Opinion | Higher Ed’s DEI Lip Service

Working as a chief diversity officer or diversity, equity, and inclusion administrator was not part of my plans when I began a Ph.D. program in philosophy and education. While discrimination and cultural marginalization had characterized my own life experience and what I had observed throughout my time in higher ed, the professional field of what is now called DEI was only emerging in the early 2000s, manifested in multicultural-affairs departments and equal-opportunity-employment offices.

The microaggressions and microinequities that I had experienced as a young Puerto Rican woman studying philosophy made me feel either overlooked, not smart enough, or the object of sexual harassment. I never felt as if I belonged or had power. I had just enough access to understand the rules and abide by them in order to gain a faculty role somewhere. But I never felt smart enough, male enough, or rich enough to operate in the seamless, unconscious way that many of my peers seemed to. I was not alone in this feeling, and it was often clear that the presence of “difference” worked to legitimize the institutional belief that the institution itself was egalitarian, meritorious, and just.

I became a chief diversity officer, hired in inaugural roles several times, because I was interested in systematic change, I needed work in the academy after the bottom had fallen out of the tenure-track job market in my field after the 2008 recession, and because I was interested to see up close whether the inequities that seemed to surface year after year could be tinkered with, changed, or hot-wired to work in the service of racial equity. It became quickly apparent that one could work on diversity so long as one did not too dramatically unsettle the institution’s traditions and seek to reassemble them, or to open up the arteries of inequity and dig around to find what needed to be abolished.

Having done this work for over a decade, I have come to realize that despite the best efforts of highly competent people, diversity efforts often function as a decorative shield. A defining feature of what we call diversity work has always been the institutional exploitation of “difference” for the benefit of the institution — to symbolize its antiracist commitments and to protect against lawsuits. Indeed, the conceptual container that is “diversity work” is poorly understood. (Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included, which became a life raft for me, is an exception — it accurately captures the experience of diversity workers in higher ed.)

I began to see clearly that few people really understood what they meant when they talked about “diversity, equity, and inclusion” work, although lots of people had strong ideas about what they thought it should and shouldn’t do. They either didn’t understand what they were after or they believed that formulaic, mandatory workshops are what is needed to overcome racism and bias.

The remedy for or prevention of discrimination had little to do with what I was doing or had been charged to do.

The administrators I worked for and alongside often said that they didn’t believe chief diversity officers did anything effective at all; that I was there to manage the discontents of the nonwhite members of their institution; that my role would hinder free speech; that I would become the bias police. Few people I encountered had come to terms with what diversity work would mean in practice.

Chief diversity officers or other administrators who work in the field are banging their heads against a brick wall for the many reasons that Ahmed describes in On Being Included, including a lack of resources, a lack of authority, and a lack of support.

But perhaps “diversity” itself is an unproductive abstraction, permitting powerful, heavily resourced institutions to ignore their role in the reparative agenda necessary to move our society away from entrenched and relentlessly reproduced social and racial inequality. Although CDOs or diversity efforts are invited in, they are permitted to participate only under a framework of difference that seeks to organize, define, place, and patrol the boundaries of efforts concerned with antiracism or anti-oppression.

Diversity work that does not seek to re-engineer systems by taking up the burdens of the past that formed their institutions or work to abolish exclusionary practices that privilege the wealthy can never bring about racial justice or social equity. Not only is diversity an unproductive concept for radical social transformation, but its conceptual genealogy reveals an epistemology of difference that has always been a tool to organize nondominant groups for the benefit of those in power. Diversity is not, I have come to believe, a reparative activity, though, since the late 1970s, it has been conflated and confused with taking historical responsibility and the undoing of persistent beliefs, attitudes, and values that sustain inequality.

