DEI & Privilege: The Luxury of a Journey & The Necessity of an Expedition
At the beginning of the year, I embarked on my own adventure by leaving the academic world to take a position at a local healthcare system working in diversity and inclusion within a rural region of the state. As a researcher and scholar-activist, I am trained to observe, diagnose, deconstruct, re-imagine, and if necessary, reconstruct differently. Viewing this new position in terms of ethnographic action-research, I have come to multiple understandings about the nature of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) work within corporate environments. I’ll take some time to share just one of those observations in this brief essay.
Kim Tran’s recently published article in Harper’s Bazaar, “The Diversity and Inclusion Industry Has Lost Its Way”, helped me to put into words what I was feeling and observing. She wrote:
The pandemic-friendly virtual climate has changed nothing. Well-paid, shabbily dressed employees demand quick remedies to centuries' worth of disenfranchisement. Nervous middle managers in charge of ensuring that their racially homogenous teams remain productive, and thereby quiet, inquire about best practices. How can I prevent racial asymmetry, bias, inequity? Each a poorer euphemism than the last for the remnants of chattel slavery, genocide, and forced labor.
Sessions like these are endemic in the $8 billion diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) industry. Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and amid the glaring racial disparities of the COVID-19pandemic, interest in DEI jobs surged by 30 percent. But where did DEI come from? Who runs DEI initiatives? And, most importantly, why does DEI so often inhibit the real change for which many are calling?
As an academic, Tran’s questions struck a major chord with me. The last question, in particular, forced me to pause and think about the language used on a daily basis when discussing DEIA work within organizations and systems. Secondarily, I was intrigued to understand how a movement for the reallocation of power has morphed into an industry that is now more focused on reorganizing people which, as Tran remarks, signals the movement has been co-opted for capitalistic gain.
Of course, please know that this does not reflect the views of my employers but are my first quarter insights of the industry.
From Movement to Industry
It is not lost on me that DEIA is now an industry; while I have always been involved in the movement to reallocate power, dismantle inequitable systems, and develop a deep sense of inclusion and belonging, I have never done so within the structures of the industry of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. When did the movement get co-opted into an industrial complex? And we already know what occurs when movements, ideas, systems become rewoven into an industrial complex: the previously held righteous ideas become entangled in a capitalist web of production, widget counting, economic outputs, and return on investment calculations.
Every company in the country and now the Royal Family of the U.K. are employing diversity, equity, and inclusion specialists to assist them in journeying toward inclusivity, equitable practices, and diversification. As a Black man, on the one-hand I applaud these efforts; yet, as an academic who views this work through a lens of critical theory, I am highly skeptical of the intentions and motives behind these corporate efforts. This is not to say that there are not organizations and systems engaged in this work for a purpose other than the business case of DEIA or out of fear of being “found out” --- but how long will this trend last? A trend, yes, because industries have trends that are sexy today and outmoded tomorrow due to their inability positively impact the bottom line. Equity---the aim of this work---is not a trend, but both a process and an outcome in continuous recalibration toward justice.
I am more interested in the movement than in the industry. How can we sustain the movement of DEIA work, when power of this moment of wanes in the moral imagination of the majority white men and women leading our nation's corporations and systems?
The Luxury of a Journey
“This work is something we all have to do. We all have to examine the shadow we all carry as part of this society before we can heal or unintended racism”.
—Ralph M. Steele
I recently had a conversation with a friend working in DEIA across the country and I remarked how the word journey continues to rear its head when diversity practitioners, white leaders, and executives speak about DEIA initiatives. Let me be clear: marginalized people, Black people, Asian people, Latinx people, LGBTQIA people, people with dis- or exceptional abilities cannot afford the luxury of a journey. Language speaks to us and this "journeying" metaphor speaks to the privilege of whiteness, of maleness, of heteronormativity, of ableness, and of power in a manner that is so deeply engrained in the American psyche that it appears normal; it is not. Only those not impacted by inequity, white supremacy, patriarchy, or injustices of any kind would dare call this system transforming work a journey.
