As a multilingual, culturally and racially ambiguous woman who’s been doing some form of diversity work for almost 25 years, I occasionally find myself having awkward conversations with potential clients about my identity. These conversations involve questions like, “Are you diverse?” or “Wait, you’re white?” or statements like “Thank you, but we’re looking for a ‘diverse’ person.” Given the growing attention that race is getting in the broader media, it’s time to frankly discuss an underlying question that often plagues the diversity and inclusion field: Should white people do diversity work?
I say yes. Here’s why:
- When only people of color do diversity work, this gives the false impression that diversity is only about, and for, people of color.D&I is about, and for, everyone, without exception. Multiple studies have shown that diversity, plus inclusiveness, is essential to excellence, innovation and high performance — including one demonstrating that the mere presence of people of color improves group results.
- White people are the ones that most need diversity work, and we tend to most trust and believe other white people.Whites are still the numerical majority in the U.S., and we’re the disproportionate majority holding power positions in government, business, education, health care and media. We are the ones that need to change the way we do things, and because humans evolved over millennia to function in small groups of similar people, our brains — like it or not — lend more credibility to people who look like us.
Beyond the question of whether white people should do diversity work is an even more provocative question — can we? I’ve heard about, and witnessed, situations where diversity work conducted by white people went wrong in ways that were ineffective at best, and horribly damaging at worst. To this question, I say it depends on the following:
- What brings the white person to diversity work?For people of color, diversity work is usually intensely personal. If a white person comes to D&I with a purely intellectual mindset or a goal to change or help someone else, they might miss the mark. If they jumped on the bandwagon a couple years ago when unconscious bias training became chic, they might not have the commitment or broad knowledge necessary to be effective. Like many white allies, I come to the work from a decades-long commitment to dismantling racism because of painful childhood incidents I both experienced and witnessed. While my pain doesn’t equal that of a person of color’s daily experience, and I acknowledge I have the white privilege of walking away any time I want, I’m dedicated to doing my part to prevent more people from having their humanity denied and gifts crushed just because of the bodies they inhabit.
- How much does the white person know, own and use their various identities?Every human being has multiple identities that situate them both inside, and outside, power structures. Straight black men face racism, but enjoy male and heteronormative privilege. I enjoy white privilege, but have faced sexism and classism. Some of my white colleagues face homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia or ableism. White people doing effective diversity work own, check and use their white privilege for positive change. They step into and out of their various identities to connect with diverse people, or to make powerful points during effective diversity training.
- How much personal work has the white person done?The most effective D&I professionals of any race or ethnicity do ongoing personal work. They build awareness of their biases and privilege and actively mitigate their harmful effects. They strive to know their personal and cultural history, strengths and weaknesses. They constantly seek and incorporate feedback, even if they don’t like how it’s offered. They build their emotional resilience, emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills. They strive to be in integrity with the work, even when they’re not working. They are curious, good humored and nimble with people. They take care of themselves and have healthy boundaries. This is a tall order for anyone, but especially for white people because doing personal work also requires unlearning what we’ve been taught: that we know everything, that we have a right to always speak and take up space, and that others must cater to our feelings. White people doing effective D&I work aren’t perfect, but embody the changes most want to see in our workforce and leadership.
- What will best meet the needs or goals of your organization or team? I speak Spanish better than most U.S.-born Latinos and pass for Hispanic all the time. I’ve lived, worked and traveled extensively abroad, including in developing nations. I’ve experienced many challenges because of my nondominant identities, many of which are invisible. I can present D&I concepts in an engaging way that creates lasting breakthroughs. Yet, none of that matters if what will best serve an organization is a person with a brown or black face, or the lived experience of a person of color in the U.S. Part of being a white person doing diversity work is to acknowledge that much of the time, no matter what qualifications or street cred we bring, we’re not always the right person for the job, and we’re not entitled to dominate the D&I field. If indeed we’re here to co-create a world that works for everyone, the least we can do when we hear “no” is to move on and be grateful yet another person of color is hearing “yes.”