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John Fitzgerald Gates, Ph.D. Headshot

Pimping Diversity

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NO JOB
Digital Vision. via Getty Images

It has been said, "diversity management is a racket." Regrettably, there is a great deal of truth in this statement. In fact, "diversity management" has become a thriving industry with few bottom-line results that is in little danger of disappearing; we have all bought into a social construct that permits us to feel good about perpetrating a fraud. Corporations, universities, government agencies, minorities and "good white folks" alike -- we are all complicit in pimping diversity.

Much like affirmative action, diversity management was developed to advance a multicultural workplace. Today, diversity management is a billion dollar industry that is embedded in the mission statements of most large organizations in the U.S. For better or worse, the federal government has been the most significant driver of diversity management through requirements by federal agencies - from the Department of Labor to the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts - that large employers report their workforce demographics, and that recipients of federal grants and contracts meet particular diversity workforce or subcontracting criteria.

Corporate America has also been a substantial contributor to the practice of diversity management in order to identify and nurture diverse talent, reduce discrimination lawsuits, and enhance workplace cultures and outcomes. And universities have played a key role in advancing the field through their emphasis on ensuring diverse applicant pools in hiring, equity in pay and promotion, and quality programming in support of more inclusive and vibrant academic communities. As noble as the reasons for the existence of diversity management are, the practice has been so defiled that it is little more than a channel to service the needs of those of us who profit from it.

Undoubtedly, there are individuals and corporations with a sincere commitment to true diversity. However, it is equally true that diversity requirements have been cynically misused in ways that set our workforce development further behind. Companies pimp diversity when they tout inclusion and donate to minority causes but then reject qualified minority candidates in the second and third rounds of the interview process because the candidates "aren't a good fit." These companies skirt the requirement for a diverse applicant pool by including minorities on the front end of the process and systematically excluding them on the back end. Universities pimp diversity when administrators develop diversity goals that faculty have no intention of adhering to, and faculty gerrymander diversity programs to meet the requirements of grant applications, but have no fundamental commitment to the programs they proffer.

Minority applicants pimp diversity when they use race, gender, or sexual orientation as their calling card and means of entry to employment and then close the door of opportunity behind them to keep others out. Diversity practitioners pimp diversity when they lack the courage to be the change agents they are called to be and hide behind "programming" to obscure a lack of results. Consultants pimp diversity when they seek to make a quick buck and "keep the patient ill" rather than doing the work and bringing about healing for their clients. Finally, "good white folks" are implicated in the pimping of diversity when they contribute to minority causes to assuage "white guilt" and be recognized as contributors but then undermine diversity on the job, in business, at the dinner tables, and in the halls of justice.

Many of us do not recognize that we are culturally predisposed to the adoption of a "pimping mentality" because it is an unconscious bias that emanates from our life experiences. We have no idea that we are acting as agents of exclusion as we glorify inclusion. We think we're doing the right things, and we may be, but we are doing them for the wrong reasons. First, most of us do not want to be counted a bigot. Secondly, as a nation, we are afraid to talk openly and honestly about racism, sexism or homophobia because we are terrified of public recrimination. Thirdly, we have bought into an erroneous narrative that diversity is about difference when the truth is that diversity is about excellence.

So how do we stop pimping diversity? I believe the answer lies in a redefinition of diversity as "excellence expressing itself as differences, similarities, complexities, and tensions." Such an understanding permits us to think differently about diversity's value and place in our lives. It allows us to strive for a higher good that is built on attainable aspirations with equal possibilities to achieve them. It permits us to see all people for their potential rather than their perceived deficits. And it fundamentally changes the nature of corporate cultures for the good. But for this to happen, we must deal with the unconscious biases that undergird our prejudices and cause us to see excellence in some people but not in others. We must address the systems that give sanctuary to our biases--whether they are quota-based "metrics" masquerading as objective evidence, or "diversity awards" that have no meaning. We must empower, and expect, diversity officers not simply to check boxes, but to act boldly to move the cultures of their institutions forward.

We need a new account of diversity as a manifestation of excellence in which all people are able to participate equally. Only then can we get about the real business of advancing diversity for all of us.