No Diversity by Osmosis or Stop Pimping Black Lives

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

I recently received a request on LinkedIn to have a “30 minute chat” with someone who had been “tasked to create a new diversity lexicon.”

First the person reminded me of how we had connected, praised me for all my accomplishments since we last met, explained that it would benefit poor and homeless kids, and then hit me with the ask!

I felt pimped! Build me up, pull on my heartstrings, then ask me to do your job for free. Really? This person has a “task”, doesn’t know the diversity stuff, but was hired anyway. Enough.

White professionals must stop contributing to the rise of “diversity by osmosis” and the pimping of minoritized experts by accepting work they are unqualified to do.

As corporations begin allocating big bucks to support their #BlackLivesMatter statements and putting money behind this commitment, they have to pause and ask, who is benefiting? Once again, whites have insinuated themselves into the political economy of the diversity industry and exerted power over the small domains of knowledge we had carved out.

Instead of this person approaching me as a professional with a legitimate business offer of $300 for half an hour of my expertise, she just wanted us “to chat.”

My credentials in the diversity arena far exceed hers, but rather than admit to her employer that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know and ask them to cough up a few dollars to pay for the time of someone with my experience, she wants to pimp me for my expert knowledge. And, when she submits the work, it will be presented as her own. This happens time and time again.

I admit it. I know I have a lot to offer, but as I look at who is being hired as “diversity experts” or as “Chief Diversity Officers,” they don’t look like me — a very much BLACK woman. White women, despite facing gender oppression, are not proxies or substitutes for a minoritized man or woman. They are not; it is white women who have acquired a level of privilege and benefits from the diversity movement — while we BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color) sure as hell have not.

In fact, in 2016, an article by Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman in Harvard Business Review entitled “Women and Minorities are Penalized for Promoting Diversity,” affirmed what I have known from decades, minoritized people (and women) do not benefit from “doing diversity,” though white women have had far more success in these roles.

When this article was sent to me, my first reaction was — we BIPOC have been saying this for decades; but only when it appears in HBR do you believe it to be true. We have been told we are “too sensitive” or misconstruing the situation. The HBR article is based on is a study entitled “Does Diversity-Value Behavior Result in Diminished Performance Ratings for Non-White and Female Leaders?” The short answer is YES! The researchers for the study they cite, David R. Hekman, Stefanie K. Johnson, Maw-Der Foo, and Wei Yang, explain:

Four years after this study, when I google “diversity consultants,” it is mostly white women that pop up. They also are writing articles about the criterion companies should use when hiring diversity consultants, criterion that they are most likely to fit, and have certainly established themselves as gatekeepers by explaining the qualifications a “good” diversity consultant must have. There are now diversity certifications — which they created, and for which one must handsomely pay. Even colleges and universities have gotten into the act; these institutions have some of the worst statistics for faculty, staff, and student diversity, yet feel qualified to offer certification programs in diversity. Isn’t that a bit peculiar?

And it’s not just white women. I recall some years ago getting a request from a young white man who had been hired at one of the Tech Firms to “do diversity.” He contacted me to ask if he could “pick my brain” about diversity strategies— of course, I never answered. He was hired into a job he knew nothing about, and so he was faking it until he made it by contacting minoritized people who had the experience, siphoning off their knowledge, and claiming it as his own.

Book Cover, Black Feminist Anthropology

I do not have diversity letters behind my name (CDT, CDP, CDM — Certified Diversity Trainer, Certified Diversity Professional, Certified Diversity Manager) to indicate I am “diversity competent, culturally competent,” etc. Nor am I a graduate of the Diversity Executive Leadership Academy (DELA), which seems to have become the industry standard.

What I do have is a PhD in anthropology; decades of conducting research and numerous publications on the social construction of inequality; the professional experience of having navigated white spaces most of my life to hold high administrative positions at a time when there was NO Affirmative Action, no Diversity, no safeguards; a background that spans decades coaching and teaching numerous minoritized people called upon to do diversity work as they navigate microaggression and structural racism; having facilitated organizational changes for places to become inclusive; written diversity strategies; formulated appropriate diversity language (lexicon) that is inclusive; designed and completed diversity audits with successful results; and held one of the highest leadership positions as a University president.

Not bad for a girl who grew up in the Henry Horner projects of Chicago (now demolished); was a first generation college graduate; acquired two terminal degrees-MFA in English and PhD in Anthropology; sat on the first Affirmative Action Committee and helped design AA policies at a Research I University in 1970s; advocated for access and inclusion since the 1960s before they became catch phrases; directed a minority support program back in the 1980s before everyone even knew the word “diversity” or “inclusion;” and have designed academic and other programs from the ground up. I also have lived my life as a Black woman who has navigated a successful professional career in predominantly white spaces.

