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Learning from Uber's 'Don't Call Me Karen' DEI Fiasco: A Lesson in Humility

In May, ride-hailing company Uber found itself at the center of controversy after a panel discussion titled "Don't Call Me Karen" (DCMK).

Learning from Uber's 'Don't Call Me Karen' DEI Fiasco: A Lesson in Humility

The panel, moderated by Uber's chief DEI officer, Bo Young Lee, featured four white, female Uber employees discussing their experiences and the "Karen" persona. The term "Karen" refers to middle-class white women who leverage their privilege to police Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and deflect blame.

The DCMK panel drew significant backlash from Uber employees, particularly from BIPOC individuals, who found the discussion harmful and insensitive. Lee, who was responsible for moderating the panel, faced criticism for allowing a conversation that centered on whiteness rather than prioritizing the experiences of underrepresented groups.

Reflecting on the incident, James D. White and Krista White, authors of "Anti-Racist Leadership," highlighted the inherent flaws in the framework and format of the panel. Krista White emphasized the importance of centering the voices of the most marginalized individuals in DEI conversations, stating, "In DEI conversations, it’s a good rule of thumb to err toward centering whoever is the most marginalized person within this conversation." James White suggested alternative approaches to make the panel more productive, such as reframing the title to "The History of Karen and Race" and including Black and brown individuals in the discussion.

Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin, a psychologist and executive coach, underscored the significance of collaboration and open communication in developing DEI initiatives. He stressed the need for organizations to engage with employee resource groups (ERGs) and have inclusive conversations rather than unilaterally deciding on the content and titles of initiatives. Dr. Orbé-Austin explained, "The real solution is just to talk to people... instead of unilaterally deciding the title and content of particular initiatives."

One crucial aspect that emerged from the Uber incident was the difficulty of facilitating psychologically safe conversations in the workplace, where power dynamics and hierarchies play a significant role. Lee, as the moderator caught between upset employees and her direct supervisor, faced a challenging position. The question arose whether Lee was scapegoated for the DEI mishap rather than addressing the broader systemic issues that perpetuate exclusion and inequity.

Dr. Orbé-Austin cautioned against solely blaming individuals, as it may hinder overall DEI progress. He emphasized the importance of looking beyond individual actions and considering the systemic concerns and issues at play. "If we simply get rid of people when they make one misstep, we may not make progress... There is a balancing act between looking at an individual’s actions and looking at systemic concerns and issues," he stated.

In conclusion, the Uber "Don't Call Me Karen" panel serves as a cautionary tale for organizations on their DEI journey. It highlights the necessity of humility and a learning posture in tackling diversity, equity, and inclusion. Centering the voices of the most marginalized, engaging in inclusive conversations, and avoiding frameworks that unintentionally center whiteness are critical lessons to be learned. Organizations should address systemic issues rather than resorting to scapegoating individuals, all while acknowledging the complexities and challenges inherent in DEI work.



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