Speakers: Nichole Pitts (Host) and Sandra Camacho (Guest, Inclusive Design Strategist)
Welcome to The Ethintegrity Podcast, Sandra.
Thank you for having me, Nichole.
I am so excited to have you on the show. One of the unique things about Sandra is she holds three passports and is not only an immigrant to the U.S. but a foreigner with an accent in France. I think she has such a fascinating and unique perspective when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion from a global viewpoint. What I wanted to do was really get into talking about your journey so that the listeners can understand this unique global perspective as well. Can we get into you immigrating from Columbia to the U.S. as a child and what that experience was like?
Yeah, absolutely. It was so a great place to start. Would say like at the heart of my stories, of course, family, as I have a very big family, both sides of my parents, everyone was born in Columbia, have been there for a very long time. Very few people have emigrated out of the country. So, with my parents and with my sisters, we were some of the first to leave Columbia.
My dad got transferred to a very specific place that I didn’t know much about then and I know much more about now. A place called Bakersfield, California, and I was six years old going into first grade. I still remember my first day of school.
And if you remember back in elementary school, the first thing that you do when you arrive in the morning, it’s the Pledge of Allegiance. And I remember being there, I didn’t really know any English and I’m like, oh my gosh, what the heck is going on?
With my sister who’s two years older, we were in this elementary school for a week or two. And then we got shipped over to another school that had a bilingual program. And that’s where I really felt that I was starting to feel a bit more at home because we were surrounded by people who were learning English, just like us. So through all of that what I realized is that the key lever to integrating into a new country or society is language.
And of course, there’s culture as well. But once I started feeling more comfortable in English and as a kid, all you wanna do is belong and fit in. And once I could speak English like everyone else, I was like, oh, Hey, okay, this could be okay. I can make it in the U.S. And, I was lucky enough to learn English without having an accent and that would come back to me later on once I moved to France.
How did your teachers in that first school that you were at for a couple of weeks react to you not being able to speak or understand English? Were they sympathetic? Did they really help you or were you just left to fend for yourself?
To be honest, I remember now that we actually had a fire drill and we don’t have fire drills in Columbia. I just remember feeling so confused and feeling so lost. Clearly, there’s a language barrier so even if they were being supportive, I didn’t understand anything but I don’t recall having a supportive environment and it wasn’t until I went off to the school where there was a specific teacher, she had multiple grades in her class.
So I was in the same class as my sister, though she’s two years older. And her name was Mrs. Nightingale. I still remember her and she’s just so warm and so empathic. and I think that sticks with you, especially as you’re coming into a new country. That to me was like, wow, this is now reflecting back on it. Now I was like, this is inclusion.
It starts from, our early years in school and just, how is difference embraced or accommodated. The teacher experience and how welcoming they are has a huge impact on kids who are first generation coming in. If you don’t have that support, it’s gonna make it so much harder to feel integrated and to find community and feel like you belong.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Were there any other kids that spoke Spanish that could interpret for you or help you out in that first couple of weeks at that school?
Not that I remember, but I think like we went back and told our parents that this is not working for us. And so the shift was pretty quick. I don’t remember all of the details but I do remember some of the kids that I met in the other school many of whom were Latino as well. And so I did feel like we could communicate in Spanish. We’re all on the same learning journey together. And I didn’t feel alone because there were people who looked just like me whose families had similar immigration stories. And I think that makes a big difference as well. Just feeling like you’re not alone. To expand on this further, you would think that California is this mecca of progressiveness and openness and diversity and living in Bakersfield, it was diverse like in the schools.
There were a lot of people of Hispanic or Latino origin. We had diversity across other race and ethnic groups as well. But what I didn’t know at the time was that this was actually very conservative place. And so I lived in a county that voted Republican. That was red. So red in the heart of California, even though it was very diverse. Yeah. And what happened was that over the years, as I leaned into English and I became kind of a nerd. I loved studying and I always wanted to achieve academically and learn and read and all those sorts of things.
But I actually stopped speaking Spanish and it got to the point where I would be embarrassed to be heard speaking Spanish in public. I wouldn’t want my parents to speak to me in Spanish. And it wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized I had actually internalized cuz I was a kid I was like, where is this coming from?
It’s not emerging organically, but it was really a reflection of the environment that I was in which shamed Spanish speakers, which shamed people who came from Latin America and which kind of pushed for assimilation into, you know, it’s, it’s belonging, but forced belonging to the point where you have to let go of your own cultural identity.
And it took me a good 12 years maybe, uh, it’s really around high school and the end of high school. Once I moved to Texas, then I started to embrace my identity, embrace my culture because I started learning about racism. Learning about multiculturalism and once I got into college, I understood it from like a theoretical, historical perspective.
I didn’t realize that the people around me whether intentional or not, but their beliefs, and negative beliefs, especially around people of Latin origin led me to lose my language. I eventually was able to start speaking it at home to take classes in university.
