In Episode 102, Esther A. Armah, CEO of The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice, joins Melinda in a discussion about how Emotional Justice serves as a roadmap for racial healing. This roadmap focuses on the important emotional work all individuals can do to end systemic inequity and help transform our workplaces. They touch on the systems and racial biases we need to unlearn based on the four pillars of the language of Whiteness. They explore how we can replace them with the love languages of Emotional Justice to relearn inclusive thoughts and behaviors. They also discuss how leaders and DEI practitioners can frame Emotional Justice to navigate personal politics across teams and drive structural change in a corporate setting.
- Learn more about Esther’s work at The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice (THE AIEJ)
- Read Esther’s book, Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing
- Read the book, Diversity, Inc.: The Fight for Racial Equality in the Workplace by Pamela Newkirk
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “Emotional Justice is saying that we all have emotional work to do in order [to have] a healing that is actually about a full humanity. Part of the challenge that we’ve had with our understanding of what healing is, is that we think that one demographic has work to do, or one demographic… has healing to do. But the cancer of racism…, White supremacy is… it creates two wounds: the deadly delusion of White superiority and Black inferiority. And so…, in order to transform that, both groups of people have work to do. The point with Emotional Justice though is that our work is not the same…. Part of my work is saying that you cannot universalize healing when it comes to issues of race; you have to identify who has what work to do and specifically break down what that work is.”
- “Emotional Patriarchy is a society that privileges, prioritizes, and centers the feelings of White men— of men— no matter the cost and consequence to all women and Black or Brown people…. In Emotional Justice, we… look at intimacy in two ways: there’s public intimacy and… private intimacy…. We treat intimacy as an institution… where people find a certain kind of affirmation and how they are, and it is where the language of Whiteness flourishes particularly. And so, part of what Emotional Justice argues is that ‘Intimate Reckoning’ is about the work that White women… need to do to stop affirming or supporting the kind of Emotional Patriarchy that is an absolute threat to all of us.”
- “Emotional Justice is the future of DEI… because it is requiring us to grapple with the thing that is preventing us from moving— and that is power. [Emotional Justice] is requiring us to reckon with a thing that prevents us from making anything more truly inclusive— and that is Whiteness. [Emotional Justice] is requiring White people to reckon with their Whiteness in ways that they’ve just never been required to do; it’s specifically asking those who have progressive politics to do that because their philosophy already articulates a belief in power-sharing….”
Esther A. Armah
CEO of The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice
Esther A. Armah is an international award-winning journalist, playwright, radio host, and writer. She is currently CEO of The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice, (The AIEJ), a global institute implementing the “Emotional Justice” framework she created. The AIEJ devises, develops, designs, and delivers projects, training, and thought leadership. The Emotional Justice framework has taken Armah as a speaker to a range of prestigious venues, including Netflix Inclusion Institute, Stanford, NYU, and Kenya’s African Women in Media Conference. She is based in Accra, Ghana, but the majority of her and The AIEJ’s work is in the U.S. She is the author of Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I am Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding.
You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
Let’s get started.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today, our guest is Esther A. Armah, CEO of The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice and author of the new book, Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing. We’ll be discussing the topic of her book, Emotional Justice, and specifically, what transformative change can be created by Emotional Justice and what it looks like in a corporate setting. In addition, in an increasingly divided political world, we’ll also discuss how using the framing of Emotional Justice in our DEI work can move the question away from personal politics. So welcome, Esther.
ESTHER: Thank you. Thank you so much. A pleasure to join you.
MELINDA: I’m excited to have this conversation. So, let’s start with your story. Can you share a bit about where you grew up and how you ended up getting to do the work that you do today?
ESTHER: I am a self-described Global Black Chic. And by that, I mean I was born in London, which is the home of my birth. I went to school there. I lived in New York for almost a decade. I claim that as my creative home. I’m joining you from the capital city of Ghana, on the west coast of Africa, Accra, which is my spiritual home, the home of my family.
All three of those cities, London, New York, and Accra, have really shaped the way that I work the lens through which I work, which is global Blackness, how I approach everything that I do, and what formed and created the framework that really, that is purpose and passion and profession of emotional justice. So that’s me, tribe, city, and community. Those are my people.
MELINDA: Thanks for that. So, let’s dive right into emotional justice, then. Well, first, I should say congratulations on your new book.
