Why Not D & I

by Heather Hackman

I was on the phone with a client the other day explaining the difference between Diversity and Inclusion (D & I) and Equity / Social Justice (E/SJ) work and was reminded yet again of how important it is to be clear on our language and the conceptual frameworks we are employing as we engage in E/SJ work in our various organizational settings. D & I phrasing is used extensively in a range of contexts and yet rarely is the efficacy of such an approach questioned. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs and newsletter postings, “diversity” work is focused on developing an “awareness and appreciation of difference” with the presumption that this will translate into substantial organizational change. Unfortunately, this is inaccurate as there is no direct link between becoming more “aware” or “appreciative” of a difference and the dismantling of systems of power, privilege and access to resources. Presuming that building relationships across lines of difference through activities that engender awareness and appreciation is the solution serves to reduce structures of oppression to mere “misunderstandings of each other” or in educational vernacular, prejudice. And while these are indeed elements of how oppression operates, they do not even begin to touch on the complex and yet nuanced history, systemic realities, and structural functioning of systems of oppression. Nothing in a diversity approach implies or guarantees that issues of power, access and privileges held by the dominant group get addressed. In fact, many organizations spend years and years on diversity work and never get to systemic oppression because diversity work simply cannot get to there – it’s the wrong tool for the job.

Similarly, “inclusion” is problematic in that by its very nature it implies assimilation and the reification of the dominant group’s framework. Put simply, who is doing the including? What are folks being included in? A superficial example would be two friends who make plans and then say to each other, “we should include Chris and Pat”. By default it is understood that these plans are not going to be a co-creation among the four of them, nor will much feedback from Chris and Pat be welcome by the two instigators. Instead, the first two are open to include Chris and Pat into plans that are already established, into an idea that is already laid out, and into ways of being that are already prescribed e.g. “come with us to a show we have already chosen / plans we’ve already made.” Thus, when an organization seeks to be “more inclusive” it is really saying that we want to find ways to get more People of Color, more women and trans* folks, more LBTQI folks, more People with Disabilities, etc. into our workplace or organizational structure. There is no real intention of having those groups of people help craft and shape the core elements of how the organization operates, nor is there any intention of yielding power to those relative “newcomers”. Instead, the organization is looking to find people from those groups who are willing to go along with plans that are already prescribed and behave in ways that are already expected (often called “organizational culture”). On occasion this is not wholly terrible given that some organizations might be so wonderful that the costs of doing this for these “included” folks are not too high. However, to presume that this effort at inclusion is Equity and Social Justice work is a huge misstep because not only are systems of power and privilege not examined, but they are actually reified but the unwritten rules of the inclusion process.

Taken together a mere awareness of and appreciation for “diversity” and an effort to “include” marginalized groups into an organization is a far cry from what is called for when addressing deep and long-standing issues of inequity. Moreover, these approaches can often lead to higher levels of assimilation pressure for members of marginalized groups while keeping the very systems that are responsible for that marginalization intact within the organization.

Take for example, LBGTQ rights and specifically the issue of marriage. Research from a range of LBGTQ political groups demonstrated that when heterosexual folks got to know LBGTQ folks, they were more likely to support marriage equality (depending on where their opinions originally resided). Reading these studies, one would think that D & I work actually is the solution to issues of LBGTQ oppression. And that would be true if the goal were mere “inclusion” into the dominant group’s paradigm. What I mean is, so long as LBGTQ people didn’t do anything to change the fundamental processes of marriage or impact its meaning in any real way, the heterosexual allies in these studies were in favor of LGBTQ people “having the same rights as I have”. What these allies did not attend to was the fact that many queer people (as evidenced in research done by progressive queer organizations) did not want to simply be “included” in a system that they believe actually limits the ability of LGBTQ people to define and express their relationships and families outside of something that is modeled on traditional heterosexual relationships. In this way we can see how a D & I approach to LGBTQ liberation might actually get in the way of broader LGBTQ equity and justice goals. Additionally, an inclusion lens does not require heterosexuals to identify what systems and structures lead to the oppression of LBGTQ folks in the first place or dig deeply into the question of what needs to change with respect to heterosexual privilege and notions of heteronormativity. A focus on these deeper issues, issues not addressed in D & I work, is necessary for true systemic change regarding oppression to take place and is why a D & I approach is insufficient when working for social justice.

Despite the substantial limitations, a D & I approach (to what are really E/SJ issues) is the current preferred pathway in many organizations for a range of reasons. First, D & I is easy. Most D & I activities, trainings, and implementation schemas do not take much time, do not require extensive learning on the part of participants, and have a low level of emotional risk. I have attended countless D & I trainings over the years and they have never elicited much resistance, anger or frustration on the part of those in power within organizations precisely because they do not challenge those systems of power, and instead often make those in power feel comfortable. However, for whichever marginalized group is the topic of the D & I training, limitless frustration and discomfort arises because it is painfully obvious that the small steps outlined in D & I trainings are insufficient in addressing the deep and important issues affecting them daily.

Additionally, as mentioned above, D & I work does not deeply and critically address systems of power or access to resources, and therefore requires no change on the part of the dominant group. A while back I was conversing with a district superintendent who was more committed to “letting everyone on the leadership team grow in their learning” than honestly addressing issues of whiteness and their impacts on the overall staff’s efficacy. Implicit in this leader’s comments was the deference given to softer diversity-based approaches that did not require any change on the part of the White leadership. The effect of this focus on “team building” was to make it an easy place for White folks regardless of how the People of Color / Native people felt about the “equity” direction of the district, what was happening on the team, or their levels of feeling safe and supported. D & I approaches have the tendency to cater to the patterns and processes of the dominant group often at the lived expense of the marginalized group.

And finally, leaders often choose D & I over E/SJ based on an inaccurate understanding of the developmental processes involved in learning about E/SJ issues. To be sure, leaning into E/SJ work is a developmental process no matter what the issue or one’s identity. For people who identify as women and trans*, addressing internalized sexism and gender oppression is as developmentally important as it is for those who identify as men to examine their own privilege, power and sexist beliefs and actions. Unfortunately, too many people believe that D & I is the initial developmental step in this process when in reality it is a sidestep. In trainings I often give the analogy of fruit when talking about D & I and E/SJ with the former being oranges and the latter being apples. If an organization wants to address its apple concerns (equity issues) and make all kinds of apple products (take equity and social justice actions), it simply makes no sense to put oranges into the recipe. In fact, you could truck in every orange in the state of Florida and no amount of them would produce apple pies, sauces and ciders. The point being that yes, learning about E/SJ issues does have a developmental component to it, but the steps of that reside within the E/SJ framework and are not facilitated by a D & I framework.

In sum, I want to be clear that D & I work can have its uses, but that it must be engaged in with a clear eye toward this framework’s actual capacities. D & I cannot and will not ever be a sufficient substitute for E/SJ work, and for reasons mentioned above it is often consciously or unconsciously used as a way to deflect E/SJ work from happening well or at all.