Dealing With Diversity? Some tips for my fellow privileged white folk.

Recently I've been confronted with the systemic biases and lack of diversity for an organization I run.  It wasn't a total surprise.  I, and the rest of the board, were already aware of the problem and taking some steps to fix it, but when it became a public conversation we suddenly became truly accountable.  As a a result, I have had more conversations about diversity than I ever have in my life, and I have learned a lot.

So let's just say you are a bit like me: white, middle class, and educated.  Let's say you are involved in any group (a workplace, church, volunteer organization, whatever) that, despite the best intentions of everyone involved, remains conspicuously dominated by your fellow white people.  What next?

Well, the learning is an ongoing process, and so with full knowledge that I might later be taught something new that changes how I approach diversity, here is what I have learned so far.


1) It's not about me.  Or you.

The first thing that we feel compelled to do when confronted with a racial imbalance in our lives is defend how "not racist" we are.  Guess what?  That doesn't even matter.  It's not about you and your racism, or lack thereof.  That is kind of beside the point.

If your organization is not reflective of the society you live in, that probably means there is some kind of systemic bias or barrier keeping people away.  Recognizing this, and using the word "racism" when discussing it, is simply not the same as calling you a racist.  Spending all your energy defending yourself distracts from the real work that needs to be done.

2) Get comfortable identifying people based on race.

Those of us raised in non-blatantly-racist societies were taught growing up that merely identifying a person's skin colour verges on racist, and certainly doing anything based on the colour of a person's skin is wrong

In theory, that's true.  It shouldn't matter what colour a person's skin is, and since we're all of equal value as humans, then we shouldn't need to worry about it.

Unless, of course, you live in a society where countless structures and systems were put into place with racial segregation and oppression in mind and you want to try to correct that imbalance.  Then you kind of need to be able to talk about it.

This discomfort talking about race in frank terms is a side-effect of privilege.  One great article that helped drive this home for me is I, Racist, where the author describes, among other things, how Black people have no choice but to identify based on their race.
"To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people. We don't see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot...  Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people."
- John Metta, I, Racist
This made me realize that my discomfort with identifying people based on their race is entirely a result of my ability to feel "raceless" in the world, and my discomfort identifying and talking about race is a direct offshoot from that privilege.

At the end of the day, if your organization has no people of colour involved, then the only way to find out what is keeping them away is to ask them.  You can't do that if you never recognize that a person has a different background than you.  No, you don't force one person to be "the Middle Eastern representative" in your life and to answer for all Middle Eastern people everywhere, but you do recognize that you might need to ask some Middle Eastern people what it's like to be Middle Eastern.


3) Just stop with the "merit" talk.

One of the first things that comes out of most peoples' mouths when confronted with diversity in their organizations is "well I can't hire a person just because they're [insert race/ability/religious/gender/sexuality-based identifier here], I want to hire the best person for the job."

Once again, let's get over ourselves an look at the world a little differently, shall we?  There are more options than "hiring the best person for the job and it's only a coincidence that they're all young white guys" and "hiring anyone who ticks a diversity box regardless of merit", and if you truly think that there are no people who are qualified to work with you who aren't white, able-bodied, young men, then maybe you actually are a bigot and that's a different issue.

Honestly, when people talk like this, what I think they are doing is looking for an excuse.  They don't want to make a change, and so they blow it out of proportion using the most extreme example of the opposite problem to give themselves a pass.

Besides, if you think every white person got their job based on merit, you clearly aren't paying attention.  In most industries, opportunities come from who you know, not what you know.  Ask yourself what background a person might need to have to know the "right" people.

4) Get ready for some actual hard work.

We do things the way we do them because it's easy and reliable. We know what we're getting when we buy another Apple product, read books by the same authors, hire people we know.

At my organization, we recruited people mostly based on personal recommendations.  It was straightforward, familiar, safe, and required the least amount of effort, all valuable qualities for a volunteer-based organization.  We never intended all the people we recruited to be white, but that generally wound up being the case.

Honestly?  Changing the way we recruited was hard.  I had to question every instinct I had, and that was exhausting.  Sometimes I wanted to stop caring about it and just go back to the easy way because I was busy and tired and had a lot of other things to do and couldn't people just materialize out of thin air for me, please?

More honesty?  Working with the new board has, occasionally, been hard.  New people are bringing new perspectives.  They are forcing us to question the way we do things and stand by our choices.  They are holding us accountable to the kind of organization we want to be.  This is welcome, and it is not easy.  I am grateful it's happening and sometimes I wish I could just go back to business as usual.  I want change to happen, and I wish it would kind of just happen without the sticky part in the middle.

Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of thing you can half-ass.  I'm not trying to scare you, but it's worth being honest about.  You can't snap your finger and fix years of systemic biases, barriers, and racism.


5) Know your motives.

No matter what, in the world, in life, in running an organization, you are going to piss people off.  You're never going to do everything right, especially when it comes to diversity.  You could do all you can to recruit a diverse board or staff or volunteer team, and find that you still wind up with a majority white staff, or that you don't have enough women, or that there are no people with disabilities.

There will be an ever-changing roster of what is considered "diverse" and we will always be a step behind because there will aways be a privilege that we don't realize exists until we see who is suffering under it.

If you are embracing diversity just to get people off your back, then this will sound like a reason to not even bother.  If it can never be perfect, if someone will always be offended, then why try to do anything?

Because it's the right thing to do.  If that's your reason, then that's all that matters in the end.  If it's not, and you are doing this to make other people happy or to look good, then you might still do something positive, but you're going to feel angry and defensive every step of the way.

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