Nowadays, especially in the wake of last summer’s police murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests, you can hardly take a (virtual) step without running into some mention of DEI, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. DEI is a kind of catchall for anything to do with addressing racial and gender inequities, especially in the workplace. There are DEI consultants, trainings, initiatives, and webinars / conferences, all aiming to tackle deep-seated injustices in our society and economy. In 2017 alone, businesses spent $8 billion on diversity trainings; it isn’t uncommon for a nonprofit with a small budget to spend $25,000 or more for a consultant to help the organization create a DEI plan, run a training, and so on. And larger companies are spending millions of dollars, not only on consultants but also on Chief Diversity Officers, marketing campaigns to tout their diversity, and more.
I take no issue whatsoever with the focus on reversing the longstanting, structural racial and gender biases which for centuries have marginalized and oppressed communities of color, women, and others. Indeed, part of the impetus for my founding Capital Good Fund was that I saw an opportunity to use financial services to right some of these wrongs. Rather, the problem I have with DEI is that it trivializes both the people it seeks to uplift and the underlying injustices it seeks to address, all while giving the appearance of taking meaningful action–without having to do so.
I recently saw this firsthand. Capital Good Fund is hiring for a new position, and it’s really important that this be a diverse hire: while the majority of our staff are non-white, the higher up the org chart you go, the more white we become. We need people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences in leadership roles, so we went searching for a recruitment firm that specializes in sourcing a diverse candidate pool. One of the first companies we came across has a name which clearly proclaims that the company is focused on diversity (I will omit their name here). In case the name didn’t get the point across, their website prominently touts that they are a minority-owned firm.
My HR Manager and I got on a call with their team to learn more, and upon joining the call we were immediately struck by the fact that a company which goes to such great lengths to brand itself as diverse sent four white people to the introductory meeting. As if to answer the unspoken question about how this jibed with their supposed attention to diversity, one of the first points they made was that they are minority-owned; apparently, bringing that up is part of their sales pitch. After the call, I went onto LinkedIn and scrolled through the company’s 400+ staff. As best I could tell, no more than a handful of the employees are non-white.
This isn’t an anomaly. So much of what people do around DEI is window-dressing. Worse, there is evidence to show that DEI can cause “unintended and lasting harm” and ignite “frustration and disappointment,” such as “when a ‘diversity hire’ ends up not working out.” DEI also makes minorities and women feel singled out and tokenized. My wife, who is Latina, has experienced this in her work in the biotech industry. After endless meetings and trainings about DEI, she finds herself exhausted by the topic. To her, it can sometimes seem as if management is going to great lengths to treat her like an exotic and delicate flower; other times, she wonders if it’s just about PR or avoiding a lawsuit. One night she said to me, “You know, instead of talking about this stuff, why don’t they just hire more women and people of color in leadership positions?”
I couldn’t agree more. One of the most importants ways to deal with racial and gender inequality is to have women and minorities in positions of power–not token roles, not “diversity hires,” but roles with real authority–and to have a legal framework that provides powerful protections against discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and more. This isn’t to say that as a nation we don’t need to deal with racism and sexism in other ways; the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans is yet another example of the serious soul-searching we need to do. The question is whether, and to what extent, DEI can lead to meaningful change.
I’ve personally never taken away anything of value from the numerous DEI trainings I’ve had to sit through. Sure, I can expound upon the difference between conscious and unconscious bias, but for a Latina like my wife, and I’m sure for many other people of color and women, what matters isn’t the academic study of bias but rather the more equal distribution of power. Sadly, it seems that far too often the more a company spends on trainings, the less compelled it feels to make meaningful change–like hiring executives of color, working with minority suppliers, eliminating bias in their business practices, and delivering equitable products and services that uplift, rather than oppress or prey upon, minority communities. Anything else is either a profitable scam, an empty marketing campaign, or an elaborate distraction. As a case in point, consider the cognitive dissonance induced by the juxtaposition between Nike’s campaign in support of Colin Kaepernick and their inhumane treatment of workers of color, especially in foreign factories. (I wrote about this in an essay called Questions on Nike, Colin Kaepernick, and Corporate Social Responsibility.) Another example are the dozens of companies that have been shouting Black Lives Matter from the rooftops, all while making corporate contributions to elected officials that support stripping away voting rights from Black voters. It’s easy to put up a yard sign. It’s another thing entirely to put one’s money and heart where one’s mouth is.
In short, I fear that, in the main, DEI is designed to make white people feel less guilty without giving up any of the unearned power that our whiteness affords us.
What do you think?