I went to Columbia, and did an immersive program cuz I never learned Spanish in school. I only spoke it at home colloquially. But it was my first aha moment that, oh my gosh, I live in a country of white supremacy, of colonialism. And where there’s a lot of discrimination and bigotry and it robbed me of a huge part of my identity that today I preserve, and I honor so much, especially now in Europe, where being Latina in Europe is a whole different story. I would say that living in Bakersfield in particular, having that be my introduction to America versus being in an incredibly diverse, but welcoming and maybe less discriminatory place, it really shaped who I was and it inspired me to study international relations at school to really explore politics and people and culture and identity, but eventually to do work around diversity equity inclusion, mm-hmm because I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through. I would say that it’s really the pivotal experience that shaped who I was as an individual and who I eventually transformed into as a professional.
That’s a really great point in thinking through how the power dynamics really influence how we view ourselves. And you think about what we take in on TV, the types of toys, maybe dolls that we’re playing with. And I knew growing up,
I didn’t see any little black dolls. And so you’re looking at what the standard of beauty is. And it’s like standards of beauty reinforcing. Yeah. It’s reinforcing these power dynamics. And you think about how the advent of social media and being able to get more voices from around the world can influence how we view ourselves, cuz you have access to so many more people and stories. And I always wonder, like if I grew up, when they had internet as a child, would I have embraced, this whole diversity equity and inclusion earlier versus taking in those thoughts and what others told me and just assimilating?
And I think that gets into the code-switching where you feel like you can’t be yourself in a school environment or a work environment because you’re told this is what is acceptable. You’re taught in, at least in my school, everybody’s taught the same way. So if you have some sort of neurodiversity there was no way in order to be able to handle that. Maybe if you’ve learned visually or just phonetically how do you really teach kids that way? So I think that’s a really good point that you were saying as far as immigrating over and then assimilating. Did your sister have the same experience or was hers a little different?
Yeah so I actually have three older sisters and I referenced the one that’s close to an age mostly because I felt that we did have fairly similar experiences. She did not lose her Spanish in the same way that I did. Whereas my older sisters who are six and 12 years older, they’re in a different generation. And so they were coming in, like junior high and high school, they would always be speaking Spanish at home. To me, they did not go through the same identity crisis that I went through. So you can see that there isn’t one kind of soul experience for people immigrating to the States, or even in this case, like Colombian women immigrating to the States. We all have our own unique experiences. For me, I felt like my identity was always at the forefront because kids were always asking me, what are you, or where are you from? And so even if I tried my hardest, I remember even once I said I was born in the U.S and now I feel so much shame. I can’t believe that I said that, but clearly there was some sort of self-defense mechanism at play. Like I was trying to protect myself from something. I was nine years old. Why would I say those things?
Do you think it was because of trying to be accepted? Where it was just easier to go along and you were tired of getting the question?
Yeah. I mean, I did observe as a kid that there was a lot of discrimination against people from Mexico. And I tried to differentiate myself and say, well, I’m from Columbia, it’s a different country. We have different cultures, but clearly. All Latin Americans are compounded together into a singular group. And I think for me, it was a way of like, how can I disassociate myself from this? This was me analyzing it 30 years later. But I could tell that I just had internalized so much toxicity and I was trying to disassociate myself rather than joining the people who I saw being bullied mm-hmm because they were Mexican and they were poor.
I still remember someone from elementary school who experienced this and I was like, why didn’t I stand up for that person? And I was like, well, maybe I didn’t wanna get attacked or bullied in the same way. And so I think that it’s a question of, we don’t wanna fit in, but people are constantly calling out that you’re different.
That you are not from here, that you don’t belong regardless of language, regardless of even integrating American culture as my own, and blending it with the culture of my home country and my parents. There’s still this, even after leaving the U.S and immigrating into another country in Europe, I still have this sentiment that I don’t belong.
I don’t belong in the States. Truly. I don’t even belong in my home country cuz I’ve gone back throughout the years and I’m the Gringa, I’m the outsider. They don’t see me as Colombian. And then Europe is a whole different story, which we can go into. But all those things you carry that with you throughout the rest of your life. There’s a lot to unpack there.
Yeah. I think also with language, especially in the States I’m gonna say back in maybe the eighties and nineties and even before that it was, you hear somebody speaking Spanish and they’re automatically going to assume Mexico. Um, you could be from Spain and they’d be like Mexican. Um, and there’s just this stereotype that was perpetrated there and it’s that levels of classism almost it’s that well, oh yeah, I’m better than this. So for people and you know, at the core of DEI is belonging from when we’re little to when we get older and we are trying to figure out a way to belong from even when we’re in school, wanting to speak the language.
But one thing I found really interesting is that in this global environment, when you are working for especially a global company, then it’s, you have all these different languages and maybe the business language is English. And it’s like, well, if you don’t speak English, you can’t work here. Or you can’t get promoted because you have to have a certain level of English proficiency. And you could be really great at your job, but yeah, you don’t know the language and it feels like, well, now I don’t belong because maybe I didn’t have access to that education to learn English.
