First off, Crystal Whiteaker is an incredible human and I feel beyond grateful being able to share her immense wisdom with you this month. Full stop. This is actually her second time being featured on the blog in the past year, as her voice and story is just so powerful for us all. You can check out her original blog feature right here, too.
As an Inclusive Brand Consultant, Crystal works with brands & leaders who are passionate about diversity, inclusion, and co-creating a better world through commitment to equity.
Inclusion is so very much more than just reposting some conscious content in your stories at regular intervals. As we discuss in this interview, it is each and every one of our personal responsibilities to cultivate spaces, convos, and dynamics “where people feel welcomed, heard, and understood” (to use Crystal’s own words).
Read on for a powerful look at her own journey, how her intersectionality and lived experience has informed the incredibly expansive work that she does, and how you can begin bringing inclusion (or more inclusion) into your brand, your biz, your life TODAY.
Tell me about your journey to becoming an inclusive brand consultant & advocate
I grew up in an all white family, in predominantly white, heteronormative communities and I didn’t have any connection to the Black side of my heritage growing up. I always felt somewhat out of place and I didn’t really have a true sense of belonging throughout most of my adolescence and early adulthood. Like many biracial people who are mixed with Black and white, growing up, I struggled with not feeling “white enough” or “Black enough.” I also got picked on and bullied quite a bit. So I would say that my advocacy is rooted in those earlier years where I got first-hand exposure to feeling ‘less than’ or ‘not enough.’
There is of course a lot of nuance in my lived experience and I want to be clear that I never felt unloved within my family, but I was keenly aware that I was different and that I didn’t have the same privileges and access to resources that my white siblings did through their paternal parentage.
Fast forward to my big leap to entrepreneurship…
I had spent over a decade in corporate roles and often felt like I didn’t quite belong. In 2015 I got curious about professional photography and then in 2016 I took a really brave leap of faith and decided to quit corporate altogether. I got odd photography gigs while I built my portfolio, before getting a contract to travel. While I traveled, I booked photo sessions around the country and ended up with a very diverse portfolio that led to booking couples who were mostly people of color, interracial couples, and LGBTQ+ couples, and the most common piece of feedback I received was how comfortable and welcome I made them feel throughout the entire process. I’m sure my deep understanding of what it felt like to feel out of place helped create those welcoming experiences.
By 2019, I had other photographers and wedding vendors asking me for advice so I started mentoring. I believe subconsciously I was preparing for what was coming since social justice made its way to the forefront in 2020. I created a framework for bringing inclusive practices into business and leadership that poured out of me and throughout the entire creation process, I had visceral reactions towards what I was developing. I realized in the process that the feelings towards what I was developing were the result of my own lived experience coupled with the stories that so many clients had shared with me; and all of these experiences came crashing together to help me produce a framework that could help leaders formulate a narrative that would guide them to creating more genuinely welcoming, inclusive spaces and experiences for the communities they wanted to reach.
Now, I work with leaders and brands across multiple industries that are passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion to help them create clear, connected, inclusive messaging and experiences for their own communities. This work has been the greatest gift and it’s led to so much healing within myself as well as people I’ve worked with.
I’d love to hear more about how your own intersectionality impacts your work and your mission
Aside from growing up in predominantly white, heteronormative communities, as a Black, biracial person, I am also Queer. Queer is not an identity I shared or embodied in my youth or young adulthood, but it has certainly always been there.
I think that already feeling othered in my racial identity, subconsciously I believed that it probably wouldn’t be in my best interest to share with the world that I also liked girls.
When I was in my mid 20’s, I started sharing more of my identity with people close to me, but because I tended to date male identified people, it was often dismissed–even by me.
It’s a strange thing to live inside of a body that the world sees as Black, but I didn’t feel like I could associate with being Black, thanks to the stereotypical media and anti-Blackness that is so deeply ingrained into our culture. I had a confusing experience growing up where I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t actually white–subtly and overtly–and people also often told me “I don’t see you as Black,” because I was “not like them.”
I’ve had to work through a lot of my own internalized oppression around my racial identity and it’s been incredibly painful and immensely healing. I have also had to work through a lot of shame around my sexuality, not just as a Queer woman, but also as a woman who is a sexual being in general. I spent years listening to and internalizing the messages I heard from media, society, friends, partners, loved ones, and even strangers about what women should be like and what was considered desirable in professional, community, and private spaces. All of that on top of harboring significant amounts of trauma. So when people come to me and they share their experience with me, my initial instinct is to think about ways in which I might be able to help improve it, because I see people and their human experiences, full of pain, uncertainty, rejection, shame, possibility, desires, hope, love, and evolution towards who they deserve to be seen as.
