Strategic Essentialism and Employee Resource Groups

However, antisubordination activists have engaged in a form of strategic essentialism as a means of resistance (Spivak, 1989). Mimicking conventional strategies of nonsubordinated power holders, strategic essentialism is a move by members of a subordinated category to simplify group identity and counter normative expectations.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 205). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Strategic Essentialism “…refers to a political tactic in which minority groups, nationalities, or ethnic groups mobilize on the basis of shared gendered, cultural, or political identity to represent themselves. While strong differences may exist between members of these groups, and amongst themselves they engage in continuous debates, it is sometimes advantageous for them to temporarily “essentialize” themselves and to bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve certain goals…

Strategic essentialism is new vocabulary for me. I picked it up recently in my disability studies reading and am still learning how to apply it. I’m particularly interested in how it applies to running an Employee Resource Group.

This first thing that came to mind as I read the paragraph above from DisCrit is John Elder Robison’s piece that talks about using “neurodivergent” instead of diagnostic labels to build coalition.

When schools and workplaces move from autism programs to neurodiversity programs, they include every person with a cognitive difference, not just autistic people. The tent gets bigger, and it has room for all.

Whether your goal is competitive advantage or human service, you should be able to meet your goals better under a Neurodiversity at Work banner, as opposed to an Autism at Work one. In both cases the supports needed are similar, but the neurodivergent population is substantially larger than the “only autistic” population so your chances of success are magnified.

While labels like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or PDD-NOS may be useful for therapists and childhood educators, the community-sourced alternative “neurodivergent” is probably better suited for colleges and workplaces. In those spaces, medical labels carry stigma that leads to conscious and unconscious marginalization. Expectations are always lower for people with disability diagnoses.

Neurodiversity is a new concept but the underlying reality has been part of human society forever. In the modern era work and school programs designed for the average person have excluded those whose cognitive styles fall outside that narrow midrange. Despite that, workplaces – including colleges – already contain plenty of neurodiversity so a primary program goal should be the better support of those people. Neurodiversity at School and at Work is not just about bringing new people into the fold.

The newest Neurodiversity initiatives recognize this fact.

By embracing the neurodiversity model instead of autism, employers can move toward a more inclusive welcoming environment.

Source: The Next Step for Neurodiversity | Psychology Today

I like to solve for the infinity, foreground complexity as the baseline, design for the edges, and design for pluralism. Sometimes, doing that requires coalition built on strategic essentialism.

…creating coalitions can subvert dominant hierarchies and transform the status quo.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 205). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Individuals, however, do not experience identity as a fractured reality. If we start instead with this understanding of intersectionality informed by DisCrit, the multivariant nature of experience may be a place for coalition.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 212). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

I’m very glad to see the neurodiversity and queer ERGs at my workplace addressing gatekeeping, being broadly inclusive, and working together. This seems like healthy essentialism on which coalition and community can grow.

Community is magic.

Community is power.

Community is resistance.

Source: Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the 21st Century

We Exist As Friction

I highly recommend Liz Jackson’s episode of UX Cake, Changing the Disability Design Narrative, to all designers, tech workers, and educators.

Selected quotes:

…how do we insert somebody with a disability studies background into a design space so they can start asking the hard questions and the right questions so that we can get past this — this frame of mind that only thinks of disability in terms of just accessibility?

We exist as friction. The work that I do; it’s wildly painful.

People are creating interventions to get around actually having to talk to us.

And we burst that bubble.

But the thing is, is when you look at empathy, you realize that — that like other sort of charitable approaches, it’s actually caused just as many problems as the solutions that it’s trying to sort of create.

And so, if you boil it down and look at it step-by-step, you know, the first step is, is cultivating empathy. But to a disabled person, it can feel a little less like empathy and a little bit more like designers are coming in, they’re speaking with us, they’re observing us, they’re taking our life hack welcomes right? Our ingenuity, and then they’re going to sell it back to us as inspirational do good, right? Without ever giving us credit.

Source: Changing the Disability Design Narrative – UX Cake Podcast

Yes! We need disability studies folks in every school and company. We need folks who speak and live the social model of disability on our teams.

I’m disabled and neurodivergent with two disabled and neurodivergent kids. “We exist as friction.” I let forth a “hell yeah” when I heard those words. We exist as friction, and we’re constantly educating others on and hacking our way around structural friction, to the betterment of all.

disabled people, we are the original life hackers, right? Our innovative solutions have changed the world, right? Like, we created the Internet, we created the bicycle, we created the iPhone touch screen, we created audio books and curb cuts. And, you know, just item after item. And, you know, I think that it just demonstrates the value of really existing on the margins.

It’s tiresome work. We could use some help from abled and neurotypical allies working with us and alongside us instead of for us. Develop the lens.

…who is capable of developing this lens? I don’t think as a society we’re there yet, right? Like, we don’t always — we’re not so eager to have our bubble burst. Especially with one of the few things that sort of traditionally makes us feel good about ourselves which is what disabled people call inspiration porn, right?

Where the objectification of our body is used to inspire other people, right? Disabled people make everybody else in society feel better about themselves. And I’m taking that away. Right? And that’s not fun.

Develop the lens by changing our framing from deficit ideology to structural ideology.

Design is tested at the edges. Invite friction into our companies, schools, and teams. We’ll all be better off for it.