DEI is facing a coordinated attack… and the article by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow in HBR, which seems to be well received, claims to have helpful solutions… unfortunately it doesn’t…. Here’s why…
Solutions that (don’t) work
According to the authors’ analysis the problem with DEI is that it confers preferences to certain groups (what Elon Musk sees as reverse racism etc. when he says DEI must die 🙄).
Below are the things that the authors suggest we should focus on instead, and why I think it’s not enough…
1) Take out bias instead of giving preferences - make name blind applications, change wordings of job adverts, review appraisal and promotion processes… The problem with that ‘unbiased meritocratic’ approach is that it will only work up to a point, it will only work for people who had good opportunities before applying for that job… and we know they mostly don’t - education is very unequal, so is access to internships, social networks,etc.
2) Avoid crude groupings (e.g. racial quotas) and instead take into consideration what belonging to a disadvantaged group means for your character… in other words how have you become awesome thanks to the racism conferred onto you throughout your life… Good thing is that it will draw attention to the meaning of race (and other disadvantages)… but it risks quickly becoming the new equivalent of “what’s your biggest weakness?” question at job interviews… answers will soon become predictable and will change little to nothing.
3) Provide more training to change culture - on bias, allyship, etc. That is partially helpful… it may begin to make slow cultural shifts, but a lot of evidence shows that training is rather useless. You can’t undo your whole life’s education into hegemonic structures (whiteness, neurotypicality, patriarchy, homonormativity, etc.) by a 2h training. Educational efforts should focus on good educational system/ schooling for everyone.
4) Create more inclusive spaces - LED lights (for those with sensory overload), gender neutral toilets, ramps, etc… this is probably the most concrete and supportive measure as it will change the built environment… but it has to be embedded into the building design not seen as an afterthought.
5) Widen outreach to more diverse populations - e.g. recruitment days at more diverse universities. Ok, that can help a little bit, you may get more applicants… but will they get the job (that unbiased recruitment), will they feel good at work (that changed culture), will they be promoted (that unbiased appraisal)?
6) Support charities and community organisations dedicated to DEI… ok but why not support the most influential organisations - like the actual schools? And why not support a change in how schooling is done (curriculum and pedagogy need to be decolonised)?
7) Switch from protected groups to non-protected groups such as socio-economic background…. This for me is the least helpful suggestion, because it actually doesn’t move from conferring preferences (which according to the authors is the biggest problem with DEI) and one that reveals the fundamental flaw in this article / approach…
The fundamental flaw
Whether it is focused on giving group preferences (much stronger history of this in the US, which this article is about, but whatever happens in the US trickles down to the UK, so it’s important to follow the trends), or on debiassing processes and culture, the article assumes that DEI is the way forward. It is not!
DEI only works to ameliorate the symptoms rather than cure the disease. The symptoms are that only certain groups hold most of the power and wealth in our society. DEI’s proposal is to make C-suites more colourful and flavoursome – to bring more diverse people to the table, give them the voice at the table and to listen to that voice. That is to say, DEI works within the current neoliberal system, instead of challenging it. However, the actual cause of the problem is the exploitative system itself that we live in. We don’t need more diverse people at the table doing the exploitation, we need to abolish the system that has a table – i.e. where the rich and the powerful few live off at the expense and the exploitation of the many.
An alternative exists
As the authors say, the right-wing hate is pushing hard against DEI and slowly but surely winning, winding back the progress. Why is it? Is the alt-right more dedicated to their hate than we are to equality? Or is it that we don’t really want a big change, because the system has somewhat worked for us? Is better devil known? Or is it that DEI is the wrong thing to focus (because we haven’t been shown/ haven’t learned about a good alternative)? Well, there is great alternative – it’s decoloniality. And I argue that we need to focus our attention on decoloniality, instead of wasting it on DEI.
One of the beautiful things about decoloniality is breaking down siloed thinking and focusing on interconnectedness. The article by Glasgow and Yoshino is very US focused (perhaps still stuck in that American exceptionalism and superiority paradigm?), but they would have benefited from studying the situation elsewhere. Here in the UK, we have already done a lot of what they are suggesting., Had the authors looked at other countries they would find that these solutions don’t work.
The case of UK higher education
Let’s take a look at the case of widening access and DEI agenda in higher education in the UK (where my expertise lies). We have made some great changes thanks to many efforts, trial and error, constantly learning from our past…. contextualised admissions, raising aspirations in disenfranchised populations, lots of awareness training, changes to recruitment, debiasing language, etc. etc… and while we have increased the number of students of colour in higher education, when you look at the details, you can see that these numbers mostly increased in modern universities. Unfortunately, they do not offer their graduates the same success in life as the most prestigious institutions. As I previously argued (Jackson-Cole, 2019) the increase in the number of students of colour happened more thanks to interest convergence (using the concept from Critical Race Theory) than the moral awakening of the oppressor (those in power). Higher education in the UK has been massified and marketised. In other words, it needs more and more students to keep on growing to stay afloat and for the institutions not to go bankrupt. The fastest growing population in the UK are people of colour so it was an obvious target for trying to widen participation. That is to say, diversity happened because of the “extra room” in the changing system. Unfortunately, we are still failing our staff and students of colour (just look at the racialised awarding gaps, progression rates, sense of belonging, jobs upon graduation or the demographics of the professoriate). This is why, we need decoloniality, that will radically transform the system.
With my colleagues, Joris Lechêne and Dr Lucia Kula (2022), we have looked into the decolonial literature to come up with the main tenets of decoloniality that can be a useful framework to focus on in higher education (and beyond). While the full article is forthcoming, I’ll just say that…. decoloniality requires a paradigm shift. Decoloniality wants to end with the current exploitative system based on hierarchies and dehumanisation, and instead builds horizontal relationships based on respect. Decoloniality explicitly builds a more just society. It sees nature as part of us and our wellbeing, instead of seeing it as something external and a resource to exploit and destroy. It builds sustainable futures. Decoloniality moves away from seeing knowledge as singular, universal and exclusionary, instead it promotes parity and plurality of knowledges. Decoloniality is dedicated to re-humanisation and promoting self-determination for all, in a sustainable and interconnected way. Sounds like a fairy tale? It's not. We have to remember that the current system that we live in is not a God-given natural state of the world, but a human making. Decoloniality is a viable alternative that puts humanity first, not the profits.