I think this qualifies me without having to attend DELA or be certified — these programs translate into participants reading some literature and attending some “trainings” often taught by people who have had no direct experience of living with inequality and racism — but feel authorized to certify anyone who attends their programs as a “Diversity expert.”

Henry Horner Projects, Chicago, Author’s photo

Despite the proliferation of diversity plans in major organizations; hiring of people in Chief Diversity Officer positions; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive (DEI) strategies and commitments, in reality very little has changed. Corporate administrations, college and university presidents, large nonprofits Directors remain majority white and male, with a smattering of white women. The number of non-white men in key positions has declined, and non-white women, especially Black women, are almost non-existent.

We are worse today off in terms of BIPOC diversity representation in corporations, nonprofits, foundations, and higher education than ten years ago.

Structural Racism, implicit bias, implicit ageism, and in-group bias are very real factors in virtually every aspect of employment today and almost 30+ years after diversity emerged on the horizon. Everybody claims to be “doing diversity” and committed to it as a practice, but the numbers say different.

Case in point, two weeks ago I applied for a Director of Public Good Humanities position at a local university and in less than a week, I was kicked out of the applicant pool without even an interview. The wording of the reject letter was, in the words of Alice, “curious” to say the least. It stated “your credentials did not specifically meet our current needs.” How interesting.

I had to ask myself, was it my having been a former university president credential that did not “specifically” meet the “current needs”; was it my being an award-winning author; a public humanities writer who was named “Best in the Nation Columnist” by the Black Press of America; or was it that I had established an Africana Women’s Studies Program from the ground up; founded a University Research Center from scratch that included renovation of a 21,000 sf space; or was it the $10.8M portfolio I managed at an international foundation where I funded public humanities almost 15 years ago before the term became popular? I had to interrogate which of the above-mentioned credentials, and the actual list is much longer, failed to “specifically” meet some unspecified “current needs?”

As someone who has sat on numerous search committees and conducted diversity audits of organizations to identify structural barriers that prevent equity and facilitate exclusion in a seemingly non-confrontational way, I am not surprised.

However, I am definitely disappointed. Surely I thought, the last months of protests and uprising, the global and corporate support for #BlackLivesMatter, would make institutions more conscious and sensitive to any practice that excluded people; I had hoped that Search Committees would be even more reflective and vigilant in making sure their applicant pool was diverse.

I met every main criteria in the posted job description, yet did not qualify for an interview for a low-level Directorship after having worked as a University president. Really?

Of course, I know that Search Committees develop rubrics that may contain specifics not written in the job description, and which are often used to eliminate applicants, who they believe “don’t fit.” This leaves the field of implicit bias and in-group bias, wide open. According to the HBR authors, Johnson and Hekman, referenced earlier,

One way that implicit bias and in-group bias operate, which is not discussed much, is that minoritized people are punished for being high achiever. It is the “uppity Negro” syndrome; those making the decisions are intimidated by our accomplishments and/or want to “put us in our place.” We have achieved a status they did not accomplish, but fundamentally believe they are entitled to, and because of white supremacist conditioning absolutely think that no Black person deserves to have what they do not. Operating out of these biases, they search for esoteric and minute (“specific”) ways to keep people like me out of the applicant pool.

Nepotism can also play a big part in hiring processes. Over last ten years, I cannot tell you how many times I inquired about a position in Raleigh where I reside and was told, by reliable sources, that the successor was already hand-picked, even if the job description was publicized. And while we described this as “the old boys’ network,” there is now “a white girls’ network” that reproduces these same exclusionary practices.

One of the things that occurs in higher education routinely is the obligatory posting of a position, which is required for grant funding and federal funding, for a job that someone is already handpicked for. I have challenged institutions I work with about how they are presenting a public falsehood that suggests they will consider anyone who applies, when in reality, they already have determined who the successful candidate will be.

This is likely the case with the position for which I applied; the hiring decision was made before the position was even posted and that means any viable candidates whose credentials can throw a money wrench into process has to be eliminated. Such practices persist in virtual every sector of employment and served to maintain a pervasive majority white administrative and professional staff at the local higher education institutions of UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, North Carolina State, and other smaller ones. It has also kept state government positions in North Carolina majority white. And, this is what happens nationally.

