Update: more sour and sorrier after this SCOTUS ruling. It’s wrong, and it’s wrong, and it’s wrong.
Act accordingly, people. White folks: don’t cede your world to these spite-filled demagogues. If you have power, use it.
People of the #globalmajority, speak and act. Silence and respectability behavior abet even more regression.
What kind of world do you, we want?
This essay may seem like it’s only for white people, but I invite each of us to give it a think. We all live in the same society where the lure of racist deceit and discord seeks to engulf us all…
I’ve been bothered by something and asking for help. Did I need a coach? Did I need a cohort? Maybe what I really needed was some time to sort through my own thoughts, And so, here are a few.
DEI 2023, WTH?
Summer 2023 is serving up some fairly inedible gristle for people who care about workplace equity and societal racial justice. One of the most frequently recurring topics of conversation is the concern that DEI is just a big ol’ fail. For those who work in the DEI, DEIB, JEDI (is the cutesieness of all these gimmicky acronyms part of the problem?), or in a role that is aligned or adjacent to such work, it has been really an increasingly indigestible repast.
You’ve possibly heard talk about the “glass cliff”: when a Woman of Color accedes to a role, perhaps in a real- or pseudo-C-suite capacity, so that the company can demonstrate its concern (thoughts and prayers?) or at least proclivity towards some CSR (corporate social responsibility)-ish scribble. (Often, they can’t make the socio-political leap to “DEI,” so they have to leave matters in the “responsibility” camp. Whether “responsibility” equates to “accountability” is up for debate.)
Regardless, is a pronouncement and some cash the same as actual commitment to advancing racial justice and dispelling anti-blackness? Certainly not.
And so, the saga goes on: usually, The Flashy Job Conveyance is a Performative Act. A position without teeth: given little support, provided with a weak strategic game plan if any at all; devoid of “power” or even agency; and sometimes even burdened by direct or indirect obstacles. The environment is opaque, confusing, and sometimes slathered in a villainous glob of saboteur animus.
A really bad show, to misquote Ed Sullivan. This “performance” is flat, gets terrible reviews, and has a bad run.
Just recently a very, very well-qualified and highly credentialed superstar Black woman I know informed me that she abruptly quit her once-in-a-lifetime-sounding job because she couldn’t take the performative white supremacy, masked behind a veneer of jaw-straining smiles and purported best intentions, one week longer.
The lightness of relief and liberation in her tone, even over a text message, was striking. But does one have to continually submit to a career cha cha cha, just to survive the so-called good fortunes of this “DEI moment”?
I too have, in the past, been that show pony, almost a salivatory hire: a guarantee that some former employers would earn their Girl Scout Virtuous Girl Badge. But the back-clapping hid the fact that there was zero actual intention to cede any “power” towards the operations I was ostensibly brought on to manage. When I realized that the only interest was for me to smile for the team photo, yessir or yes ma’am the boss, and magically attract untold sums of guilt money to the organization, I too had to go. I’ll never forget the recruiting genius who told me my old resume looked like “a flight risk.” Mike, wherever you are out there, I hope today you see how deeply committed you were to a paradigm of blaming the victim!
My heart ached for my friend. She moved a time zone away to take this job: upended her social and personal life and put in a couple of years of her life—and none of us get those back—for a Mission Impossible. Her situation got in my head and made me start wondering in the middle of the night about why do people think they are “doing a DEI solid” when they literally have no idea what they even want or can support. Here are some of my reflections.
I will share some thoughts from a sometimes perceptive, but mostly opinionated woman about what the Hell Is Going On With So-Called DEI in 2023… and, because when I used to manage people and always said “don’t bring a problem without a proposed solution,” I’ll add my list of the Dirty Dozen Reasons Why Today’s DEI is Failing, and invitations for ways you and we can work to Keep Hope Alive.
Basically, it doesn’t have to be 2018, or even 1958, anymore. Are you willing to see the future?
But First, There’s A Lot That’s Good.
Good work is being done in many spaces. I have a great deal of faith and gratitude for the strides I endeavor to lead in this work though my professional life at Camber Collective. We never said it would be a straight shot, and I admire and respect my inquisitive, sensitive, eager, and resilient colleagues.
