The idea of diversity and inclusion (often simplified to D&I) has been a longstanding requirement for both schools and workplaces in order to provide a safe environment for people of all backgrounds. Although the idea of D&I may be well-intentioned and has enabled progress in many respects, the history of this initiative is rooted in assimilationist thinking.
According to Los Angeles Times California columnist Gustavo Arellano and USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism professor Félix Gutérrez, who spoke at the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, these initiatives began after the civil rights movement in order to desegregate spaces. At a time when many white folks were adamant about diversifying their workplaces and schools, these quotas of increasing diversity and providing workshops to become more inclusive made sense. The problem is that many of these efforts instead cause segregation within work and school spaces and encourage people of different marginalized groups to assimilate into the Anglo culture.
For one, when having conversations concerning race, there will always be people who are adamantly against being open-minded and cooperative. Although forcing these types of people to have tough conversations is good for their own growth and knowledge, it also forces members of marginalized communities to sit in a room with closed-minded people, harming the very individuals these initiatives are designed to help.
To prevent this, some initiatives are very base-level and don’t actually engage in any conversations that are emotionally charged enough to cause white fragility, when white people have to reckon with and often deny their innate privilege. This looks like reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” over something like “How To Be An Antiracist” to make a curriculum less controversial or “race neutral.” Alternatively, some spaces opt to have white or white-passing groups and a group including Black and Indigenous people and people of color conduct separate workshops. Both of these routes may be helpful in that they are, at the very least, sparking conversation, but they are ultimately ineffective as real vehicles of diversity and inclusion.
If workplaces or schools choose to talk about race in basic terms to prevent white fragility, once again, the privileged group’s emotions are being valued more than those of the marginalized groups. Moreover, if spaces are separated based on identity — although this does provide a support group for marginalized people — that only reinforces the idea that segregation is OK to make sure everyone is “comfortable.” However, these conversations are not meant to be comfortable and opting for comfort maintains a hierarchical status quo and further divides privileged and marginalized groups.
Along with being ineffective in nature, D&I initiatives tend to celebrate assimilation rather than diversity. When these efforts were first implemented, the nation wasn’t talking about anti-racism and being equal in our differences; the social climate was distinct, and many believed that the only way to achieve racial equality was to assimilate.
When a person of color walked into predominantly white spaces, there was an unspoken rule to abide by Anglo rules such as speaking formally, dressing in suits and having one’s hair straightened or “professional.” These “norms” are not normal for many groups of people; nonetheless, they were the ones everyone had to follow to be successful in the workplace. By attempting to fit into predominantly white spaces, marginalized groups are faced with the challenge of preserving themselves in a space that doesn’t actually want diversity beyond the label. D&I efforts are driven by quotas and public opinion, but many workspaces and schools do not want diversity — they just want good optics.
So these D&I initiatives often amount to nothing more than assimilation for groups who are placed in a predominantly white space, then asked to adapt to the culture or die trying. For many members of marginalized groups, “fitting in” comes at the expense of their own cultural identity. Assimilation, according to author and scholar of race Ibram X. Kendi, is just another form of racism that serves to uphold the hierarchy of privilege.
Instead of falling short in D&I efforts by ignoring that inclusion is just assimilation rebranded, schools and workplaces must put to rest these ideas and keep them in the Civil Rights Era they were intended to work in.
Yes, there should always be an effort to diversify schools and workplaces, but it has to be an effort of diversity that matters beyond optics or quotas. Spaces must be actively looking to include different perspectives in their work in order to be more representative of society today. This also means having tough conversations within these spaces and encouraging difference; accountability and discomfort are often the only ways to yield substantive results on these fronts. Finally, and most importantly, spaces should move away from “inclusive” efforts where people are forced to assimilate to the “cultural norm” and, instead, celebrate differences and empower marginalized groups.
The well-intentioned initiatives of D&I are outdated and are causing more harm than good — it is time to recognize the double-edged nature of these archaic initiatives and move on.