DEI Dreaming: Confusing Inclusion and Tokenism – The Feminist Wire

DEI Dreaming: Confusing Inclusion and Tokenism

I signed out of zoom, sat up straight, placed my elbows on the table, clasped my hands together, pulled them up to my mouth, closed my eyes, and sighed out loud from exhaustion. I’d been zooming back-to-back non-stop since 9:30am. It was now well past 5pm, and I’d yet to eat lunch or dinner. Emotionally and mentally drained and starved, I raced into the kitchen to make dunch, a combination of the two, then sat down in front of my computer and commenced to scoff down my meal as if it were my last, while scrolling mindlessly through Facebook in hopes of redirecting my energy for a moment – so that I might continue working. Why am I rushing? I paused and asked myself. Because 1) the work is never ending when you’re a Black woman, and 2) the kind of work we have to do is draining. At that very moment a meme flashed before me:

Let me clarify so I can make it make sense to the people in the back. For those who may not know, DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity training began in the workplace in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement and affirmative action and equal employment laws. The idea was to decrease discrimination and increase belonging and sensitivity (while providing protections against civil rights complaints and lawsuits) in the workplace through hiring, awareness, training, and education. Today, diversity initiatives are mass-mediated alongside twin powers: equity and inclusion, producing a range of vision statements, strategic plans, task forces, resources, ambitions, affinity groups, job opportunities, et al. across public and private sectors, mandating against not only racism but also sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, ethnocentrism, ableism, religious bigotry, and more.

To be sure, thanks to the DEI trinity our places of work and business look more closely like the world we live in. In academia, this means more diverse faculty, staff, administrative pools, students, curriculum, departments, programs, research, promotions, tenure structures and rules, programming, organizations, speeches and lecture series, and dishes during seasonal celebrations and office potlucks. Space, regardless of what that space felt and feels like, was made for historically excluded groups. This matters.

Now, let me say this from the bottom of my Black feminist heart: the trio – diversity, equity, and inclusion aka DEI – is not “giving what it’s supposed to give.” (This is a Hip-Hop reference. If you don’t get it, it’s okay. Read on.) Representation is neither equity nor inclusion. As Audre Lorde reminds us, diversity without structural change is tokenism and tokenism is tolerance, the latter of which is “the grossest reformism.” In other words, diversity is gradual accommodation. To make it plain/er, representation without radical, and particularly Black feminist, political analyses, organizing, and practice bent towards justice is assimilation. And this, she posits, is the opposite of revolution.

And the latter, quite frankly, must be the goal of DEI in higher education. Because true equity notes both difference and how we are differently situated towards power in harmful structures of dominance. It maintains revolution as the goal because, as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminds us, power concedes nothing without demand. That is, equity requires revolting against and upending the status quo. Inclusion follows the establishment of true equity and comes by way of a creative majority insisting on a culture where nobody is exploited, namely Black women.

By the way, the latter of which can also be predators. What happens to our understanding of DEI and the politics of redress when the foundational trope, white oppressor/Black oppressed, is destabilized to include Black women as keepers of the power structure? That’s an article for another day. The bottom line is this: you can’t be equitable or inclusive while ignoring exploitative praxis or the re-inscription of structural dominance anywhere. This is a blind spot for DEI that needs interrogating. Anywho, what DEI needs is a more prophetic imagination, not clout. This necessitates not fancy trigger words like sensitivity, belonging, value, grace, empathy, love, or generosity, but rather radical practices of participatory justice.

First of all, for those of us who experience the need for DEI or are DEI hires, trigger words like these are perplexingly predominantly ideological. They don’t always play out in our experiences, especially for Black women. Second, comfort words make institutions feel good. They aren’t the answer to structural problems. Third, too often it’s Black women who are expected to be sensitive or extend grace, empathy, love, generosity, et al. We aren’t typically on the receiving end. Fourth, and relatedly, these words function to silence complaints. Fifth, racial, gender, sexual, economic, and other forms of sensitivity too heavily depend on some sort of moral suasion for the powers that be, which, after 48 years on this earth as a cisgender heterosexual Black woman, I simply don’t have much patience for or belief in.

I was born and raised in the Black Church and am the daughter of a retired Black Baptist preacher and theologian. My early years were spent living in family housing on The Interdenominational Theological Centers’ (ITC) campus in Atlanta, Georgia. You can’t get more church-ier than being raised up on the campus of “the consortium of five predominantly African-American denominational Christian seminaries.” Thusly, I was baptized in theologies of grace, love, hope, and ultimate goodness before I could speak. However, Black feminism taught me to be suspicious of grace and love rhetoric in neocolonial environments, especially as a Black woman. More, experiences have taught me there are some things to be less hopeful about. Sensitivity for my Black female life is one.

Please note I write these words with Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal (and images of his smiling face in the backseat of a car driven by a Black driver) flashing before me on my computer and phone screens. The lesson taught over and over is that sensitivity is a privilege only a few get to experience. Black people in America are reminded daily there is no sensitivity for us beyond the transient. As Frank Wilderson writes in The Nation,

For one hot summer moment, the cries of our allies had been authorized by the demand that Black suffering embodies…That moment did not last…and the zeitgeist shifted from unfettered Black rage to sober tutorials on activist websites and affinity gatherings on how to massage a message that was already massaged, to win the hearts and minds of Middle Americans as they watched us being gunned down on Instagram and the news.

Michael Harriot writes in The Root,

When the country collectively witnessed the brutal May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd, white people were forever changed. Millions took to the streets, arm-in-arm with their fellow brethren, offering their support for justice and equality. Corporations changed their policies. Individuals joined the movement. To prove their commitment, companies pledged billions to the struggle for racial equity. This multiracial outpouring of sympathy and solidarity transformed the country.

However, Harriot continues, while corporations pledged to donate money to social justice organizations, a review of pledges compiled by Creative Investments Research revealed the following:

American corporations…pledged to spend $50bn on racial equity since Floyd’s murder…The funds were to be spread between donations to civil rights organisations, targeted investments in communities of colour and overhauls of their internal recruiting and training programmes. Yet only about $250m has actually been spent or committed to a specific initiative.

All that said, miss me with sensitivity goals and outcomes. Discrimination and disparity rages on. And this includes higher education. Nikole Hannah-Jones anyone?

Sixth, belonging and value cannot be manufactured. Especially not in contexts where DEI efforts are posed as the right/eous thing to do as opposed to the only thing to do, or worse, weaponized as institutional protections against civil rights complaints and lawsuits. Or more, in context where such efforts reproduce and maintain cultures where Black women function like work horses and learn to normalize self-negation and accept poor treatment out of fear of retaliation, never-enough-ness, imposter syndrome, exploitation, distance, silence, silencing, conflict, losing, dismissal, reduction, ignorance, misreading, victim-blaming, erasure, and more – all while being celebrated for filling diversity quotas.

Black women in academia carry a particular kind of burden. The university needs us for diversity, and we need to work. Yet, our collective labors, visible and invisible (including the emotional), and our relationships to power, hardly rise to the level of data. That is, while non-Black women get to just focus on their research, writing, and teaching, Black women spend our weeks being celebrated for diversity while fighting for equity and inclusion in real time. And we still must produce — while functioning as miracle workers and healers tasked with uplifting entire institutions that don’t love us. Regrettably, for those who don’t know any better this is an honor. But this is the difference between being happy to be at the table and demanding the right to shift the structuring of the table that was crooked from the start. Most of us understand that the continuous pressure to do work that no one else is expected to do is pathological, exploitative, and exhausting.

DEI is more than having a seat at the table. It’s more than hiring, promotion, a new department, or even really good pay. It’s revolutionary acts of participatory justice that attends to the oppressions laid bare and commits to continuous critical self-reflection at all levels (Toni Cade Bambara, 1980). It’s participatory in that it insists on accountability and transformation both vertically and horizontally. This is a form of recompense and how institutions might actually show value. If DEI cares anything about retention it should care about this. And truth be told, no one should be using Black women for diversity clout if their retention game ain’t strong and satisfaction categories on the DEI scorecard ain’t #goals.

This leads me to my final and seventh point. DEI efforts that center grace, empathy, love, and/or generosity over and against participatory justice while concomitantly ignoring the operation of power and power relations (in not only minoritized contexts where Black women are the minority but also in contexts where there are multiple members of historically marginalized groups, some of which hold power) are not only unsustainable and costly but abusive. No matter how well-intentioned, DEI commitments to grace, empathy, love, generosity, et al. that fail to a) foreground specifically Black feminist structural analyses of power and b) pay attention to how these levers are simultaneously used against Black women to muzzle them, particularly as they are the people typically asked to provide care and understanding, call to mind what Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…Communion without confession…”

In laypersons terms, it’s grace, empathy, love, and generosity without accountability, justice, and real structural change. In Black feminist terms, it’s symbolic, negligent, and death-dealing. But perhaps revolution and participatory justice, the latter of which requires accountability, are incommensurable and thusly beyond the scope of DEI. Though I have little left, I hope not. But if so, the prophetic tradition from which I engage the world and which gives me the fire that burns within to stay alive, thrive, and use my voice for the people, regardless, requires at minimum honesty about that.

Black feminists remind us that honest-talk aka telling it like it is aka truth telling is the first step towards building equitable communities. Black women can work with the truth. We’ve been creating survival mechanisms in contexts of ugly truths all our lives. So, if DEI is really just for clout and the mad dash for grace, empathy, love, and generosity rhetoric is really about weaponizing vulnerabilities then just say that. We [still] gon’ be alright.

Alls my life I has to fight…
Alls my life I
Hard times like, yah!
Bad trips like, yah!
Nazareth, I’m fucked up
Homie, you fucked up
But if God got us then we gon’ be alright

— Kendrick Lamar

Tamura Lomax is the Foundational Associate Professor of African American and African Studies (AAAS) at Michigan State University. She received her Ph.D. in 2011 from Vanderbilt University in Religion, where she specialized in Black Religious History and Black Diaspora Studies. She also developed expertise in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Black British and U.S. Black Cultural Studies. In 2018, Dr. Lomax published Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture with Duke University Press. In addition, she organized and guest edited “Black Bodies in Ecstasy: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Politics of Pleasure,” a special issue published with Black Theology: An International Journal. In 2014, she published Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Cultural Productions with Palgrave Macmillan, a co-authored edited volume with Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant and Carol B. Duncan. And she is currently at work on a new book, Parenting Against the Patriarchy: Raising Non-Toxic Sons in White Supremacist America with Duke University Press. In 2011, Dr. Lomax co-founded The Feminist Wire (TFW). In addition to online publishing, TFW has a book series with the University of Arizona Press: The Feminist Wire Books: Connecting Feminisms, Race, and Social Justice.