Image by Nikki Muller
Around the country, programs to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are under attack. Some 13 states, including Florida, Texas and Iowa, have introduced legislation to close diversity, equity and inclusion offices or ban diversity training.
As a Black, foreign-born scholar who often leads inclusion workshops, I have my own critiques of DEI trainings, which are all too often superficial band-aids applied to gaping wounds. As American colleges and corporations engage in this nationwide conversation around diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and accessibility, I urge organizations to move away from simplistic, “check-the-box” trainings, and commit to deeper, more empathic conversations that do not reproduce the same zero-sum, “us vs. them” mindset we need to overcome.
Many trainings oversimplify the complex issues of identity, structural racism, and America’s fraught history of discrimination. Often, they lump together all non-white groups, rather than considering how each human being’s individual and intersectional identity contributes to a unique experience, and shapes our collective future. While workplaces face a grandiose parade of diversity and inclusion trainings, we still live in a country where anti-Blackness is so deeply entangled in our social structures that five Black officers—charged with protecting public safety—could beat Tyre Nichols to death. We need approaches to DEI that confront that sort of complexity, rather than simply explaining to white employees how to avoid treating structurally marginalized populations badly—while at the same time convening stereotypes and generalizations about those groups.
Let me give you an example. In graduate school, I remember sitting in a required class which discussed the “poor health outcomes of Black communities.” With no discussion of education, income, or geographic location of communities, the presenter treated Black communities as a monolith, as if we all had one single experience. As a Black woman from Ghana, I felt myself physically tense up when I heard the speaker generalize health outcomes for people who looked like me, without considering contextual factors. I wanted to jump up and shout, “Ummm, not me and my family!”
The more diverse our nation becomes, the more urgently we need to move beyond stereotypes and generalizations to deeply understand the actual, individual experiences of those we work with. For instance, U.S. census data shows growing diversity of the Black immigrant populations. As organizations increasingly employ this growing population, they need to recognize the unique identity-based struggles of the many different human beings they employ. We need to move beyond the status quo, business as usual approach to DEI which reacts to social harms to structurally marginalized populations, rather than creating systems where structurally marginalized populations take space.
Instead, we need a much deeper approach that invites participants to explore their own identities, tapping into their minds and hearts in order to promote real systemic change. Our organizational trainings should no longer be based around experts telling people what to do, but rather by facilitators drawing out everyone’s stories. Workshops should start by recognizing the intrinsic value of human life and our mutual connection, rather than emphasizing our socially constructed differences. We need trainings where participants don’t just listen to experts lecturing about one-size-fits-all solutions, but where we all tell stories, understand the central role of identity in our experiences, and develop our own practical solutions. Solutions that recognize that meeting people where they are is a key ingredient, especially since the balance of societal power tend to favor socially dominant groups over marginalized groups.
In my own work, I do this by fostering inner work, asking participants to reflect on the history of the place they’re in, to share their own stories and identities. Through sharing stories, we build empathy for each other, and enable voices that are typically silenced to embrace the proverbial taking up of space. From this grounding in empathy, we can better listen to each other and find practical solutions to challenges in our own workplaces.
This human-centered, identity-centered approach reminds all participants that racism hurts every group, a notion that is usually well understood and lived experientially by structurally marginalized groups. It holds us all back from achieving equality. White Americans, like all Americans, depend on the contributions of non-white folks, but racism limits and distorts those contributions. Case in point: I hold an advanced degree. But my cultural identity as a Black foreign-born woman does not guarantee that my accomplishments and contributions will be fully recognized and valued. The American race construct means I must work twice as hard for half as much. All of society suffers in a civilization that holds back contributions and limits potential of valuable human beings. Our identities and experiences, internally and externally constructed, are shaped by race whether we are conscious of it or not. Systems of power, privilege and oppression are fostered through this social construct, resulting in egregious inequalities that hurt everyone. So our efforts for change, too, must also include everyone, empathically exploring how identity shapes society and our collective humanity.
I understand my call for a deeper, more human-centered approach goes against the tide right now. Many conservative lawmakers would rather undermine efforts to bring about racial justice and equality. And yet, at the same time, wide arrays of Americans with all kinds of cultural identities recognize that systems of colonialism and structural racism must be torn down. I therefore urge organizations to break the cycle of ineffective and inappropriate methods to understand and include socially minoritized people, and rather ground DEI efforts in practices and strategies centered on humanity, empathy, and identity.