I am also so grateful that through my side hustle/passion project of Brave Sis Project (and my book, which Workman Press published this spring) I get to think about these topics as an insider/outsider. And I’m happy that as I grow up (I mean, older) myself, I’m better able to connect my lived experience into both facets of how I deliver upon my purpose. And I have lots of people I know, follow, admire, and trust, who are really doing incredible work.
But still, I lie awake in the wee hours, pondering the unpleasant, gristly signs of regression I’m seeing, hearing, reading, and sensing. Almost every coffee date or zoom conversation I have had this year with another Woman of Color, many of the articles and Linkedin posts I happen upon, and an increasing number of podcast episodes that make their way to my suggested feed, are all posing a meta question: was DEIB (or whatever) ever enough?
I personally continue to assert that policies, practices, processes, culture, climate, and camaraderie, all lead in to a stronger sense of DEI, and of Belonging. And that is good. In our design, Belonging is comprised of four quadrants: being Seen, Supported, Connected, and feeling Galvanized (or Motivated) by the work and mission.
My colleagues, associates and I work hard at this, and it’s an honorable and exhilarating vocation. But outside these purposeful walls, the roiling storm clouds seem to signal that society, communities, groups, organizations, and individuals alike are floating back to the complacency and hiding out of the pre-2020 days. It’s troubling.
Wither the Dither?
I am wondering if this backslide isn’t in part due to the fact that we are collectively focusing on the wrong outcome. Equity and its stronger, sharp-clawed, cousin, Liberation, do not result from policies, processes, practices, culture, climate, or camaraderie—they are the consequence of right mindset, and let’s be truthful, in our white, western-normed culture, this means committing to mindset shifts.
There has been a lot of social upheaval this millennium, and the last half-decade has been absolutely intense. And it is human nature, as we know, that when we are confronted with the seismic shifts in society and culture, it’s only exhilarating to a blessed few. Most people get nervous, antsy, scared, greedy, or probably the worst of all, nostalgic for what used to be. The mythical Eden of Yore. A reminder for those who are nostalgic for, say the 1950s, “Happy Days” were only happy for cishet, white, middle-class and newly suburban men.
I, and possibly you, are likely to feel despaired or pissed, or both, or something even stronger. Many is the day when I hold my head in my hands despairing that There Shall Be No Measurable Advance in Our Societal March Towards Equity and Justice in My Lifetime!
But one thing that I believe, and that I’m going to wager my pink glitter lipstick on is this: People Are Not Stupid. Even if they are often so tired, scared, or overwhelmed that it is easy to act stupidly. If it’s true that most people are still mostly smart enough and decent enough, then chances are this slip-sliding back to a day where we could just brush all that stuff under the rug is nobody’s preference. (Well, there is that 30% of the populace who are so full of spite, they love things that make other folks feel or do bad. They are never the subject of my writing.)
If, alas, we are stuck, what should we do? Striving towards justice and away from anti-blackness, transphobia, anti-Asian hate, or whatever other -ism is hurting people, might, in some circles, come down to a simple matter of switching up the naming of what you’re trying to effect. If “Justice” isn’t working with your people, how about using gentler words. Like, Moral? Fair? Or if you are a religious person, Holy?
That’s the first assignment I’ll propose to you: Write stuff down. What words can you use to engage those around you and re-energize all of you and us to keep doing the work?
Confronting and Cleaning Up the Dirty Dozen
And now, my list of the twelve ways to avoid downshifting in 2023. Like I do in my book, each short entry will be followed by a simple prompt for your further reflection.
Number 1: Silence. In heterogeneous settings (be the differences those of age, positional power, race, gender or sexual expression, or other factors), there is this phenomenon of the killing silence that usually pops up when the conversation gets too real. Such as when we are into the vulnerable truth place or trying to navigate through or around an injustice or discomfort witnessed, experienced, or perpetrated.
I’m not referring to the abject bigotry of big blatant offenses such as racist violence; Anti-Asian hate; Islamophobia; misogyny; or expressions of homophobia, ableism, transphobia, or xenophobia of any kind. The focus here is really microaggressions, malapropisms, mislabeling, and other gaffes or assumptions resulting from one’s own unexamined personal blind spots.
