DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, has become the new panacea for all that ails international development and humanitarian aid. Since the heinous killing of George Floyd was recorded for posterity last year, the development sector, like all other sectors, could not wait to leap onto the #BlackLivesMatter bandwagon to show solidarity with Black people.
International institutions slapped a hashtag on their websites, others established DEI councils, and some hired DEI practitioners to show that they were open to hearing that the sector was supremely racist and white-focused — finally.
In some ways, this response was almost inevitable; the international community is notoriously self-congratulatory, proudly displaying the well-worn label of “do-gooders,” which has enabled us to live comfortably in our paradox where we have been consistently lauded for “doing good” in far flung places across the globe while perpetuating white supremacy culture and exuding that privilege at home.
Fundamentally, DEI in the workplace is a set of ideas and principles that rests on an institution’s efforts to increase diverse representation and create inclusive, equitable environments where people can thrive. These objectives often include trainings, sensitivity to diverse cultures, and town hall meetings.
But is training about unconscious bias, fostering an inclusive work environment, understanding microaggressions, or reading about anti-racism enough to transform a sector so deeply comfortable in its whiteness, white norms, and the everyday perpetuation of “white saviorism”?
I got to thinking of this dilemma after a conversation with a colleague who works in a fairly large, white-centered development institution. Since the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests and familiar hashtag activism, many organizations had begun hosting town halls on race, facilitating panel discussions on what diversity means to them. My colleague was one of the Black staffers leading the development of the initiative that began these conversations around racial equity, diversity, and inclusion to engage with the world and show solidarity with the movement for social justice.
During one of these “frank” conversations, a white senior team member was so uncomfortable that he felt compelled to challenge the group of predominantly Black panelists, suggesting their discussing the colonial nature of development work was “divisive” and not in keeping with the organization’s values and mission. His feelings led the leadership to halt these conversations.
While my colleague and I processed her frustration at yet another attempt to mute Black voices while telling the world that there was a commitment to having these difficult conversations on race, we were forced to acknowledge the limitations of DEI, because the truth is that Black voices are consistently silenced in the face of white discomfort. Hiring a DEI practitioner will not fix this implacable truth.
I wondered whether there was anyone on the leadership team who could have explained the point of DEI, to underscore the colonial and racist past embedded in the sector that has upheld the ideals that he so obviously embraced. This is the core of white privilege: the surety, the supreme confidence in these development norms, and the notion that Black panelists rejecting these norms could only be perceived as “divisive” and therefore must be silenced.
The insidious nature of this entire episode is more the rule than the exception, and international development is culpable in the perpetuation of these norms while publicly talking the DEI talk. Dismantling racist structures embedded in development organizations will require people — white men and women — to actively engage in relinquishing their privilege, and DEI alone will not get us there as a sector.
Often in DEI trainings, an audience member will ask me how to talk about DEI without causing discomfort to white colleagues, as it seems that avoiding white discomfort is a cardinal rule. I have answered this question by rejecting the notion that my white colleagues must be made comfortable and instead suggested that we see discomfort as a positive catalyst for change. Do not allow discomfort to be the barrier to necessary conversations by silencing Black voices.
International development is a sector where a panel of four white female executives can speak about extreme poverty while no one on the panel is actually poor — much less extremely poor — and where white men who lead large development institutions and whose voices are elevated as the experts can be seen on television or trotting around the globe to speak on behalf of Black and brown people, soundly believing in their own right to speak.
Is training about unconscious bias, fostering an inclusive work environment, understanding microaggressions, or reading about anti-racism enough to transform a sector so deeply comfortable in its whiteness?—
DEI is more than hiring a practitioner to guide your organization or bringing on a chief diversity officer. DEI cannot be relegated to a side strategy that an organization can support while maintaining its privileged status groups, favoritism, and other inequities.
Before the discussion about hiring a DEI consultant or chief diversity officer, each international organization — especially at the leadership level — must build consensus and be crystal clear about what DEI can accomplish and what it cannot:
• Does the organization’s leadership expect that six months of DEI training will repudiate decades of racial attitudes and belief? DEI and anti-racism are not a box-checking exercise, so be realistic.
• What are the red lines in terms of what is considered “divisive”? Who determines if a topic is “divisive”? Be transparent if your organization is not ready to take on DEI in a meaningful way, but avoid the hashtag activism and public solidarity statements with Black and brown people while internally silencing them.
• Choose your diversity officers or consultants wisely. Consider their lived experiences. How did they come to DEI? How do they navigate in the world? Most importantly, embed the post in authority and a seat at the leadership table.
But the most basic principle is that DEI requires people with privilege and power to recognize it, to own up to it — and then to give it up.