Say the right thing: DEI and the pathway to positive and constructive dialogue

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“Silence is not the safe harbor that people think it is,” says NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino. “People around them no longer interpret that silence as neutrality — they interpret it as complicity in an unjust status quo.” Photo by Shutterstock.

Constitutional law professor and author Kenji Yoshino, grew up understanding the value of language and inclusivity. Raised the child of Japanese immigrants, Yoshino wrestled with his identity for years before coming out as a gay man. Vividly remembering each awkward conversation, his experience gave him a better understanding of the need to master language and difficult conversations, and the profound effect they had on him.  

“You prepare for them, you dread them, you're hopeful about them, and to this day, half a lifetime later, I do remember every single one of the conversations I had with significant people in my life, and whether they went really well or really poorly, they were immensely consequential,” says Yoshino. “But they're also deeply personal, remembering how transformative individual conversations were in our lives.”

Yoshino, coauthor of “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice,” discusses the art of having difficult conversations and, if necessary, shutting them down and navigating their predictable pitfalls. When it comes to DEI, Yoshino says some initiatives may be unrealistic in their expectations. 

“It's really important for us all to be able to say [that] we all make mistakes in this area. It's not a good learning practice for people to say, ‘I have it all sewn up and so I'm here to guide you,’” Yoshino says. “The answer is to create a culture in the organization that says, ‘You're allowed to make those mistakes, those mistakes are critical to your learning and growth, and we welcome those mistakes.’” 

Yoshio shares tips and techniques for having positive and constructive dialogues.

“Write down or think about three things that you like or affirm about yourself, or three values that you have before you go into the conversation,” he suggests. “Because these conversations are hard, there is some innate discomfort. We wouldn't push you out to run a marathon without feeding you first, so feed yourself psychologically.”

In his most recent book, “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice,” co-author Kenji Yoshino says “a lot of what we don't like about cancel culture, that gets talked about all the time, is that it's so indiscriminately shaming, and that it offers no practical tools.” . Yoshino, pictured here, argues that many current DEI initiatives are falling flat — rather than fostering a safe atmosphere of acceptance to learn and grow, they shame and judge. Photo by Joe Henson.

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  • Kenji Yoshino - Author; Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, New York University School of Law; director, Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging


Andrea Brody