“Diversity” versus “justice”

Today, we’re reading and reflecting on a recent article by astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: “Diversity is a Dangerous Set Up.” We encourage you to give it a read and join us in the comments! In this article, Prescod-Weinstein reviews Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice by Jonathan Kahn (which also sounds like a compelling read), to summarize her main thesis, here’s the abstract:

Trying to use science to analyze and fix racism is a dangerous proposition. The science behind implicit bias may be bunk. Promoting diversity rather than substantive structural change will not create equal opportunity and equal outcomes. A focus on implicit bias at the expense of an attention to both explicit bias and the impact of bias may in fact be harmful to the fight for equality. And Black people — from folks on the street to the first Black Supreme Court Justice — have been trying to tell y’all this.

Renee: Has implicit bias become our “get out of jail free” card? Chanda’s piece really made me think and reflect on not only the approach to dealing with improving equity, but, I guess, some of the ugly truths that may lie within it.

As an aside/introduction to this from a personal perspective, I was facilitating discussion about increasing the number of Indigenous Canadians within my subfield of astronomy at a recent workshop, and was asked why I wanted to improve the diversity of my field. Had I considered the needs and desires of those I wanted to bring in to the field? [Not to say that Indigenous Canadians would be more or less interested in entering astronomy.]

I had to admit that I wanted my field to be more diverse mostly for selfish reasons – I think that a diversity of minds builds incredible strength and versatility in the field. But was my answer first and foremost: “to address the systematic racism and inequality of education, housing, and the legal system within Canada from the past until the present day?” Hardly. So reading this piece about how the appearance or desire for a more diverse community can often serve as a signal of a lack of racism (the “recreational antiracism” that Prescod-Weinstein explains from Kahn’s book), without the (white) powers that be having to do real work to address the racism they see (or commit) within their communities. Chanda comments on how a 1978 ruling against affirmative action policies (in which five Supreme Court justices voted to end quotas based on race, but still allowed for the institutions to consider race in decisions of acceptance) marked the “beginning of minority students being seen as pedagogical tools that serve the needs of institutions and their white students.”

She goes on to talk about how the scientism of the study of implicit bias has become this sort of red herring in actually improving the equity of the field. Again, this is something that hits home to me now as I encounter Indigenous land acknowledgment statements within the city and the university. Does acknowledging that the land you stand on was taken from Indigenous peoples start a conversation around the past? Yes, of course. But without pushing for actual change in policies that affect the daily lives of Indigenous Canadians it’s an uncomfortably easy thing to do.

Does discussing potential implicit biases we have perhaps make us aware of our actions? Yes (although how much and how well is part of the discussion in this piece). But doing so without discussing the racial structures that we unwittingly endorse or support in our institutions is lip service.

Prescod-Weinstein quotes Kahn (who is himself quoting race theorist Charles Lawrence:

“When we make the pragmatic argument that we must accept piecemeal and inadequate reforms because there is no political will to make structural change, I fear that we have accepted the status quo so easily because we have lived with inequality for so long that it seems natural — that we have lost our sense of outrage because we believe some part of the nature story that says this is where poor black children are supposed to be.”

So diversity training and implicit bias can actually make me numb to real change, all fed up on ally cookies and reticent to push up against larger, uglier structures that have helped me get to where I am today.

Prescod-Weinstein gives the elephant in the room a name, and in her review of Kahn’s book, calls out the fact that implicit bias research, which in making the problems implicit and subconscious, can often become a way of excusing just such behaviour. She goes further to highlight that those doing research in the field of behavioural realism are also mainly white:

“By allowing cognitive psychologists who are almost 100% not Black to define racism for Black people, those embracing implicit bias results are ignoring salient data. This is not what the scientific method teaches us to do.”

I don’t have answers, and as usual Prescod-Weinstein makes me look at the parts of myself and my field that are not easy to look at. But it has made me really pause to examine how comfortable diversity is not equitable at all.