The dominance of the English language and work has shown up for me so much more after I moved here to France. I ended up moving here about nine years ago, 2013. I was working for Google in the States. Was there for three years and then moved over to Paris and joined the regional team where the working language was English, but where I was working with colleagues from all over Europe and whose native languages varied from French, German, I work with people from Holland, we had a lot of people from the UK.
In the experiences that I had while working at Google on both regional and international teams, I definitely witnessed it firsthand. It’s like knowing that there are biases with regards to how competent people perceive you to be in your job. Mm-hmm and just having an accent. And I know there are studies that have been done in the US where just having an accent already can have an impact on levels of competency in terms of how others perceive you.
And it’s also the case in Europe. Even if you are not an immigrant. It’s compounded when you bring in intersectionality, you’re also a member of a marginalized group or multiple kind of marginalized groups. I experienced it firsthand once I left Google and started working with clients. So as an independent practitioner started working with clients in French and I was lucky that most of the work I was doing at Google in Paris was in English, even though I spoke to my colleagues in French. But once I had to do the work myself, in French. I was like, oh my gosh, I’m experiencing it now. I remember, and I think I’ve talked to you about this in the past, but I still recall an experience where I was running a design thinking training back in 2019. At this point, I had been in France for six years. Learning French for 15 years just to put it into perspective. And yes, I have an accent I’ve worked on it. I’ve tried to lighten it as much as I can, but you know, when you learn another language as an adult, I don’t have that same luck that I had as a kid.
Where I could pick it up as a native speaker. Like it’s been a lot harder to learn French, even though I knew Spanish. Going back to this design thinking training, I think the feedback that I got from one of the participants was written feedback, even though in my mind, I imagine it vividly is happening during one of the live sessions.
I think this is just because it had such an impact on me, but this older man, white man, French man said to me that she should have done this entire training program in English, because then we would’ve been able to understand things better. And I remember feeling so offended because already, like for many years in my personal life in France, I felt that when I spoke people were making assumptions about my intellect or my ability to socialize because there are times when I don’t understand everything that people are saying, or there might be a lot of noise in the background.
I don’t pick up on all the details or there might be some jargon or idioms, all these things that kind of get lost when your ears are trying to catch every single word. But once it happened to me in the professional world, and I felt like I was getting shamed for having an accent and for doing my best. I would practice so much before these workshops mm-hmm and I realized if the tables return, then we had to do the same English imagine me giving that feedback to this man. If his English were accented and he made some mistakes here and there, I would never in a million years imagine assuming that he’s less competent or he’s incapable of delivering. Which does happen a lot of people do judge others based on, especially with English, being the working language in so many international companies.
For you doing this training, did everybody even know English? And one of the things that I also found in France, they want you to speak French and it’s the whole national pride that they have in their language. It’s almost like in America where they’re like, learn to speak English. And in France, it’s like, well, at least attempt to speak French. Cuz if you don’t, then you kind of get shamed for thinking that you’re too privileged to be able to speak their language. Did you feel that?
You know this is really interesting. I had a unique experience because I was a French major in college. I fell in love with French in high school. I had this amazing French teacher who changed my life and I was like, wow, I’m gonna devote myself to studying the French language and the culture and maybe one day move there.
And I was able to do study abroad while I was in college. So I had a trial period of what’s it like to live in France and to try to speak the language and I would say that for me, the most difficult part is that people in France do have certain assumptions about Americans.
I think that people here expect that the Americans are going to not even attempt to speak their language.
They’re going to just be imposing English everywhere, talking very loudly and that happens. I see it, see it on the street. I see it in the Metro and I’m like, it’s okay. I even told my family when they come cuz they’re very loud and that’s more the Colombian side cuz we speak in Spanish with each other. Well, Spanglish. But I always have to say be a little quiet, don’t speak so loud in the Metro cuz people will look at you or they might say something to you like they’ll sneer at you. It’s having that cultural competence of knowing like how do I behave?
How do I adapt the way that I hold myself and the way that I present myself and speak to align with the social norms in another culture? So I get that. At the same time, I find that the French can be hypocritical, especially this person saying that he prefer to do it in English when most people in France are not comfortable speaking English. It’s like on one side, they really value the American perspective, especially in the workplace. Mm-hmm. They find like, wow, Americans are all about innovation. They’re all about doing things differently, bringing in fresh perspectives.
Whereas in France it is a lot more about tradition. You have workplaces that are a lot more hierarchical. The society here is historically very elitist. And so when you think of shifting to this topic of DEI, which I find is really relevant here, even thinking of how people get access to certain sorts of professional work here, cuz they have different, uh, it’s the whole thing.
