March 2, 2016

Should White People Do Diversity Work?

white people

As a multilingual, culturally and racially ambiguous woman who’s been doing some form of diversity work for almost 25 years, I occasionally find myself having awkward conversations with potential clients about my identity. These conversations involve questions like, “Are you diverse?” or “Wait, you’re White?” or statements like “Thank you, but we’re looking for a ‘diverse’ person.” Given the growing attention that race is getting in the broader media, it’s time to frankly discuss an underlying question that often plagues the diversity and inclusion field: Should white people do diversity work?

I say yes. Here’s why:

  • When only people of color do diversity work, this gives the false impression that diversity is only about, and for, people of color.  D&I is about, and for, everyone, without exception. Multiple studies have shown that diversity, plus inclusiveness, is essential to excellence, innovation and high performance — including one demonstrating that the mere presence of people of color improves group results.
  • White people are the ones that most need diversity work, and we tend to most trust and believe other white people.  Whites are still the numerical majority in the U.S., and we’re the disproportionate majority holding power positions in government, business, education, health care and media. We are the ones that need to change the way we do things, and because humans evolved over millennia to function in small groups of similar people, our brains — like it or not — lend more credibility to people who look like us.

Beyond the question of whether White people should do diversity work is an even more provocative question — can we? I’ve heard about, and witnessed, situations where diversity work conducted by White people went wrong in ways that were ineffective at best, and horribly damaging at worst. To this question, I say it depends on the following:

  • What brings the White person to diversity work? For people of color, diversity work is usually intensely personal. If a White person comes to D&I with a purely intellectual mindset or a goal to change or “help” someone else, they may miss the mark. If they jumped on the bandwagon a couple years ago when unconscious bias training became chic, they may not have the commitment or broad knowledge necessary to be effective. Like many White allies, I come to the work from a decades-long commitment to dismantling racism due to painful childhood incidents I both experienced and witnessed. While my pain doesn’t equal that of a person of color’s daily experience and I acknowledge I have the White privilege of walking away any time I want, I’m dedicated to doing my part to prevent more people from having their humanity denied and gifts crushed just because of the bodies they inhabit.
  • How much does the White person know, own, and leverage their various identities? Every human being has multiple identities that situate them both inside, and outside, power structures.   Straight Black men face racism, but enjoy male and heteronormative privilege. I enjoy White privilege, but have faced sexism and classism. Some of my White colleagues face homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia or ableism. White people doing effective diversity work own, check and leverage their White privilege for positive change.   They step into and out of their various identities to connect with diverse people, or to make powerful points during effective diversity training.
  • How much personal work has the White person done? The most effective D&I professionals of any race or ethnicity do ongoing personal work. They build awareness of their biases and privilege and actively mitigate their harmful effects. They strive to know their personal and cultural history, strengths and weaknesses. They constantly seek and incorporate feedback, even if they don’t like how it’s offered. They build their emotional resilience, emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills. They strive to be in integrity with the work, even when they’re not working.  They are curious, good humored and nimble with people. They take care of themselves and have healthy boundaries.   This is a tall order for anyone, but especially for White people because doing personal work also requires unlearning what we’ve been taught: that we know everything, that we have a right to always speak and take up space, and that others must cater to our feelings. White people doing effective D&I work aren’t perfect, but embody the changes most want to see in our workforce and leadership.
  • What will best meet the needs or goals of your organization or team? I speak Spanish better than most US-born Latinos and pass for Hispanic all the time. I’ve lived, worked and traveled extensively abroad, including in the “Third World.” I’ve experienced many challenges due to my non-dominant identities, many of which are invisible. I can present D&I concepts in an engaging way that creates lasting breakthroughs. Yet none of that matters if what will best serve an organization is a person with a brown or black face, or the lived experience of a person of color in the US. Part of being a White person doing diversity work is to acknowledge that much of the time, no matter what “qualifications” or street cred we bring, we’re not always the right person for the job, and we’re not entitled to dominate the D&I field. If indeed we’re here to co-create a world that works for everyone, the least we can do when we hear “no” is to move on and be grateful yet another person of color is hearing “yes!”

