On Diversity Washing
“I don’t do manels” is a catchphrase increasingly seen in e-mail signatures and online bios. While perhaps in some ways a positive development (and: still much-needed in 2020, as illustrated by the many all-male Zoom panels featured on our social media newsfeeds), the phrase only addresses one aspect of what often makes representation in public spaces problematic.
It’s hard to come up with an equally simple and clear sentence to cover the full array of issues, i.e. lack of representation of anyone who is not white, able-bodied, cisgender, socioeconomically privileged, and — often — male. Not only is it nice to have a catchy slogan, it also helps shield you from the long, labour-intensive, and often frustrating exchanges I have had since I started asking questions about representation when being invited to do any kind of public speaking.
To save myself the further emotional labour, I wrote this brief explainer on how not to communicate when inviting a “diverse” person to come speak at your event/join your club/represent in any other way and they ask questions about the wider context you are proposing to place them in. The below is written from my perspective as a woman of colour, but I can imagine some of it will also apply for others who generally don’t see themselves reflected in the usual composition of panels, conferences and the like.
In the absence of a solid catchphrase, I may just hyperlink to this piece in my e-mail signature.
“You are the only one who can address this issue”
The narrative of exceptionalism is seductive. Though flattery will probably get you far in this world, it won’t make anyone buy in to the delusion that they are that exceptional. It will especially not make anyone believe that their only worthy counterparts for the conversation you’re organising are white (wo)men. Unless your event is representative across the board, asking one person to join with the aim of “diversifying” it is equal to instrumentalising them to enable a white conversation.
Unless your event is representative across the board, asking one person to join with the aim of “diversifying” it is equal to instrumentalising them to enable a white conversation.
“You are the only *main* speaker”
If there is an event related to the talk you are inviting someone for, they are not the only person partaking. If you are organising panels, roundtables, and have participants join, you should have considered the composition of all those elements of the event. Elevating someone to a “special status guest” does not excuse you from considering what the makeup of the rest of the gathering looks like. Remember: this is not a board game. The presence of one “diverse” keynote speaker does not equate x “regular” pawns in the game.
Remember: this is not a board game. The presence of one “diverse” keynote speaker does not equate x “regular” pawns in the game.
“We are trying/hoping/will…”
“We are reaching out to people of colour to chair the sessions.” “We’ve invited x Black women.” “We are hoping more people from x group will register.” Having a broad range of participants involved in your event who reflect different experiences should not be an afterthought. It should be part of the design from the very beginning.
Having a broad range of participants involved in your event who reflect different experiences should not be an afterthought. It should be part of the design from the very beginning.
So if statements like this come at the stage where you have everything lined up, except for your “diversity quota”, the answer to all of them is: not good enough. We’re everywhere. If we’re not yet present at your event, that’s on you. Aspirations are lovely, but until you make good on them, they do not count.
“But look at our gender representation! We have aaaaaall the (white) women”
Great, have a white feminist cookie for your binders full of women. Unfortunately, you won’t collect the ally cookie until your event is intersectionally representative across the board.
“How many will be enough? Can you give us a percentage?”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously responded to a similar question on gender representation on the US Supreme Court by saying that there would be “enough” women on the court when all nine judges were women. The main question I would like to ask people looking for quotas is: What exactly are you afraid of might happen when you are “outnumbered”? Also: making spaces open and inclusive is not just about visibility, it is about examining the culture and structure of your event and asking in what ways it might exclude or be unwelcoming or uncomfortable for those already underrepresented in your field. Stats are not a substitute for culture.
Making spaces open and inclusive is not just about visibility, it is about examining the culture and structure of your event. Stats are not a substitute for culture.
“This endeavour is not about racial justice/diversity/anything related to BIPOC as such”
… and therefore, having just one of you is enough. It is puzzling how a majority white, able-bodied, cisgender setup is considered fine unless an initiative is explicitly focused on racial and social justice. Almost equally puzzling is the overt way this message is often communicated, as if people are not aware that this exactly evidences that diversity washing is all they’re after: they want the tokenism, but not the actual diversity they say they support.
“You should be grateful that we’re giving you a platform (so don’t make a fuss)”
This point (unlike the previous ones, which are surprisingly openly spelled out) is usually not made explicit, but nevertheless implied loud and clear. The inherent contradiction between inviting someone to add something to an event (otherwise, why invite this particular speaker?) and at the same time making them feel like it’s an act of charity on the organisers’ part is apparently lost on some. Besides the fact that it illustrates the premise that, in the eyes of the organisers, the “diverse” speaker actually does not “belong” in the context they’re invited into, it disregards the extra effort required from the speaker to provide this (often unpaid) labour.
Unless you are a white dude, you don’t get to be an individual.
Because, unless you are a white dude, you don’t get to be an individual. The rest of us represent whichever group we are assigned to by our audience. So we have to show up three times as prepared to not badly reflect on countless people we do not even know and, apparently, should still be grateful for the “opportunity”.
Having covered the main points not to make when someone engages you in conversation about the composition of your latest enterprise, I am adding a few bonus tips on how not to behave once this conversation has reached a conclusion.
- Ghosting — After someone spent considerable time and energy explaining why the setup you’re proposing won’t work, dropping the conversation without even pretending to take the communicated message into consideration is just, well, rude.
- Making a closing argument — Especially if the conversation made clear that you have not yet done your racial justice homework, please resist the temptation to make a “summary argument”. This is not a situation in which you can “win” unless you use it as an opportunity to learn and better educate yourself.
This is not a situation in which you can “win” unless you use it as an opportunity to learn and better educate yourself.
- Guilt tripping — Trying to make the other person feel guilty, especially in reference to a preexisting personal relationship. Trust me: the person who had to broach these issues with you will feel bad enough, and possibly quite disillusioned with your lack of understanding of something that matters to them. (In addition to their overall annoyance about you not having done your homework before shooting off that invite e-mail.)
Finally, resist the temptation to pretend you can disagree about racism like pizza toppings and instead invest in listening, learning and becoming a better anti-racist.