ESTHER: Thank you. Thank you so much. Incredibly, it’s a number one new release on Amazon. It was number one for five weeks in one category, the general sociology of race relations, and it’s now just become number one in another category of cultural anthropology. And so, it’s out in the world. I mean, I’m overwhelmed and in shock but very excited about that.
MELINDA: That’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. I’m so happy. Let’s start with the beginning of emotional justice. What is it, first off?
ESTHER: It is a roadmap for racial healing that, at its most basic foundation, helps all of us—Black, White, Brown, Indigenous—do what I call our emotional work in dismantling inequitable systems in order that we cannot just articulate humanity but practice the kind of humanity that is transformative.
What I mean by that is this is a framework and a roadmap for racial healing that grapples with a legacy of untreated trauma that exists because of the oppressive systems that have shaped our modern world. And what I call created the Language of Whiteness.
The Language of Whiteness is the narrative that we’ve all been taught—White, Black, Brown, Indigenous—we’ve all been taught about how the world came to be and our role in it as White, Black, Brown, Indigenous People. So, this Narrative of Whiteness is the world that was built by White people. White people saved the world. White people built the world. White people conquered the world. As Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, we were essentially people that needed to be saved or civilized. And that is a narrative that has shaped all of us on how we move through the world.
And when I talk about emotional justice, I differentiate that from somebody’s political worldview or their philosophical worldview because you may well have really great progressive liberal politics, and you may have done the intellectual work to nurture and identify your worldview, but the point about emotional justice is it grapples with a connection to the power that centers this narrative that Whiteness is the world and that disregards whatever your politics are dealing with something much more fundamental, and that’s the notion of your identity. It’s powerful because it’s all about connection and connecting to the unfamiliar parts of our own world and the unfamiliar parts of other people’s worlds.
MELINDA: I will say that often, racial healing is seen specifically for people with marginalized racial and ethnic identities. I hear you saying that Emotional Justice is really for a wider population. Can you talk a bit more about that?
ESTHER: Yes. Emotional Justice is saying that we all have emotional work to do in order for there to be a healing that is actually about full humanity. Part of the challenge that we’ve had with our understanding of what healing is is that we think that is one demographic that has work to do or one demographic that has healing to do, but the cancer of racism, the cancer of White supremacy, is that it creates two wounds, the deadly delusion of White superiority and Black inferiority.
And so, that means in order to transform that, both groups of people have work to do. The point with emotional justice, though, is that our work is not the same. And part of the challenge that we’ve had is that, on the one hand, people have felt, and the society has treated the world of DEI has really created this idea that if we could just fix Black people, then there wouldn’t be any problems.
The sad and challenging thing is Black people have bought into that as well. I’m talking to you from the continent. I see this when I worked in London. I see this in the States because that’s what the narrative of Whiteness creates, if Whiteness is superior, if Whiteness is the center, if Whiteness is the aspiration, then it is right. And anything else that isn’t that is wrong and needs some kind of work.
That philosophy that has shaped the modern world as we know it manifests in what I call our emotional worldview. And so, part of my work is saying that you cannot universalize healing when it comes to issues of race. You have to identify who has what work to do and specifically break down what that work is.
If you don’t do that, we continue to have the cycle of progress and regress. We take a few steps forward, there’s the inevitable backlash, and we come all the way back. And that’s because policy alone, legislation alone, cannot fix what is broken. They can do very important work of moving us forward. That can be very important work of foundation building. But in and of themselves, they don’t move us forward in terms of the healing work.
What I argue in Emotional Justice is that there is emotional work we have to do that is specifically about severing this connection to the power that centers on Whiteness. That’s something that shapes all of us. But how we sever that connection is different. It’s not the same for White women and White men as it is for Black women and Black men, and Brown women and Brown men, Brown-identified, gender-identified folks.
Without us, reckoning with them doing what I call the work of emotional reckoning as opposed to just racial reckoning will go in cycles of what I call tweak-a-nomics. A little bit of change here, a little tweak there, box-ticking here, box-ticking there, and we’re moving forward, but we’re really not.
So, I love that your podcast is about Leading With Empathy because part of what I explored Emotional Justice with this language of Whiteness is these four areas in this language, and one of them is about racialized emotionality. A racialized emotionality is where you take a universal emotion, you put race into it, and then you racialize the body in which that emotion shows up. And then that racialized body becomes the target of violence. We know that. We see that. That’s what happens in society.
