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Why Your Diversity Initiatives Are Doomed

May 22, 2019, 5:35 PM UTC

Nicole Anand, a political economist and multi-disciplinary design strategist, has just published a compelling piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. She begins by acknowledging the obvious: There’s a lot of crowd noise about diversity these days, but not much seems to be happening yet.

In the past few years, a race to the top regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in international civil society has brought about energetic collaboration and discussion. Popular DEI practices include a “no manels” pledge through which men honor a vow against participating in “all-male” conference panels, discussions of appointing women and people of color to boards of directors, and organizational strategies with goals of promoting marginalized persons into leadership positions.

It appears now, that we’re in the thick of the middle of this conversation, that deeper issues are emerging. I know from three-plus years on the race beat, people are getting frustrated.

For one thing, there hasn’t been much progress.

Anand notes correctly that the move from what-to-do to why-isn’t-this-working is a painful step. “This prompts questions about international civil society’s understanding of diversity and the reasons for its absence,” she says. “It also reminds us that solutions to systemic issues like racial inequity often tackle symptoms, such as demographic representation, and overlook deeply rooted causes, from institutional discrimination to cultural bias and transgenerational trauma.”

What follows is a passionate discussion of “checkbox-style interpretations of identity,” which have been embraced by organizations looking for an emotionally tolerable diversity fix. That strategy is often doomed. So, when the “diversity hire” doesn’t work out, the self-supporting tropes are trotted out: Bad culture fit. Lowered the bar. Didn’t meet expectations. Sometimes, they just quit. “[T]he person willfully leaves the job due to the stress of dealing with one of the most commonly felt flaws of checkbox diversity: its prompting of questions about tokenism.”

The problems are amplified in global businesses or organizations that default to Western management theories – those emphasizing efficiency and productivity to run internal processes, she says. (You’re going to want to refamiliarize yourself with neo-colonial theory for this section.)

As depressing as all of this sounds, Anand offers a re-framing that I found profoundly encouraging.

If you look to check boxes and simply expect the non-majority culture person to assimilate, you’ve missed the beauty of their presence. Because they walk through the world differently than you, they see opportunities and problems differently than you. That’s the gift.

“For organizations to succeed at DEI, they must internally embrace people’s different approaches to problem-solving that are shaped by their unique lived experience,” she says, a process which will take practice, ego-reduction, listening and most of all, a willingness to re-think power.

Here’s how I interpret that: It is not the job of non-majority culture people to dazzle you with their “different” ideas, then blend back in. It’s everyone’s job to learn how to craft new solutions together, as idea-generating peers. The new leadership imperative, as I see it, is to find ways to help people become gifts to each other.

She has three practical tips that I know you’ll find useful, but I’ll focus on just one. People with “different ideas” are often annoying. But the “challenge” is the whole point, she says. “Diversity in approaches to problem-solving means those who are doing it differently may be perceived as disruptive rebels for having an alternative path to improving social issues,” she says.

As a person with a long history of being a checked box with annoying (okay, often bad) ideas, it made me smile. Sure, some deserved to die immediately, others were salvaged for parts. But talking things through with an eye toward unconventional action seems like a good practice in itself. Even if an idea ends up in intellectual hospice, the very process would stoke curiosity, empathy, equity, and boldness.

It might even impact your bottom line.

(For more fodder, I recommend Nilofer Merchant’s research and work, The Power of Onlyness, which raceAhead recently covered here.)

As a leadership super-nerd and proud leadership book writer/editor I want to know more about how this could work. Any ideas to share? Hit me up. Let’s equalize the world and be gifts to each other.

