Diversity Diversion

In the last three or four years there has been a rapid growth in stated concerns for issues of “diversity” in many areas of society. Partly in response to demographic projections for the early twenty-first century there is an almost hectic move to “diversify” Boards and staffs of innumerable organizations. In the corporate world, in higher education, and among social service agencies “diversity initiatives” have spawned a growing number of trainers who guide the “diversifying” process, and prepare both individuals and the organizational climate for “diversity.”

My response to the “diversity” emphasis is much like that which was mine when the “multicultural” emphasis first became the rage a few years back. I want to affirm both, but also to point out that both very frequently fail to deal with racism. Racism in my little corner of the world still is the foundational issue. The problem with “diversity” is that it may not, and often does not touch the underlying problem, the root of racism. I want to explore some of the ways that an emphasis on “diversity” too often works to “divert” attention away from racism.

The idea of “diversity” is itself based on a puzzling view of human life. I have always assumed that all people are “diverse,” that any two people are in fact quite different. This conviction is based on assumptions about the uniqueness of human personality; “no one else is like you,” I was always taught. With that assumption in mind, I see “diversity” everywhere when even two or three people gather. That phenomenon is obviously not what the “diversity initiative” is about. That initiative is focused on “difference” which is identifiable by appearance, as in race or color, sometimes physical impairments, or by stated conditions, such as sexual orientation. Then I begin to get a clue as to how “diversity” is determined. The intent is to bring together people who bring to any combined effort a richness of “difference” which has too often been ignored and frequently avoided. That goal is one which I enthusiastically affirm, a promise of a creative and exciting future.

“Diversity” is basically an idea which is measured against an often unstated norm, which becomes clear as I hear people talk about the subject. It is common for me to receive phone calls or in-person inquiries from people who seek help in “diversifying” an aspect of an organization in which they have some measure of decision-making influence. In my experience the people making those inquiries are almost always speaking about organizations which are predominantly white. I have never had a person of color call to ask about “diversifying” an organization composed mostly of people of color. That is an interesting phenomenon, rooted in an assumption about who is “diverse.” Obviously it is not white people who are regarded by these inquirers as “diverse.” The unstated assumption is that the organization will become “diverse” only when some “diverse” people are added! That is a rather perverse idea, because it does not credit whites with any uniqueness at all. Even more seriously, it is based on an assumption that “difference,” “diversity” is measured against a white norm. Therein lies a potential problem… the norm is white. (Or the norm is male, middle class, heterosexual, “abled,” etc; here I want to focus on the issue of race.) On the rock of that white norm many a “diversity” program can be scuttled.

That the norm remains white could be the source of much unintentional, hard-to-identify racism. In subtle ways that norm works to undermine the intention to become “diverse.” The people who are “different,” who “diverge” from the norm are the “diverse” ones. Sometimes a subtle assumption works to affirm those who constitute the norm as being in some ways superior, that is in fact the practical function of a norm. The norm establishes what is “normal,” and it is often tough to divorce that idea of “normal” from an idea of what is best.

There is a danger that “diversity” may become an unintentional “diversion” from facing the subtle working of racism. When whiteness is the norm there is a racist assumption at the ground level of every program, every attempt to “diversify.” So the racism works at a subliminal level like carpenter ants, weakening the whole structure. A few examples may give an indication of how this dynamic sometimes occurs.

A social service agency, with a predominantly white staff, engages its staff in “diversity” training, with one of its stated objectives being to make the staff more alert to the possibilities of racism affecting its delivery of services to an increasingly, racially diverse clientele. The agency is proud to point to the in-creased sensitivities it engenders among the staff. While the training sessions are proceeding, over the course of several months, three staff changes are made, with a net gain of two whites on staff. Hardly the way to “diversify!” The failure to implement a change in staff undercuts the most obvious way that the agency could reach its stated “diversity” objective. Attention in the meantime has been “diverted” to the “diversity” training.

A business is concerned that there are unintentional racist effects in the way it conducts itself, and so it undertakes a strong affirmative action program. The result is a rapid diversification of its personnel by race, and the corporation soon develops a reputation for seriousness in its “diversity” program, and it enjoys calling public attention to that record. It proclaims “diversity” as one of its priority objectives. That becomes a cover for the fact that most of its employees of color are at low-level entry wages, with insecure positions, and there is no plan implemented to change that pattern. The newly “diverse” staff does not reach the levels where major decisions are made. So the same old patterns of determining decisions, of setting policies, continues because the same decision-makers are still guiding the process. The employment figures show increased “diversity,” but nothing very substantial has changed, and the racist effects of policies about which the company was concerned in the first place are likely to continue.

A school does a reasonably good job of “diversifying” its teaching staff but control over its curriculum does not allow for anything but “cosmetic” changes, and the instructional methodology is not questioned. The complexion of the staff is more “diverse,” but little else has changed. An increasing number of students of color, whose primary language is not English, find little help in a curriculum which does not change, in theories of learning which do not reflect a sensitivity to the new population, and it soon becomes clear that the newly “diversified” faculty will not demonstrate any substantially improved ability to educate linguistic minorities. The appearance of “diversity” obscures the more basic problem.

Diversity initiatives need not work this way, and sometimes do actually bring about significant changes in what may have been the patterns of racism. I have seen that happen also, and when it does it is a moment for celebration. Enthusiasm for those moments is tempered by another reality which often sees simply one more way of “diverting” America’s attention from the problems of racism.

When that happens I like to call it the “Perversity of Diversity.”