The simplest example is anger. Anger—universal emotion. Anybody can get angry about a particular circumstance. And that anger is a universal human emotion that can be connected to any particular thing. When you put anger inside of a Black woman, and you no longer have a person who happens to be Black and feels angry. You have what we define as an Angry Black Woman. That is not about a feeling that is universal within a human body. That is a description, that is a marker that comes with repercussions.
Every Black woman, whether they’re sitting here in Accra, in London, or in the United States, understands that phrase and knows that to be named that, to be labeled that, means troubling in your place of work. You want to avoid that kind of tag or that kind of label at all costs.
And so, if we’re going to talk about leading with empathy, we have to really reckon with how emotionality is actually explored in society when you put the word race in there. So racial healing that doesn’t take account of how we racialized emotionality is not one that can serve our full humanity and is not one that is real healing and therefore cannot be transformative.
MELINDA: I want to go deeper into the work that entails and what that looks like. Before we do that, I just want to address how the work of Emotional Justice handles the emotions that often come up within White people when you say the language of Whiteness, when you talk about White supremacy, like shame, guilt, feelings of blame, or culpability. How does Emotional Justice work with those emotions?
ESTHER: So, we have these four pillars that are the language of Whiteness. Racialized emotionality is one of them. We also have Four Love Languages of Emotional Justice that are about identifying some of the feelings that you discuss in order for people to actually work through them.
So, what you just talked about is the feelings that emerge: shame, guilt, and blame. We have a love language specifically for White people called resistance negotiation. Resistance negotiation is about you have to negotiate with your resistance to the feelings that emerge when this language comes up. The idea of White supremacy, the idea of Whiteness, comes up because the instinct is to defend, to explain, to excuse, to identify yourself as not being culpable, and you’re not these kinds of people; you’re these kinds of people.
Part of what Emotional Justice says is that an emotional reckoning means you must work through your own emotions that come up when these discussions come up and stay, stay and continue the conversation when historical instinct has been either to be punitive towards the person bringing it up or to flee the discussion completely or to distract from what is being discussed. But the truth is, there cannot be easy conversations around racial healing, given how troubled our history is. It is a physical impossibility. And yet there is this expectation that we somehow find a more kind of joyful, loving way to have what are very challenging conversations.
So, what Emotional Justice says is that it is a love language, but it is not love in the sense of universality. It is a love that is about specificity. And it is a love that recognizes that if you’re going to talk about racial healing, you have to talk about Whiteness, and you have to talk about Blackness. In order to talk about Whiteness, you have to talk about decentering Whiteness. You have to name what is wrong in order that you can identify what can be put right.
Now, I’m very clear that when we say the language of Whiteness, I don’t necessarily mean White people. I’m saying that Whiteness is the narrative that we’ve all been taught about how the world is. So the fact that I’m Black doesn’t mean that I’m not shaped by the narrative of Whiteness. We all are shaped by it. That’s why we all have work to do.
So when we say resistance negotiation, I’m saying you have to, as a White person walking through these emotions, negotiate with your own resistance to again deny, distract, disregard, or denigrate, and work through those emotions, and then stay and ask yourself the next question, which is how do I speak the language of Whiteness? How does it manifest in my world, in my way of moving through, whether it is my leadership or my management?
Without doing resistance negotiation, you won’t stay in the conversation. And so, often, what happens is people don’t stay with hard conversations. They find all kinds of reasons to negate, to excuse, to distract, to deflect. We’ve seen that in a cycle of how this work goes. And so, that’s why we say an Emotional Justice resistance negotiation is a very specific work of White people. It is not work that Black people have to do because they engage in hard conversations all the time. The nature of racism, to some extent, forces you to. It’s your lived reality.
The fact of the way whiteness functions is it enables you to excuse yourself from tables of accountability. But you can’t have healing that way. If people keep leaving, then how do you heal? What does it take to stay at tables of accountability when you feel maligned, or you feel indicted, or you feel accused? It’s not that those feelings are illegitimate. It’s that they’re yours. And therefore, you must work through them. They don’t have anything to do with the Black or Brown person who’s bringing these issues up. They’re the reality of the world in which we all are working to navigate.
And so, if racial healing is a commitment that you’re making, then resistance negotiation is a specific love language that is about learning to stay when it gets hard, learning to stay when you feel maligned, learning to stay when you feel accused, understanding that these are your feelings. You absolutely have a right to feel them, but if healing is your commitment, you must stay. So that’s one example.
Another example I want to share is what I call Intimate Reckoning. Intimate Reckoning is a particularly gendered unlearning for White people, but particularly for White women. There are four love languages that replace the four pillars of the language of Whiteness.
One of those pillars is what we call Emotional Patriarchy. Emotional Patriarchy is a society that privileges, prioritizes, and centers the feelings of White men, of men, no matter the cost and consequence to all women and Black or Brown people. We are living in that world right now. We are living with a politics that is the consequence of centering the malign feelings of White men.
This is incredibly dangerous because the nature of power means that White men are able to harness and weaponize their feelings and target people as a result of them. And so, one of the things Emotional Justice argues is that specific work is that of White men and White women. And for White women, we call it Intimate Reckoning. It’s Intimate Reckoning as opposed to simply Racial Reckoning because it is about intimacy.
In Emotional Justice, we don’t talk about intimacy as personal feelings and personal relationships. We look at intimacy in two ways. There’s public intimacy, and there’s private intimacy. Public intimacy is about both professional and political intimacy. Political intimacy via governance and the vote. Professional intimacy via your worlds of work. Of course, personal. Personal relationships and extended family.
We treat intimacy as an institution. It is the place where people find a certain kind of affirmation and how they are. And it is where the language of Whiteness flourishes, particularly. And so, part of what Emotional Justice argues is that Intimate Reckoning is about the work that White women, in particular, need to do to stop affirming or supporting the kind of emotional patriarchy that is an absolute threat to all of us.
Nobody wins when emotional patriarchy flourishes except for the rich White men who are able to harness the power in order to have society bend to their particular feelings. It is cancer. It is a challenge. It is hard. It is painful, but in 2022, it is the racial healing that we need.
One of the things Emotional Justice does is say it’s a racial healing model that has built upon and studied the previous racial healing models that are loaded and applauded by the world. And where does that take us? Of course, always South Africa. South Africa is the racial healing model that is lauded and applauded by the world. And in building this framework. I went to South Africa, did assignments there, had the privilege of interviewing Desmond Tutu and some of the leaders of the ANC, and really learned what I call these Pillars of Whiteness.
When it comes to racial healing, I really learned that they’re established in that particular healing model because it was a model that very much centered on White insecurity, White anxiety, and White futures and very much required emotional labor by Black folk and absolution for White folk. One is the recipient, and one is doing labor.
The challenge with that is it actually replicates the disparity and labor that exist because of inequitable systems. So if your labor model is not equal, then how could your healing model create any kind of equity? And so, Emotional Justice is about saying there can be no Emotional Justice with the equal division of emotional labor. In order to divide our emotional labor, we must identify what each of us has to do in order that has a sense of what it is we’re doing and have a way that we can move forward and come together. Because if we’re each doing our work, coming together is more doable. And not just doable, but it’s more sustainable. It is more impactful.
I think we have got to stop treating racial healing like a 140-character tweet. That if we could just tweet it back, for now, we would all be fine. It’s not true. You cannot tweet your way out of trauma, and you cannot Ph.D. your way out of trauma. Neither one of those two works.
MELINDA: Absolutely. I 100% agree. You mentioned the work of White women in that, and I also want to ask, what is the work of White men in that? I think that is important to discuss too. We often leave that out of these conversations.
ESTHER: Right. Absolutely. I mean, Emotional Justice is the work of White people. Resistance negotiation applies as much to White men as it is to White women. Intimate reckoning because intimacy is not a one-way street, right? It’s essentially relationships, and the emotionality of justice is about how you sustain inequity through relationships. And so specifically, the work of White men who claim a commitment to progressive politics and justice.
This is particular work for them. Because my experience in doing this work is I come across very few White men who do justice work with other White men. Very often, that work is done in communities of color, in all different types of communities. It is very rare that you have White men doing work with White men.
And the reason that is is the Emotional Justice philosophy around the language of Whiteness. That Whiteness has taught you that you are not the ones that need fixing. And if you are not the ones that need fixing, what would you be doing? Staying in your own community. That’s one part of it.
The other part of it is there is a gratification rooted in a definition of masculinity that is about saving and conquering and teaching that is fed by doing work in those communities. That is not what this racial healing model requires of any single White man. You literally do not need to be in any Black community again. The work the White men have to do is with other White men, and they have singularly failed to adequately, effectively in any long-term way engage other White men in ways that are transformative.