They have a whole system here of the type of work is qualified into kind of different categories. And there’s a category here called [French word], which is like the salaried worker. Maybe you could say a white-collar worker would be the equivalent versus like blue-collar work. Maybe like manual labor or things like that. But in order to get access to those sorts of jobs. Here, they have huge divisions between the city. So urban centers, which is primarily Paris, but also a few other bigger cities here and rural areas. So they call “provence” the province you could say. There are huge divisions there in terms of just getting access to the elite schools, which they call grandes écoles, like big schools, is the literal translation.
But basically, if you haven’t done the grandes écoles, if you haven’t had the chance to even be in an urban area, in addition to all the other intersections of identity, so clearly like socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender, ability, neurodiversity, et cetera, already, just because of where you’re living and the type of school that you’ve been to, that already predicts your ability to advance in the workplace and to be able to eventually get into the right companies. Ultimately it ends up showcasing the source problem of the diversity pipeline problem here because since it’s such a network-based elitist society. People here do not like things that fall outside of boxes, they love boxes here. And so you have to have done a specific path, like specific university or school needs to align with whatever profession you do. Hybrid profiles like mine, for instance, that doesn’t really fit cleanly into boxes here.
So when you think of, how might we diversify talent pools to bring in fresh perspectives? All of that is very disruptive because I think it’s just anchored in the culture. Even in my personal life, I’ve seen this. It’s very hard to break into social groups here because people meet either in high school or grade school or university, and they stick to those circles for the majority of your life. So if you’re a foreigner coming in and trying to break into those circles just socially, it’s incredibly hard. So imagine professionally. If you are an outsider, whether you’re an immigrant or just someone that didn’t have access to those same social circles growing up because of the school that you went to or the community you lived in mm-hmm cause here there’s a lot of geographic segregation.
I did notice that. Yeah. Especially when I was hiring in France and HR would talk about, well, we don’t want certain post codes and yep. It was well, just send them all to me, but it was you getting kicked out of being reviewed based upon the area that you lived in around the city.
To your point is also with culture shock, moving over there and trying to make friends. It takes a long time for you to even be able to integrate these social circles, because they’ll be nice enough to you, especially in the workplace.
They’ll be very nice. Or if you’ve met through someone else, they’re very polite, but you’re not gonna be invited to their house for maybe a year. And I actually appreciated the fact that they spent more time getting to know you because they talked about with Americans and even with some of the Brits that we are so quick to be like, this is my friend.
And then fall out though. We’ll be like, I do not like this person, because then you’ve gotten to know them. And you’re like, oh, wait a minute. I didn’t realize this person was problematic. So I did really appreciate that they took that time to get to know whether or not your values were aligned, whether or not you were going to be a good fit for them and their circle, but it can be a little discriminatory too, where you’ve got these standards, but then we do that for our own lives.
You know, we’re like this doesn’t fit in. I’m not gonna disturb my peace. So it’s understanding where that balance is from where we’re not being exclusive, but we’re protecting our boundaries.
Yeah, and I think what I’ve experienced early on when I moved here, I learned going back to what you were saying that Americans can be very open and forthcoming, but a bit superficial mm-hmm
And I learned the expression that Americans are like peaches that it’s very easy to penetrate the surface, but it’s very hard to really go deep and get to know someone and build lasting intimate relationships, which could be a friendship or more. Whereas the French are like coconuts that it’s very difficult to break through, but once you’re in, you’re in for life.
Yeah. So I carry this imagery or expression with me, but what I found at the end of the day is that certain people on, generalizing here, but there is a lack of curiosity. And I find it actually really sad because I feel that in so many other countries that I’ve traveled to people at least want to know your story, they wanna understand.
So where do you come from? Like what brought you here? And it’s not that I haven’t gotten those questions here, but it’s just that people are at least in the sort of social groups that I’ve tried to integrate, which I haven’t been able to in the end, most of my friends are expats or they are French people who have lived abroad.
And who understands what it’s like to be on the outside because the French who haven’t lived outside of France, they’ve never been curious enough to wanna get to know me. Despite all my efforts. That kind of shows up in the workplace too. I think it’s tied to this kind of larger phenomenon of assimilation and they call it integration. In French, it’s called “l’intégration” which is integration, but it truly means assimilation in English.
And I think in the US, you have multiculturalism, which is all about we’re celebrating the whole melting pot of America, that we’re all immigrants, et cetera. And in France, there is nothing around celebrating or maintaining your cultural identity and adding that to the pie. It’s about you becoming French and you may have other parts of you, but those aren’t parts aren’t as important.
What we want everyone to be is to feel French and to feel this national sense of identity and solidarity with your fellow French person. But what happens, in the end, is that there’s actually a lot of immigration in France and immigration tends to come from Africa and from many different parts of Africa.
And because of the history that France has with many different African nations, colonialism and exploitation extraction of natural resources, war, you know, all these sorts of things. What we see kind of a present day is that, well, if people celebrate their culture of origin, whether they’re first generation, second generation, or beyond this will create separatism.
