This piece was based off of an interview with Mr. Alexander Hines, whose bio you can find at the end of this article.
This shining farce of a post-racial, post-homophobic, post-patriarchal society that many people insist on upholding comes with serious repercussions for those of us who aren’t privileged in almost every part of our lives.
Businesses and organizations especially seem to be more interested in keeping up this façade of diversity and equality than actually making the necessary changes to get there.
Being officially recognized as diverse allows the business to declare how progressive their company is, check off certain boxes that give them tax credits, and validates them acquiring a nice little happy sign to hang on—well—everything, apparently.
At its core, advocating for diversity in the workplace should be an honest, conscientious effort to reform the systemic problems that impact and inform the ways we interact with each other there.
This requires a company’s leadership to recognize and acknowledge how their company’s practices have worked to sustain systemic oppression, and then for them to make intentional and recognizable changes that prioritize social justice in both the company’s culture and its protocol.
Knowing what (true) diversity is, some common mistakes that are made, and ways that you can actively promote diversity in your workplace will start you on your way to creating a more equitable environment for your coworkers and employees.
What Is ‘Diversity?’
When I talk about diversity in this article, I’ll be talking a lot about how businesses and non-profit organizations approach it specifically, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also make efforts to shift how the other institutions in our lives interact with it.
Committees, campus organizations, universities in general, grade school classrooms, community social groups (like your book club) – pretty much any time a handful or more of people come together for a specific reason – should all be comprised of members who are cognizant of what diversity entails and work to ensure its sustainability.
First, let’s define true diversity so that we can set it apart from its gross cousin “fake-plaque-on-the-wall diversity.”
True diversity, in a simple definition, is the welcoming acceptance of all people and the allowance of their identities and cultures to be openly practiced.
Much like allyship, diversity is a constant process of unpacking racism, identifying homophobia, working against sexism, denying ableist influences, and overall ensuring that the oppressive social structures have as little influence as possible within your group.
Making sure your group is truly diverse is a lot of damn work.
It’s not something that can be achieved by attending sensitivity training one weekend and then taking a 30-minute test; it certainly isn’t anything that can just be Photoshopped in.
Alexander Hines says that organization leaders need to be “diversity competent.” This means they should be proficient at understanding all of the ways in which people can be different and how those differences affect their life.
It also means knowing the struggles that these sub-populations experience and how to accommodate for the impacts of those struggles.
He emphasizes that recognizing all forms of difference is one of the most crucial aspects to diversity.
For example, if a business or organization fails to recognize and accommodate for Queer people in order to focus on promoting the needs of people of color, then not they are not being truly diverse, they are practicing both racism and homophobia by disregarding the fact that many people are queer and people of color.
How Do Groups Fall Short on Diversity?
Now that we have an understanding of what diversity is, let’s look at some of the common ways that organizations fall short when they try to be diverse.
1. A Lack of Empathy
Empathy and understanding must be included in the process of making sure that your organization is hiring or recruiting diverse and qualified people.
This includes actively paying attention to, and engaging with the ideas of, people who differ from the white, straight cis male hegemonic norm in order to better understand what changes your company can make to help support their success.
While everyone has their own issues to contend with in order to be empathetic and understanding, men tend to have the most to overcome.
Hines mentions that toxic heterosexist masculinity standards that are perpetuated by men are one of the most harmful practices that aid workplace discrimination.
Working past all of these, and towards deeper empathy, will foster a more diverse environment.
2. Being Afraid to Think Outside the Box
Diversity doesn’t have to look like it does in the company workbook.
Many people who are making decisions about diversity are apprehensive to try new approaches simply because they’re unfamiliar territory.
Thinking within the system has rarely, if ever, brought about significant, meaningful change.
Adjusting this system in unique and boundary-pushing ways to create a more equitable work environment will almost always yield better results than the popularly sanctioned methods.
One good example of a company who has altered their structure to try and accommodate peoples’ differences is the video game company Valve – they take an anti-hierarchial and open-source approach to company policy.
3. Assuming That Diversity Will Be Taken Care of by the Black/Gay/Female/Otherwise Marginalized Hiring Manager
Just because someone is Black, Brown, trans, or a woman doesn’t mean that they are exempt from prejudiced thinking.
