Making a Positive Impact Together
June 30, 2023 - MoFo Diversity

Celebrating Pride Month: A Discussion with Kenji Yoshino

2023 Pride Month

To close out MoFo’s celebration of Pride Month, Partner Katie Viggiani moderated a discussion with Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, acclaimed author, and legal scholar. Kenji shared highlights from his most recent book, Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, a guide to allyship and navigating difficult conversations in the workplace without the fear of making mistakes.

As a law professor, Kenji’s diversity and inclusion work began after writing his first book, Covering, in 2006. “Covering” defines people as those who belong to a particular group who are willing to admit, or are unable to hide, their true identity, but nonetheless make a huge effort to keep the stigma from living large. Examples of covering include a gay person being told to stop being flamboyant or a working mother told not to front the fact that she is a mom to her colleagues. Kenji was approached by Fortune 500 companies, universities, and law firms in response to authoring the book, and as a result of his work surrounding the topic, he was approached by his dean to start the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU School of Law. The center afforded Kenji greater influence and resources to make a difference while working at the intersection of law and diversity and inclusion.

Kenji explains that, although much progress has been made for marginalized groups, there is still work to be done. “We haven’t yet reached full acceptance if we are forced to work our identities alongside our jobs,” states Kenji. He went on to stress that it is only diversity and inclusion if we can bring our full authentic selves to work, which is where allyship comes into play.

An ally is defined as someone who leverages their advantages in support of others who do not have those same advantages. Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, is really about allyship and written to address the ally side of the equation. According to Kenji, the idea of allyship is fairly intuitive, yet it is not as effective as one would think because many people are worried about getting it wrong.

“The most risk-averse thing to do is to not say anything in fear of saying the wrong thing,” says Kenji. “But silence is not neutrality; it’s complicity.” Kenji discussed that it is important for allies to be informed and not charge ahead uninformed, as that often results in reverting to passivity and complicity. To combat this, Kenji introduced the Empathy Triangle, a set of tools that people can use to be effective allies.

The Empathy Triangle includes three roles: the ally, the affected person, and the source. Kenji explained that we will occupy all three roles at some point, so it is not a matter of if, but when we will occupy each role. Prompts built out within each component of the triangle aim to elevate the experience of allyship for everyone.

As the ally, one of the most important aspects is to ensure behavior is driven by intrinsic motivation, rather than in virtue-seeking or other extrinsic motivations. Equally as important is not setting the bar too high, such as not speaking a word about a topic if all the information required is not mastered. Instead, the ally should scale the level of information needed with the level of intervention they are attempting to make.

Kenji also clarified that an ally must be willing to make mistakes by following a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. In doing so, the ally can learn from their mistakes and continue to hone their allyship skills over time.

When considering the affected person, the biggest takeaways for an ally to consider are whether the affected person wants help, and moreover, does the affected person want the particular form of help the ally considers effective. Lastly, the ally should consider whether they are inadvertently placing a burden on the affected person by stepping in.

Kenji refers to the final component, the source, as the person responsible for the non-inclusive behavior. Though perhaps not as intuitive, Kenji explains that it is important to be an ally to the source, so that they are not left in isolation and instead understand they have support in navigating a difficult situation that requires changing the behavior instead of solely focusing on the person.

Kenji closed his presentation with discussion of various strategies that an ally can use when engaging the source in times of potential adversary or time pressure. He clarified that, although it’s best to engage the source of non-inclusive behavior in an authentic manner, the ally may benefit from short scripts in certain circumstances, and can make statements such as, “While I’m sure you have positive intentions, I worry that the impact may be different,” or “That is not in line with the firm’s position.”

Access the event recording.