Shaista E. Khilji
8 min readJan 5, 2021


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Learners’ Archetypes in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

DEI work is like the spider web — perplexing, baffling, but also fascinating and captivating. It is a spider web that symbolizes the infinite possibility of creation, as well as the complexity of our lives. To make sense of this spider web, we must understand the interconnectivity and find integration therein.

At its core, DEI is a tangle of structural issues. Most of us go through our lives selectively and blindly with our cultural biases, often reinforcing norms and systems that disadvantage marginalized communities.

Hence, to move the DEI needle forward, we need to unlearn what we have learned.

In my classes, I challenge the students to discover their areas of ignorance. Grounding DEI topics requires exploring our intent, highlighting the value of individual/collective action, and becoming aware of the positive impact. To create a psychologically safe space, I present “deliver positive impact, assume positive intent” as a ground-rule. Given the overwhelming scope of the topics, I highlight the importance of patience, humanism, hope, grit, courage, empathy, and persistence. This view centralizes humanity and foregrounds the ‘human experience’ with all of its complexity and messiness.

And “ay, there is the rub!”- for it is precisely because of the diversity of human experience that I have witnessed myriad ways of seeing, believing, and learning DEI. Mapped along the dimensions of intent (attitude) and impact (action), I have found at least eight archetypes of learners. Each of them is unique in how they a) perceive and react to DEI concepts, b) interact with others, and c) ideate their impact. Let me first explain the two dimensions along which I have conceptualized the learners’ archetypes:

Intent (manifested in attitude): Intent is personal and denotes the purpose with which learners may approach diversity. It is invisible but powerful and manifested in learner attitude. In my work, I have witnessed a variation along this dimension from committed, care, neutral, weary, unbelieving, indifferent to apathy. In other words, some learners could be fully committed to diversity issues; many other learners may stay apathetic, become fatigued, or generate hope. In the short term, learners’ intent influences their attention to learning. In the long run, diversity leaders can channel it to impact learner behaviors and contribute to change.

Impact (demonstrated in actions): It signifies learners’ actions in putting diversity-related knowledge to work. For example, when they learn about privilege and unconscious bias, what measures they adopt to challenge their assumptions/ behaviors, how they interact with their team members, and if they act as diversity champions. Unlike intent, the impact is visible and tangible. However, much like intent, learner impact may vary from enhancing awareness, individual growth, creating diversity champions, promoting collective impact, and actively contributing to the change. Because learner archetypes highlight contributing to the change process, this dimension only focuses on the positive impact.

Archetype A (The Unstirred):

The Unstirred DEI Learner

This type of learner is apathetic towards diversity, hence is not concerned with enhancing individual or collective awareness. Their attitude depicts, “I know better. I am not listening.” Through careful facilitation, diversity leaders can guide them out of their comfort zone. The first step is to enhance their awareness by incorporating a cognitive (for example, discussing why diversity matters, how bias reinforces inequalities, etc.) agenda.

Archetype B (The Defensive):

The Defensive Learner

This type of learner is indifferent to diversity-related issues. Their attitude depicts, “Why am I here? Diversity is not an issue.” It is important to stoke up their empathy and provide concrete examples of (for example) oppression and the daily visibility of privilege to some and invisibility to others.

Archetype C (The Eager):

The Eager Learner

This type of learner cares about diversity and is an early supporter of marginalized voices. They are aware of their ignorance, purposefully seek knowledge, and present themselves as eager learners. Their attitude depicts, “I don’t know much, but I want to learn.” For these types of learners, diversity leaders can design programs that incorporate a breadth of topics. Mapping out a personal development plan will also be helpful for their growth.

Archetype D (The Engaged):

The Engaged Learner

This type of learner is committed to diversity work, wants to learn, and contributes to building equitable organizations. Their purpose is to better themselves and also make it better for others. They are diversity champions that organizations need. Working with them to develop action plans will motivate them.

