What do you mean when you say inclusive?
Why we need to move past diversity and inclusion and create a new framework based on centering neglected voices
In early spring of 2007 I sat in a brightly lit room of fellow cadets and officers to have an honest discussion of race in America particularly how we could improve race relations at the Coast Guard Academy. We had just watched a performance of the play spinning into butter. The play itself is problematic in many ways least of which is that its title from the book Little Black Sambo which is deeply racist. I did not know this at the time because the performance I’d just watched resonated deeply with me.
The play seemed to be such an accurate reflection of what was going on at the Coast Guard Academy. How white people always center themselves and try to solve racism without including or thinking about the Black people affected by racism. It shows how racism and white supremacy is such a part of the fabric of society that even the most well meaning people have anti Black prejudice. When faced with the mirror that shows them that prejudice within themselves they go to great lengths to deny it instead of working to remove it.
That day I sat in a brightly lit room full of hope looking out the window where spring was fighting the last grips of Connecticut winter. I was surrounded by white faces in the room having what I believed was an important conversation about how we experience racism. I was nervous but I thought that it was my responsibility to be in the room after 3 years of working to make this place more diverse.
Eventually I started speaking about my experience growing up in the Caribbean and coming to the US as an adult. I say I was treated badly growing up because I was poor and from a single parent household but nothing compares to the pain of racism. I can overcome poverty and background but there is nothing I can do about the color of my skin, to be treated badly based solely on the color of my skin is the most painful form of discrimination. I experienced it for the first time as an adult at the Coast Guard Academy and it almost broke me. I can’t imagine how it must be to experience this as a child. Then I said “because of how much it hurt experiencing racism in the US I do not want to have children that will be raised in the US”
At that moment all the white faces in the room turned red because I had offended them all. They started yelling my name and asking me to apologize and I lost a lot of respect for friends and classmates that day. You see they were not ready to face their privilege and got hit in the face with white guilt. Instead of focusing on how they could change their behavior to prevent racism they focused on how my words made them feel. They wanted diversity without inclusion.
They wanted to say look at all the Black people in our institution without making that institution a place where Black people felt wanted, safe and nourished. The fact that I spoke up about my experience and it didn’t fit their idea of what America and the Coast Guard Academy was meant that I must not be telling the truth. They invalidated my lived experience. In a forum that was supposed to be about increasing diversity, white people centered themselves and instead of talking about how to make the institution more welcoming to people of color I was watching white people cry and call me mean; when all I did was share my experience. The result of the trauma I suffered that day was that I did not do social justice work for a long time after that.
Some months later I read an article that talked about how diversity training usually ends in white tears and centering on the white experience. I became even more wary of social justice movements after this. I did not speak up. Even when one of my classmates in grad school threatened to sell me I did not make a fuss. I didn’t understand about systemic racism. I didn’t know about redlining. I knew about inequity in education but I didn’t understand how racism had been legislated by all levels of American government and how white people were taught in schools that slaves were happy and such other “truths”. I did not understand how it benefited not just white people but also marginalized groups who benefited from white supremacy to continue to uphold white supremacy. I had a lot to learn.
The main thing I learned is that diversity, equity and inclusion are all great but they still operate under white supremacy and liberation can only happen when we dismantle white supremacy. Let’s look more closely at these concepts. Diversity means that you have different types of people in your organization. The goal is to make your organization have different people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Equity is about outcomes. It’s about realizing that some people need a little extra help because they start at a disadvantage and putting structures and programs in place to make sure that those who need that extra help can get it and be successful. Inclusion is about making sure that your organization listens to those diverse voices and creates an atmosphere where all people feel welcomed, included and nourished.
With diversity, equity and inclusion we are still upholding white supremacy. Under these structures we are still upholding white male land owner as the ideal and everything is designed to lift up to their standard. Whiteness is the standard. Even if it is never articulated, at some level we all know it. The standard is based on oppression which is why diversity, equity and inclusion are not enough.
Ideas rooted in white supremacy will always lead to the oppression of marginalized people. What happens in the name of inclusion is that organizations will hold a series of conversations where Black people are expected to solve racism and we end up hurt and tired. Black people need to know that we do not have to show up to these conversations and we do not have to solve racism. It is not our responsibility to fix the organizations that we belong to. It’s easy to feel this way because a lot of people feel entitled to Black labor. They feel that because we are the ones suffering we should fix it, but we do not HAVE to. The truth is that any organization that is truly anti racist will realize that it is on them to create an environment where Black people feel comfortable.
This does not mean that we should abandon diversity, equity and inclusion. We would not be here without these concepts and those who used them to get us to where we are today. We need to build on that work and take the next steps toward dismantling the systems built on white supremacy and build something better.
So many people do not realize how much they lean into anti blackness to continue to benefit from their proximity to whiteness. For too many people blackness is a place they visit. Black people are either idealized or disparaged. Michelle Obama is either the greatest first lady to ever first lady and she will solve all our problem or she is bringing down the status of the white house. Both positions are bad. Both positions dehumanize us. Both positions other us.
People have an idea of what a Black person should be and they will do everything to make us fit into that idea. They don’t even realize their idea of what it means to be Black is inherently anti black because it is rooted in white supremacy and the myths that were invented to oppress us. Anti blackness is based on the “covert structural and systemic racism which predetermines the socioeconomic status of Blacks in this country and is held in place by anti-Black policies, institutions, and ideologies.” It is also a disregard for Black institutions, policies and people.
That means that you are being anti black if you
- You predetermine the socioeconomic status of Black people
- You support anti black policies, institutions and ideas
- You disregard Black people, policies and institutions.
The solution to anti blackness seems simple. Recognize these three actions in yourself and work to change them. If each person stopped themselves every time they pre judged a Black person or person of color, supported anti black policies and disregarded Black people we might be closer to dismantling white supremacy.
Unfortunately, there are more people who care more about maintaining their privilege under this system or preventing feelings of guilt than dismantling white supremacy and fighting anti blackness. These are the people who believe that conversations are all we need to move forward. They think they are allies but they are not ready to deal with their antiblackness and how their actions harm Black people.
These fair weather allies will fight for Black people as long as the Black people don’t ask for too much; as long as the Black people exist within certain parameters. For them blackness is still other: something that exists outside normal. For them blackness is less than and any indication to the contrary is met with hostility.
Unfortunately, these are the people building and leading organizations and online spaces. They are on both sides of the political spectrum. They have black friends. They have marginalized identities. They use the right pronouns. They believe that they’re inclusive but as soon as a black person dares point out their anti blackness they unite and paint that person as the villain. They play the victim while bullying the Black person. They lean into stereotypes. They unite in anti blackness.
Anti blackness in marginalized communities and leftist organization is a very real problem. It is a problem we all have to commit to fighting. Those who use anti blackness to maintain the privilege they enjoy due to their proximity to whiteness will find out one day that proximity to whiteness does not actually protect you from white supremacy. That is why it is imperative that we continue to fight to dismantle white supremacy using the tools that have worked in the past — representation, diversity, inclusion — while at the same time working to remove anti blackness from ourselves and the organizations that we belong to. This is how we build a just and free society because none of us are truly free until all of us are free.
Read more on this topic: