Andrew McGeehan portrait

Written by Andrew McGeehan

Andrew (he/him) is a trainer/consultant based in Singapore that loves talking about anything DEIJ related and/or cats!

A phrase that all of us hear a lot every year right around this time. I know I have said it (and non-ironically!). This year, I’m asking myself (and all of you reading this) – what will actually be new? What am I planning to do differently this year? How am I planning to spend my time, energy, resources, and money? How will I commit to uplifting others, pushing for justice & equity in the world, and naming hurtful behaviour in my community? 

And in the end, will the new me take the time to reflect, look inward, and identify the ways in which I also contribute to marginalisation and oppression? 

Every time a new year comes, regardless of the calendar that we use to mark it, it is a time for renewal. There is that surge of energy that comes with seeing the whole next year laid out before us and the possibilities fly through our minds. We imagine who we might become, who we might meet, what new opportunities we will have, and a whole new life can flash before our eyes. But before we know it, we are back to work, back in our lives, back to the same old routines we always had, and within a month, we are left wistfully wondering where that excitement for the new year went. 

I will challenge you today to not let that happen! 

I challenge you to make empathetic, inclusive, and justice-oriented commitments to yourself and others and to follow through on them. 

I challenge you to question yourself constantly. 

I challenge you to have conversations you’ve never had before that are difficult and nuanced. 

I challenge myself too. 

I am a queer white cisgender able-bodied man doing diversity, inclusion, and equity work in Asia. There is a lot for me to continuously unpack about my cultural background, my perceptions of reality, my understandings of privilege and power. I am constantly learning and interrogating what it means to be a white person and a cisgender man and talking about these issues. I’m clarifying for myself where and what my role should be. 

If you are interested in solidarity work, allyship, advancing racial & gender & orientation & disability & religious (& more!) equity, and seeing the world take more rapid steps towards equity and justice, I’ll invite you to make these commitments along with me.

1.Do the internal work – When we want to work towards justice and equity, our interest and passion for the topics aren’t enough. There is a lot that we need to accept about ourselves, socialisations to try and unlearn, and reflection to be had. I often work with folks who prefer to skip this step – in trainings, someone might say “Can you just tell me what we should be doing to make our organisation more inclusive?” And yes, I could do that. But without any understanding of our own internal worlds, we won’t be effective advocates for justice.

What do I mean by this? Spend time uncovering your own biases, accept that we are all brought up to believe negative stereotypes about people who are different than us, analyse your social circles, identify who you gravitate towards to at work and who you avoid and why. We don’t need to be perfect people in order to engage in justice & equity work, but we do need to be aware of what we are walking into the space with.

2. PLEASE move beyond awareness – Awareness is over. There is so much information out there via mass media, pop culture, research, memoirs, peoples’ lived experiences, surveys, etc etc etc! Awareness isn’t a bad thing; but for many people and organisations, it’s the only thing. Awareness without action doesn’t change anything. Having a work event to celebrate International Women’s Day and share information on the wage gap is fine – but it ultimately rings hollow if there isn’t follow up within the organisation to actually reduce/eliminate it within the organisation.

3. Name harm with your friends, family, & colleagues – It’s time to start doing the hard work and talking about these issues with the people closest to us (or at least those we spend a lot of time with). Especially for those of us with a lot of privilege, it’s necessary to name the racism, heterosexism, ableism, sexism and other harms that we see within our families and friends. Naming it and discussing it doesn’t have to be a big conflict, nor does it mean that the person called out is a bad person. We all do things that are hurtful at times, and if we aren’t held accountable for it, we won’t be able to understand and change our behaviour.

It might be easy to start with something simple, like saying “I don’t think comments like that about gay men are appropriate” or “I don’t think jokes about immigrants are funny.” If feeling generous, we may take more time to explain how the actions might harm us or make us feel or provide more resources for them to do their own learning.

4. Commit to making lasting change – Systemic -isms persist because the systems haven’t changed yet. There is tons of value in changing our internal worlds and educating our friends and family. It’s also extremely powerful to work to change systems. In many cases, our capacity to change a system will be in the workplace. We can advocate for policy changes, required trainings, targets for inclusive leadership. These changes can be difficult to make and sometimes run the risk of seeming “boring”, but they create change that lasts beyond our tenure in any organisation. For instance, an organisation celebrating Trans Day of Remembrance and encouraging staff to share their pronouns is great, but does that same organisation have trans-inclusive and affirming healthcare?