How do we know that? I’m ever going to f—-g curse on this podcast, but the world isn’t going to hell in a handbasket. And it’s going to hell in a handbasket because people are not doing their work. And part of people not doing their work is for White men to engage, challenge, take on, and deal with other White men. In the same way that we say Black men have to deal with Black men, Black women have to deal with Black women. White women have to deal with White women. White women have to deal with White men. We all have to deal with each other within our own demographics.
The reason that matters is that we’ve created this illusion of a multicultural love that can enable all of us to flourish if we could all just recognize that we’re all good people. That’s a nice idea. But it’s an illusion that doesn’t work in a world that is literally in levels of devastation, reeling from pandemic, police brutality, global protests, and environmental disasters. We do not have the luxury at this moment to lean back on a palatable version of love that doesn’t require much from us.
And so, when it comes to White men, for example, there’s this work that we do, which is called redefining and reimagining help. Because often what White men will say is, you know, but I really just want to help. That’s really what I want to do. I want to help. And the reason we talk about redefining health is that your relationship to help never identifies the person that actually needs help as you and other White men. And by help, I mean a specific unlearning of a power dynamic that dissenters your Whiteness and your maleness.
That kind of unlearning is transformative because of the way in which power functions in so many organizations. And because it doesn’t happen, because White men don’t take on White men, very little change happens. So I want to give a very quick example. I lead a global institute called the Armah Institute of Emotional Justice. It’s the implementation home of emotional justice. And we have a small but mighty tribe, a global team, where we devise and design, and deliver training projects and thought leadership.
In one of the training that we do, called Emotional Justice: The Truth and Accountability Sessions, we often work with predominantly White leadership about making a change in that department. They always have great policies connected to diversity. It’s always the same language. Zero tolerance of discrimination, zero tolerance of racism, welcoming environment, everybody’s welcome, all of this stuff.
But because our training starts off by centering, whoever is the most marginalized, we start by centering Black and Brown communities. And by hearing those voices and then saying to White leadership, your perception of your organization is solely based on your experience because you exist in a world where you are taught to center yourself, and all of us are taught to center you as well. And we will do it in different ways. No matter what our politics tells us, emotionally, we center how you move through the world.
The reality of that means that you will never find anything wrong with yourself. It will always be somebody else that you’re looking at. And we see it again and again and again. So when we do this training, when it comes to our post-workshop facilitation, we say to them, we won’t do post-workshop facilitation with anybody who can’t hire, fire, or write a check. And inevitably, that’s White men. So we’ll always identify the fact that they have very little diversity in their senior leader who has that kind of authority. And there’s always pushback that, well, we want to bring this person on, and we want to be inclusive.
I said, “Well, if you really wanted to be inclusive, your power structure would not be all White men.” But if that person can’t hire somebody, fire somebody, or write a check, then we can’t work with them because they can’t enact the kind of change that is transformative for an entire department or entire organization. And that’s how we work. Because we treat transformative change as not just a matter of urgency, but at this point, it’s a matter of life and death, and people are literally dying because of our rejection of our role in transformative change.
And because White men are able to weaponize their power in the most punitive way, they are the ones that folks are most wary of in terms of having hard conversations. But the reality is, we can’t get to where we’re going unless we have hard conversations. And the point is it is White men who need to be having those hard conversations with other White men and not requiring other people to do that work for them.
For Black women, they will tell you going into spaces doing that work with White men is harming. It is harming because there’s an absolute wealth of emotional hostility, rage, and anger that it’s coming at you because of the nature of the world. And because White men are just unused to being questioned or challenged in a way that is transformative. But unless other White men do that, then the change that people claim that they want can’t happen.
And part of what we say with Emotional Justice is to become the change you claim. Who is it that you say that you are? And then, what is the work required to become that person? And what’s required to become that person in terms of White men has very little to do with people of color. It has very much to do with how White men engage with other White men, how they engage or don’t engage them. And the way they come together in spaces of accountability, not in the moment but long term.
MELINDA: Now, most of the work that we’re talking about now you talk about as unlearning, which I also talked about in my book is unlearning is a key part of allyship that I talked about on the show and in my book and training, and my inclusive leadership coaching is largely about that unlearning process. And so, we’ve talked about, I think, two of the four pillars of the language of Whiteness, and we don’t need to go into the other two, but just to so everyone knows what the ones that we’ve talked about are racialized, emotionality, emotional patriarchy. And then the other two, we haven’t gone into so much our emotional currency and emotional economy, which I think I’ll just ask people to go to your book and learn more about those.
