CSWAC Blog

Racist and Anti-Racist Diversity

The term “diversity” describes a body of work taking place in organizational settings in the United States. Schools, businesses, nonprofits, and governmental bodies have all sponsored diversity initiatives, plans, programs and practices. Along with the worksites, a group of practitioners, including consultants, educators, and publishers, has long existed to implement various diversity practices. Like any body of practice, there are people and places where the work is being done well, and correspondingly, there are people and places that perform poorly.

The diversity “field” began in the late 1970s and by the end of the 1980s was well established. In the 1990s many corporations were spurred to action by the influential Workforce 2000 report which stated that by the year 2000 only 1 in 7 new workers would be a white male. “Managing diversity” became a prominent approach, with “valuing differences” following close at hand. Race and gender were always central concerns. Leading into the 2000s, other types of social difference also demanded attention. In time, diversity came to represent many differences. Eventually, the term diversity became dated. The work evolved into “diversity and inclusion,” and now DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Today the work continues. Race remains a central issue, and “equity” has emerged as the term of choice.

Anti-racism also has a traceable history, but for the purpose of brevity let’s jump to what it means to us now at CSWAC. We believe anti-racism, at a minimum, must incorporate the following understandings:

  • Race and racism are structural features of US society
  • Race is about power
  • Whiteness is the empowered status
  • Sustained, ongoing action is necessary to overcome racism
  • Change requires leadership from people of color and white people working together in mutually accountable relationship
  • The focus remains on racism with an anti-oppression backdrop

Each of these points is worth an essay in itself. But let’s take them on faith for now. The point is to examine how diversity work maps against these anti-racist understandings.

First, if we acknowledge that race and racism are structural features of US society, then we must also acknowledge that the normative condition of that society is one of racism. More specifically, the normative condition is one in which whiteness is centered. This is the crux of the matter.

So, when does diversity work fall short of what might be expected from an anti-racist perspective? Here’s a sampling:

When racial difference becomes cultural difference, only. Race and culture are intertwined, so much so that racial difference includes cultural difference as well. But when cultural difference becomes the sole focus, the systemic nature of racism is ignored. Rather, approaches seek to promote understanding of cultural differences in values and practices. Cultural competence becomes a goal. Ironically, when cultural competence is in vogue, the one culture it fails to examine is white American culture. Recent efforts to correct this failing include the cultural humility model. CSWAC offers workshops on white American culture as a supplement to cultural competence curricula for practicing human service professionals.

When racial difference is individualized. Individuals differ by race, but race is much more than individual differences. Again, the systemic nature of racism goes unexplored here. Interventions focus on how individuals might better adjust to one another through better communication, or valuing differences in workstyle or cultural background. Emphasis is placed on overcoming stereotypes, along with explicit and implicit bias.

When racism is unnamed. This, historically, has been the weak point in diversity work aimed at race. For reasons discussed below, naming racism can be problematic to both organizational leaders and diversity practitioners. But when racism remains unnamed, little else can be done to change the structural processes that keep it in place. Fortunately, this seems to be changing. More and more organizations and practitioners are willing to accept the naming of racism as an early step in a DEI program.

When whiteness is unnamed. Even when racism is named, whiteness often is not. The focus turns to people of color and what they need to better fit in with the prevailing organizational practices. Care may be given to hearing their concerns, working toward inclusion, even facilitating their hiring and advancement, but the operation of white organizational culture remains unnamed. Some organizations realize the pyramidal structure of their organizational hierarchy is very white at the top. But they fall short of identifying it for what it is, a reflection of a racist society which they have accepted or, at best, failed to try to change. As Horace Seldon wrote 27 years ago, “When whiteness is the norm there is a racist assumption at the ground level of every program, every attempt to ‘diversify.’”(1)

When a “one and done” strategy is being used. Typically, organizations wanting to do something about race will want to do a training of some sort. They usually, and vastly, underestimate the problem and look for a 3-hour session of professional development. After that, their hope is they have addressed the problem and can move on to the next thing. What organization doesn’t have an array of pressing concerns directly impacting its mission? The concern here is that training wears off after a while and the prevailing, embedded, and racist culture reasserts itself over time. Even as that happens, the organization may tout that it’s addressed the problem. Been there, done that. The structure remains unchanged.

When learning, not change, is the end goal. Learning and education are critical to any program of anti-racist diversity and organizational change. But when an organization develops learning programs, such as workshops, seminars, discussion groups, and even affinity groups, but fails to put some of the learning into practice, the structure again remains unchanged.

When power is unnamed. This gets to the heart of the matter. Building a multiracial organization is not just about friendly relationships, knowledgeable discussions of racism and white privilege, and the hiring and retention of people of color in the ranks. Rather, it’s about access to power and resources. Who makes the decisions? Who gets the ear of the senior ranks? Who is given freedom of action and who is monitored closely? Who is given accurate feedback, and who is pandered to? In a predominantly white organization, the answer is white people. More than one organization has embarked on a program of diversity and organizational change and made significant headway. Then a senior position opens up. Hiring mangers invariably look for the “best fit.” The question that should be asked is, the best fit with what? Is it the best fit with the historical and organizational practice under a prevailing set of white organizational norms, or is it the best fit with an emerging and challenging program of building a multiracial organization that proactively establishes multiracial norms and practices? Usually the question is not asked, and prevailing white normative practice holds sway. Naturally, a white candidate has the clear advantage in that case, and all too often is judged the “best fit.” Power is as power does.

The concerns listed above represent suboptimal approaches to racial equity and building multiracial organizations. These concerns commonly occur when white people are the decisionmakers. Often the decisionmakers are reluctant to take on change and yield power in a real way. They may be accustomed to leading and working with people of color who are accountable to them, but inexperienced in following the leadership of people of color and being accountable to the same. Thus, they may lack not the desire but the vision needed to foster the mutual relationships needed to build multiracial community. Finally, let’s be truthful. Some, like many white people in our society, are content with a white-centered status quo. It encourages them to perform good deeds while not acknowledging the presence of racism, structural or otherwise. The [white] status quo tells them race is not an issue, and the mission of the organization overrides all else.

To DEI practitioners who see the racial structure more clearly, this failure of vision among organizational decisionmakers is frustrating. And yet they face a two-edged sword. One must have clients to have a sustainable
practice but approaching clients where they’re at may lead to one of the suboptimal approaches named above. And then there are practitioners, not representing the best of the practice, who fail to realize what’s at stake and happily engage in suboptimal approaches because they do not realize more is needed. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It’s not a bad idea for practitioners to be grounded in racial justice organizing along with DEI work.

Creating an equitable organization or, as we would say at CSWAC, building a multiracial organization is a long process. Understandably, one might begin with small steps. An initial training is often a good start, especially when it is designed with knowledge of the character and concerns of the organization. But organizational leadership also needs to appreciate the longer term objectives and the deeper issues at hand. Otherwise, the training simply diffuses energy, and validates a false image of the organization as working for equity. If that happens then, in truth, the organization is practicing racist diversity. And the gold standard, anti-racist diversity, must await another day, another place, another organization to bring it into being.


(1) I’m deeply indebted in this essay to the work of Horace Seldon, who passed away in August, 2017 after many years, decades really, of anti-racist practice targeting organizational change and racial justice organizing. He left us a set of short, cogent essays on racism, whiteness, anti-racism, and racial justice. You can read them here: http://horaceseldon.com/articles/