It will create what the French call communitarianism. Yeah. And that means that you pit people in these immigrant communities or ethnic and racial groups against the French. And that’s completely counter to the French idea of universalism that everyone has, everyone is the same in French.
Everyone is French has the same rights. And so you end up getting into situations where in order to protect the French identity they have secularism here where it’s a true separation of church and state, but a lot of the times secularism is mobilized and weaponized as Islamophobia.
I think it was Sarkozy that banned the wearing of a hijab and other types of religious clothing for women…
Yeah. Yes. And I was like, are you serious?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah, absolutely.
I’ve said that the way that the French look at people from Africa can be correlated to the way that some people in the US look at Mexicans. But living in Paris was the first time that I actually felt or was aware of my privilege because I had an American accent and there was this Afro-French person and we were just having this conversation and she said, you are not followed around in stores. She was like, you’re going to have way more privilege than I will. As soon as you open your mouth to speak, they hear English and they hear American English.
So you have that first-world country privilege, and they’re not thinking you’re going to steal. And I hadn’t even thought about that cuz in the US, black is black. They don’t care about your accent. It is amazing how the accent and the country of origin really plays into how you’re treated.
Absolutely. And I think one thing to maybe layer on top of that is that there is still a race problem here. The problem with the race problem is that it’s incredibly taboo to talk about race. And some of this ties to the history, just even of just the European continent., So for instance, it’s illegal to collect data along the lines of race and ethnicity in France, Germany and I think in a few other European countries as well, and a lot of that ties back to Nazi Germany and their presence in France in particular where that sort of data collection was used against Jews who were living in France. And so they passed a law, I believe in the fifties to be able to protect people’s identities so that they wouldn’t be discriminated against or they wouldn’t be as stigmatized or isolated or targeted for nefarious kind of reasons.
But the unintended consequence is that once we start to get into diversity, equity, and inclusion work, you can’t collect data and not even just DEI work, but even for instance, understanding what are the disparities in health outcomes. Or what are the disparities in maybe wrongful arrests and wrongful incarceration, and you don’t have any of that data, even at a government level, along the lines of race and ethnicity, which means that any sort of appeals to systemic racism or structural racism are somewhat unfounded because we don’t have any concrete data that we can point to, to say, here are the numbers that show that there are disparities, that these do exist. They’re concrete. And so people then tend to think that there’s no problem here. We’re not racist. People aren’t being unjustly treated or being blocked access from certain services or certain opportunities because of their race and their ethnic identity. Yeah and so here they end up in the end, they call it origin, just not necessarily national origin, but that’s the closest equivalent and that’s as close as they get to talking about race and ethnicity but it’s just very difficult when you’re trying to have conversations about intersectionality. I wanna have conversations with clients about anti-racism. Just talking about oppressive systems as a whole and there isn’t even a national conversation happening on this. I think there was maybe one incident that happened a few years ago and I’m blanking on the first name. Traoré is the last name of a man who was subject to police brutality and his sister mm-hmm it was around Black Lives Matter in 2020. His sister has done a lot of work to really raise awareness around police brutality, especially against black and brown people here.
But you don’t have reports on the news about this, there are a few people who are speaking very loudly about this, but they tend to be brigaded. It’s all debate and it’s about right or wrong. We’re winning and losing. And it’s not about, let’s actually talk about our history and all of the history of colonialism and all the damage that has been wrought, especially throughout all of Africa and in other countries in the world, that’s not happening. And so it makes the work really challenging to be able to tie it to history and systems cuz people like they don’t really learn this in school. And there are no venues to really talk about this as exist in the US where it is a national conversation.
There are laws against racism like discrimination based on race and sexual orientation and ethnicity. So even if they don’t talk about race in a very forthcoming way, there are laws that protect people from mistreatment and from discriminatory practices. I think that’s actually a lot of times where it’s the hard line between DEI work and anti-harassment policies.
That’s what I see a lot in this space. I work more in the inclusive design space versus pure kind of diversity, equity, inclusion from a talent and culture perspective.
But I do see that it’s really more about protecting workers’ rights because there’s a lot of unions that exist here. So it is more about how can we ensure that we don’t get sued less about how do we cultivate belonging? How do we start to bring in fresh talent that may not fit into the typical boxes?
How do we ensure that we’re impacting our privilege and our bias? Like those sorts of things. They’re only starting to scratch the surface here. I think the international companies, the large companies that have presence outside of France they’re the ones that are making moves on this. Even the startups.
You’d be surprised like a lot of startups, they haven’t done a lot of work on this either. You would assume that they’d be further ahead. I mean, French tech here is there’s a big move on innovation.
There’s a lot of potential, but to me as a practitioner, it’s just very disappointing because I feel there’s so much value in all senses of the word. Not just business value, but so many kinds of opportunity to both do good in the world and to see better business outcomes.
