Recently, while co-facilitating the Onion Dialogues, a white participant asked a pointed question: “What is the goal?” He continued by asking if employers should mirror the percentage of specific groups of people of color in the American population or what. I could hear frustration, or maybe exasperation, in his voice. He worked for a business that had mandated its entire team go through this training. He wanted to finish the training and come away with specific direction. A third of the way through, he didn’t see the session leading to that kind of direction and he was right.
This was a significant aha moment for me.
That Onion Dialogue participant wanted a road map. What was the quickest way for him to get from point A to point B?
Instead, I was giving him a complex route with multiple, interconnected roads. On top of that, the goal was racial justice, something he may have seen as an amorphous reality, not his tangible point B.
The Onion Dialogues, like many racial justice trainings, was designed to open the thinking of the participants. They are intended to leave knowing that Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan. It is a reality, with evidence of why we haven’t mattered for centuries. I want participants to understand the microaggressions and oppression Black people and other people of color face every day. The goal is for them to become an ally or advocate for racial justice, with the skills to use a newly acquired lens to see, interact in, and transform the world.
He wanted to know how many Black people needed to work in his business to be compliant/woke/racially just.
That moment was a juxtaposition of black and white… and gray. To me, he was in a black and white business world of DEI: hard numbers, measurable goals, and specific, time-driven outcomes. Done! I was in a gray, nuanced world of understanding racial history and racial reality on the way to working for racial justice. Ongoing, forever.
I have been challenged by the concept of DEI for some time. I think of it as minimizing. This participant again elevated my discomfort while also prompting my thinking.
The term DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – seems to me, most often, to be translated into numbers. Those numbers are critically important. I know that. I just want so much more than the right numbers. A person/business/organization can do all the right things, under the DEI approach, and still not reckon with how race has shaped their own life or experience at work, how they may be complicit in racial injustices, or see how their company or organization perpetuates racial inequities or benefits from historical injustices.
I want participants’ understanding of racial injustice to evolve through the training. I want them to be exposed to a more complete history of our country, one that, for example, discusses the injustice of not getting forty acres and a mule and how redlining and decades of prejudice and discrimination have left Black families with one-tenth the wealth of white families in America. I want participants who go through racial justice training to understand that, perhaps, just maybe, they have, consciously or unconsciously, been blaming the victim. Do most DEI programs do that?
For some reason, I heard that participant with new ears. I reflected on his question and his viewpoint, realizing that I needed to open my thinking. I needed to align my view of an organizational or business focus on DEI with my commitment to what I perceive as a more comprehensive examination of race and racism. One is not right and one wrong. They’re different strategies, complementary, both necessary and both incomplete. We need to see more racially diverse employees in every sector, at every level. And, we must go beyond solely a DEI compliant workplace, to get to a racially just America.
DEI and racial justice seminars/trainings like the Onion Dialogues are all part of a necessary, multifaceted tool kit for social change. Various strategies, many interventions, layers of action from thousands of voices are needed to birth a racially just America. So, to my DEI-focused colleagues, I say you’re doing important work, keep looking at the numbers, but also take that macro view, learn about all that has gotten us to where we are as a racially unjust country and then go well beyond the workplace to make it right.