DEI can be a good thing, but it often isn't
Years ago, at an old job, I watched as the office assistant delivered a box to the wrong person. There was a brief, awkward exchange before it dawned on him: There were two short, slender Korean women with long black hair and glasses in our office, and he had confused one for the other. He instantly turned lobster red and began apologizing. The awkwardness was contagious, and I joined my officemates in cringing as he shuffled out of the room, box in hand, his head bowed in shame.
How should we understand this incident? How should it be handled? According to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training I would take years later for another job, what I had witnessed that day was a racial microaggression. See, the office assistant was what we, in our race-obsessed world, would call a “white” man. And because the Korean woman was a “person of color,” this incident was no mere mistake. It was evidence of the office assistant’s deep-seated racism, and the proper response to it was censure and scorn.
I wasn’t looking forward to that DEI training when I found out about it. By then I’d heard all about their startling inefficacy and counterproductivity, and the havoc many of them (particularly those in the vein of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility) tended to wreak on workplaces. We covered many of the things I expected: implicit bias, privilege, and offensive language and humor.
I had plenty of thoughts about the ways these topics were discussed, but the general thrust of it struck me as both reasonable and understandable—particularly in the context of a workplace. We all have blind spots and biases. It wasn’t until my first office job that I realized I’d spent much of my life in a kind of bubble. All of my friends were artists and creatives, and we had grown up with an extremely unfiltered way of being, thinking, and speaking. As a result, my language and humor were freewheeling in a way I didn’t realize was beyond the pale for many in my office, and because of this I spent an inordinate amount of time speaking to the head of HR. It hadn’t occurred to me then that the world I occupied wasn’t shared by everyone. It was a good lesson, and I appreciated the grace with which my errors were pointed out.
My trouble with the training came when we discussed microaggressions. Typically defined as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions,” it was something our trainer took a great deal of time to address. They used an analogy of mosquito bites to illustrate the way the effects of microaggressions compound over time. One bite is no big deal, they explained. However, when you’re constantly being bitten by mosquitos, all day long—and when it seems like they’re biting you, specifically—the pain and irritation from those bites are going to add up. Eventually, you’re going to reach a breaking point, which might cause you to lash out. That last mosquito may not have meant you harm—maybe none of them did. But it’s not about what they meant, and it’s not just about that one bite; it’s about the cumulative toll of them all.
I found this to be a very apt analogy. We’ve all been in similar positions, where our patience is depleted and we find ourselves exploding on someone who may have very little or nothing to do with why we’re upset. It’s a human thing to lose one’s temper, to misinterpret a joke or comment and respond harshly, or to take our bad day out on someone without realizing that’s what we’ve done. It’s also just as human to be on the receiving end of these outbursts and to feel mistreated or unfairly maligned as a result. Perhaps by employing more compassion and understanding, I thought, we can learn to navigate these issues together.
But our trainer didn’t take the analogy to that conclusion. Instead, they left it at the explanation for lashing out. This, in effect, rendered it a justification—not just for overreacting to a minor infraction, but also for punishing one person for the infractions of others.
Think about the implications there. Let’s say I, a “person of color,” experience microaggressions from twenty “white” people (let’s ignore for now the obvious role that subjectivity plays here). For the first nineteen instances, I keep quiet and brush them off despite my hurt feelings. The twentieth, however, is my breaking point. As per our trainer, it is now not only understandable but justified for me to blow up on this person, taking all my frustration out on them, despite their individual offense being small and possibly unintended.
Holding an individual responsible for the perceived behaviors or traits of the group they belong to. What does that sound like? I wondered that to myself during our training, but kept quiet about it.
Later in the day we were given worksheets, each describing a different scenario involving microaggressions, bias, or outright bigotry. Our task was to take five minutes, come up with the best approach to handling the scenario, and report back.
My worksheet described a racialized white man who habitually confuses the names of two racialized black women in the office. The responses from my coworkers were exactly what you’d expect. This “white” guy needed to be sat down and chastised for his racism. He needed to be alerted to his privilege, and he needed to atone for his error. He should take a DEI training, like the one we were all participating in. In fact, the company should mandate it.
I raised my hand.
I started telling everyone the story of the office assistant, and heard gasps and groans when I described the mistake he had made.
“The thing is,” I interrupted, “I think I know why that had probably happened—and it wasn’t racism.”
I explained that this guy had only recently started working there, and he delivered mail to our entire office—something like 150 people. I realized that he never really had time to speak with or get to know anyone beyond a few quick greetings as he popped in and out. If he had learned more about that Korean woman than her superficial characteristics—if he had known her hobbies and interests, for example—he probably wouldn’t have confused her with the other Korean woman at the office, who likely had different ones. If he had known either of them as people, no amount of physical similarity would have led to confusion.