And all of that potential kind of goes to waste because of a culture that is very resistant to change that is resistant to outsiders. And that does not question the role that oppression plays in its society, because they’re so attached to this dream of universalism the French national identity.
And it’s disappointing to me. I grapple with this every day and I wonder is this the place for me, even though I love it here, but it makes me question where are my people, like in terms of people who care about social justice, where are they? I haven’t been able to find enough of them yet to see if there is change that can happen and not at a decade’s pace, but a bit more progressively and actively.
So what do you feel like are some of the key differences in DEI from France to Europe, to the US?
Yeah, great question. It’s so interesting cuz I follow a lot of diversity at inclusion practitioners on LinkedIn because I wanna have a pulse check on what’s happening in the US.
A lot of them are in the US and even posts that I see recently, when they think of DEI, they only think about race and ethnicity. And disability often gets left out of the picture. They don’t specify that that’s an American thing.
I find it so surprising to see that. Because in Europe it’s the opposite it’s like, race and ethnicity is kind of, unless the UK. There’s a bit more happening there on that front but in France and many other Western European countries where we see diversity equity inclusion is along the lines of gender from a gender binary perspective.
So not even an expansive definition of gender, it’s just male and female. And then secondly, it’s accessibility. So anything related to, disability and handicap. Mm-hmm and what I’ve found, especially in France is that it’s a lot more accepted socially to want to help people who are disabled versus I think confronting the discomfort of the fact that racism actually does exist and that people who aren’t white face a lot of potential prejudice and barriers in society. And so I found that when I go and try to work with clients and I talk about intersectionality, that’s not really on the radar.
I feel like I’ve seen some discourse, like even on Twitter, about intersectionality, like in French people discussing that does not apply here that does not really exist, or it shows up differently in France and like, it does not it’s pretty universal.
Obviously, there are cultural nuances. What I find is that it’s a lot easier to just say we’re helping people who are disabled, we’re investing in accessibility efforts. Maybe we’ll touch on gender parity. So making sure people are paid equally or fairly. But they’re not questioning, larger structural barriers. And I talked about that at the very beginning that there’s just no national conversation about history and about oppressive systems. All of that of course translates into the workplace. It’s just people wanna be comfortable.
Yeah. And at the end of the day, what’s comfortable is at least they recognize that there’s a gender pay gap, but that there are maybe a dearth of representation of women in leadership positions, but at the end, it ends up without an intersectional lens, these sorts of programs end up benefiting those who hold the most privilege within these groups.
So white, disabled, cisgender, heterosexual people, and also white women. It’s this question of like such a huge opportunity that they’re overlooking, there’s so much more impact that can be had yeah. Change that can be made. But it’s not a reflexive practice. Not at all.
You have made a really good point in one of our conversations a couple of months ago and thinking about gender and the male and female, but also linking that to using gender-inclusive language with French. And I found that to be so fascinating because as a native English speaker, we don’t use gender to identify words, but with the romance languages, you do.
And because the French have so much pride in their language, I found this to be so interesting. And I wanted to know if you could explain to the listeners the background and the drama that has come along with people trying to make French more gender inclusive.
Yes. So this is a really juicy topic and it’s because exactly, as you explained, when we describe objects in French like all objects are gendered, so a chair will be female. A computer will be male. And so already there are specific kind of rules in French grammar that make it. So if you are referring, not just to objects, but even if you’re referring to a group of people where there are both men and women and any other people of any other gender present, you will refer to them with a masculine pronoun.
Basically, the male pronoun wins over the female pronoun every single time. And so when you start to refer to workers like the equivalent of the word worker in French it’s ouvrière (feminine) and ouvrier (masculine) and it’s words where it’s not very simple to kind of make a compounded word that includes both gendered terms.
So the female and the male version of the word. And so what, uh, I don’t know who came up with this. I should probably do some research on this, but someone somewhere came up with, um, it’s called gendered language, meaning that they actually start to use kind of it’s called like this median point. So it’s like a little raised dot.
And when you write a specific word, if you wanna write the word worker or employee, um, because there’s a female variant and a male variant, you can create this compounded word by adding this little dot in the middle and creating you basically have both versions. Again, there’s specific rules that you have to follow, but you have both versions that are surrounded.
And sometimes it’s just a question of adding an “e” at the very end. So an “e” tends you add a second “e” it tends to make the word feminine. But a lot of the times you can be in situations where if, especially if you’re a foreigner learning French or you’re a child, when you see these words, you may not immediately understand them because they don’t follow the rules of French.
They’re not necessarily easy to read. This is the same for anyone who might be neurodivergent. And so at the end of the day, gender-inclusive language is inclusive from a gender standpoint, but it may not actually be inclusive in terms of being easy to read by many different groups, including children, foreigners, and people with learning or cognitive abilities that may be different, you know?
