Originally published June 21, 2023, in Twin Cities Business magazine.
I want to talk about what happened in March in the Tennessee legislature. Now, before you say anything, I want to be clear that this piece is not about politics. Keep reading.
If you’re unfamiliar with what happened let me share a quick recap:
On March 30, Tennessee Representatives Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson, and Gloria Johnson protested during the legislature on the House floor with the chant “No action, no peace.” They were reacting to the horrific mass shooting at The Covenant School in which seven people died (including the shooter). Legislative proceedings were forced to a halt.
As the New York Times reported, “Republicans moved to expel the three Democrats from the legislature, and on April 6 two of them, Representatives Jones and Pearson, were ousted in votes that passed largely along party lines. The third lawmaker, Representative Gloria Johnson, narrowly avoided expulsion by one vote.” Said another way, the two young Black men were expelled and the older, white woman was not. (Note: The two Black men have since been reinstated.) Their charge? The Republican-controlled House claimed that each Representative, “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” and “generally engaged in disorderly and disruptive conduct.”
While there were many things at play in this incident, here’s what I witnessed: Pain and anguish on display. Individuals attempting to tell their colleagues about something that is meaningful to them—about what they were experiencing and the impact that experience was having on them, their constituents, and likely others in the room. And they were expelled for their actions.
Whether you agree with the three Representatives is not the point; the larger point I want to make is how many of our colleagues are expressing themselves about injustice and inequity as it relates to our workplaces every day and how many of us are ignoring them, silencing them, or expelling them because we didn’t like the manner in which they delivered the message?
Like many rules or standards, “disorder” and “dishonor” in this instance are not entirely defined in Tennessee House rules. Who gets to interpret what is disorderly or dishonorable? The majority. Who did their actions disrupt? Those who didn’t want to hear what the Representatives were saying. In other words, the charge against them was very subjective.
The truth is, sometimes you have to disrupt business as usual because sometimes what happened isn’t usual.
The truth is, sometimes you have to disrupt business as usual because sometimes what happened isn’t usual, or shouldn’t be considered usual. Children being killed at school is shocking and disruptive, so perhaps our reactions to children being killed at school should also produce some level of shock and disruption. There is no “orderly” way to express grief, anger, and sadness–these are human responses to inhumane actions (or inactions, in the case of sensible gun legislation).
As I stated at the onset, this piece is not about politics. It is about our deep and intrinsic ties to what we call “decorum.”
Decorum is defined as behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety. To be honest, while I understand the intent of the definition, for many reasons, it’s impossible for anyone to be an arbiter of decorum. Moreover, what good taste looks or feels like changes not only depending on the circumstance, but also on the cultural conditions, lived experiences of the people involved, and the timing at which incidents happen (“decorum” looked much different in the 1950s than it does today…yet the definition doesn’t reflect this).
The notion of decorum isn’t confined to the political sphere–it’s everywhere. Every day, people in professional environments uphold aspects of decorum. It might take the form of “how we do things around here,” policies and procedures that dictate people taking very specific steps to file a complaint, or punishing (explicitly or implicitly) someone for expressing emotions. To be clear, I’m not saying we don’t need policies or procedures. What I am saying is that because the rules we establish generally aren’t set up to include or serve everyone equitably, we should examine and expand our rigidity–which is likely rooted in discomfort.
What people are supposed to do is often at odds with what people actually do because they’re human. In large and small ways, your historically underrepresented colleagues are telling you what’s happening to them. If it makes you uncomfortable, so what? Can you imagine how uncomfortable they might be coming to you with their challenges and thoughts about what could be improved? And let’s be honest, if it comes out in a way that you don’t deem professional, imagine how long it’s been festering for them. Your one responsibility is to believe them and engage in different behavior. If they tell you something, do something.
What to Watch For
Typically, I like to keep things positive and helpful. But I’m going to flip the script a bit. I want to point out behaviors that almost everyone has done at some point and that do more harm than good. When you partake in any of these reactions or behaviors, you are stalling progress within your organization.
Tone policing: This is the act of criticizing the manner in which a person has expressed a point of view, rather than addressing the substance of the point itself.
Not allowing space to express opinions: People may not feel comfortable bringing up difficult issues. You have to actively create space for them.
Assuming you understand the whole story based only on what you’re seeing or understand from your lived experience: If you’re white, you will never be able to see a racialized situation as a Black person does–you must believe others’ experiences as much as you believe your own. Also, you don’t have to understand, you might not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask how to help.
Sticking to inequitable or non-inclusive processes or policies without examination: Often inequity or exclusion are baked into systems like processes and policies. If you uncritically cling to them, you will continue the harm.
Not taking action when racism is at play: Any racism is terrible. The bar should not be set to some height at which an interaction or instance must rise to be dealt with. Deal with it all.
I’ll bet some of you thought the scenario in Tennessee was absolutely terrible without giving a second thought to how you might be treating your colleagues of color similarly every single day. When your colleagues are struggling what are you doing? Are you policing how they express their struggles or are you setting aside what you think is “the right way to act” in favor of being a more empathetic person?
We can’t keep seeing things in the news and not making the immediate connection about how we might display some of the same values and behaviors without knowing it. Because when we’re doing that, we’re stalling inclusion.
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