You’ve probably seen it, maybe just on Netflix (who are you kidding, you’ve seen it this very week in your own life!): someone brings up something Vulnerable, Important, or Courageous, only to be met with utter silence. Usually on zoom, but also when it happens IRL, you wonder if someone just turned up the A/C. It’s such a slap in the face for the sharer of the vulnerability. For a talkative, relational gal like me, this silence is as bad as the high-pitched whirr of a dentist’s drill approaching my clamped-open mouth.
What is that silence about? Are the others afraid of saying the wrong thing? Do they feel that it will “damage their brand” to come off as unknowing—or worse to say something gauche or incorrect? Or do they just not care enough to engage at all, because it’s not their personal problem? Empaths weep, everywhere.
Actually, the silence, in the opinion of one woman I spoke with not so long ago, is even more nefarious than that. The silence, she said, almost snapping her words, is “just a stand-in for not wanting to confront with guilt by association.” Even over the phone, I could feel us both shaking our heads umph umph umph, must be nice to get to choose.
Here’s your first prompt: Reflect and write about this: what is your silence (or if you are one of those like me who are never silent, other people’s silence) about? Is introversion enough of an excuse?
Extra Credit: Get your notebook, ask some folks you trust, or meet up with the Google and start collecting and writing down some words and ways you can begin to speak up. You may be familiar with the saying from the 1980s AIDS activism group ACT UP: Silence = Death. And as a native New Yorker, I’ll even evoke the ubiquitous subway signs: “If you See Something, Say Something.”
Number 2: Deflection. Not only is this the playbook of the bloviating boychild who continues to hypnotize a third of the American electorate, it’s a worn-out trope of whiteness and white supremacy culture. “Perceived offense XYZ isn’t so bad because … we hired this person/checked this box/read that book/ hired that consultant/ elected Obama 15 years ago/have a “great friend who is…”
Don’t even act like any of this is progress, or even real. It comes across as lazy, disengaged, and overly committed to the comfortable seat of your privilege. If you are not white, this is one that I also ask you to explore, especially if it comes to homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of Othering discrimination. Many of us were raised with limiting, punishing beliefs. We all have work to keep doing.
My proposed assignment here is to deeply reflect on what triggers your deflection response. Can you be like the Matrix and the TV commercials and warp time long enough to get between that sensation and what comes out of your mouth? What are some words, phrases or even forearm taps you can utilize to pull yourself out of the reflex to deflect?
Number 3: Virtue Signaling. Sounds like: “I’m a good person because I read that book, did go to Target to buy a Pride T-shirt, drank that beer even though I am a wine person because I was taking a stand for inclusion, retweet Ibram X Kendi every week.” Et cetera. I know you know I know you know this is just lame and performative.
Can I go there: consumerist acts do not virtue equate, nor do they equality (much less equity) beget.
The assignment, when it comes to virtue signaling, is not deep. I’m literally going to quote Nancy Reagan, to whom I have looked for zero inspiration or influence in my entire life: Just Say No.
Number 4: Diversity Fatigue. I have always said equity is never-ending work. And one thing for sure, now that we have returned to some vestige of “normalcy” (at least for now) in the pandemic moment, is that there is a super strong societal desire just go back to the “way things used to be.” Not necessarily as stark as a MAGA-ite’s version of the good old days (Antebellum cosplay fantasy!) but maybe just the simpler times when a white person could have one symbolic Sammy Davis Jr.-esque pal or back-story-less, Taylor-from-High-School-Musical BFF of color; or a company could put a token woman in the boardroom, and everyone just acted like we did it! Lo hicimos, Dora and Diego!
I hear you. Who doesn’t want to just play mini golf, go to a movie, attend a rager, or at least have a casual conversation that doesn’t get all political and complicated?
Here’s the thing, if you didn’t see it coming: As a Black woman who is also short, of working-class parentage, highly melanated, and older, I can present you a lifetime of experience of not being permitted to turn off the spigot of bigotry or othering, ever. It’s with me every day, everywhere I go. I have many privileges, but I lack some of the most “essential” ones for many tranches of our society, so I’m always on guard for (depending where I happen to be) either the diffused inelegance, or the overt attack.
Otherwise said: Honey! If you are tired, just think how your BIPOC peeps are feeling! And your assignment: spend a day or a week observing around you when you see someone who lacks one of the privileges that you rely on most. What are they forced to endure or even gently experience that is not part of what you are burdened with? How does that make you feel? How many scales fell from your eyes? Like Johnny Nash, can you see (more) clearly now?
