Dear Just Educators,
Hi, there. Self-identified “nice white lady” here. I’m trying to work within my privileged, majority-white neighborhood to identify and address discrimination against neighbors of color, and it’s frustrating. A group of us have been trying to get the Board of Directors to bring in diversity training for the lifeguards (of course there is a lake!) so that they don’t target people of color for constant ID checks.
Today, I came across this article and it set off all of my mental alarms: The Diversity and Inclusion Industry Has Lost Its Way. This quote in particular stood out to me: “DEI is a corporate litigation shield meant to protect those in power from the people over whom they wield it.“ This statement encapsulates every “diversity training” experience I had in my career. Has there ever been a company that paid for diversity training without having been spurred by multiple employee complaints or a lawsuit? It’s corporate butt-covering, and everyone in the training knows it. Who would be naïve enough to expect any real change?
The article’s author, Kim Tran, goes on to describe people in the Diversity and Equity Industry (DEI) as “an entrepreneurial class of people of color interested in economic development (and personal enrichment) instead of liberation.” Well, that’s awfully depressing, but it rings true to me. Successful DEI trainers do NOT get in the way of business operations. It reminded me of the old quote about newspapers having a responsibility to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s the job of any change agent, but what CEO is going to hire a consultant to identify injustices and make the company look bad?
Accordingly, it makes sense that successful DEI organizations create and market trainings that are superficial, affirming, and unlikely to spur any real change. I know that not all DEI groups are like this (hi, I’m writing to you!), but the ones that cause discomfort are a much harder sell. My neighborhood’s Board of Directors is only interested in diversity trainers that have worked for Fortune 500 companies. As if that is an indicator of effectiveness!
My question to you is this: How can I help to bring real change to an organization that will always be primarily interested in maintaining its status quo?
A nice white lady
Dear “nice white lady”,
Wow! There is a lot packed into the message and the article, so I am going to attempt to address each idea individually. First, I am glad to know that there are white folks out there leaning into their privilege to disrupt and dismantle systems of injustice that permeate their communities. This work is difficult, long-term, cognitively and emotionally burdensome, and often placed on the shoulders of people of color to do (even though we are the people most marginalized and least empowered by the system).
Now let’s get to this article by Kim Tran. You highlighted the quote, “DEI is a corporate litigation shield meant to protect those in power from the people over whom they wield it.” This idea likely rings true for many, because most DEI training and initiatives focus only on the ‘D’ aspect of the acronym. Diversity is the low hanging fruit of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work, which is why we often see HR so deeply involved in DEI initiatives. Let’s hire more people of color so we can say that 15% of our workforce is Black, but let us not hire those people into leadership positions. We are going to increase the number of trainings on implicit bias so we can say that we provide ongoing professional development in this area, but we are not going to require that staff participate. Diversity is the easy work of DEI. It is much more comfortable to be able to look at your numbers and see a steady increase in people of color on your staff (even if only in entry level positions), than to look in the mirror and confront how your decision making, policies, and practices maintain systems of white supremacy and white domination.
That said, of course there is a market for superficial, low impact, affirming diversity training. We do live in a capitalist society. Where there is demand many will provide the supply. The real change that you ask about comes from doing the work of the other aspects of DEI – Equity and Inclusion – and that requires a long term investment to interpersonal, intrapersonal, and institutional behavior change. People often expect a DEI expert to come in and conduct a few focus groups, review some policy, make some recommendations, and boom we are now a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. What many fail to acknowledge is that they, each individual employee, are an essential part of the system that also requires some change. Shifts in policy will be meaningless without shifts in mindset by those implementing said policy. Increasing the number of staff of color means nothing if when they arrive they must perform in a space structured for white domination and comfort. People talk about DEI work as if it is transactional. Hiring a DEI coordinator, consultant, or director without an expectation that this effort belongs to us all is equivalent to putting lipstick on a pig.
The problem does not lie in the DEI provider, the issue lies in the hearts and minds of those motivated to seek them out. When you seek out a DEI consultant to come “fix” your issues with race, but are unwilling to own your role, complacency, and privilege in the maintenance of said issue, then you are not looking for change you are looking for shield and scapegoat. We here at Just Educators approach this work from the lens of a teacher. By the end of third grade we want all of the students to be reading for understanding, but we know that many of our students are still at the phonetic level of reading. So like a good teacher we meet people where they are, help them explore how they came to be where they are and how they came to see themselves and others. We help people understand their agency and the power that they have as individuals within their organization and society at large. We support people’s growth and understanding of systems of power on an intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional level. And then we challenge them to push beyond their comfort zone, consider things beyond their own experiences, believe people of color about their experiences, and invest in self education, rather than expecting people of color to relive trauma for their learning. We move people to decenter themselves and their own experiences so they are able to see their role in the maintenance of the system of white supremacy and white domination in the workplace. Finally, we give people time to evolve on their journey, while prioritizing actions focused on reducing continued harm to people of color.
DEI work is complex, but it must be powered by people just as the systems are. To make real change, you need to invest in equity and inclusion, not just “diversity.” That is how change happens. As a content expert, I DO expect to be paid, and paid well for being on the frontline of tearing down a multilayered, intersectional system of perpetual injustice and helping people to reimagine and rebuild a community, an organization, and a society that does not thrive on any group’s domination over another. I believe that I can be a liberator and an entrepreneur. And the idea that I have to choose is simply an extension of the system of white supremacy that expects me to carry the burden and lead the way to liberation for no compensation. Black women have been doing that for centuries. My expertise and experience are valuable and should be compensated appropriately. The work of changing hearts and minds is exhausting, challenging, and extremely rewarding. Those who are in it for only the money are not in it for the right reasons, and will likely not contribute to sustainable transformative change. The work that I do is about meeting people where they are on their journey toward racial and social justice in order to dismantle systems and transform beliefs as a community. If you want to see Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts thrive you have to do the work of changing long held, deeply rooted beleifs within yourself and our systems. Otherwise is will be lip service and simply perform legal gymnastics to keep organizations from getting sued, rather than changing how they do business.
Kori – Founder, Just Educators