And so at the end of the day, what this leads to it actually has become a very political or like politicized debate that we should not be corrupting the French language by adding all these dots by making it illegible. And then secondly, it’s the fact that, well, this is just how things are done.
Why are you trying to change things? This is grammar. Grammar is something that’s objective. Basically, there’s no recognition that language can also be a vehicle of oppression and that it can perpetuate certain social norms. and so they only see it as pure fact, and the French, again, I’m generalizing, but the French can be very, they call them, they call themselves Cartesian.
So it’s all about being very logical and pragmatic and rational. And so it’s a lot harder to bring these conversations of like, well, someone feels like they’re excluded or they feel like they’re not represented or reflected in this language. And I had a personal experience with this cuz I was working with a client where I was creating a survey, a diversity & inclusion survey for the organization.
And I did all of the communications using gender-inclusive language. I even in the questions that I asked, I included gender options beyond the binary that were directly listed. So not just fill in your identity, but I have here’s some options or add your own. And it created this huge debacle with one of the directors of the team of the company I was working with who was even saying like, this is illegal.
Like you are going against the law. This is not how we do things here. This is wrong. And it’s not just about laws, but there was a lot of emotion packed into that. And so to me, it’s um, gendered language. I think it’s a lot harder here than just, for instance, using she/her/they, and just opting for, they like here, it’s a lot harder because it’s built into the structure of the language. So I don’t know what the solution is at this point, because I do get the fact that yeah, if you’re neurodivergent, if you’re dyslexic, how are you supposed to read this?
Like, we’re actually making it, making the language harder for you to read. I don’t have the answer for that, but I think it’s an interesting topic to have a conversation about, I don’t see enough dialogue about that. Yeah. Besides, you know, a politicized version of they’re bringing stuff from the US here. We’re not like that. We’re French, you know, so yeah.
I heard that a lot working in France, it was like, my work life was so different than my personal life and it was, you’re bringing a lot of Americans love to work all the time. Um, and we want to have things a certain way and we just create issues because they’ll be like, well, America’s a dumpster fire. You need to go and fix that. But we’re not like this over here in France.
I actually really loved to speak to French people that had not lived in an English-speaking country because that helped me to understand how to speak French because of the sentence structure.
And, you know, not wanting to be seen as a tourist because I’m trying to assimilate, even though I have this Southern accent, there’s no way I could pass for a native French person to be able to speak it. But it was also just using a lot of charm and being super nice to people. Yeah. That I could have these conversations and really try to create these connections to understand more about their culture, because I was like, well, I don’t understand the whole male female version of computer.
And all that. It was so hard for me to learn that. And for them helping me to understand, or even wifi and them saying “wifi” you know, to actually appreciate it. Cause I said, you know what? You all are protecting your language.
And we do that here, but you think about how we pronounce certain words and how they pronounce certain words. Here’s an example. I was in a boulangerie, which is a bakery for people that don’t know French. You know, they have like five things in a boulangerie. One of them being croissants.
There’s not a lot of words that sound like croissants. And I, you know, walk myself right on into the boulangerie cuz I’m French at this point, you know, before I go to work, get my croissant and my cafe au lait. So I walk in and I was like, “Oh. Bonjour. Ça va?”. And they immediately were like, “she’s one of those .” And I was like, “Je prendre un croissant.”
And they were like, “Quoi?”. And I again said “Je prendre un croissant.”, and I’m standing in front of the croissants and they’re looking around, like, I’ve asked for them to fill up my car. And I was thinking, I know that you hear croissant. I think I’m saying the words right. And they’re like, “Oh! Croissant!” And I said, “that’s what I said. That’s exactly what I said.”
And it’s understanding the nuances of the accent, and I didn’t, but I found myself really wanting to overcompensate to ensure that I did the language justice and that I really tried to get them to understand me because I realized I was the guest in this country. So, and really wanted to have those conversations.
But a lot of people wanted to practice their English with me. Yes. And as soon as I’d started, they’d wanna speak in English and I’d say, how about we do this? You helped me practice my French and I will help you practice your English. And it was like, we were bartering.
But I found, you know, a lot of people that were expats that came over were like, “I hated living in Paris.” Americans can be rude too. You have to think about what’s our stereotype going into it, but I really didn’t have a problem. I loved it from the personal side. Working was hard cause French work laws are so hard.
Yeah. And like you were saying just about wanting to talk about any sort of DEI thing. And it was, my experience was let’s carve out our own special exceptions for our French offices.
Oh my gosh, this is, this happened to me too with one of my clients. They’re like, well, this is coming from the international group. And, but like, this is not a problem here. So can we like either opt out or do like the bare minimum or do like DEI, like the French way? Yes. Whatever resonates here. I’m like, yes. Then you have to take the cultural nuances into account, but the cultural nuances in their eyes were like, we don’t have a problem.