Lucianne: Diversity is one of those words that causes cognitive dissonance for me when I hear it ricochet through the halls of academia. On the one hand, I have long been happy to hear it, because in theory it signifies something I want to see: people of all colors, genders, and walks of life, free to pursue their intellectual paths, working together towards greater knowledge. Of course, reality is pretty damn far from this magical rainbow coalition — departments say they want diversity, or may have diversity initiatives, or may require faculty applicants to write diversity statements, and yet departments remain largely white. Diversity remains the goal in word, much like the ethereal-sounding “inclusiveness,” but the unchanging face of these departments belies the lack of practical, concrete effort to make a diverse department a reality. I’ve always looked at the gap between aspiration and action as a lack of real commitment to diversity, but what this article made me realize is that the gap is there by design: as Prescod-Weinstein eloquently argues in this article, the heart of the matter is that the working definition of diversity has never been about ensuring equity.

Diversity discourse centers whiteness in myriad ways: first, it posits that, as Prescod-Weinstein writes, “overt racism is a thing of the past and that only implicit biases beyond our conscious reach are responsible for facilitating contemporary American white supremacy.” By focusing on implicit bias, the white majority gets a free pass for ignorance (“you can’t know what you don’t know!” said everyone white, ever), and also gets to pretend that overt racist action doesn’t exist (and if you think you need to be marching in a sheet to support white supremacy, please go read our post from a few days ago).  Second, it frames the ideal outcome of diversity efforts as being deeply tied to the myth of the meritocracy, wherein a more diverse department/team/group/etc. is inherently valuable because of its performance, its enhanced ability. At its core, this frames people of color as some sort of magic spice, a fuel additive that is significant because of what it adds to the “regular” (read: white as normative standard) gas. Finally, diversity discourse not only ignores but seeks to erase history by setting the ideal as a colorblind future where none of us have to think about race anymore (convenient for white people, who would otherwise have to reckon with both the past and the present).

In reading this article, I felt as though I had peeled back a layer of myself to reveal not only the comfortable padding around my activism, but a very deep vein of cynicism in my expectations of my colleagues. The second point I mention above, the tie between diversity discourse and meritocracy, is not only a conservative framing, but a fundamentally capitalistic one as well: not only does it center white people, it also makes human worth about function, and the denial of opportunity and access for Black people (and other people of color) about what their function might be, not about what is actually just and equitable. Furthermore, I recognized that I am 100% guilty of using this argument — when questioned about my efforts to include people of color in educational programs, I have often referred to studies regarding the improved problem-solving abilities of diverse groups. The mind-fuck for me is that I am not making those efforts because of improved group problem solving, I am making those efforts because racism is wrong, because students of color should have equal education opportunities, and because the only way to make that happen is to actively work against racism in the field by making those opportunities happen for them. However, that is not the arrow in my quiver that I reach for when talking with colleagues whose political leanings I am unfamiliar with — I often wield meritocracy as my defense because some deep part of me doesn’t believe those colleagues are on my team.

Now, the reality is that my cynicism may not be far off — it is certainly possible that the person or people I am speaking with do not share my goals. But in resorting to a framing I don’t believe in, I am also working to solidify that framing and reinforce conservative, white-centered action that is ultimately dull-toothed. What is the point of swinging my hammer, if my swings still help nail the offending structure together?

There’s a quote by Angela Davis that I really like, which I often turn to in my (many) cynical moments:

“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

I refer to this quote when I feel tired and beaten, as a way of trying to fend off failure brought on by a lack of energy. In reading Prescod-Weinstein’s astute analysis, though, what I realize is that I am already failing on the most basic level of embracing this quote, in that my adoption of diversity framing works to strengthen the structures I purport to want to tear down. I am actually standing in the way of what I want, and I am doing so because it is more comfortable for me to be cynical than to risk vulnerability by redrawing the lines of the playing field.

As usual, reading Prescod-Weinstein’s writing has both taught me a lot, and given me a lot to think about. What did you think of “Diversity is a Dangerous Set Up?” Please take time to read it, and feel free to add to the discussion below.


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