After a few years I began to realize that an inertia encumbered my requests to peer into how our institutional systems were working to prevent real discrimination or undo the conditions that facilitated discrimination. This was particularly the case when I asked for data and files on tenure denials of Bipoc or first-generation faculty, hiring and promotion criteria, or disciplinary records that included demographic information. I was asking for this kind of data not to seek information on individuals in order to fire or discipline them, but rather to understand what kind of relationship the institution had with racialized people. More often than not, the relationship was either disciplinary or apathetic. Remedies, if ever enacted, were individually focused. There was rarely a mention of a problematic system or culture or set of practices.

In other words, the remedy for or prevention of discrimination had little to do with what I was doing or had been charged to do. Some people were interested in talking about white privilege in the abstract, but not so much in investigating how the systems they relied on day after day were privileging whiteness, wealth, ability, or masculinity and how it might be possible to redesign how the institution, or even higher ed itself, functioned. While I had been hired in these CDO roles to inaugurate something, for most institutions the mere presence of a CDO is actually what was most important. The CDO’s presence is a communications exercise, an attempt to signal to a college, its alumni, and its prospective students that diversity matters in their mission.

This may come across as a cynical position, but it arises from a commitment to reparative action. We need to ask why diversity work “isn’t working,” and why its presence has facilitated an aggressive backlash. We need to figure out how to maneuver in climates increasingly hostile to antiracist, decolonizing, or anti-oppressive efforts.

My work led me to ask foundational questions. Why did DEI efforts seem so “ineffective,” and why were they being attacked from differing positions on the political spectrum? As someone who had spent a decade formally studying philosophy, I came to wonder what “diversity,” as a way of knowing and being, actually meant. And what was DEI anyway, and how had it come first to be assumed as a proxy for antiracist or anti-oppressive efforts and then rejected, by leftists, as a tool of neoliberal management? What was the source of its failures or breakdowns, and what could this tell me about its desired uses?

Diversity has become a dilution of and diversion from the role of institutions in remedying for social inequities sprouted from the seedbeds of racism.

When I look at current senior diversity leaders, who are overwhelmingly Black and Latino/a, I want to offer only love for all that they carry and are asked to carry. But I also want to say to them that diversity, as a concept, has cornered us, forced on us a containment through hostilities wrought by people who feel, as W.E.B. Du Bois tells us in Darkwater, “that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” DEI efforts, however imperfect, have threatened the territorial control of knowledge — and for this, they are being disciplined. But diversity, as a concept, has also led us astray. The options available to senior diversity leaders have never been sufficient.

In order to come to terms with DEI, I ask you to take seriously the likelihood that the invocation of diversity can operate as a mechanism of power to organize difference as seems expedient and erase the need for remedy of historical violence that persists in the attitudes, values, policies, and behaviors of the United States. Diversity is not the same as remedy; rather it is a way to organize, identify and control difference. Beginning with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, diversity became a proxy for the real work of remedying persistent and entrenched exclusions based on race and gender. It is a term that comes to us after a 500-year transit through colonization and enslavement — and through such practices of collecting, organizing, defining, and cataloging the bodies, rituals, cultures, and languages of the other via the curiosity cabinet. It is a term that right now is forcing many to assert that somehow hundreds of years of violence, exclusion, and engineered disenfranchisement can be reduced to “viewpoint.”

While it seeks — rightly — to make space for all kinds of people, diversity has distracted us from the muscular abolition of racist and oppressive practices within higher education. Diversity has become a dilution of and diversion from the role of institutions in remedying for social inequities sprouted from the seedbeds of racism.

Reparative activities have the capacity to cut through the power struggle we are currently trapped in, framed by an epistemology of difference that has always sought to sort existence into taxonomies and binaries, to draw lines around what is permissible. The truly reparative would transform the irrefutable past into the material necessary for remaking the present world. Whether or not to abolish DEI is not the only the question we need struggle with at this moment. Others are: What will you choose to take responsibility for? Whom? And what will you give up so that the last may become first?

This essay is adapted from Reparative Universities: Why Diversity Alone Won’t Solve Racism in Higher Ed (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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