Image Credit: Unsplash, Thomas Bonometti

I’m troubled by a trend I’ve noticed over the past several years, in which the tools and language of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) efforts are being adopted and levied for nefarious purposes. I’ve encountered numerous professionals who seemingly had no interest or lived experience which would have prompted them to think about anti-racism prior to the 2020 great “racial reckoning” (that wasn’t), who now wield a vast vocabulary informed by DEIJ training in order to avoid accountability for perpetuating white supremacy. Read that again.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Systemic oppression commonly morphs in form to elude identification as such. It involves a sophisticated form of gaslighting that can confuse – and snow – even the most jaded among us, depending on the strength of performance. How I’ve seen it manifest in the world of policy advocacy in the nonprofit space follows:

  1. Acknowledging and even proactively positing that a behavior falls within definitions of white supremacy culture but insisting that it is nevertheless necessary in this particular case (often due to perceived urgency, primacy of a different goal, or constraint on resources).
  2. Urging never-ending conversations about how to do better on anti-racism – deliberately and sometimes, expensively – without ever taking concrete action. The “conversation” supplants action.
  3. Avoiding authentic conversation or interaction with people experiencing racism under the guise of fear that the conversation itself would result in “overburdening” people of color, but without having consulted those people about whether they actually want to have the conversation.
  4. Incorporating trending language around diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging into program and project plans to opportunistically demonstrate alignment with the currently popular positioning of being anti-racist, with no consultation or direction from people who work in the justice/anti-racism space and have lived experience with racism.

I can’t read minds, but I am an eerily good reader of people. In some cases, it is clear that like any situation where one is learning something new, and especially when that learning is fraught with intense and painful emotions, folks can stumble. I actually extend a lot of grace for that. As a white person myself who has been studying, observing, and combatting racism in my personal life for decades, I make mistakes too. When thinking about, talking about, and acting on anti-racism, I both self-educate and talk through these issues with the people in my circle (and out of it) who experience racism directly, looking for where I might need to check myself.

I am not referring to well-meaning people who genuinely want to root out white supremacy’s impact on their own psyches and take action to deconstruct racism in the world. I am not referring to the (relatively few) who are willing to accept losing the power and myriad of advantages whiteness entails in order to make progress toward a society that is fairer and more humane. I am talking about those who have soaked up the jargon of DEIJ as a tool in order to skirt around justice and equity and leverage the language of diversity and inclusion to their own benefit while perpetuating white supremacy in reality.

I can generally tell the difference. From speaking to a variety of colleagues working in DEIJ in and out of the nonprofit space (mostly Black women), I know they can see it, too. It is not the same as being unsure, over-eager, or paralyzed by fear that you will end up “cancelled” for taking a misstep. It is intentional, strategic, and nefarious. Some of the things to look for, in my experience, are:

      1. An unwillingness to take suggestions to do things differently in order to actually align with the principles the person is espousing, even (or especially) when delivered by people experiencing racism (often manifests as numerous excuses as to why this time, we have to keep doing things this way, but maybe in the future, we can do better).
      2. Half-measure concessions to suggestions to doing things differently – bending only as much as necessary to secure approval or acceptance without being open to a real overhaul; negotiating a level of racist behavior as “pragmatic.”
      3. Consistently repeating the same “mistakes,” which are only corrected when called out but slip through folks’ radar otherwise.
      4. Condescension and hostility (potentially leading to undermining/sabotage) toward those who ask questions and recommend different courses of action in order to proceed in an anti-racist fashion.
      5. Immovable mistrust toward these actors from other professionals working in the anti-racism space and/or with lived experience of racism, with only perfunctory, cold, and impersonal partnerships, or none at all.

So what do we do with this information? Where it’s not already happening, I propose that how to spot, expose and de-activate this particular racist shape-shifting needs to be part of DEIJ training even for folks who are not actually charged with advancing DEIJ. In consulting with DEIJ professionals in my network (primarily Black and Latina women, but also men of color), one consistent recommendation that emerges is to establish firm agreements or codes of conduct that commit team members to anti-racist behavior. That’s the easy part.

The tricky part is addressing violations and imposing consequences for them. People willing to co-opt what is designed to deconstruct racism in order to continue operating in a way that perpetuates racism are generally masterful manipulators. Don’t expect that they will take correction lying down—in fact, to my point about condescension and hostility, they may initiate or accelerate efforts to get rid of the thorn in their side that is you. In some cases, they may crumble and play victim. They are unlikely to accept accountability, which is all the more reason why they must be held accountable.

Tools can become weapons, depending on the hands holding them. In order for DEIJ efforts to retain credibility and advance their real purposes, it is critical that this weaponization be recognized and disarmed. If not, I foresee the proliferation of a few regressive consequences, which are happening already.

    1. As a result of their manipulation, bad actors actually become positioned to lead anti-racism efforts, gaining even more power to concentrate on performative efforts and quash meaningful action toward anti-racism.
    2. Resources designated to support equity (for example, federal funding for environmental justice work) is funneled through or to organizations whose leadership opportunistically performs anti-racism. This has the dual effect of draining potential support for groups actually doing anti-racist work and amplifying the power of bad actors who then are in a position to sanitize, neutralize, and dilute anti-racist policy and action.
    3. Good DEIJ practitioners begin to lose credibility and hard-won reputational gains among anti-racist activists due to the way their work is being used. This can directly impact people’s pockets, especially small-shop consultants or DEIJ folks who work within large corporations where their power is only aesthetic. The field as a whole becomes synonymous with “Black-washing,” and we revert to the days that we had no training at all unless required by law.
    4. Actual “allies/accomplices” shrink back from speaking and acting against racism out of a desire to not be mislabeled and associated with bad actors (this is the least worrisome, as this belies a temperate commitment, at best).

When Trump was elected in 2016, I remember someone telling me it was a good thing, because she preferred her racism “up close in her face, where she could smell it.” This was a white woman, and I didn’t understand where she was coming from. Having experienced the particular threat of racist violence directed toward interracial couples, I definitely preferred my racism behind closed doors. Now I get what she meant. It is easier to identify definitively and condemn a Confederate-flag waving good ‘ole boy spewing racist epithets at you in the park than to stop a self-proclaimed anti-racist from obtaining a large grant for pursuing “justice” and using it to suppress real change. The fact is, we live in a country (and a world, if we’re being honest) where accountability is rare for either an explicit or subtle manifestation of white supremacy, though it should apply to both.

For those of us working in the professional world, we can start where we are—by watching how words line up, or don’t—with action, speaking up about these inconsistencies between words and actions, and insisting that those speaking the language of anti-racism put their money, behavior, and outcomes where their mouths are.