali” are the cultural equivalents to Christmas and Easter. What can you learn by being open and observing the cultures and habits of the people around you? The key is to show up with a willingness to learn and without preconceived notions of otherness.

2. Understand that different voices shine on different platforms

It’s only natural for some group members to be more outgoing and willing to contribute on visual platforms like Zoom and Webex while others are more comfortable chiming into an asynchronous IM or email chain. Oftentimes, these differences are rooted in culture, gender, age, and personality, which in turn influence our learned cues of respect, our preferences for other peoples’ communication styles, and whether we are introverted or extroverted.

In my own friend group, a Chinese American friend of mine contrasted a common phrase that she learned growing up: “The loudest duck gets shot,” with one that our American-born friends learned: “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” At work, she shines more on the Zoom chat tool and in one-on-one discussions than in a group debate. Could it be that the difference in these childhood teachings still affects the ways we choose to participate in conversations? Whatever it may be, if the goal is to include all of the best ideas and solutions, we need to make space for that to happen.

3. Finally, don’t be afraid to create standardizations and norms where they can help to eliminate preference- and identity-based digital anxiety

A former Korean colleague who learned English as her second language, shared with me the challenges of translating the conversations of her American colleagues talking fast on Zoom, whereas in email discussions she feels much more at home. Her team initiated a norm to send a meeting recap after every meeting to help foster inclusion and alignment.

They also used a template of “Who/What/When” for all their emails. This eliminated the additional pressures faced by those with deep accents or translating other languages. Other organizations have begun to universally add preferred pronouns to their email signatures, removing any anxiety for those who prefer pronouns that don’t traditionally match their given names.

Leaders can create safe digital environments and foster true inclusion by first recognizing that we are not, in fact, all the same when it comes to communication. But with simple actions, we can change divisive conversations to true cultures of inclusion and unity. True innovation, collaboration, and trust start at recognizing others for their individuality and their collective potential.

This article was adapted from Erica Dhawan’s TEDxGateway Talk.

Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st-century collaboration and innovation. She is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on LinkedIn.



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Erica Dhawan

Keynote Speaker on 21st Century Teamwork and Innovation. Author, GET BIG THINGS DONE and DIGITAL BODY LANGUAGE (ORDER HERE: http://bit.ly/3avbJkg)