The Games Institutions Play

The institution that rejected me has a stated “diversity” policy and an “EEO” (Equal Employment Opportunity” statement. They exist as words on paper only, because they allow Search committees to nitpick with language like “specifically” — which could mean anything that those making the decision choose — and use vague terms like “current needs” to exclude applicants; further, this latter term seems to imply that the “current needs” are different from what was advertised in the job description.

This is where equity should be applied — if I met 95% of the stated qualifications, but am not invited for an interview, it suggests that the position was targeted for a particular person and my being in the mix would muddle the process. Over and over again, implicit bias mindsets, as well as a “rolodex of inequality” — calling only the people they know from their rolodex or contacts— are the main reason we fail to see any changes in the composition of these institutions and organizations. In-group bias where people making the decisions instinctively have a preference for those who are more like themselves.

Such structural barriers are the ones I try to point out as a diversity consultant. I inquire about hiring practices and job descriptions: are they written so narrowly (or specifically) as to guarantee that certain people are kept out and that a homogeneous staffing composition prevails?

While working as a Chief Diversity Officer, I did a double check of applicants who applied for my team. Rather than let the Talent Managers screen people out, I ask my Admin to review those candidates who might not “specifically” fit the job description, or that the TM had flagged for elimination, and bring to my attention anyone who could potentially do the job, even if they did not “specifically” meet the criterion. I did not rely upon an algorithm or the exclusionary practices of an inexperienced HR person who had a particularly mindset to exclude talent. Search committees have been conditioned to throw applicants out rather than look for opportunities to keep people in who can do the job, even if they are not an exact fit.

One thing I have learned through experience is that unless the job is brain surgery or rocket science, most people with leadership skills can direct any program. The requests for “years of experience” doing X, allows institutions to block out certain candidates who may not have had the opportunity to acquire this experience.

Case in point, once at the University of Florida, the state’s flagship institution, where I was tenured in anthropology, they announced the establishment of a particular award for senior faculty who had served in the position of Full Professor for a minimum of ten years. Several months later they had to issue a modification because the numbers showed that no woman full professor on campus could meet that criterion because a history of gender discrimination had excluded women from becoming Full Professor for decades. They changed the criterion to five years to make it more inclusive and possible for women to be consider. I assure you also that few Black professors could have satisfied that criterion as well. At the time I left in 2004, there were only three Black Full Professors in the entire College of Arts and Sciences, and possibly the entire University.

The Cruelty of Ageism

According to AARP, “…76% of…older workers see age discrimination as a hurdle to finding s new job.”

I am certain that I just expanded that number to 77% and that age was a factor in my being rejected! Ageism is real. White men work until they are senile, white women work longer, and senior Black men are also employable.

But Lawdy, being a silver-hair Black woman over age 55+ means encountering a concrete wall, like the one Trump is building in Arizona. It is hard, impenetrable, and well protected to keep out people like myself. The wall of ageism, coupled with the wall of systemic racism, is keeping senior Black women unemployable and out of the work force.

Chip Conley, who was invited out of retirement to aid AirBnB, promotes the idea of the value of having “modern elders” in the workforce. Thr concept is a great one, but if it is devoid of recognizing how systemic racism has already excluded us, then it beckmes a model for white folks only, and maybe Black men, but may have little value for Black women. I hope that is not the case.

The Appropriate Response

So as to that inquiry about the 30 minute chat, my response would have to be — Hell No!

There will not be any “chat” where someone can pimp my hard-earned knowledge, learn about diversity through osmosis, and take that knowledge back to their job and then pawn off my ideas and recommendations as their own diversity epiphany. That has happened to me before. Someone once asked me to help them “process” a rather difficult meeting in which they were being challenged and displaying prominent white fragility. In the course of our discussion, I made several suggestions about how she might effectively approach the next meeting. Imagine my surprise when I opened an email the next day and found many of my suggestions presented by her as “here is how we will proceed,” with no acknowledgement of our debriefing and no attribution as to where the ideas had come from. My response was a quick note to her and her supervisors pointing out the grave omission with final two words — “fix it.”

As to that university who rejected me — Hell No! You can’t exclude me from an applicant pool and not expect to be challenged. Before last month, I might have allowed this action to stand with a shoulder shrug, thinking what can I do? Well one thing I can do is to stop being silent. I have written to the President of the university and filed a complaint of age and race discrimination. I await their response.

