Why Being Good-ish Is Better Than Being Good: A Conversation With Dolly Chugh

In the winter of 2014, Dolly Chugh joined a hundred other people lying on the floor of a Toys “R” Us in Times Square. It was a “die in,” a protest intended to disrupt daily routines and draw attention to the killing of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police, a killing emblematic of racism in America.

The die in, Chugh says, was her attempt to live up to values she espouses—inclusion, diversity, equity—but doesn’t always know how to vociferously defend. In fact, it was the first time this “not-very-bold, suburban, middle-aged, Land’s End-wearing, Ivy League-educated, married-to-a-doctor mom of two” had joined in such direct action.

But while this type of activism aligned with her values, she felt out of place. Her strengths lay elsewhere, in teachable moments and thoughtful conversations. Her training, as a social psychologist, had prepared her to think about the nuances of bias, and to teach others to recognize it too.

For people who want to act on their values but don’t yet know how, Chugh, an associate professor of management and organizations at New York University, has written a new book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book, she says, isn’t meant to convince anyone that injustice exists; rather, it’s to explain why merely believing that it exists but not doing anything about it may deepen the problem. Chugh uses research from psychology, sociology, and history to suggest how the “semi-bold” among us can participate in justice-building from day to day.

Cameron French: One of the early lessons in your book is about names and how you learned to pay closer attention to them. In the past when you encountered a name on paper that looked hard or unfamiliar, you avoided saying it out loud, or didn’t even fully read it. But now you make a point to focus on names and their pronunciation. Can you tell us how to pronounce your name correctly and why it matters?

Dolly Chugh: My last name is pronounced with a hard g at the end, and the vowel sound is like the sound in “good.”

I actually don’t get too caught up in if people say my name right, because most of my life they haven’t, but for many people it is a point of sensitivity. We can’t make assumptions about what matters to people. Someone’s name represents their history, it represents their family in many cases. It represents the first decision someone who loved them made about them, and it’s a really profound part of someone’s identity. For us to flippantly dismiss it seems disrespectful.

But even more than that, as the person who often has made the mistake of flying by names that I don’t know how to say or, frankly, avoiding people whose names I don’t know how to say, we are really setting ourselves off from a lot of people, because most of us don’t know how to pronounce most names in the world. That’s just the function of how we grew up and where we grew up. As the world becomes more global, as we travel more even within our own country, as the demographics change within the United States, if we avoid people whose names we don’t know how to pronounce because it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t want to look stupid or offend them, we are shutting ourselves into a very small corner.

You say that your book is written for believers. Who are believers, and why did you choose that audience?

The reason it was important to speak to this specific audience is that I think we are overestimating the positive impact of simply believing in things like diversity and inclusion. When we feel strongly about those beliefs but do nothing to act on them, it potentially does real harm to the people we’re intending to support. If I believe in diversity and inclusion but I’m not doing anything in my daily life or my workplace or my family to create a world that’s more supportive of diversity and inclusion—well then so what if I believe in it?

I have felt that way myself many times—what good are my beliefs if I’m not actually doing something? So part of my motivation in addressing this audience is that yes, the choir may believe these things, but I, like the choir, need to know how to translate those beliefs and to actually building something.

I think being a good-ish person is a higher standard than being a good person.

I’m a bit of a wimp. As I say in the book, I’m speaking to people who are semi bold, like me. I’m not brave enough to go get arrested like a capital-A activist. I wish I was, but it’s just not who I am. I’m a risk-averse wimp.

But I do believe in these things and if I have the tools and knowledge, maybe I can build something better in small ways in the world around me.

You cite a metaphor of heat and light to talk about different kinds of activists. Why do you find that metaphor compelling?

I wish I knew the original source of this. I don’t, but a lot of people have used it. The difference between heat and light, when you think about social change and social justice, is the means by which you’re pursuing change. If you’re pursuing change through light-based means, it’s a way of persuasion that puts the comfort of the people you’re trying to influence as a high priority. I am going to take the time to educate. I’m going to meet you where you are. I’m going to understand that if I push too hard, too fast, I’m going to make you uncomfortable. I’ll get resistance. Light-based approaches take the other party into account.

Heat-based approaches are less concerned about the comfort of the people you’re trying to influence. In some ways, heat-based approaches are specifically designed to make other people uncomfortable and to force attention to change, to force acknowledgement of problems. That often happens through a protest or civil disobedience or anger. These are approaches that can create a lot of controversy, or heat if you will.

Successful movements have both a more moderate and a more radical flank.

I am someone who leans more towards light. That’s more consistent with my personality. But when researching for this book, I was fascinated by learning how important it is to have both heat and light. When we look at history—for example, the feminist movement or the civil rights movement—it was important to have both heat and light based pieces to the movement. When historians study social-justice movements, they find that movements that only have heat or only have light tend to not make as much progress. Successful movements have both a more moderate and a more radical flank, if you will.

It’s important for us to see the complementarity of both heat and light. Those of us who lean toward light, we can get a little dismissive of the protesters and activists—thinking they’re going about this all wrong. In some ways, we’re sabotaging the very things we care about and value by dismissing an approach just because it isn’t what we would do. We may be missing the value and impact it’s still has.

You talk about how “ambiguous forms of support are particularly stressful” for the people you’re trying to support. How can we be good allies and not cause unintended harm?

One of the ideas I’m trying to advance in the book is that if you are to be an ally, and to strive to be an ally, you are going to mess up. Gaps in your knowledge are going to reveal themselves. You are going to make faux pas. If you shut down or double down on the, “Well, that’s not what I meant,” or, “You’re too sensitive,” then you’re going to pull back and do nothing. Being committed to the notion that I’m a good person who’s free of bias and mistakes can actually stop us from being better people.

We know we’re going to make mistakes, we know our knowledge is incomplete. How can we use that knowledge to propel us toward being a better person?

In the book, I use this idea of the difference between being a good person and a good-ish person. A good-ish person is someone who’s not free of bias but who owns the bias when it happens. I actually think being a good-ish person is a higher standard than being a good person.

Some people are like, “Isn’t that letting people off the hook? Allowing people to keep their unconscious biases?” That’s not at all the message I’m trying to advocate. I’m trying to advocate the opposite, that when we commit ourselves to the good person idea, we shut ourselves off from learning, from the good-ish person idea that unlocks learning.

Can you tell us about the psychology of ordinary privilege?

The idea of privilege creates a lot of discomfort in people. The idea of “ordinary privilege” is to take a concept that’s very socially charged and move it to an idea that’s more actionable and less likely to make people shut down.

Ordinary privilege tries to get you to think about how your identity has a whole bunch of dimensions. For example, I’m female. I’m straight. I’m American. I am of Indian heritage. I’m physically able bodied and mentally able bodied. I’m cisgender. I’m Hindu. I’m married. I’m a mother. If you think about some parts of my identity, I have lots of tailwinds. I don’t even have to think about those parts of my identity.

We are overestimating the positive impact of simply believing in things like diversity and inclusion.

For example, the fact that I’m straight. I can go weeks and months without thinking about the fact that I’m straight. If someone says, “How was your weekend?” I don’t quickly go through a mental calculus of, I don’t know—should I tell them about my partner? Should I reveal …? I don’t. I just go, “Oh, it was great. The movie we saw was awesome.” I don’t even think about it. My straightness is a very ordinary part of my life. It doesn’t create any commotion. It aligns with the norms of society, and therefore I have lots of tailwinds.

It turns out that those ordinary parts of my identity that I don’t have to think about are places where I have, according to the research, particular influence. That’s where the privilege comes into play. Research shows that when somebody from a target group says something like, “I think what you just said was bias,” they’re perceived as whiny or having a sense of entitlement. If a black person says that joke was racist, they are not perceived as positively as if a white person says it’s racist. And in fact, the likelihood of the joke being repeated in the future is lower when the white person says it versus a black person.

The impact we have is kind of a secret superhero power, that we can, with this part of our identity we think so little about, actually have particular impact. That’s what ordinary privileged is: ways in which we can have impact just using the parts of our identity we think the least about.