Accountability for Diversity Initiatives

It’s often said that diversity makes us better: various studies make the case that (for example) diversity improves science. However, as we’ve posted about before in our reflections on Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s “Diversity is a Dangerous Setup”, framing diversity as serving a particular function– usually one that benefits the dominant group, which in this context means white people– rather than something that addresses an ongoing injustice (racism), gets it twisted.

Part of the reason that this framing of diversity-as-benefit has such traction is that the narrative around diversity efforts is often written in spaces that are not diverse to begin with, and so they center the comfort of white people. When predominantly white spaces try to move towards inclusion, they face an additional challenge: often, predominantly white spaces exist within the larger context of entire industries that are also predominantly white. Therefore, when a diversity initiative is proposed to whoever has the power to review, approve and/or fund the effort, the chances are that those in that power position are also predominantly white. If the industry is exclusionary overall, this dynamic typically means diversity efforts are evaluated by people whose expertise has nothing to do with improving inclusion. Furthermore, there is often little in the way of accountability for these efforts– how is the ‘success’ of the program measured? Who benefits from that success, and were they involved in determining the metrics for success? These initiatives often stray far from the old slogan (originally from South African disability activism, now used more broadly), “Nothing about us without us”, and at worst can become tools in shoring up existing racial hierarchy by providing social credit and career gains to white people.  

For your task today: pick a diversity initiative (either in your workplace, another, or just one you find on the internet), and rather than just thinking about how it is ‘better than nothing’ or ‘starting somewhere’, analyze it. Can you get more information on its formation and how that shaped the form has taken? What would you say its purpose is, and how does it fit into the larger institutional structure? Does it address an actual/real need in the institution, or does it focus on issues that are more present elsewhere? Does it count numbers (e.g. of diverse peoples) or experiences? How would you change the initiative itself, and how would you change the communication to/from/about this initiative?

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