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Call It What It Is: Distinguishing Workplace DEI and Anti-Racism Efforts

To be clear, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and anti-racism work are not the same, though they are often conflated. Understanding the difference between them is absolutely critical if you want to make a real difference in your organizational culture.

Theoretically, DEI efforts focus on making an organization more diverse, welcoming, affirming, and fair for people of all backgrounds, identities, statuses, and social ranks. However, the vast majority of corporations and organizations with DEI committees, officers, or programs tend to linger around the "D" ("diversity") element without ever thinking critically about what they are "diversifying from" (i.e., historically and still predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied male space) and why that is important when considering the culture, values, norms, and fears that they are trying to recruit multiply-marginalized people into. These organizations then wonder why they cannot seem to retain and promote people of color, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, etc. at the same consistent rate as their white, straight, able-bodied staff.

Anti-racism, on the other hand, is the proactive and prolonged effort of creating laws, policies, practices, and norms that explicitly and unequivocally centers race equity in a way that directly and unabashedly challenges institutionalized and normalized white supremacy. This informs not only the end product (e.g., a new hiring procedure or personnel policy or the makeup of our board of directors), but more importantly, the process of working toward that end product itself. As my good friend Elizabeth Nicolas, Esq. of Black Amethyst, LLC often says, "You cannot achieve equity inequitably."

Anti-racism is intersectional, explicitly centering race equity but not exclusively so. Intrinsic to Black liberation and equity is a feminist, queer positive, disability justice framing. There is no explicit commitment to any particular forms of liberation or justice in DEI, per se, and this generic ambiguity shapes the often aimless and ineffective outcomes of most DEI efforts.

Anti-racism requires that we critically reflect on, hold, examine, question, and possibly surrender a whole host of ways that we've been conditioned to operate and process things that ultimately serve the ends of white supremacy. It requires a shift in power, transparency, and accountability. By contrast, poorly-defined DEI requires little to nothing that actually changes the status quo -- which is why it's so enticing to most companies that want to reap the public relations benefits of having DEI initiatives without shifting power, influence, or equity for their staff and stakeholders.

As you can see, DEI and anti-racism are not synonymous. Many organizations pushing DEI work without centering race equity or naming white supremacy at all cannot honestly consider themselves anti-racist or acting out any stated commitments to anti-racist values. Conversely, organizations that center anti-racism will subsequently achieve many of the ends that unspecified DEI work might aim to achieve, plus so, so much more!

Getting clear and precise about your goals and getting honest about what you are actually doing to work toward those goals is step number one so you don't waste a lot of time, energy, and resources. Being transparent and accountable to yourselves, let alone anyone else, is key to an inclusive and equitable future for your workplace.

If you're not sure whether your organization is actually centering DEI or anti-racism work, ask yourself the following:

  • Who sets priorities for your workplace equity efforts? Who participates in shaping these priorities, and who makes final decisions to set those priorities?

  • Who is responsible for executing workplace equity goals? How are these people deputized to take actions toward these goals? How are folks held accountable to moving things forward (or bottlenecking progress)?

  • Do your organization's identified goals explicitly name race equity, and define what that means in concrete, measurable terms?

  • Do your organization's identified goals include actually shifting access to power and decision-making, or just making people feel more involved within the existing power and decision-making structure (with no intention of changing it)?

  • Does your organization prioritize diversifying staff (i.e., recruitment and hiring) more than creating a workplace culture that encourages new "diverse" talent to stay and thrive? If you're not sure, consider how much money, human and other resources are poured into reforming recruitment and hiring processes and practices compared to any other identified DEI goals.

  • If you think your organization is centering both DEI and anti-racism, which one gets more air-time (talked about by leaders, mentioned in the company newsletter, discussed in staff meetings and trainings) and which one gets more investment (dedicated money and resources allocated in the budget to move things forward)?

  • How is your organization openly accountable to impacted folks (e.g., staff and other stakeholders or color) around its so-called DEI and/or anti-racism goals?

  • How do you define "success" in your DEI and/or anti-racism work, and how do you systematically measure that success?

  • Why is all this important to know, and to regularly reflect on? What can you and your team do to systematize this kind of reflection? What will you do to act on what you learn from this reflection?

Need help assessing your organization's work and figuring out how to center anti-racism? Schedule a Discovery Call with us today!


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