If you are part of an Employee Resource Group/Network Group, this is a great space to start considering what institutional changes need to happen in order to create an environment of affirmation and comfort for all. An easy way to start is by reviewing company policies – is the language gender-inclusive? What is the parental leave policy? Are there flexible arrangements? How are neurodiverse staff supported? Does insurance cover mental health?

5. Read & learn about it from those who know (and believe in their knowledge of their own experiences) – There are many amazing activist writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers out there. Learn about them, learn from them, and buy their products! If you are a majority race person and you don’t know about racism in your country/region, there is surely a book about it written by someone who experiences that racism daily- read it with an open mind. If you want to understand better the experience of a person who lives with a disability, find research that talks about the workplace challenges folks face.

And when you read, listen, and watch about these experiences, believe them. Folks with marginalised identities know what they have experienced. Sometimes we want to dismiss what we hear because it makes us uncomfortable or because we know that we have participated in similar hurtful behaviours. Lean into that discomfort and try to identify where it is coming from without being defensive. I know this is hard and I still struggle with this sometimes, but it is so necessary. Just pause and ask yourself “what about this is making me feel this way?” 

Some Singapore-based starting points:

  • “What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian” – True stories of Indian women’s experiences in Singapore
  • “Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship & Mediate Cultures” – Highlights the complexity of queer existence in Singapore 
  • — Learn more about the work being done to shift justice away from the death penalty and towards transformation 

6. Expand your social circles – So much of my own social justice learning has been through relationships I’ve built with people. I was very lucky to go to graduate school with an extremely diverse cohort and build wonderful relationships across race, gender, religion, and more. Our familiarity with issues brings us greater empathy, and many people care more about issues that affect someone they know. Inclusive access in a city may have never mattered to someone, until their partner becomes wheelchair bound and then they will notice all the ways in which cities are not built for folks with physical disabilities or mobility challenges. 

As a word of caution, I do not advocate expanding your social circle in a way that is tokenistic (i.e., I should find a gay friend! I don’t have one of those!). But think about ways that you can expand who you interact with, through social media, connections from other friends, or volunteering. Take a look at who you already know- what is the makeup of the people you spend time with? During my trainings, I always ask people to consider who they go to lunch with at work and who they see other people go to lunch with. My personal experience in Singapore is that many foreigners take lunch together and many locals take lunch together. Could there be unconscious bias at play? Could people be more comfortable sticking only with what is familiar? I don’t have an answer, but it is worth investigating what this looks like for us individually and see what patterns we observe.

7. Try, fail, apologise, and try again – Whenever we engage in work related to justice and equity, we will invariably make mistakes. When someone tells you that you have hurt them, or done something that is racist/sexist/homophobic/etc, apologise for causing harm. If possible, have a conversation to make sure that you understand what it is that was hurtful (but don’t force the other person to share this with you). Think about how you can do better next time and maybe reflect on the experience with a trusted friend.

Maybe you want to become more comfortable naming microaggressions at work – you won’t do it right all the time. But you will be able to refine your technique and enhance your comfort level as you practice. As with any skill, we need to practice it to get better at it. Working towards justice and equity are no different. Do your best and approach this work with a lack of ego and the knowledge that you will make mistakes and that is ok.

8. Understand what you have to gain – Greater justice, equity, and inclusion in the world benefits everyone. People with privilege often feel like they are “losing” something, but that is not the case. There is enough equality to go around. Understand that advocating for gender equity creates new opportunities for people of all genders, including men. We are not diminished when others have the same opportunities that we do; but we are diminished when others are held down by systemic oppression.

Along with this, we have to know and understand our own “why.” Why are you doing this work? Why do you care? I often see organisations and individuals who are doing D&I work because it is seen as trendy or required in the contemporary era. This is a surface level connection to the work that won’t go beyond some token improvements or remain mired in awareness-building. Think for yourself about what your personal commitment is and act from there. 

I am pledging myself to the above as well. I am continuously interrogating my place as a White American man in Asia talking about diversity, inclusion, equity and justice. I reflect on how privileged I am to be able to be hired by companies to do this work. I mess up in my trainings and apologise to participants when I’ve cause harm. I work to continue finding research and pedagogies that do not have a US-centric lens and are context-specific to Asia & Singapore. I can and will continue to refine and nuance my approach towards this necessary work.  

It’s a journey that we are all on. I hope that you will come along with me in 2023 and consider which of the above items might be part of the “new you.”