“If I were in charge,” I said, “I’d recognize this as a lack of company cohesion.”
My proposed solution was to institute a set of meet-and-greets for the entire staff as part of the onboarding process. This would help coworkers and new employees get to know one another more deeply even if they didn’t get to see each other all the time. I was certain that, once they knew each other better, that kind of situation would hardly ever arise again.
The response from the trainer and everyone else was bizarre. It wasn’t that they disagreed or thought my suggestion was a bad idea; it’s that nothing remotely like it had occurred to them. Given the framework they were in and the lens with which they’d spent the day being trained to see through, what I had called for wasn’t even in the realm of possibility. Everyone went straight to racism as the explanation for the office assistant’s behavior, and they jumped right to opprobrium as the proper intervention. They had responded to someone being reduced to assumptions, stereotypes, and superficial characteristics by doing the exact same thing to someone else.
And the problem is, this was by design—though not maliciously so. I actually found our trainer very amiable, and I took a liking to them right away. I could tell they didn’t see this as some cynical money grab, the way I’d heard many others describe their own DEI and bias trainings. Their sincerity was palpable, and I couldn’t detect a shred of self-righteousness or judgment. Despite my disagreements with the things we did and discussed that day, I was heartened by that sincerity. The issue wasn’t them or their intentions; it was that the framework they were using primed us to emphasize division and cultivate discord. It was a foregone conclusion for everyone around me that something horrible had happened in that exchange with the office assistant. As they say, the question was not whether racism occurred but how it had occurred. However, this threw so many other possibilities and potential solutions out the window.
It went beyond someone with a hammer always finding nails; it was like someone with a hammer owning a nail factory.
“How can that solve anything?” I thought to myself.
It can’t. At best, it will be ineffectual. At worst, it will foment racism and intolerance where none existed. Thankfully, these divisive strategies are not our only options. There is a way to counteract bias, bigotry, and belligerence in a way that doesn’t inadvertently reflect, exacerbate, and perpetuate it. It’s by having a bit of patience and grace, the way the HR people did with me when I was crossing the line with my humor at work. It’s by granting the same forgiveness and compassion we would appreciate when we slip up and lose our cool. It’s by emphasizing our common humanity and our unique individuality, the way I suggested handling the mix-up at my old job.
I’m not against DEI trainings—not in principle. There are plenty of issues in our society that need addressing, including issues of racism and intolerance. Bias and bigotry are real issues, and they can sometimes go either unnoticed or unaddressed. There is a role for programs and protocols that call out mistreatment and misunderstandings between coworkers, blind spots in hiring practices, and structural issues that inhibit individual progress, in ways that are constructive rather than presumptive, resentful, and retributive.
It is possible to counter inhumanity with humanity; to respond to dehumanization and demonization by emphasizing the dignity and individuality of each and every human being, no matter what group they belong to.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion need not divide, essentialize, and inflame.
Let’s find a better way.
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When we moved into a retirement community a few years ago, it took a long time for me to get past confusing one person with another. We were all old, gray-haired, mostly white people. Was this racism? Gee, I doubt it.
I love your insights, Angel. They make so much sense. But they might be more easily put into practice by removing them from the DEI framework. It is steeped in anti-racist rhetoric and has an aura of contempt for white people baked into it. It sounds like the training you received was better than most, but the underlying philosophy remained, especially when it comes to microaggressions and the assumptions about who is subject to them.
I'm relieved that your HR person didn't use their power to make your life miserable when confronting your uncensored personality. But is it possible that you were handled gently because you're a person of color? We’ll never know, but I can’t help wondering.
Microaggression is an interesting topic, worth addressing. I cringe inside when I remember doing exactly what you describe: at work, I once confused two Asian women with one another. One was a long-standing employee and the other was brand new, so your solution was right on the money.
In DEI, there’s an assumption that white people can only be perpetrators, never recipients, of microaggressions. I'm a fair skinned Jew, and apparently I "look Jewish," because strangers like to remind me of that fact out of the blue. As a child, I went to a day camp where I was one of a handful of Jews, and I was sometimes mistaken for the other Jewish girls who looked nothing like me. I'm a woman, so microaggressions and actual aggressions always were and will be a problem. And I'm a lesbian, so my short hair and gender-neutral clothes have often made me a target of homophobic threats, both physical and verbal, from both men and women. None of this is going to magically go away through “training.” A range of tactics and responses are required by me to get through life. I am sometimes wary, but if I walked around offended all the time, hating the human race, I'd be miserable.
Life is a collection of microaggressions and microkindnesses both given and received. If we love our fellow humans and want to have a happier life, it’s worth it to shine a light on our unconscious biases and strive to do better. But I don’t believe that DEI is the way.