Archetype E (The Social Activist):

The “Social Activist” Learner

This type of learner is deeply committed to diversity and has a passion for equity. Since they are usually learning at a run pace, they may show frustration with those at a slower pace. Hence, diversity leaders can engage them through perspective-taking activities to understand the learners’ diversity and become aware of the power of a collective impact within the organization.

Archetype F (The Skeptic):

The Skeptical Learner

They want to push forward but may appear unbelieving because of their past experiences. Although they may be skeptical that progress can be made, actual progress can demonstrate the authenticity of organizational actions. Diversity leaders can draw inspiration from their concerns to engage them.

Archetype G (The Distanced):

The Distanced Learner

They are weary, possibly burnout, and remain distanced to manage their feelings quietly or with those they trust. While giving them the space to process their emotions is essential, diversity leaders must also figure out what matters most to them. Earning their trust is critical. However, organizations need also to make sure diversity efforts don’t retraumatize them.

Archetype H (The Fighter):

The “Fighter” Learner

This learner is committed to non-complacency and stands up to the problems of oppression and racism. They listen, pay attention, and participate with humility to heal individual dignity and well-being. It is important to engage them in developing others within the organization to build a stronger momentum for structural change.

These archetypes are neither exhaustive nor a reductionist attempt to address the immense complexity of DEI learners. Instead, I present them as broad categories with the caveat that there are multiple permutations across them. I recognize the paradoxes of these archetypes and tensions across them.

Despite being distinct in their needs and experiences, these archetypes are neither stand-alone nor linear but connected in the spider web. Lack of awareness of the difference between the eight archetypes can lead to frustration, anger, and angst all around. It is also important to note that these archetypes are not fixed but fluid since they represent our life’s journey. As learners gain new insights, plan actions, and shift mindsets, they may progress from one archetype to another.

The real challenge is to understand each archetype to address their needs individually and even collectively as a group, particularly since they are simultaneously present within organizations.

For example, in an unconscious bias training, how do you manage Archetype C, who is beginning to increase their awareness, along with Archetype G, who is burdened by the weight of several generations of inequities and racism? How do you facilitate discussions pairing up Archetype D (the engaged) with Archetype F (the skeptic) or Archetype B (the defensive) and Archetype H (the fighter)? At the same time, you have to skillfully tap the different types of energy produced by each archetype- such as enthusiasm for new learning shared by C, D, and H; and the critical questions posed by archetypes E, F, and G to motivate each other but also to educate A and B. You have to demonstrate authenticity and hope and earn their trust to keep archetypes F & G inspired.

A historical lens is valuable in understanding the inherent tensions across these archetypes. To make a more profound societal impact, heal, and repair centuries of damage, we must pay attention to the interconnections across these archetypes.

I realize this is not an easy solution. It requires sustaining everyone’s attention, learning to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, recontextualizing, and reorienting ourselves to a different frame of reference. If we ground our intent and impact within humanism (emphasizing individual dignity, respect, and social well-being), integration becomes much more realistic.

Hence, a facilitator’s real test is to push these learners (and even themselves) out of their respective comfort zones with authenticity, humility, and enthusiasm for positive impact.

This blog describes only one slice of the mind-boggling messiness of the DEI spider web. There are many more to discuss and explore.

In many cultures, spiders signify patience, persistence, and constant permutations — for example, the indigenous view spiders as a wise entity that guides illumination. Thus, to move the DEI needle forward, we must become the spider with its infinite possibility of creation and reweave new patterns of living, leading, organizing, and learning. As Rumi, the 13th-century poet and mystic wrote:

We must become ignorant

of what we’ve been taught,

and be, instead, bewildered.

Dec 27, 2020 (Published: Jan 5, 2021)

Author’s note: Through the bewilderment of my experiences, I am learning to interact with the diversity I describe above. I strive to learn from my mistakes. This blog represents my first attempt to summarize the DEI learners. I am open to challenging my assumptions and revisiting these archetypes in my future work.

I am thankful to Christian List, Christine Costello, Zoe King, Mia Caliendo, and Jason Smith for their valuable feedback. All errors are mine.

This article has emerged from the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate humanistic leadership. For more information, please refer to



Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.