The Disruption of Refusal - Part 1 of 3
Updated: Feb 28
The act of disrupting bias comes in many forms. Most often, we tend to think of the vocal ones—speaking out in a meeting or verbally challenging a stereotype. The articles in this series explore the many and various ways we can all participate in disrupting bias, with and without words. Depending on your environment, ability, colleagues, and the particulars of each situation, you can find resources and make informed decisions on how to respond to bias in ways that are safe, effective, and beneficial.
Untangle Your Worth from the Bias
It’s common for our first reaction to be shock when we encounter bias. Despite all our experience and knowledge, bias—whether in the form of racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, heteronormativity, exclusion, white supremacist culture, or any other form—can still leave us too stunned to react. This happens in part because bias feels personal, like an attack on our integrity, our character, our very selves.
But the truth is, despite its personal impacts, bias and the disenfranchisement it carries is not a personal event. A crucial ability in working in corporate culture is refusing to see prejudices as value statements about yourself. A bias is someone else’s value, not yours.
Separating an act of bias from your self-worth isn’t easy. Simply experiencing bias can take a mental toll, not to mention doing the tough work of depersonalizing it, moving forward, possibly disrupting the bias, and leading through that disruption.
Why do it?
Because responding with agency to bias starts with depersonalization.
In order to act strategically, you need the mental distance to perform a complex calculus: Is this moment worth disruption? Is this person worth the time and energy of disruption? If so, what is the most effective response, and should it even come from me? What will disruption cost me in tangible and intangible ways? Do I need to be a social justice warrior today?
If you decide it’s the right moment to disrupt, you have many options on exactly how to proceed. Today, I want to focus on acts of refusal as bias disruption. As you’ll see, refusal is not necessarily passive, nor is it simply holding silent. In fact, refusal can be a powerful way to stand inside yourself authentically in opposition to bias.
Knowing What It’s Worth
Let me give a few disclaimers. Any kind of disruption will only be effective if you are in a safe environment, which you can read about in more detail here. Second, disruption is most powerful when it draws upon tools you’ve already built and refined.
That said, let me share a story about costly disruption. My mom spent her career as a civil servant at a family support center. Year after year, she was passed over for a promotion. Even after she earned her Master’s degree. Even after decades of superior work and dedication. She stayed in part because of the mentality she was raised with: you never leave a job, ever. It would be too risky, especially with her family to support.
Eventually, my mom reached a breaking point with her job. In a move that was somewhat outside her character, my mom sued her employer for discrimination. It was long, protracted fight that finally did result in her being granted a long overdue promotion.
Though it was a seeming victory, I wonder what that disruption cost my mom. The stress and anger, the humiliation of having to go to court to demand what’s rightfully yours. And, the fact that she never received another promotion again. Her first promotion, which she fought so hard for, was also her last.
I share my mom’s story as something of a warning for all of us who wrestling with whether and how to disrupt. What’s the process and outcome going to cost you, and will the probable outcome be worth it?
Refusing Affirmation and Comfort
And now, for a story of my own. I was speaking with a fellow parent at a middle school event, and the talk turned to choosing high schools for our kids. I mentioned where we were and were not looking, based on various issues of diversity that were deeply important to our family. The other parent immediately countered my assessment of certain regions of the bay area by telling me about where he grew up and that his having had a black best friend growing up with proof of the area’s diversity.
Here’s the problem I have with what this person said. First, without trying to understand my opinion, without asking a single question or demonstrating any curiosity, he attempted to negate my viewpoint. Second, he used a completely subjective personal anecdote as “evidence” for an entire city’s diversity. Third, he didn’t try to frame the issue of diversity through the eyes of his black friend, but with his black friend as simply a prop in his story.
Rather quickly, I performed the disruption calculus in my head. The situation wasn’t, in the end, worth my response. I didn’t have the time or mental energy to engage, defend, or try to change/open his mind. Granted, the stakes of this conversation were fairly low. I don’t work with or for this person. He holds no power over me. It’s easier in these circumstances to refuse to engage.
So, I offered him silence, refusing to respond. Interestingly, this person then proceeded to repeat his entire argument to me, more expectantly the second time. It was clear to me that he was seeking my affirmation, first of his viewpoint, which would have meant using his personal experience to erase my own and my well-considered opinions. But even more insidious was the obvious insistence on his own comfort. I was being asked not only to hold back from challenging him, but his uphold his comfort by affirming his beliefs.
I refused to do either.
The Draining Work of Refusal
I myself wonder sometimes if saying nothing is a cop out. But the more I engage is disruption and watch my clients doing this same hard work, the more I understand just how much energy it takes to withhold, to actively keep someone contending with their discomfort by refusing to agree, refusing to nod or laugh or smile, refusing to even seem to accede to the bias. Refusal is a form a disruption. It’s also demanding and exhausting.
How can an act of refusal drain us? The simple and not so simple answer is that refusal requires that you claim your individuality, your worth, your experience, and your difference. That you stand wholly inside yourself with utter authenticity and do not allow yourself to be erased or stereotyped.
Bottom line: refusal is active and intentional.
When Disruption Looks Like Showing Up
Every day, you show up to work and bring your excellence. Even if you show up filtering out your difference in order to fit in, it’s still a kind of disruption. Filtering is a dangerous form of self-oppression. When you hide, deny, or separate yourself from your difference, you’re really just trying to make yourself small enough to avoid disrupting anyone’s comfort. In the end, filtering causes you to oppress yourself in hopes of being seen as the same as the dominant culture. But in reality, no one is ever actually fooled into thinking you’re not different.
It may not always feel like it, but showing up in whatever way you do can be an act of disruption. It means others have to deal with their discomfort. Your very presence can disrupt stereotypes, change conversations, and be the evidence others need to begin altering (or, at least challenging) their thinking.
Consider all the historical ways showing up has been an act of disruption. Here in this first week of Black History Month, we’re often reminded of the firsts: the Black people who paved the way for others by doing what none had done before them. Jack Johnson, Ida B. Wells, Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematicians of Hidden Figures. All examples of how showing up changed everything.
In my next article, I’ll dig into other forms of disruption, often more vocal and noticeable.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive her newsletter directly in your inbox, please subscribe here.