Number 5: Proxy Reliance. Now this is a delicate consideration, because it’s laudable when people and organizations do the work. They embark on a racial journey, they do the training, they create tools for each other to get comfortable with courageous conversations. Some might even integrate decolonizing levers into their ways of working or being. They crush their “diversity” recruitment and retention goals, volunteer at the right places, defy recent trends in philanthropy by continuing to give away money. Some even go PhD-level, delving into structure change and power sharing. And truly, all of this is grrrrreat.
But this does not mean you have achieved the ultimate goal. (False construct alert! We know the ultimate goal is unattainable to begin with!) What I believe is that acts of DEI are not equivalencies for growing your inner or group mentality (or as I said a zillion words earlier, mindset) around growing and re-growing your sensitivity and acuity pertaining to racism, domination, and othering. The tide of culture and human nature is always going to be to retreat back “out there,” like a rip current, and in this moment, the stakes are historic. Our collective response, bearing down and trudging on, is essential, existential.
So, the assignment here is to think about all the checkpoints and encouraging chart plots you have received for your great DEI achievements. Now, honestly explore what’s missing or yet to be done, especially regarding mindset. Ask a few people for their insights and opinions. Ask some People of Color that you know and who trust you if you can ask them for advice. If they say no, work on making better, more reciprocal relationships. Don’t stay in policy/politesse land. Have the courage to accept that you’re only at the foot of the basecamp, and gear up!
Number 6: Arrival Fantasy. Dear reader, you will be so much less anxious when you accept that this work never ends. My observation is that some folks get uncomfortable with the disorder, impropriety, pain, and frustration of battling our never-ending racial (and other) inequities. Word to your moms: us too.
Wherever it is that we are supposed to get to as a humanity, it’s just not happening in your lifetime or mine, anyway. But our Indigenous sisters and brothers remind us to do it for Seven Generations Down the Line.
Number 7: Respectability Politics and Fallacy of Hyper-Professionalism. Lookit friend, there is a great wealth of literature about how the reserved, buttoned-down stance of moderation, respectability politics, and something called “executive presence” imposes a uniform, conformist, old-school “white/western” way of being as the ideal. Study these smart resources.
But here is an additional topic for your reflection: read about Ella Baker, Flo Kennedy, and other great women who generally don’t get enough acclaim for their acts of she-ro-ism. Consider what is gained (but mostly what is lost) by those who cram their toes into the wing tipped shoes of conformity.
Number 8: Shyness or Fear. This concept is closely connected to the aforementioned Silence. To dissect the problem, I propose an easy exercise. Substitute “speak” for “do.” You don’t want to speak up (do anything) because you don’t want to take up too much space. You don’t want to speak (act upon something) up because you don’t want to be the first to say (do) something. You don’t want to speak up (take action) because you don’t wanna be labeled as “that kind of person.” You don’t want to speak up (engage) because you’re afraid of saying (doing) the wrong thing.
But what, you just sit there in your reticence, condoning the status quo and even abetting a reversion to old ways? Boo, hiss! Be Brave!
Activation: What about giving yourself permission to be a good human? I’ve evidenced that social disclaimers can be really helpful conversation starters, phrases like “forgive me if I stumble and bumble as I go along because I’m still new at this, but I’m curious if (this) would be helpful…?” Try some of these out, start with low-stakes conversations and level up. It demonstrates humility and humanity, both of which are too often abandoned in courageous moments.
Number 9: Defensiveness. It’s just not about you honey.
Write down in your notebook 100 times, “It’s not about me. It’s not about me…”
Number 10: Divisiveness. If you saw the recent policy out of Florida to ban books about Black History (I am told it’d be a badge of honor if my book were to be banned in Florida!) and fire or defund DEI roles in government bodies, while at the same time issuing an executive order that AAPI history be mandatory in the schools, I hope you also saw the multitude of Asian American (and Blasian) allies and activists who quickly jumped into the fray, calling BS on this divisive ploy.
The idea that Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous people should be pitted against each other for any shred of societal, financial, or political advantage is one of the super-ploys of the White Supremacy 101 Playbook. Don’t be duped anymore, this is not the 1880s, nor the 1920s.