There is a certain liberation in being a “modern elder;” for me, it means not giving a hot damn about what people think. No person or institution can hurt me any more than all the years I have had to live, survive, and fight to thrive while breathing the toxic air of systemic racism and drinking the tainted kook-aid of “just go along to get alone,” and watching how others with lesser credentials were given opportunities withheld from me.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I have also conducted diversity education and on one occasion it hurt to listen to one Black woman in her 40's describe the trauma she endured, and still feels, from when she was 8 years old and accused of cheating in school. As she told the story, you could see the trauma of the little girl take over the body of the woman and fill her with outrage, fear, and a feeling of neglect.

She explained how she had loaned her history book to a friend who copied the answers she had written in her notes. When they took the test the next day, of course their answers were similar, but the teacher accused her, the Black girl, of cheating. Adding insult to injury, the teacher made her stand in class for the rest of the day, announcing to everyone who entered how she, the Black girl, was a cheater. At the end of the day, her “friend,” the white girl, admitted to the teacher how she had gotten the same answers. This young Black girl was allowed to leave school but with no apology, and most significantly, no punishment for the white girl who actually had cheated.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The experience of such humiliation left a mark that propelled her to become an over achiever who lived with the complex that she never felt that she was good enough, and when in her current organization she saw a younger white woman with no experience be given a job she had applied for, having both the experience and seniority, be provided with support and training, and then be promoted again, it brought back the trauma. Every time she sees that woman who had reached even greater heights, she is reduced to that little traumatized Black girl again. This is the burden many Black people carry.

The last months of protests, uprisings, and the voices and vision of Black youth, like my Goddaughter Mezzie, who are speaking up, speaking out, and not backing down, have embolden me.

The unflinching courage and commitment of BIPOC, joined by white youth allies, to see justice done has motivated them to throw this country into racial discord and social chaos in order to reveal in a very public way the insanity of inequality.

Their actions have made me braver, inspired me, and reminded me of my responsibility to boldly stand up to discrimination, to all forms of exclusion, especially ageism, to knowledge appropriation (brain drain), to the pimping of minoritized people, by which I mean asking us to do sh*t for free, and to challenging the ongoing economic gap that is being further exacerbated by corporations and foundations who are giving money to white companies, colleges and universities, and white women and men who “do diversity.” Instead, make #BlackLivesMatter by giving that money to Historically Black Colleges and Universities so that they may improve their infrastructure and facilities so that they may continue to disproportionately educate Black and other non-white students.

Done with Diversity

Screenshot by Author

Right now, I am so done with diversity and with “doing diversity!”

I don’t “do diversity, equity, and inclusiveness” (DEI)!

I live DEI; I breathe their truths; I suffer from their absence; I navigate the consequences I must endure when these concepts are not used as values or guiding principles but are presented as window dressing in diversity plans and diversity certifications.

I also pray with conviction that one day diversity, equity, and inclusiveness (DEI) can manifest into a living reality so that I might walk a little taller; that I might be rewarded for my accomplishments; where my books will be cited and my ideas not appropriated without attribution; and that I will get a reprieve from people who want to “chat” and pick my brain, and rob my knowledge and experience, only to advance themselves, but never me.

Ultimately, I want “doing diversity” to be about and equity and fairness, about principled DEI education that is designed to disrupt the status quo and transform the soul of this country such that the debt to the descendants of enslaved people, who continue to experience the trauma of being minoritized, is finally paid.

So, Google, Netflix, and all the corporations — who now claim you understand and support #BlackLivesMatter — , if you are not hiring or funding those Black lives, then not a damn thing has changed.

If the millions of dollars you have set aside as some type of limited reparations, don’t make it into the right Black hands; if the only diversity experts you hire are whites with letters behind their names saying they are diversity certified, but have NEVER lived one of our trauma-filled days, or walked in our trauma-filled but resilient shoes, then all you have done is exchange one form of structural inequality for another — under the guise of “doing diversity.”

For America to regain its moral compass and travel the road to authentic democratic righteousness and social transformation, the economic and decision-making power to create change must be placed into the right hands — into Black and Indigenous hands first and foremost.

And a warning to anyone reading my LinkedIn profile, if you are not prepared to offer me a reasonable fee for tapping into my expertise and services, we have nothing to talk about. And to the University that rejected me from the applicant pool, I intend to give you enough hell so that you are forced to do some institutional soul searching about how your can course correct your hiring processes such that they will focus on bringing authentic diversity of race and age into your community, rather than wasting time and resources on excluding us.

(c)2020 Irma McClaurin



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Irma McClaurin

Award-winning author/ anthropologist/consultant & past prez of Shaw U. Forthcoming: JUSTSPEAK: Race, Culture & Politics in America: