Diversity and Equity: Keep it Complicated

2018 has unexpectedly brought me nose to nose  with the DIY-DEIA-IDEA. 

Many nonprofits and  a few formerly respected museums are  broadcasting how easy it is to  “do” diversity and equity.  They say: Come to a few programs, sign up for a monthly newsletter, take a 2-day workshop and BAM! Shiny and bright and equitable . If you slap a few Black and Brown people in the marketing materials you can even claim to be diverse.

How many times have you been told to use the KISS principle while working?  The notion of “Keep It Simple, Stupid” is appealing. We reduce any issue to its simplest components and hope that a straightforward simplistic approach will work. This is overwhelmingly apparent when we discuss any issue related to racialized identity,  inclusionary work spaces, American culture, and affinity groups.  

It would be so simple if only we could google our way to equity!  

But, we can’t.  

(Side note: Please stop telling people to “google it” as if that is all that is needed to manifest new behaviors, policies, and outcomes. This is a real case of needing Google+)

Well, what can we do to create a more comprehensive approach to equity in our  “diversity” conversations? You guessed it: Keep it Complicated.  

It will likely be uncomfortable for all parties, but most expressly discomfiting to those who have never had to question their “racial” identity, or place in the world.

 From last year’s article in Non-Profit Quarterly, “… despite the evidence that systems and structures are leading to the isolation of people of color in nonprofit organizations, there still seems to be a hesitance to talk explicitly about racism in the sector. I bring up racism specifically because talking about race in the abstract has proved insufficient. Appreciating racial, ethnic, and cultural differences is great, but too often that is the extent of multicultural work done in the nonprofit sector.”

I am going to focus on race defined here as: a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture.  Socially constructed as a biological reality, race  is only made real by our constant reinforcement of it’s power through privilege and policy.  Ibram Kendi notes in a 2017 interview

Just so you know, black people are not inherently better athletes than white people, Kendi says. We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children. “When we embrace this as part of our identity,” Kendi says, “we don’t understand.”

What if liberation is the goal?

Race is complicated by structural, systemic, and individualized understandings. Race means insidious hate and invisible privilege to some and explicit tiki torches, church bombings, and outright KKK terror threats to others.   In a recent racial equity workshop  I conducted for Participant Media’s national roll out of the  series America To Me, participants struggled to come to any consensus on the meaning of the word. I urged them to let the definition and  our work together remain unfinished.  No, we were NOT going to solve racial inequities in  our schools in a 3 hour workshop on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Yes, we would have to persist beyond the sense of community we built in that brave space of collective learning. I urged the group to keep our  work complicated and unfinished not as a challenge to our systems of order and file, but as an affirmation of a new cultural paradigm. A paradigm rooted in complexity, valuing difference, and celebrating our connection and commitment to face difficult issues. 

Participants at the November 18th event: America to Me, Real Talk. Design and facilitation by Facilitate Movement. 

Yesterday’s workshop experience was a joyful exploration of what it means to be in community. Parents, teachers, community members, and most importantly, young people generated ideas and action steps to counter the persistent inequity in Charlotte’s school system. While I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of collective work, I caution anyone who thinks it can be easily simplified.

We ended the event by sound circle chanting a phrase inspired by the great Pauli Murray: We can’t start to heal, until we tell the truth.

And when it comes to race, our truth is really complicated. 

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