The language of diversity and inclusion, whether intentional or not, can often serve as a way for institutions to abdicate their responsibility for doing their part in dismantling racism and systems of oppression. I certainly admit my own complicity, in at times being seduced into operating against my better judgement and conflating the two.
But the current nationwide peaceful protests demanding justice for the black victims of police brutality and shining a light on ingrained policies and practices of inequality have solidified a recurring life lesson from my community work: diversity, equity and inclusion are not synonymous with antiracism.
Before speaking at universities or corporations, I am sometimes asked to send my slides a few days ahead of my visit. I usually have a few slides with embedded videos, so I’m always happy to get the assistance of a tech person. I’ve recently been thinking about a particular experience involving my slides.
Several months ago, I was invited to a university after student protests about what those students described as a string of racist incidents. My role was to speak to students, faculty members and administrators about racial implicit bias in anticipation of concrete actions to follow. During the preparatory phone call, the chief diversity officer shared that they had asked me to speak on campus because of my national reputation in implicit bias education and my extensive experience in facilitating conversations about race.
Shortly after I arrived on the campus, I attended what started as a wonderful breakfast with the president and other senior leaders. As I was waiting in the buffet line, the president walked up to me, thanked me for coming to campus and mentioned that he had seen my slides. I’ll never forget his next words: “You know, at ____, we try to include everyone in our university family. We value diversity. It’s not about race. I admit that we’ve had some issues in the past, but we try to all get along. We want to build a more diverse community to help prepare our students for the environment they will live and work in after graduation. I hope you can help us with that.”
As various senior leaders offered comments over breakfast, they reinforced the president’s comments. The laudable institutional goal of enhancing student diversity was viewed as subsuming issues of race. From their perspective, they had no need to speak directly about race. I gave my presentation as planned, with a focus on racial implicit bias.
To be sure, my efforts will continue to include a focus on the importance of engaging a wide range of viewpoints, perspectives and backgrounds as I go about the diversity, equity and inclusion work that’s so important to me personally and to the organizations I work with. But my focus will also be on the fight to eradicate systemic racism. This focus has been a source of contention in some of the organizations and environments where I’ve worked or consulted. The belief abounds that we can simply conflate the interrogation of systemic racism with conceptualizations of diversity involving gender, age, LGBTQ identity, disability and so forth. The argument often goes something like this: “Our organization respects all differences, and we work to create an environment where everyone feels included and can do their best work.”
I agree -- strongly -- but that view doesn’t negate the obligation of individuals and organizations to identify and actively develop strategies to eliminate systemic racism in their environments and in our nation. In a country built on the subjugation of indigenous and black people, it is going to take more than respect for all differences to deal with the structures and unconscious biases that continue to marginalize -- and kill -- black Americans. Further, by simply adding race to the list of differences to be equally targeted in an institution’s diversity strategy, we may feel some degree of comfort that we are being “inclusive,” but that doesn’t begin to systemically or institutionally address America’s original sin: racism.
I’ve been at this long enough to know that the transition from statements to action varies by institutional context, mission, legal constraints and leadership. And clearly none of us has all the answers to complex institutional, national and even international factors that support and sustain structures of racism. But one thing is clear: in addition to our institutional work, we must acknowledge that there is wisdom in communities and neighborhoods all across our country. People in those communities and neighborhoods can be our partners and highlight ideas to reshape institutions and reformulate practices.
Recently I was part of a group of university and community leaders who were meeting regularly to explore strategies to impact inequality in the surrounding community and across the state. After the first few meetings, some community members talked about the challenge of finding money to pay for babysitting so that they could attend the early-morning meetings. With little hesitation, one of the community members suggested that the university find ways of paying for babysitting. That led to a broader discussion of how the university uses unrestricted endowment funds.
I vividly remember a comment: “If the university truly values community engagement, particularly around the issue of inequality, why can’t university funds be used for this purpose?” The discussion lasted beyond the meeting, with some university colleagues pulling me aside and talking about how “they” just don’t understand how universities are run. My reply was, “Perhaps they do … that’s the point.”
I certainly appreciate that there are no quick fixes. These are long-standing, complex issues. But we must not only seek the expertise of our colleagues but also step off our campuses and seriously listen to the wisdom of our community.
Many times, what they can offer us are not “tweaks” that end up, often unintentionally, simply reinforcing racist structures but rather bold, creative approaches that hold promise to move us more rapidly toward justice. The notion of slow, measured steps is absolutely unacceptable. Yes, it will require some of us to relinquish or share power in ways that may make people who hold power uncomfortable, but that’s a characteristic of structural change. At every turn, we must question the notion of incremental steps. The journey toward justice must be on a fast track!
Going forward in my engagements in higher education and corporations, I will continue to vigorously support the work, well supported by research, that points to the myriad benefits of diverse student bodies, faculties, workplaces, boards of trustees and executive suites, as well as the necessity to create inclusive environments that create well-being for all. My nationally recognized implicit bias education and bias reduction efforts will continue, as always.
But I am committed to helping higher education institutions re-examine their efforts in light of vanquishing systemic racism, including appropriate transformation of:
- Diversity/equity/inclusion/racism education;
- Conceptualizations and criteria for the measurement of “excellence” in management and senior leadership selection and advancement;
- Decision-making processes;
- University-community relations;
- Conflict management approaches;
- Distribution and criteria for use of unrestricted endowment funds;
- University and corporate financial investments; and
- International relations.
I will engage faculty, administrators and students in this work but also look to the creativity of people on the ground, particularly the wisdom of our young people. This is my life’s work, and if I ever need a reminder of the urgency of the moment, I’ll reflect on the words of my brothers and sisters who are no longer with us:
“Why do you have your guns out?”
“What are you following me for?”
“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.”
“You shot me! You shot me!”
“It’s not real.”
“I can’t breathe.”