Homework: Consider what a world where people who have been historically oppressed and/or discriminated against were to unite. What would their/our united stance against systemic injustices, so-called scarcity of opportunity, and/or sequencing of respect and regard look like? (Hint: it’s not Communism.)
Number 11 Elite Capture. I highly recommend everyone read the book Elite Capture by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. If you have been led to believe that the ceremonial elevation and edification of one random person, or a handful of people from a traditionally underserved, colonized, or discriminated populace is proof of post-colonial societal redemption, may I implore you to not be so naïve and binary in your thinking?
Perhaps in the 60s and 70s such a rationale made sense, but increasingly, these Western/elitist/consumer-capitalist signifiers of “success” and role-modeling are being revealed as entirely shambolic, and even harmful.
Not least of which, as the author explains, is because these “winners” typically elect to live in the comfort of the international elite and proffer little affinity with the people and places “where they came from.” I am going to be vulnerable and say there are some people I have known who say I am guilty of elite capture because I am a creative worker in the knowledge industry. So maybe some of my personal dedication to this continued probing is my own way of working through my own s—t.
But anyway, we and I must never stop working! And not to call out the Tyler Perrys, Oprahs, Beyonces, or JLos of the world, but they are the not living the lives of the essential workers you, your cousin, hourly-wage-earning acquaintance or next-door neighbor from back in the day. One of the ways I find non-white (or in this case even, non-elite white) people are harmed is because these avatars of luck and privilege are upheld as the symbol for “who you need to try to be.” Wealth, grandeur, and the #softlife are ostentations: ploys generally used to sell cars, fashion, and vacations. For real, the Earth cannot withstand more of this consumptive, consumerist delusion.
Assignment: search on a TV show, in a magazine advertisement, or on Instagram or Tik Tok for a celebrity or influencer and notate a dozen instances where their affluence or prestige is supposed to impress and motivate you. Now make up an imaginary dialogue with the celebrity or influencer. What would you ask them to do to change the world, or your neighborhood or community? And honestly, how would they answer you?
Number 12: Performative Niceness. Back in April, I moderated a screening of the movie “Deconstructing Karen” in Seattle with Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. One of the points in their book “White Women” that resonated with me most is how mainstream (white) women in America (and by this, you can also consider white-acting Women of Color), cleave to a fantasy of Brand Perfection.
As they and others describe this ideal: She’s beautiful; coiffed just right; healthy; thin; chicly dressed; with wonderful, well-behaved and high-achieving kids; has a good marriage; a lovely, nice-smelling house; eats the right food; drives the right car or e-bike; hangs out with the right people, etc. etc. Rao, Jackson, and others point out how impossible and exhausting this standard is, and how this striving for perfectionism actually leads to women (and other people) becoming angry, aggressive, and back-stabby.
In their book, they describe the outcome as a society of women who are “nice” (fake, jealous, and competitive) instead of “kind” (authentically altruistic, imperfect, and compassionate). This skewed dichotomy is the fuel that powers so much of our societal dysfunction.
Where I live in Seattle, folks refer to this surfeit of fake niceness without any intent of relationship as the Seattle Freeze; in my husband’s hometown, it shows up as “Minnesota Nice.” The New Yorker in me loves when people are just straight up; give me that in-your-face-honesty (often coupled with granite-hard real love) any day.
Reflection: how does the politics and politesse of perfection get in the way of being the really “best” you that you might want to be? How does it lead to you creating hierarchies of valor and merit in your circles? Who ends up near the bottom, or in the “undesirable” layer? How does that align with prevalent societal discriminatory patterns?
I know, right, light beach reading! But it’s my sincere hope that this collection of observations and invitations helps you feel a little less awk, and a little more aware about how societal and cultural norms can so often become societal and cultural harms. Maybe it helped sparked new ideas about how you can stay attentive, aware, engaged, and—dare I say it? Yes I do!—WOKE.
Have a good summer. Obey the NAACP and don’t give your tourist dollars to Florida.
P.S.: I’ve been a pescatarian for twenty-plus years, so I only have the faintest memory of how gross gristle is, but the metaphor made you look, right?
P.P.S. Folks have asked if I would convene spaces to explore this more deeply. Contact email@example.com to discuss.