Vol. 42, No. 4

Lawyer couple helps 2018 NABE Midyear attendees navigate complexities of diversity, inclusion

by Tim Eigo

Pandas with sombreros may be one of the best ways to describe America’s complicated mashup of cultures—and the landmines that lie beneath the path of those seeking to understand others.

Attendees at the 2018 Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives laughed as two plenary speakers described the bamboo-eating bears, captured in a hand-painted restaurant mural. Adorning the wall of a Chinese restaurant for years, the bears gained new headwear through the talents of a hired artist when the eatery became a Mexican restaurant.

Is that funny? Offensive? Do you laugh but suspect you shouldn’t?

There is no single right answer, Keith Cutler and Dana Tippin Cutler explained—which makes navigating culture, diversity, and inclusion all the more challenging.

The well-chosen Cutlers are Missouri trial lawyers and co-hosts of Couples Court with the Cutlers, a nationally syndicated TV program that uses “real talk” to analyze relationship disputes. Together, they try to uncover the truth of the problem.

Using instant poll software from menti.com, the Cutlers tried to uncover the truth of attendees’ own sentiments about race and other challenging issues. But as they began their program “Real Talk: Microaggressions and Other Nasties,” the Cutlers reassured listeners.

“This is not another program,” Keith Cutler said, “where we beat up on white folks and make them feel guilty. This isn’t ‘up with the people and down with the man.’”

Dana smiled and added, “No, this is not ‘Keith and Dana’s mini march on Vancouver.’”

Humor—and polling technology—lead to new insights

Laughing along with their hosts, the largely white audience engaged readily with the session’s goal to examine things that are said and done that make people—including bar members—uncomfortable.

Through training and experience, the husband-and-wife team are ideally suited to lead audiences on that path. Dana is immediate past president of The Missouri Bar, and the Cutlers have been married and practicing law together for nearly three decades. The audience warmed to their easy collegiality—which may be one of the couple’s unspoken lessons on how to address challenging topics: Go easy on the sermons, and serve up big portions of humor and humanity.

The program’s method was a simple one. The Cutlers asked the audience a series of poll questions, composed of actual sentences that have been uttered by human beings. The audience then responded to the statements with one of three answer choices:

  • “I don’t really see anything wrong with it.”
  • “It could hit someone the wrong way.”
  • “This is definitely offensive.”

As the responses started appearing on the room’s jumbo screen—in real time and in bar graph form—audience members started leaning forward in their chairs.

Questions reveal differences within the audience

“I don’t see color”—the poll’s first statement—immediately received 20 votes from people who saw nothing wrong with it, and 21 from those who voted “definitely offensive.”

As an opening statement, “I don’t see color” was a genius choice, for it revealed a near-perfect divide between the ways people see their world in 2018. And so it continued, statement by statement, as bar association professionals weighed in on 14 sentences that may divide, anger, or infuriate.

You’re so articulate.

You are a credit to your race.

You’re not white?

Wow, you like classical music?

You’re not really Asian.

You are really pretty for a dark-skinned woman.

And on it went.

After each poll question, the Cutlers explained the possible implications of each statement. They urged audience members to hear the sentences through others’ ears. Never lecturing, always laughing with, rather than at the hypothetical speakers, the attorneys prodded the audience toward deeper understanding.

Defining ‘microaggression’ and ‘implicit bias’

Two of the Cutlers’ between-poll segments were especially noteworthy.

In one, they helpfully explained the difference between implicit bias and microaggressions—those myriad slights that may pass beneath the daily radar of those in the majority, but which are felt deeply by others. Implicit bias has been covered extensively and was more familiar to the audience. It refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our behavior and our decisions in an unconscious manner.

Implicit bias may lead to microaggressions. Both can be hurtful. And all of it requires mindfulness and empathy.

The second educational pause was the screening of a brief video. “How Microaggressions Are Like Mosquito Bites,” by Fusion Comedy, is an excellent depiction of why microaggressions can be insulting and debilitating to those on the receiving end of them—even while those lobbing them float along in blissful ignorance of their impact. As the video points out, getting bugged about mosquito bites seems ridiculous to people who rarely get bitten.

And if none of those lessons take root, Dana Cutler said, there’s always silence. Remember that it’s perfectly OK to have an unexpressed thought.

“You have to be mindful,” she advised. “Even if you think something bad, stop it from coming out of your mouth. Put a lid on it.”

What can we all do better?

The plenary speakers are committed to solutions, not just understanding, which led them to offer a few suggestions:

  • Embrace micro-resistance (small efforts to challenge yourself and to push back against microaggressions).
  • Incremental daily efforts matter.
  • Diversify your social media.
  • Go to diversity events.

Finally, Dana Tippin Cutler said people need to “see” a microaggression when it occurs, and they should “call it out and help the microaggressor know what they did.”

Ultimately, some of these may be easy calls, said Keith Cutler. But many are close calls—like that panda mural.

“No one sat down and thought, ‘How can we offend two ethnic groups in one shot?’” he said. “They thought it was something quite innocent.”

He reminded attendees, “When you’re navigating this space, there is no complete right answer.”

Except one, Dana said: “Don’t just talk about it. Be about it.”

Tim Eigo

Tim Eigo is the editor of Arizona Attorney Magazine at the State Bar of Arizona.