Diversity Isn’t Equity


A mocking photo of an all-male group with spray paint saying “No Women?” and a Hoffs thumbs up. Lack of gender diversity and very little racial diversity. From http://allmalepanels.tumblr.com/By

By Erin Okuno

Editor’s Note: No blog post next week. We’re taking a break to play, eat, and sleep in that order.

In the 1990-2000s there was a drive towards diversity. Businesses and colleges had diversity offices. There were, and still are, diversity and recruitment managers on college campuses and within big businesses. But let’s be clear diversity doesn’t bring about racial equity. Diversity is important and helps to bring change and new perspectives, but it isn’t racial equity because the power dynamics stay the same and it isn’t attacking root-causes.

What is Diversity?

Before we get too deep into the topic, let’s define diversity. Diversity means having a group of people from many different backgrounds which may include: racially, ethnically, language, citizenship status, educational background, disability, socio-economic status, gender, geography, etc. The photo above mocks a lack of gender diversity.

Even within a racial community, it is important to look for diversity. If you are gathering people and you feel you’ve achieved racial diversity that is great, and you should go deeper. Do you have gender and inclusion of transgender and gender-fluid people? Are immigrants and refugees represented? Is it inclusive of people with disabilities, and remember there are a lot of different types of disabilities (i.e. mental health, physical, developmental, etc.). Diversity can also be found within race groups. As an Asian, I know my own experience as a Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii, but I don’t know the experiences of other Japanese Americans or other Asian ethnicities. One person from each race group can’t be used to justify representation.

What do you mean diversity isn’t enough?

A few years ago, I was at a business conference. I was out of my normal crowd since these were suit-and-tie business people. At dinner, I found my people of color peeps and we ordered a few drinks and talked the evening away. We were the minority in the room and we brought the diversity to business prom as we dubbed the event. Our presence at the conference didn’t change anything, it made the event look more attractive to progressive people since they could say “We had a diverse audience,” and I think our comments during the sessions added new thoughts. But our presence didn’t disrupt any of the dynamics of systemic racism – if we weren’t there, business prom would have continued on as normal.

The same could be said of almost any place where we do our best to diversify spaces. Adding a few students of color to a prep school doesn’t change the school. Hiring one or two faculty members of color doesn’t shift discourse greatly. I know when I enter a room, I quickly scan the participants and start doing the ‘silent count.’ Dr. john a. powell (doesn’t capitalize his name) talks about this concept of how pocs start counting all the pocs in the room to figure out if there is a sense of safety and comfort in the room, is there critical mass to speak up and be heard, are we in the majority or minority? The more people of color in the room the more likely we can feel safe and possibly heard. Diversity is nice but it doesn’t change much on its own.

Access vs. Equity

Having people of color included in a meeting, task force, enrolled in an otherwise exclusive space (college, prep school, etc.) is giving access to pocs. Access is important, but as Heidi has already blogged about access isn’t equity. Bringing in people of color brings diversity, but it doesn’t structurally change anything. Equity work requires deeper intention and attacking structural inequities.

Diversity also plays into the dynamics of who has the right to choose and determine who gets access to the field. As Heidi previously wrote: “We are often tokenized, individually incentivized, and/or have internalized the superiority of the current system.” Being asked to join boards for the sake of diversity, getting admitted to prep schools and colleges in the name of diversity, and being granted access makes both those doing the inviting and those accepting the invites as complicit in the systems we need to disrupt. I admit I participate in this behavior all of the time, my job depends on access and me stepping into these spaces. I do my best to use my access to disrupt from the inside and to remind the group that diversity isn’t the goal; access is one of the tools to undo racism at the systemic level. In this way, I’m still part of the system I’m working to undo. I’m being rewarded by the system, and I’m gatekeeping for white patriarchy as well (read this blog post by Mamademics).

Where Diversity is Helpful

Having diverse people of color in the room is important. Please don’t read this post and think “well diversity isn’t important so we’ll just do what we always do and bring in our best friends and people we like.” Defaulting to the usual list of 20 people and the same way of selecting people isn’t helpful, and having a room full of white people really isn’t helpful in solving problems. Having people from diverse problems in the room to help problem solve is necessary to solve complex problems.

We all have our own thoughts and experiences, biases and prejudices built into our thought processes which are important to shaping solutions. As an example, if the group is trying to understand a problem or work in general. As an example, a few years ago I was invited to join a group of Asian elders at Starbucks. They were hanging out and catching up. One of the guys in the group told a story about how he had worked on a transportation project and when it came to naming the streetcar lines the transit agency named the line going through Chinatown the ‘gold-line.’ That is problematic for many reasons in the Asian community. Gold could be a pseudonym for yellow, which is linked to the slur yellow-peril. As an Asian, he understood this cultural reference and mentioned it. The transit agency went ahead with the proposed name and got a lot of pushback and anger from the Asian community when it went public. Had they listened to him they could have saved themselves a lot of negative publicity and some overt racism.

Diversity is important, but we also must do the harder work of disrupting power dynamics and disrupting systemic racism.

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