The racial reckoning that gained traction with the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and the protests that galvanized the nation immediately afterwards remain potent influences on how we think about race in this country. One enduring impact is that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become watchwords in the workplace.
Like employers in most settings, community-based organizations have tried to put the DEI concept into practice by hiring more staff of color. That’s a start, but head count alone is not enough. Hiring and retention practices that promote diversity do not by themselves establish an environment in which everyone feels included, supported, and valued. If people of color are to thrive, move into positions of influence, and gain power and decision-making authority, much more needs to be done.
The goal is clear: a workplace that recognizes, honors, and relies on the unique strengths of those who contribute to its mission. Just as evolution gifted us the biological diversity that enables organisms to survive, so, too, do racial, cultural, and linguistic differences set the stage for all to flourish. In our complex society, we do best when we use differences as transformative, innovation-enabling tools.
Yet most of us are more comfortable engaging with people who have norms, values, and life experiences similar to ours. There is a certain safety in limiting ourselves to familiar circles where we are grounded in shared assumptions and a common language. Indeed, that predictability is so appealing that even if we are thrust together with people of unfamiliar backgrounds, our impulse is to ignore differences, rather than try to process and respond to them.
For that reason, many people of color have adopted the strategy of code switching—described by the Harvard Business Review as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” To put it more bluntly, we learn to “act white” in settings where most of our colleagues don’t look like us because that may be the only way to get ahead. Or we look for white allies and empower them to present our ideas, knowing they are more likely to gain traction that way.
White people minimize differences for other reasons. Acknowledging uneven levels of privilege and power feels threatening, as if elevating equity is a zero-sum game that means one party must inevitably lose for another to win. Adopting the myth of a colorblind world makes it easier to avoid soliciting fresh perspectives, listening to new voices, and sharing seats at the table.
We need to confront the harms that result. Structures that require people of color to dilute their true selves, or allow others to speak for them, undermine all that they have to offer. Structures that permit white people to pretend we are all the same (“I don’t see color”) allow them to avoid confronting racism.
Only when we recognize the personal, organizational, and societal benefits of uplifting differences can we appreciate the value of centering equity and genuine power-sharing in the workplace. From there, we can insist on actions that foster advancement for all. A body of emerging research points towards a systems approach that emphasizes historical and social context to understand how structural racism has been internalized and be rooted out. Techniques that position privilege as a gift to be acknowledged and appreciated, rather than an awkward burden to be denied, allow those who have privilege to engage more meaningfully with those who do not.
Responsibility for driving change and growing the anti-racist movement should lie not only with people of color, for whom the effort poses significant personal and professional risks, but also with those who hold power. Organizational leaders should be conducting equity audits, developing a reparations framework to accommodate past inequities, and actively pursuing transformational decision-making. Funders should “move the money” so that it goes exclusively to agencies that have infused DEI into every corner. That includes looking carefully at staff demographics to ensure that meaningful diversity does not stop at entry or mid-level positions but rather extends to the executive and board levels. Grantmaking entities may also have to look inward to expose their own inequities, a step that can be as uncomfortable as it is crucial to credibility.
Genuine equity and inclusion demand that we move away from optics and towards awareness, intentionality, and accountability. The prize—stronger organizations, professionals from a variety of backgrounds positioned to thrive, and enriched communities—is both motivator and goalpost.
We sound an action call to our allies and accomplices: become disruptors and commit to dismantling racist systems and structures. There is no neutral position here. Either we act together to promote belonging and advance equity, or we preserve the inequitable status quo.