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“I just can’t even, anymore” he sighed, exasperated. “My patience for well-meaning white people has run out. We’re supposed to congratulate white folks for doing the most minimal thing. For doing what they already should have, long ago!”

Everyone nodded in agreement. I was the only white person in the room, but I, too, nodded. I, too, was fed up with white people. That had not been a good day. We were a small consulting team of Black and brown DEI professionals (except for me) and we’d come out bruised from a session that morning with one of our newest clients.

But along with my empathy and understanding, I was troubled by the implications of this sentiment. Our client was a mostly-white leadership team in a prestigious public organization that relied on wealthy (white) donors. How could we possibly serve them if we’d all run out of patience with white people? How could we meet them where they were on their journey if we were all, like me, “weary of having the same conversations with the same people in different bodies”?

The honest answer? We couldn’t.

Like it or not, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work requires working with white people, and DEI is white people’s work. White people are still the numerical majority in many U.S. geographies. White people are still the majority power brokers and decision-makers. White people still hold the purse strings, make the rules, set the tone, hand out the opportunities, and pass along the contacts that open doors. Diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be accomplished without white people.

DEI is also white people’s work because we created the problems that DEI is intended to solve. In the U.S., generations of wealthy white men intentionally created a society designed to benefit themand only them. Multiple generations have benefitted from a system rooted in those early intentions, still held in place by baked-in institutional norms, individual unconscious biases, and ongoing conscious decisions.

Millions of white U.S.-ians like me, descended from poor immigrants who toiled in factories and fields to eke out a humble living, benefit every single day from this system. It wasn’t created to benefit me as a woman or a child of the working class, but it was set up to respect my humanity as a white person and therefore provide me with access and opportunities — at others’ expense.

One of the many failings of the DEI field is the persistent belief that BIPOC/POC (people of color) are the only ones who should be doing DEI work. This belief seems to be spreading. Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve read articles, comments, and a book excerpt by people of color essentially telling white people to get out of “their” field, stop taking over, and step aside to “let” BIPOC do the work.

This is a huge mistake. The purpose of DEI is not to pile one more thing on people of color’s already overflowing plates, cracking under the burden of history and ongoing microaggressions. DEI efforts should not hold the victims of inequity responsible for creating equity. DEI efforts should not depend on the emotional and psychological labor of people of color whose labor has long been (and still is) expected to be provided for free. That’s deeply disrespectful, abusive, and misguided.

The purpose of DEI should also not be to relegate those who are people of color, women, LGBTQ, disabled, etc., to a new ghetto — to a profession that’s rarely well-paid, rarely salvaged when funding shrinks, rarely viewed as strategic and mission-critical, and rarely considered an essential rung on the ladder of success.

The purpose of DEI is to create a world that works better for more of us, where more can thrive and contribute our unique gifts for personal and collective benefit.

The purpose of DEI is to make room for those in marginalized groups to become physicians, electricians, professors, artists, researchers, entrepreneurs, farmers, urban planners, writers, full-time caregivers, coders, and anything else their brilliant brains and inspired hearts desire.

The purpose of DEI is not to divert gifted marginalized folks into the DEI profession. Read the rest on!

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