Monday, August 26, 2013

When Diversity Just Isn't Diverse Enough

Well, call me a “Negative Nelly,” but I fear we are smack dab in the middle of a good old-fashioned diversity backlash.

What's a diversity backlash? It's that thing you're in when you mention the importance of workplace diversity and people roll their eyes.

Only this backlash is a little different. 

People are okay talking about diversity in general … they just don't want to talk about racial diversity.

I think I know a little bit about diversity backlashes. When I entered the profession back in ’97, whaddaya know? Diversity backlash!

Back then, every other article I read about diversity centered on how the “traditional” way of viewing the issue—through a race lens—just wasn’t diverse enough. In fact, suggest that your organization could benefit from “diversity training,” and you were liable to get a dirty look, or perhaps a lecture about how you weren’t being progressive. Not everything is about race, you know.

What’s more, the literature began referring to how white people (especially white men) were gosh darn sick and tired of being characterized as the “bad guys” who needed to get “fixed” via “training.” Another approach to this issue had to be found.

Okay, fair enough.

So, the net was widened, and diversity began to include differences in marital status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, caregiver status, political affiliation, religious affiliation, and other characteristics.

And then, the net got even wider, and we started talking about diversity of thought and diversity in learning styles, communications styles, and styles of resolving conflict.

And all of that is great. I’m a total fan. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s a lot we can learn from each other by being open and watchful.

But none of that changes this—

Last week, I had a little email chat with attorney and employee advocate extraordinaire, Donna Ballman, she of the website Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home and author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards.

I’d asked Donna for some insight on racism from the perspective of white people (for another article I’m writing), but Donna had so much to say I might be quoting her all week!

For now, however, listen to this:

“In my 27 years of law practice [I’ve seen] every type of discrimination imaginable. I can say with 100% certainty that racism still exists. I had a guy in my office today whose boss used the n-word and other racial epithets. But, I also see white employees who are victimized by non-white bosses or coworkers. I also see color discrimination, that is, people of the same race but a lighter or darker shade discriminating against each other.”

Race problem, people.

So, by all means, let’s continue to attempt honest conversations about differences in personality and religious affiliation and sexual orientation or what have you.

But let us not forget—we’ve still got race issues. Big ones.

And gathering all of our differences, and then tying the whole bunch with a big old “diversity” bow, isn’t going to resolve them, either. In fact, I’d venture to say that some of us are actually taking the opportunity to bury our racism weeds deep within that bouquet, hoping nobody will notice them amongst all the pretty flowers.


  1. Hi Crystal,
    I enjoy reading your blog and as a fellow HR practitioner, Aside from the persistent race boondoggle, I think the underlying issue that people simply can't grasp is that equity in the workplace and in life is not a zero-sum game; affording people the opportunity to objectively compete only costs those that previously held the advantage of cheating. Now, whether or not people want to own up to that reality is a whole 'nother discussion.

    1. It's not "cheating" to accept a job offer. The employer might be discriminating, and it might be an unfair advantage for the employee who gets the job offer over an equally qualified person of another race, but cheating implies culpability, and most people applying for jobs aren't in cahoots with the employer, working together to keep other races out.

    2. Thanks, Carmen! I agree that the desire for power is a likely underlying cause of the problem, and I also think that a lot of people are just angry, especially in this economy. And oh, let's not forget about pride, which keeps us from admitting that everything we have isn't merely because we're so wonderful and, on the flip side, also from admitting that all of our problems aren't caused by other people.

    3. I agree with that last line. Not everything is someone else's fault. Sometimes (I know, this is crazy) there is no one at fault. There isn't always someone to blame. That being said, you're right, not everything we have is because we're "worth" exactly that amount. Some things are given to us by our parents, for example, and we don't have much choice in who they are or what they have. But it isn't correct to say someone born in the middle class is cheating or taking advantage of someone who was born with less, or to say someone is cheating for accepting a job offer. Blame the biased employer (if he is indeed biased) but not the employee.