I was surprised because I had to do this a lot with French lawyers. And when you do business with a company that is headquartered in the US or is listed on the stock exchange in the US you’re subject to certain laws. And when I would put certain laws and reference those in some sort of legal document, then it was, we don’t need to do that because we’re not doing business there, but the entity that you are doing business with is under the parent company of a US company. So you’re subject to these laws and is really trying to explain this. But in what I had a hard time understanding was this is saying just don’t bribe people. Why don’t you just want to sign up for that? And then there’s the whole dialogue.
But what I had to try to understand was what’s your issue with this? Is it the language of the law or is it because it’s a US law that’s being imposed on you as a French company? And we always got to where I needed us to be in the end, but it was walking them there and addressing yeah. Their issues. And it usually was around the fact that “We’re French. We shouldn’t have to be held accountable to this law when we’re not even over there.”
yeah. It gets me thinking about this concept of cultural competence and cultural humility. And I think that the example you just shared is you were practicing that like you were trying to understand. It’s not just empathy, cuz it’s like, you’re clearly trying to see the world through this person’s eyes, understand where they’re coming from, but you’re also taking the cultural context into account. It’s like there’s something else here at play, maybe law, social norms, a way of viewing the world that goes beyond the individual. And I think that that’s actually, to me, like a very important kind of staring at this back to like DEI, to me, it’s a very important kind of layer to any work that people are doing or want to do with Europe or either maybe even work that practitioners in the US are doing with US companies who have offices abroad or employees abroad or serving customers abroad. Or you have DEI practitioners in the US serving, uh non-American companies.
But I think that cultural humility is something that can be a bit overlooked. Because usually a lot of this work tends to be very US-centric. And it’s kind of like, we’re looking at this through the lens of a US context, but we’re not actually trying to figure out how does DEI translate into other cultural context and how can we try to build these bridges? Not just in the way that we speak, but just in the work itself, that something that is done in the US may not actually work in France or may not work in the UK or in Germany or in Australia in India.
And I think that we all have a responsibility as DEI practitioners to work those muscles of cultural competence and cultural humility. It’s an international world and, this is just my personal perspective as a non-US practitioner. A lot of the times the frameworks, the language, the tools, the methodologies, especially in the design space that I operate and those kind of things, emanate from the US, and they tend to represent kind of “the” approach and you lose the nuance of localization that really needs to happen.
So that would be my takeaway for anyone listening to this who might be in the states. I was thinking, how can I be much more international or global, or culturally competent in my practice? And it’s like, talk to us practitioners and other parts of the world, you know, there’s so much that we have to share.
And I think that there’s also things that we’re doing here and not discounting myself cuz you know, I am American at the same time, but people who don’t have any ties to the US, I think there’s a lot that can be learned from them as well. I think you innovate, you create hacks, you create lots of unique ways to tackle problems that emerge differently here just because of the context.
I love that because the world is so different and so diverse. So in different cultures than you may be solving a problem or needing to highlight some sort of equity issue and how are you doing that? And there’s so many things that you can use maybe that methodology or process for another issue or trend.
So are affinity groups and employee resource groups popular in France? In Europe?
Yeah. So that’s something I’ve definitely seen. So I tend to work with smaller organizations where they just don’t have the mass of people to be able to create meaningful employee resource groups.
And I’ve worked with some companies outside of France that are a bit larger that if there are groups that are emerging, they tend to be groups around, for instance, gender LGBTQ, and ability or disability. So employee resource groups have made their way here. But I don’t see them being mobilized in the same way.
I think that they’re earlier in terms of maturity companies here earlier in their journey. So you don’t see them having the same level of resources in the same level of impact that you would see in mostly American companies.
Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how as those mature and are able to really create an impact if that changes some of this discussion to really be able to highlight some of the issues in DEI that are currently taboo topics in say France or certain other European countries.
Yeah. I think the only problem is that I don’t know if you could create an affinity group based on race & ethnicity in France because technically you can’t collect that information as an employer from your employees. And so I suppose people could self-identify and voluntarily provide that information, but it’s a fine line.
I’ve seen it, like when I was at Google, for instance, like we did have a black Googlers group and there were people in France who were part of that group. But because it originated in the US I think that it asked, you know, all the laws and standards. I don’t even know if legally they’re able to create groups along. I see groups for women, for instance, mm-hmm um, cuz you can’t collect gender-related data, but yeah, that’s something I’m gonna have to look into because that even if it’s prohibited, it’s like, how can you drive change if you can’t even make it, you know, make it happen.
So maybe that’s a question of questioning laws pushing more on the political front. And I think that’s where the activism can come into the picture, but it’s kind of, you know, tapping into the right myself. Now that you’ve mentioned it. I know in the UK of course they have data privacy laws.
Yeah. And of course, they have it across all of Europe and even Latin America with looking at trying to standardize data privacy law since they were so independent and specialized per country. But I’m gonna look that up today now that you’ve brought it yeah. To see how they handle the affinity groups, cuz I do know there are a lot of affinity groups in the UK.
End of episode.