MELINDA: Because I want to get to the relearning part of this as well, which you’ve touched on a bit, relearning is key to allyship and empathy as well. We unlearn the systems, the processes, and the biases that don’t serve us and cause harm. We relearn more inclusive thoughts and behaviors. And so, in your book, you’ve touched on a couple of these, the four Emotional Justice love languages. Can you share a bit more about them?
ESTHER: Yes! With unlearning, there must be something you replace what you’ve unlearned. Without that replacement, it’s always a half-finished job. And so, you’re unlearning these four pillars of the language of Whiteness, and you’re replacing them with these four love languages.
I’ve talked about intimate reckoning as a love language, which is about ending the practice of Emotional Patriarchy and centering the feelings of White men. Intimate Revolution is specifically about Black people. It’s a particularly gendered unlearning. It’s about Black women. It is about the relationship between labor, value, and worth.
The history that has shaped all of us means that for Black people in America, in particular, but across Europe as well, there was a connection between labor, value, and worth because, quite literally, your value was determined by your ability to work. The harder you’re able to work without rest, the more valuable you are because your body is literally property.
So that’s a physical reality. Now with freedom and civil rights, and the legislation that has transformed that, that has changed in terms of the legislation of the thing, but the practical reality remains. Deeper than that is the emotional connection to value that centers labor so that the measure of your worth is all about productivity.
I don’t mean productivity that just makes you a good citizen and a good human being. I’m talking about the grind. I’m talking about you being depleted. You’re exhausted. You’re burnt out. You’re on your knees. You can’t do anymore. You can’t take anymore. You feel like you’re about to burst a blood vessel, but you still want to keep going, keep grinding. And grind is treated as if it’s kind of gangster and glorious. It’s a very real reality.
And so, one of the training we do, called the Love Languages of Emotional Justice, is specifically for and with Black and Brown women leaders and managers. It’s all about your relationship to grind. Where did you learn it? From whom did you learn it? Where in your community did you learn it? What does unlearning look like? We call it the Emotional Justice Equity Package. It’s about institutionalizing wellness in your world of work. It’s particularly challenging with Black folk and for Black women because the idea of self-care is treated as an indulgence or something that’s peripheral. And so, it’s what I call the Nails and Hair Brigade.
Now, I’m not mad. I’m a sister who likes to do my nails, and lord knows I go to the salon. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about institutionalizing wellness as part of how you navigate your world of work and that it’s institutionalization for you. But then also for the organizations that work with you, who also have a relationship to your being productive, no matter what it is, you’re walking through, going through, navigating, or dealing with.
We saw that with COVID. And the expectation that Black women talk about doing just levels of labor that they found incredibly exhausting, about which the world was just unaware because they have no relationship to this history that is an emotional connection for Black women. So intimate revolution is about unlearning that relationship to labor that makes you valuable. And instead, institutionalizing wellness that changes how you work and centers your rest first and requires the organizations you work with to center rest as well.
We do it by introducing what we call the Emotional Justice Equity Package. But we literally require people to budget out what rest looks like for a given project, for a given consultancy, or for a given engagement with an organization because there are two learnings. There are Black women who are learning to institutionalize and center their wellness. And then there are organizations that they’re working with, who have to learn what that looks like as well, in a structural way. Because we deal with structures, we don’t deal with individuals.
What we do say is we connect the individual to the institutional structure that they’re with. That system work through people. Right? They don’t function just as these kinds of amorphic things floating in the world. So, those are two. The other two: Revolutionary Black Grace, is a love language specifically about and for global Black people. And it is essentially saying that we have been taught, the language of Whiteness has taught us that American Blackness is criminal and immoral. And African Blackness is wretched and poverty-stricken. Neither one should have anything to do with the other.
That kind of separation and segregation just serves the narrative of Whiteness, which is always about division. Keeping people in their corners is always the most powerful way to maintain powerlessness. So, Revolutionary Black Race explores how we’ve come to denigrate each other’s Blackness coming up with language and words that do that.