My entire way of being informs my work and my mission. I had to learn to work through all of my own shit to create a sense of belonging within myself so that I could create it for others and now I get to guide other people through that journey when they invite me to.
What does “inclusive” mean to you, and what does it mean in the context of our world right now? Why is it more of a biz & human fundamental than ever that we are on the leading edge in this work?
There’s a quote I shared in 2020 that’s been floating around that says “Diversity brings people in, representation gives them a voice, and inclusion makes them feel welcome, heard, and understood.” That is how I define inclusion–making people feel welcome, heard, and understood.
Inviting people into a space is only a start to the work. Letting them speak is a step forward. But welcoming them, listening to them, and learning to understand them is where change begins to take hold. Understanding leads to belonging and that’s ultimately what people desire–to belong. Not fit in, but belong, because there is a difference. Fitting in requires people to assimilate. Belonging allows space for people to be their whole, entire, human selves. When spaces are genuinely inclusive, people won’t have to spend as much energy wondering if they’re actually welcome and that energy can be redirected to creativity and collaboration, which is great for team leaders and businesses.
Society is evolving and so are people’s expectations on how they deserve to be treated, particularly people who are a part of marginalized communities. We are tired of staying quiet for the sake of keeping the peace and keeping people who don’t share our lived experiences comfortable. More people are realizing the true depth of the inequities people in marginalized communities face and if you’re not working to be a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The question ‘Which side of history do you want to be on?’ comes to mind when people ask me why it’s fundamental to do this work and that’s what I wonder when I notice people continuing to perpetuate the status quo.
For the coaches & biz owners who may be looking around their Zoom rooms, at their client roster, and seeing only white faces, where does she start in bringing inclusion into her spaces?
The most straightforward answer I can share here is to work with a DEI consultant. Invite someone like me to take a look at what you’re doing and guide you through the process of shifting and evolving the parts within yourself that perhaps you haven’t wanted to acknowledge and get comfortable speaking to who you really are and what you believe. If you believe Black lives matter, say that. If you care about LGBTQ+ rights, let people know.
And don’t just say it. Live it. Buy from minority owned businesses. Amplify the voices, services, and products of marginalized leaders and business owners. If you invite guest coaches into your programs, diversify your roster. Lead by example and show your community that you support and believe in buying from and learning from people of diverse backgrounds.
We spend so much time in our social media feeds, in our inboxes, and so often it can feel like a bit of an echo chamber. Same color faces, same narratives, same POVs. How can we start to bring more diversity (& thus, inclusion) into the content that we consume?
Start by reconsidering who you follow and learn from online. Search for leaders and brands that advocate for, represent, and support marginalized communities. I’m actually gonna pull back from giving too much educational labor here and share a homework assignment instead: I invite people to go to my Instagram and look at my feed and the accounts that I follow. You’ll see a range of educators, influencers, leaders, brands, nonprofits, and creators in my follow feed. Check them out. Learn from them. Share their messages and their work.
Do the work and don’t ask your Black friends or your Hispanic friends, or your Queer friends (I could go on), what you should do. It isn’t their job to teach you. If they choose to, then that’s a generous act of love, but people from marginalized communities don’t owe non-marginalized folks free educational labor. Marginalized folks have been trying to share their challenges for far too long to have to continue teaching people how they can be better and expecting free educational labor is a display of entitlement that reminds folks of the place they hold in the respective worlds of non-marginalized folks. The information and the content is out there. People just need to do the work.
(Educational labor is defined as: The act of expecting or demanding education from people with marginalized identities to help create an understanding of their culture, customs, lived experiences, practices, or traditions)
What are some of the key questions we should be asking ourselves when hiring a team member so that we can gauge their commitment to inclusivity?
I like to ask people what their values are and how they would speak to inclusion through them. I also like to ask direct questions like “How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?” or “What is your stance on LGBTQ+ rights?”
How can we continually vote with our dollar, supporting brands and people who share inclusive values? Do you have any favorites to shout out for this community?
Hire and support businesses owned and run by marginalized people. Do your research when buying goods and services to find out where they come from and who’s behind them. Try to find related press articles. If possible, search for their values. Most inclusive brands will share their values and what they stand for on their websites. Share what you learn with your community.
Brands and people I love who share inclusive values include Jordan Maney, Monique Melton, Rachel Ricketts, Equally Wed, Mabley Q, All Approach, Ben and Jerry’s (obviously), Color Pop Events, Modern Rebel, Altared, The Affirmative Couch, Yaba Blay, Justin McCallum, Dr. Portia Jackson Preston, and Nina Stoller-Lindsey, and there are so many more that you can find on my follow feed on Instagram. 😉