Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Committees Have Way Too Much Power | Opinion

In 2020, moral outrage bloomed across the nation after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer who held his knee on Floyd's neck for over eight minutes. In the wake of this horrifying event, an already volatile discourse about racial equality erupted into mass protests. But when outrage becomes a nation's default mode, broad overcorrections are sure to follow. This case was no exception.

The phenomenon of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committees blossoming at schools and businesses across the nation is one symptom of such sweeping overcorrection. While a committee devoted to diversity sounds promising and can certainly work toward leveling the playing field, the result can be catastrophic if it is awarded unchecked power.

Sadly, across the board, these committees have been awarded such power.

It's no secret that DEI training has become a billion-dollar industry. We've also known for some time that such training doesn't always work. Moreover, despite its noble and lofty aspirations, what DEI committees and practitioners mean by "diverse" in their attempts to bring diversity to the workplace is not actual diversity. No one is looking for representatives from all races, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic or ideological positions. All too often, institutions are concerned only with the ratio of Black individuals to "white" individuals, or with vilifying whiteness altogether.

The evidence that diversity has been whittled down into a Black/white binary is everywhere. Last year, corporations like Nike, Walmart, and others pledged $100 million to an effort to hire Black employees. Meanwhile, DEI initiatives and school "diversity training" is often reduced to educating communities about the problems with "whiteness" rather than the value of difference. Story after story has emerged in recent months about schools in which celebrations of diversity amount to little more than asking parents to reflect on their whiteness.

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This is not a perversion of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; it's what DEI is really about. Businesses and schools alike know that if they can't boast cosmetic diversity, they risk allegations of discrimination. And this fetishization ends up harming everyone involved. DEI efforts represent a double-edged sword for employees from minority communities, the BBC reported, "as employers disproportionately lean on them to come up with initiatives, join committees and help formulate diversity game plans." And often, this is the only lens through which employers are willing to see them. In one case reported in the New York Times, a Black woman working in educational technology sales was contacted on LinkedIn with a request to lead an executive program on diversity—a request she declined because it is not her field. When she inquired instead about a sales position, the silence was deafening.

More recently, schools have rushed to form committees devoted to organizing anti-bias training and making curricula explicitly "anti-racist." Like diversity, this sounds like a good thing; who wants to be on the other side of anti-racism? But what is meant by "anti-racist" varies wildly depending on who is asked. More importantly, bias against certain groups is not just tolerated but sometimes even endorsed. For example, despite the rise in anti-Asian crimes since the pandemic began, Asian Americans are increasingly referred to as "white," "white adjacent," or "conditionally white" based not on race or ethnicity but on success and upward mobility. Recent uproars over alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants to Ivy League institutions speak clearly to this growing phenomenon.

It's not just Asians, either. The idea of whiteness is used as a cudgel against anyone threatens the binary of powerful vs. oppressed. If you're a person of color who doesn't vote Democrat, for example, you may be assailed for your "multiracial whiteness." In retrospect, it was an obvious development in a world where race is the foundation for every disagreement, rendering inexplicable the increasing visibility of Latino and Black faces in crowds of conservatives, Trump supporters, and even at the January 6 insurrection; one organizer of "Stop the Steal," for instance, identifies as Black and Arab. And a leader of the Proud Boys identifies as Afro-Cuban Latino. You would think these blatant facts would demonstrate the absurdity of using race alone to frame everything. You would be wrong.

Race has been so deeply politicized that it can be difficult to discuss it apolitically. For this reason, schools should avoid handing a disproportionate amount of power to people who are largely untrained and subject to their own biases. And yet, they are only being given more and more power, in ever more inappropriate settings.

In an anti-bias training session I attended at my son's LA school, one white male parent was asked pointedly how many Black people live in his neighborhood and how many Black friends he has. The goal was not to explore all implicit biases, but to call out individuals of certain races and genders and force them into a moment of reckoning.

Later, parents discovered that a member of the DEI committee had quietly updated the school website with controversial positions that are hotly contested in both liberal and conservative spaces. One article to which the school page links lists three allegedly racist holidays: Columbus Day, Passover, and Hannukah. Another article explores the alleged racism of stories including Curious George, Madeline, and Snow White. A diversity glossary including terms like "bicurious," "intersectionality," and "equity" (ensuring equal outcomes, as opposed to "equality," ensuring equal opportunities) and including references to Robin D'Angelo, added to the site without input from administrators. The parent was given free rein as a member of the DEI committee.

I wish this was an aberration, but it's par for the course. Coca Cola has come under fire for its diversity training, which uses Robin D'Angelo's materials and calls for employees to be "less white." Smith College, following a mandatory retreat focusing on racial issues, has been accused by a former staff member of creating a "racially hostile environment in which individual acts of discrimination and hostility flourish." Bryn Mawr, Princeton, and New York's Dalton School have all been in the news for caving to destructive anti-racist demands. And when anyone challenges the methods used by DEI facilitators, they are accused of using "white privilege."

It's no wonder that many are coming to see that anti-racism arguments are divisive and potentially destructive when it comes to building community. And while there are certainly DEI programs that do not rely on dividing people by race, the most popular programs often force people into categories that ignore the complexity of identity despite claiming to do the opposite.

We know that racial discrimination in America exists. Acknowledging this is an important first step in working toward a world where we all have equal opportunities to succeed. Diversity and inclusion are essential, but only in a form that does not render historical grievances the only marker of diversity.

Reaching for simplistic lessons on bias that we can devour quickly rather than critically is not helpful. Extreme ideologies that rely on either-or thinking do not correspond to the sensibilities of most Americans, so it should go without saying that embedding these ideas in school and business cultures is more likely to result in racial and political tribalism than real diversity.

Racism is real, and we must fight it. But handing the reigns to people who have little understanding of the complex issues over which they have control will backfire immeasurably.

Monica Osborne is a writer and former professor of literature, film, and trauma studies. She is the author of The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma. Follow her on Twitter: @DrMonicaOsborne.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.