It’s actually saying, “We want to pause. We need to give each other grace, which is patience with each other as Black people that we haven’t always had, but a very specific kind of grace. It is Black because it identifies the specific people for whom this is necessary, recognizing, for example, the historical model that Emotional Justice evolved out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
There was never a national conversation around forgiveness and healing that centered on Black people engaging, and dealing, and forgiving each other as Black people ever. It was always about Black and white. Revolutionary Black Race is saying that you need a structure that is just about who you are, who you became, as a result of oppressive systems, how you were shaped, and how that shaping shows up.
Blackness in America is shaped by enslavement. Blackness in Britain is shaped by colonialism. In Africa, we’re shaped by both. All of those things shape how we show up in spaces and rooms. But a Revolutionary Black Race is about saying that we all have a single point of connection.
And if we start by giving each other grace, we can transform these areas of suspicion, what I call the suspicion economy that leads us to divest from each other, and invest in spaces and people that do not serve the future that we’re trying to build for ourselves. That’s the Revolutionary Black Race and Resistance Negotiation I’ve spoken about. So, those are the four love languages.
MELINDA: Fantastic. My last big question, and then I have a couple of quick questions for the end, is we are in an increasingly divided political world, and as a result, leaders, managers, and DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) practitioners are finding it that really challenging. It’s difficult to navigate personal politics that’s in work. So, how can Emotional Justice be helpful in this space?
ESTHER: For me, I actually call Diversity and Inclusion. At this moment, I call it absurdity and delusion. I think that we have to be honest about the fact that this has become an unworkable reality for what it intends to do because the reality is inclusion is an illusion, given the structure that’s been created.
The reason why people are having so many challenges in terms of their personal politics is that there is no commitment to make spaces truly inclusive. And by making a commitment truly exclusive, I’m talking about wrestling with notions of power. There’s not a conversation about power. There is no real DEI going on.
And as Reshma Manickam says, when you talk about diverse, diverse from whom? Diversity from whom? When you talk about inclusiveness, what is it that you actually mean? So I talk about the illusion of inclusion. And the illusion of inclusion means that we could just do a little bit that enables us to say, “Well, okay, we’re more inclusive now.” But actually, the times demand a different approach.
For me, Emotional Justice is the future of DEI. It’s the future of DEI because it is requiring us to grapple with the thing that is preventing us from moving, and that is power. It is requiring us to reckon with a thing that prevents us from making anything more truly inclusive, and that is Whiteness. That is requiring White people to reckon with their Whiteness in ways that they’ve just never been required to do. It’s specifically asking those who have progressive politics to do that because their philosophy already articulates a belief in power sharing.
I would say you’ve got to let your emotionality meet your philosophy because, right now, it doesn’t. That is part of the reason why this is such a nightmare for people working in DEI. It’s unmanageable because it was designed to be unmanageable. It’s profitable because it was still always designed to make money minus movement. And if that is what we’re doing, then DEI is successful. But if we’re really talking about transforming workplaces, we need a model that doesn’t create a cycle of sameness masquerading as change.
MELINDA: So then, maybe you could talk a bit about what that looks like and how this work kind of works within institutions to really drive change and get at with the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I mean, I think there are a lot of very passionate people who are doing this work that really wants to drive change in organizations. Right?
MELINDA: Do you think it’s very important to recognize that it’s not about, for most people that will do this work, it’s not about making money on doing the work or anything along those lines? It’s about what they have a passion for because most of us, most people working in diversity, equity, and inclusion, have actually reduced salaries in order to make that work. Not everybody, but most people. And so, I think the key is that everybody is driving toward change, and how can this be a way to activate that change that people really want to see?
ESTHER: Right. And so, I think I want to just push back against that slightly. I think that the individuals working in DEI are passionate about change. One hundred percent that is true, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that the change that we’re talking about isn’t made by those people. Because if it was, we would have absolutely transformed the industry.
I mean, truthfully, we would have absolutely transformed industries because they have the passion, the drive, the commitment, and they’re showing up to do that work. So what is stopping them from making a change? So, the change that you’re talking about making isn’t solely on their shoulders to make, and there’s a way that DEI is shaped to protect power and to prevent power from being put in the hands of those who have DEI titles. That’s the way that it’s structured. It’s structured for the appearance of a power that actually renders you powerless in some ways.
When I say powerless, I don’t mean you individually are powerless. I’m saying that the structures that you’re moving within are designed to protect themselves. And that’s what they’re doing. It is why there are so many challenges within the world of DEI. And so, for me, the solution is saying that what Emotional Justice enables us to do is to insert itself into the space and have the emotional reckoning that could create the kind of motion that is not just transformative but sustainably so.