6 Comments on “Should White People Do Diversity Work?

Esther Maynard
March 8, 2016 at 5:46 am

The colour of a person’s skin should not determine whether or not they do diversity, it’s about their belief that it’s morally right and professionalism.

I’m a bit my concerned by your suggestion that as White people hold the balance of power that they are better placed to do diversity. I think that you’re right that people trust those who look like them. This is as much an argument against white people doing race diversity since they may be seen by white people as complicit in their views on race; and distrusted by black people who might see them as pandering to racist views.

Susana Rinderle
March 8, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Hi Esther! Actually I think a belief that diversity work is morally right isn’t enough to “do D&I” effectively. Many a White person and D&I practitioner works from that perspective and not only do they not get meaningful results, they can cause plenty of harm. Also while “professionalism” is subjective and culturally defined, I agree this is important, and the 4 questions I raise in the piece are my suggestion about how to raise the level of professionalism in our field.

In my piece I don’t argue that White people are better placed to do diversity work, but the assertion that humans — all humans — believe and trust those that look like them is supported by brain science research. I disagree that such is an argument against Whites doing diversity. I have myself witnessed — both as a facilitator and participant — how White people (especially men) tend to listen, take seriously, and accept challenge more readily from other Whites. While certainly Whites may initially assume another White believes as they do, and people of color may automatically mistrust Whites at the outset (with good reason) what happens next in that workshop or meeting makes all the difference. Whites that consider my 4 questions seem to be most effective in either context, building relationships, challenging assumptions, facilitating dialogue and pushing change. Thanks for reading and commenting Esther!

Lisa Levey
March 8, 2016 at 2:18 pm

Susana: You make many strong points, including that self awareness and reflection are key parts of doing this work.

Something that struck me as interesting was equating diversity with addressing racial issues. When I first read the title, I thought, a white woman can certainly do gender diversity. As a long-term diversity practitioner, I start with the belief that there are numerous dimensions of diversity (a point which you clearly make later in your article) and so the question becomes, “Should you do diversity work for populations with which you do not share that dimension of diversity?: Admittedly not a very catchy title. To that question, I think the answer is yes, but…

Yes because many of the effective responses and solutions to addressing diversity challenges span across myriad differences. But because I do believe people sharing key dimensions of diversity, especially race, gender, and sexual orientation, have shared experiences and there is something about sharing the lived experience that is incredibly powerful. I believe this helps a diversity practitioner with that shared characteristic to bring something special to the table.

Susana Rinderle
March 8, 2016 at 7:46 pm

Hi Lisa! I completely agree that diversity and inclusion work is about much more than race. What I was focusing on here (obviously 🙂 ) was just race, calling out that (a) we need to actually consider this question given the increasing visibility and seriousness of racial issues in our country, and (b) White folks have special work to do on themselves in order to be effective in the D&I space. As I mention, being in touch with ones multiple identities and where those are situated in the power dynamic makes the D&I professional more effective and credible. Most of the effective Whites I know doing D&I work today are either women or LGBT men. Thanks for reading and commenting!

March 11, 2016 at 4:00 pm

As a member of facilitation teams in D&I conversations, I recognize that my presence is valuable to lend credibility to my co-facilitators of color in the eyes of white participants. Am I smarter than my co-facilitators? No. Do I have lived experiences of bias to share? No, not first-hand. But I do have my own personal examples of unearned privilege to contribute. And if my presentation of statistics concerning disparate outcomes is able to sway skeptics of my race, then my participation is a net contribution. This is an important conversation, and it’s time that white folks helped with the heavy lifting.

Susana Rinderle
March 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Agreed Alan — thank you for reading, commenting, and doing what you do so consciously and conscientiously. More White guys like Alan, please! Cheers to you!


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