Combine the realities of internalized oppression with the fact that, most likely, that one person won’t be a part of every marginalized group anyway, and it’s clear that tokenizing your recruiting position won’t solve all of your diversity problems.
In fact, if you’re tokenizing anyone in any way, you’re still perpetuating oppression.
The risks associated with failing to accommodate for a healthy, diverse workspace are numerous.
Small-scale, it could lead to your employees feeling that their humanity has been violated and that the business is not ethically sound.
Socially, it perpetuates the various systems of oppression that your diversity plaque claims you already dismantled.
Both of these combined often cause the affected people to leave the group altogether.
This problem is very dangerous in universities and campus organizations – where “leaving” is effectively translated into drop-out rates – and businesses, where leaving is inaccurately conflated with the negative connotations of quitting.
Further, it denies marginalized people access to community and problematically prioritizes the needs and preferences of groups that are already socially cherished.
What Are Good Steps to Take to Create True Diversity?
Despite the fact that these pitfalls are so easy to step in, there are also a few strategies that will make the diversity in your group more wholesome.
Hines talked about the importance of having some sort of orientation process ready when people from marginalized backgrounds join your group, a process he described as “on-boarding.”
These mentorship programs are imperative to keep people with marginalized identities from feeling suffocated.
Hines remembered his days at Clemson University, where he and other Black men would have weekly suit-and-tie lunches, noting that that was his support system.
Knowing which groups need an on-boarding process depends on your group’s demographics.
For instance, if you work in a Gay Rights non-profit and largely employ other gay men, then they might not have need for this extra support.
But the lesbian, POC, and trans colleagues may feel excluded from company culture and could use this extra support.
2. Give Experience as Much Weight as a Degree
The trajectory of go to school → get a degree → get a job has been ingrained in our society for decades now.
But for many marginalized people (Black and Brown folks, especially), time in the Ivory Tower is perilous, white-washing, and oppressive – which motivates many people to find education elsewhere, usually through direct experience.
Paying credence only to a person’s formal education effectively prevents opportunity and access to those who have denied white- and Eurocentric education systems in order to develop stronger roots in their own cultures and communities.
Focusing on formal education while still claiming to be diverse means, in the words of Bernice Reagon: “You don’t really want Black folks; you are just looking for yourself with a little color to it.”
Diversifying the experiences of the people in your group will help with group diversity overall.
3. Diversity Within and Throughout
The final big aspect to having a wholesome and truly diverse culture in your group, which this entire article so far has alluded to, is to integrate diversity within and throughout. It should be in every conceivable aspect of your organization’s culture.
At every turn, there should be new systems set up that ensure that a person, of any background, has social and physical access to opportunities that the dominant groups either already have or simply don’t need.
Again, this is no easy task.
For many people, this is a life’s work, and it is usually focused on one group of people.
This is why it’s important to have a committee or some other appointed group that can put all of their energy into focusing on and solving problems that come up around being progressive, inclusive, and diverse.
Diversity is not an event. It is an entire process of undoing harmful systems and then redoing them in a way that can accommodate, respect, and appreciate difference.
There is no test, no certification that can make your business diverse in a way that’s meaningful to the employees who are most impacted and targeted by the racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist structures upheld in our surrounding society.
It requires hard work by every person in a group or organization, especially by those who do not experience being an “other” on a regular basis.
Diversity – true diversity – is something that we all need to put a lot more work toward.
Alexander Hines has 21 years of experience in higher education in student and academic affairs working with traditional, non-traditional, first-generation, underserved, and underrepresented high school and college students and their parents. Alexander is very active in communities where he has worked and considers himself to be a change agent. He currently serves as the Vice Chair for the Multicultural/Multiethnic Education: Theory, Research and Practice Special Interest group for the American Education Research Association, a Commissioner for the Winona Human Rights Commission, and a board member with Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP), amongst other positions.
Kaylee Jakubowski is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a trans, Queer feminist with specific interests in ecofeminism, anti-imperialism, Queerness, and statistical approaches to social justice work. Xe is pursuing a B.S. in Statistics with a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies. Feel free to like her Facebook Page, follow her on Tumblr, or see what she’s up to musically. Read her other articles here.