In Pursuit of Equity in a World that Isn’t Interested

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Key Points: 

  • DEI work has become a negative word in many companies and is directly impacted by the political climate. 
  • Barriers to equity work include lack of data and assessment, backlash/retaliation, incomplete initiatives and failed attempts, and decreased resources and interest, “DEI washing,” and “diversity fatigue.” 
  • To continue the work, organizations need to move, even if just a little bit at a time.

Key Terms:

  • Diversity Fatigue
  • Diversity Resistance 
  • DEI Retaliation 
  • DEI Washing
  • Benevolent Marginalization

What is Diversity Fatigue?

Undoubtedly, DEI work has hit a wall in many organizations. Leaders scrambled to implement anti-bias trainings and adopt anti-racist statements after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. But, three years later, those initiatives are collapsing or are long-gone.

The political climate directly impacts even the most progressive of workplaces. We have crazen lawmakers who are undoing years of justice work and spreading their ideologies to increase their base. There is coded and nouveau racism rapidly untying years of progress. Leaders who are not wholly committed to anti-oppressive practice can fall for the problematic white supremacy rhetoric. 

It is incredibly discouraging for equity warriors who feel that they need to persist and mobilize but are exhausted. It can be devastating and downright debilitating to experience organizational resistance and pushback.

Call it diversity fatigue or ‘resistance that is necessary for change,’ but another truth exists--- that folx are experiencing organizational retaliation for saying the words ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ ‘inclusion’ and ‘belonging.’ 

These are weighty barriers to effective equity work. 

To be fair, DEI work never had an exceptional reputation, but it became a shiny datapoint to share with boards and in newsletters in 2020, also known as “DEI washing.” Unfortunately, because most leaders 1) have trouble defining and understanding equity work and 2) wanted speedy fixes to a structural, institutional, interpersonal and internalized problem, the initiatives largely failed and the malaise set in on our corporate and nonprofit DEI efforts. 

For many companies, it happened like this: 

  1. A discriminatory event occurred or a ‘statement’ was made in response to a current event. 
  2. Leaders dove into DEI by reading White Fragility, creating book groups or task forces.  
  3. Perhaps targets to hire diverse talent were set. But, biases remained in the interview practice or in the recruitment policies. Or, policies were examined and data was collected, and that was it.
  4. No real and consistent DEI work occurred, like visioning, strategic planning, systemic consultation with experts, commitment to long-term budgeting, and/or the organization did not provide a sense of belonging, did not respect the new ‘diverse’ hires, did not offer any power/inclusion and folx left the organization; 
  5. management was frustrated with the preliminary results, or unconsciously satisfied that the work would not continue; and 
  6. leadership didn’t deal with their unrealistic expectations, and shut down the work. 

If it wasn’t quite that, it was some similar scenario and “DEI'' related-activity happened and dissipated. This is inauthentic DEI work at best and it is the most common type of DEI work that companies adopt. It is reactive, simplistic and pimps out diversity for funding or to persuade clientele to use services, and it is futile. 

Ineffectiveness and inauthenticity leads to decreased resources and funding, half-assed programming and unresolved tensions. And, it is depressing.  

    1. Insert the fatigue. Staff are exhausted, leadership is fearful of the tension that is unresolved with no process for reparation in sight, and BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities sit with harm they endured without restoration and repair. 
    2. Diversity becomes a dirty word. Employees and leaders latch on to the political attempts to equate critical race theory with DEI work. Now, uttering DEI related words becomes risky, a scarlet letter, a social justice burden to carry, even more than it was before. 
    3. Cue the Diversity Resistance-- refusal to put money towards DEI efforts, cutting initiatives, low attendance in DEI programming, postponement of projects, and disregard, and misunderstanding of the purpose, and no buy-in and support by leaders
  •  Here is where the backlash and retaliation for pushing DEI enters the game. This is nouveau racism at play. It can sound or read something like: 
  • “We spent a lot of time on race and identity, now we are going to focus on getting back to pre-COVID numbers. That is our priority.” 
  • or an email from leadership to all staff: “Did anyone use the banned term ‘CRT’ in their decks last year?,” 
  • “They slow down the work by always talking about DEI. We are not using the race card anymore.” and 

 

Why is it still important to push for equity?

The evidence shows that DEI done well with specific strategies and implementations to manage a diverse workforce increases profits, creativity, retention, and reduces turnover in organizations. But, it takes time, planning, and courage to push the conversation on equity when your organization would rather focus on program quality and outcomes. The glossy bows and ribbons around DEI work have faded, even if focusing on equity and belonging would benefit the company. 

But for many of us, safety has always been an issue especially since the 2020 murders, and all of the killings, certainly since the Spring 2023 shooting of 16 year old Ralph Yarl, the destructive end to Affirmative Action, and the pride-flag-motivated murdering of Laura Ann Carleton in August 2023. 

Extremists, racists and unscrupulous lawmakers are not hiding their antagonistic beliefs, and instead are codifying their hate into our laws, and into the fabric of our society. Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation ratifies those with hateful views and 94% of trans and nonbinary adults report feeling unsafe as a result of bans on gender-affirming care. These laws affirm hatred, stigma and validate discriminatory acts, and they seep into our organizations. 

Some of us live in a persistent and consistent nightmare, hoping and praying we make it back safely from a trip to another state, from a basketball game, the supermarket, even from your organization’s steps. This attacks our efforts, even the small ones that we work towards, and is like a leaky drain pipe for our progress. We work and work and work without physical and psychological safety. 

Prioritizing equity ensures better program quality and results, but it takes real energy and effort, strategy and commitment. Organizations who are examining themselves, their policies and their harm, create more spaces for BIPOC, LGBTQIA, Disabled people, and varying religious backgrounds to feel safer, whole and important. 

That is why you should continue to push, despite your organization’s malaise or ‘diversity fatigue’. Swearing is proven to reduce social pain, so keep declaring the dirty words of ‘diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging’ in order to take good care of those around you who need more safety. 


How should we push forward?

  • Get ready. We are in a new wave of rampant racism. What do you need to know? Who do you need to study? How do the changes to laws impact your constituents? What are the coded political statements and nouveau racism tactics affecting people around you?
  • Collect data- Who are you serving? Who aren’t you serving? Who works with you? Who doesn’t? Who does your organization benevolently marginalize? Who are you flat out biased against? In what ways is your company ableist? What religions are you neglecting? Keep studying and study again. 
  • Focus on learning about identities who cannot show their full selves. Examine your organizations, your policies. Who is missing? Who is speaking but not heard? Who is heard but not seen? What is the impact of your policies? For example, what is happening in your hiring practices and background checks? Or how is AAVE rejected in your meetings, hiring or culture? 
  • Even if there are just two people on your equity team, meet regularly. If only one of you can show up, read or watch something related to your goals. Always meet. Always read. Stay learning. Check in with each other. Read current events. Take care of each other. Your group will grow again. Move the needle, even if just a little bit and measure again. 
  • Get help. Everyone needs a coach. Find experts who can guide your organization and your leaders to a place that truly prioritizes the experiences of those who are excluded. [At RE-Center Race & Equity in Education, coaching is an essential part of all of our partnerships. In addition to the article we included in this issue, stay tuned for our coaching framework to be released in spring 2024!]

Lyrica is a Racial Justice Strategist & Coach, Therapist, Writer, new mom, is Black with a white parent, is rooted by Haitian love while running around on Onondowaga + Setalcott + Lenape (also known as ‘Rochester,’ ‘Port Jefferson,’ & ‘Manhattan’) lands.