How Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives are Failing Us

Whether referred to as D&I (diversity & inclusion) or DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace are emerging at nonprofits, businesses, and corporations nationwide.  Some estimates suggest that D&I is an $8 billion industry. According to Axios, Google alone has spent $265M on diversity initiatives since 2014 although “black employees still only make up 2% of all U.S. jobs”.  It’s to the point where it’s almost taboo not to have a D&I program or team. 

Proponents of these initiatives have touted the business case, pointing to the shift in the demographic makeup of the nation’s workforce.  Others recognize that a diverse workforce improves competitive advantage. But what happened to the moral case? What about creating workplaces where all employees are honored and valued, and where marginalized groups can successfully get ahead?

Harvard Business Review recently launched a 5-part series on Advancing Black Leadership, starting with a review of how diversity efforts are failing Black employees. They found that despite investment in diversity initiatives, African American workers “still face obstacles to advancement that other minorities and white women don’t,” are “less likely than their white peers to be hired, developed, and promoted,” and “their lived experience at work is demonstrably worse even than that of other people of color.”

Here are four ways D&I initiatives are failing Black people:

  • D&I initiatives fail to address power. D&I efforts focus on improving diversity (representation of various social identities including race, gender, physical ability, age, and class, among others) through recruitment and hiring practices. But, too often that recruitment is for staff at the junior level and little is done to “diversify” leadership. It’s not enough to funnel in Black applicants without creating a process and supportive environment for investing in their professional development and facilitating opportunities and pathways for advancement. Racial equity is about shifting power and resources, which means supporting and elevating Black people to positions of power and influence.
  • D&I initiatives fail to address white supremacy culture and anti-Blackness head-on. Diversity initiatives often flatten different cultures and ethnicities into one homogenous monoculture without acknowledging or addressing distinct oppressions and lived experiences. Inclusion initiatives often aim to bring more non-white people into a white-centric space, expecting them to adhere to white dominant norms and culture. The result is a “Melting Pot” verses a paella—a delicious meal that allows its separate components to remain whole while unique flavors accentuate one another. Within organizations, we should focus on creating an environment where everyone feels valued, respected and able to fully participate in a way that is mutually beneficial. While Black people know how to code-switch and cover in order to navigate white spaces, we deserve workspaces that allow us to be our full selves with dignity and without fear. The only antidote for white-supremacy culture is anti-racism
  • D&I initiatives focus too much on individual biases. While understanding implicit biases is important, these biases are rooted in larger systems and structures that impact us all. No individual or institution is exempt from larger societal constructs and value systems that undergird, and undermine progress toward racial justice. Forcing individuals to take diversity or bias training without shifting the way a company does business, will do little to impact lasting change. 
  • D&I initiatives expect Black people to do unpaid labor. Too often, Black women are expected to be ambassadors for D&I initiatives, which means doing unpaid labor beyond our job requirements. We are often tokenized and expected to represent our race, tasked with facilitating conversations on race and racism, and expected to endure the emotional burden of sharing our oppression stories while dealing with white fragility and guilt; all while bearing the burden of proof in convincing white people of racist biases/behaviors/practices. Companies need to pay for this labor. Hire a consultant like The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Racial Equity Institute, or The Art of Community, and make sure it’s not an organization that is just commodifying D&I. 

At their worst, D&I initiatives distract from and diminish the underlying causes of racial injustice that must be addressed. Let us not merely focus on the business case for D&I (remember, a business case was made to legitimate exploitative practices including land theft and slavery). Let us remember the moral case – a true belief and embodiment that all human beings are valuable and worthy, and that we need one another for wholeness and freedom.



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