We’ve worked in spaces where people have had really powerful DEI individuals. So, I want to be clear that I’m not maligning people who do DEI. There are people really powerful, committed folks, who do that work. But that’s not the challenge in the same way that when we do our training, we say that we won’t work with a person who doesn’t write a check or hire or fire. And that is rarely the person who’s doing D EI. That’s not an indictment of the person doing DEI. It is a recognition that the organization is trying to protect power by keeping power in certain hands.
And so, Emotional Justice says, okay, well, we want to go to where the power lives, and not where you’re trying to convey that there is an illusion of power because it’s just not the truth. I think Pamela Newkirk, who’s a phenomenal author, wrote an amazing book called Diversity Inc., and she really breaks down how the industry has been built. And despite the industry building and becoming this multimillion-dollar business, there has been very little structural change.
I think that that is par for the course until on unless we take on much, much harder conversations. And the harder conversations are definitely about Whiteness. They’re definitely about the centering of Whiteness. They’re about saying to White women and to White men, “What work are you willing to do with each other that you’ve never done, that you’ve never been called upon to do when it comes to power?”
And in this moment, where I feel like the environment is manifesting how we’ve declared war against it, so it’s declaring war against us with the issues of race and political partisanship. That’s the reality that we’re facing. When I talk about political intimacy and governance and the vote, the nature of politics is really emotionality being weaponized by the world of politics in order to maintain power.
What does that look like? Emotional patriarchy. You have masculinity where for White men, the way that they feel power is if somebody is subjugated or exploited. So we have Roe v. Wade. We have these horrific things happening in our space and in our world. And those things are not changed by the current models that we have. We need more radical models. We always have.
The hard work is to say, just like any relationship. Emotional Justice is saying it’s about the emotionality of our worldview when something isn’t working. Do I have to break up and leave it off to build something new? What is that new thing? I’m certainly arguing that the new thing is emotional justice because its sole focus and function is specifically about power. I don’t think an emotional world that doesn’t deal with racialized emotionality is one that can further the work of diversity, and equity inclusion, because it doesn’t acknowledge how emotion in one body is different than emotion in another body. If that emotion in that body comes with repercussions, and emotion in this body comes with refuge, we’re never talking about the same thing. So we have to reckon with power in ways that we just haven’t.
MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you. Thank you for sharing. One question I like to ask everyone at the end. This is a podcast that is moving people to take action. You’ve definitely shared a lot of actions that people can take, especially the internal work of change. What one action would you like people to take as they come away from our conversation today?
ESTHER: Other than buying the book?
MELINDA: It can certainly be that. It could certainly be that.
ESTHER: I mean, I really think one really important action is to answer this question for themselves. How do I speak the language of Whiteness in my world? Answer it for yourself, and then have a coffee with someone and sit down with them and ask them the same question. It is the beginning of unlearning. It is the beginning of speaking a love language. It seems like a small question, but it’s a huge one. It has so much weight, power, and change if you engage it beyond the superficial.
MELINDA: Absolutely. Well, congratulations again on your new book. Where can people buy your book?
ESTHER: It’s called Emotional Justice: A Roadmap For Racial Healing. It’s available at all great bookstores. Support your independent bookstores. It’s available globally. I’m very excited about that as a Global Black Chic. I’m very excited about that. And so, online as well, your regular spots. And we like to mention the A-word, but that’s one of the places where you can go. Yeah, available in all good bookstores right now.
And I’m on a book tour. And so check out our website at www.TheAIEJ.com or @EmotionalJustice on Instagram for information about where we’ll be in the States because we’ll be on the East Coast, for sure. We’d love to see you.
MELINDA: Fantastic. We’ll put a link in our show notes. There were a few other resources that we’ve discussed as well that we’ll put a link in our show notes as well.
ESTHER: Perfect. Thank you so much.
MELINDA: Thank you, Esther. Enjoy the book tour.
ESTHER: Thank you for much. I’m excited.
MELINDA: We’ll share resources and a transcript from this discussion at ally.cc. And please make sure to subscribe to our channel and rate this show. It makes a difference for us. Thank you for being part of our community. And remember, the more we take action, the more we grow as humans and as leaders, and the more we transform our communities. So, what action will you take today?
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is a show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at ChangeCatalyst.co.
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Thank you for listening.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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