On Point

Senator Kamala Harris vows to fine companies who pay men more than womenAdd it to the growing list of serious, specific proposals from many of the current crop of presidential candidates. If she were to win the presidency, Harris vows to take executive action to create an “Equal Pay Certification” scheme administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Companies would be obligated to prove they are paying employees of all genders equal pay for their work. If instituted, the data collection alone would be real progress. Fines paid by non-compliant companies would be used to finance universal paid family leave. “When you lift up the economic status of women, you lift up their families, their neighborhoods, and all of society,” she said.Washington Post

After backlash, Hong Kong approves a lovely LGBTQ-friendly ad
A previously banned Cathay Pacific Airways ad featuring two men holding hands on a beach has now been approved after a successful grassroots uproar. After a Hong Kong newspaper reported that the city’s airport had prohibited the ad in its terminals, the LGBTQ advocacy group Big Love Alliance launched a campaign to release the ad by urging people to post pictures of themselves holding hands with their same-sex partners in the airport. As the internets became flooded with pictures and commentary, the airport conceded defeat. Hong Kong still has yet to recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions.
SBS News

Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan author and gay rights activist, has died
Wainaina won the 2002 Caine prize for African writing in 2014 when challenged a spate of anti-gay laws with the wrenching essay I Am a Homosexual, Mum, in which he imagined having told his mother the truth on her deathbed. A prolific writer, the literary journal Granta has an epic thread of some of his other work here, but he may be best known for his extraordinary essay “How to Write About Africa,” which I was amazed to learn he wrote when he was still a student. “As a student, he sent the magazine a strongly-worded letter condemning our 1994 Africa issue. His ironic critique was so incisive and true that we published it,” Granta tweeted. It’s vicious and so true, so re-read it if you’ve got the time. It’s the send-off he deserves.  He was 48. Pumzika kwenye nguvu, Mr. Wainaina. More on his life here.

On Background

Confront bias and still stay friends
When confronting bias, it’s better not to call people names, tempting as it may be to explain to someone how racist or sexist they sound. For one thing, science shows it won’t change their minds. Name calling and shaming people will “automatically put them on the defensive,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, the co-founder and director of Perception Institute. So what to do? Start by evaluating your relationship with the person, and assessing opportunity costs, risks, and goals. If the person is important to you, remember that “you're coming from a place of shared values” and it’s an “opportunity to build a bridge rather than break it,” says Johnson. Listen, ask questions, and don’t attempt to fight facts with facts. To move forward, Johnson says we need to learn to “reset conversations so that people aren’t worried about being perceived as biased, but are instead focused on growing...”
Fast Company

The incredible true story of the black psychiatrists who changed television
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the Black Psychiatrists of America convened with a singular goal: To force the psychiatric community to acknowledge its own racism and to address the racism in the entire country. Led by Dr. Chester Pierce, and driven by the quest for widespread cultural change, Pierce decided to focus on television. He worried the messages conveyed by mainstream television were psychologically harmful to young people of color. He wanted mass media to “serve rather than to oppress the black people of this country.” Pierce worked his way into an advisory position for a new show that aimed to bring education into the homes of kids everywhere. And that, is the little known and true story of how we actually got to Sesame Street, the most ground-breaking and racially diverse show the country had ever seen.
The Daily Beast

How does poverty affect low-income kids?
A new report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that threatening childhood experiences can change the way kids learn math and the alphabet, can hurt their ability to read and can cause a permanent alteration of their physiology called “toxic stress.” The researchers also found that children in a family with an income of $20,000 or less are more likely to be exposed to toxic stress; further, that black kids have more exposure than their white peers. These “threatening experiences” can be found in the home, such as a parent in prison or an abusive parent, and can be found in the neighborhood, like witnessing violence, noise, and public drug and alcohol use. Schools and community interventions can play a role in mitigating the damage. “While management of the effect of toxic stress on children is essential, it may be that at least some can be prevented with targeted initiatives,” says K.A. Dilday of CityLab.

Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.


All people have dignity. There’s nobody who was born without a soul and a spirit. There is nobody who is a beast or an animal, right? Everyone, we homosexuals, are people and we need our oxygen to breathe.
—Binyavanga Wainaina