To journey implies a potentially long, casual, meandering process of learning, unlearning, reflecting, and pondering aimlessly to some destination not yet determined. While this approach may work for one's personal exploration of biases, prejudices, and an unending movement toward becoming anti-racist—this journeying does not and should not be the work of systems. However, once we apply capitalist ideals to movement work, viewing DEIA as journey becomes an intentional decision to sustain the industry of diversity. Remember, industries are concerned with their own maintenance. To this point, Tran writes:
"The people who populate DEI are who theorists call the national bourgeoisie, an entrepreneurial class of people of color interested in economic development (and personal enrichment) instead of liberation. Frantz Fanon said that the purview of the national bourgeoisie was “not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism.”
Systemic DEIA work is not a journey. To say it plainly: you can journey on your own time; however, the system must move toward understanding and undertake this work as an expedition.
When it comes to transforming systems for equity and inclusion, we no longer have the luxury of a journey.
The DEIA Equitable Expedition
“There’s something about a movement spirit where you transcend fear and you become part of something larger than fear.”
DEIA work like protest movements and scientific discovery are expeditions—a traveling into the unknown with an express purpose of discovery and exploration that ultimately leads to transformation. Expedition connotes a focused and engaged process of uncovering what lurks behind the next bend—a process of discovering what policies, practices, procedures, structures, and people that exists within your respective organizations as hinderances to wholeness, belonging, equitable outcomes, talent acquisition and retention, client/patient satisfaction, inclusive business practices, diverse vendors, and community trust. As a civilization, we know the level of destruction and oppression expeditions have the ability to produce; therefore, we must always undertake expeditions with equity as the rule and the goal. More pointedly, we must undertake this expedition with and for the people most impacted by the current inequity, lack of diversity, and exclusionary practices. The goals of equity and inclusion cannot be accomplished in a top-down, hierarchical approach.
In reimagining “the journey” into an equity expedition, the endeavor becomes a collective undertaking that reflects the needs of those most impacted or oppressed by the systemic inequity memorialized and reinforced in policy and procedure. The expedition allows all involved to exercise their imaginative muscle to reimagine and recreate their system, institution, or workplace into an equitable system that assists in creating a more diverse and inclusive environment.
Given the inequitable mortality rates due to COVID-19, the last few years of racial unrest, political upheaval, unabashed violence against Black and Asian peoples, and blatant white supremacists patriarchy, institutions and systems are out of time. There is no longer time to only journey. Rather, we must embark on a collective, focused, action-centered expedition toward equity and inclusion. No longer can leaders hide behind the language of journeying; institutions have been journeying for decades and marginalized communities—your employees, clients, patients, students, and vendors—have been suffering for centuries. Enough is enough.
In short, leaders of systems and institutions may personally be on a journey of self-discovery, introspection, transformation, and the interrogation of their biases; this personal journey is to be acknowledged. However, the people most impacted by the poor, intentional decisions of institutions and systems cannot afford the luxury of a journey; we need focused, collective action with a destination in mind, with equity as the goal—we need systems engaged in the hard work of equity expeditions. We need an expedition that sets out to discover the DEIA dead spaces within organizations, who actively diagnosis the issues, work together with the impacted community and the community in situ to develop interventions, and with all resources at their disposal begins to strategically correct and equitably redistribute institutional power. The journey is personal and the expedition systemic, institutional.
May the equity expedition be transformative and your personal journey fruitful.
David W. Robinson-Morris, Ph.D. is a reimaginelutionary. He currently serves as the Regional Director of Diversity and Inclusion of the Bayou Region for Ochsner Health. He is the Founding Director of The Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he also served as an Assistant Professor in the Division of Education and Counseling, and as the university’s Assistant Vice President of Development.
Influenced by his understanding of Ubuntu—a South African philosophical notion of communalism and shared humanity—Dr. Robinson-Morris’ work promotes deep dialogical engagement as an approach to achieving racial, gender, and health equity when communities come to understand that our humanity is shared and is a quality we owe another. True equity and systemic transformation, in our communities and in our institutions, can only be realized when come to understand difference as generative and the collective mandates systems to align policy and practice toward inclusion, which leads to a sense of belonging and mattering for every individual. His understanding of Ubuntu coupled with that of Eastern (Buddhist) philosophy informs his ongoing understanding of our shared, collective humanity.
As a scholar, David’s primary research centers on a single question: What does it mean to be a human being? This question continuously informs his approaches to management, teaching, and community involvement.
He can be reached at email@example.com.