Taking a hard look at the ugly side of D&I

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, there’s a difference between the ideals that it represents and the actual practice of achieving it. And as much as I love to advocate for the former, there are absolutely things I hate about the latter end of it. 

As one of the few people in tech who are black and in a technical role, I know that I am the last person you’d expect to write a piece like this. In fact, I’m writing this article because I’m pretty sure I am one of the few who can. 

Because when it comes to talking about diversity and inclusion (D&I for short), I’ve come to understand that you can never really say anything bad about it. At least, not without being branded as some kind of a racist.

But something must be said. The work of pursuing diversity and inclusion is not a kumbaya fest. Of course I believe there are great and necessary reasons why this work needs to be done. I love advocating for the underrepresented, and I look forward to a time when this work will be obsolete. But there are plenty of things about this work that sucks.

To that end, I’d like to discuss the 10 things that I hate about D&I culture (in no particular order):

1. Cancel Culture

If you’ve visited the rage filled, anger inducing, vitriol factory known as Twitter for any length of time, you’ll definitely observe the movement that is “cancel culture” in full effect. The idea is simple. Somebody say something you don’t like? Cancel them. Somebody do something considered morally reprehensible? Cancel them. Boycott their products. Shame them. Drag their reputation through the streets. 

Cancel culture is about mob mentality. And just like real mobs, they aren’t a good thing for a functioning society. The court of public opinion is larger and more full than it ever has been, and that is quite dangerous in a time when one’s online reputation means a whole lot more than it used to. The erosion of common decency and respect in a society is a perilous thing, and I believe that cancel culture throws fuel on that fire. 

There are plenty of healthy ways to address injustice, immoral, and unacceptable behavior in respectful and civil ways. Cancel culture isn’t one of them. Those who are genuinely interested in pursuing meaningful change for diversity and inclusion would do well to avoid participating in this trend. I don’t see it going anywhere good.

2. War culture

Throughout human history, there are those who have advocated for change through peaceful means, and those who are happy to burn down a village or two to get what they want. 

Now I’ve never met or heard of anyone advocating for a violent coup as a means of accomplishing more diversity and inclusion in tech. However, there are some who very much see this work as, at the very least, an ideological war between the oppressed and the oppressor, a struggle between the white male evangelical and, well, everybody else.

We’ve got “social justice warriors.” We’ve got “allies” (a word which, in my mind, constantly evokes the allies versus axis powers comparisons of World War II). Look up the phrase “diversity war” on your favorite search engine. There are more than a few articles from the major media outlets remarking on the culture battles raging within Silicon Valley.

Now I don’t deny that there are disagreeing sides in D&I discussions. And I do believe there are really vocal minorities who are interested in waging war against other really vocal minorities. However, I don’t believe that looking at this work as a “war” is constructive nor helpful. It only encourages people to choose sides, a behavior that runs counter to the goal of inclusion. Furthermore, it alienates those who aren’t directly impacted by D&I policies, people whose participation is important for ensuring inclusion really scales.

3. Ever-changing vocabulary

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to have a meaningful conversation about inclusion is that the vocabulary is constantly changing. 

Even the phrase “Diversity & Inclusion” is outdated. Nowadays, we in the know prefer to talk about “representation and belonging.” That’s because diversity doesn’t work without inclusion, but inclusion without psychological safety is meaningless, and…you get the picture.

There was a brief period of time when I was genuinely confused about how I should refer to myself. Should I say I’m “African-American” or should I prefer “black?” Is it too risky to say “Negro” or is that cool? Should anyone ever use that other N word or do only black people have a right unless you’re quoting your favorite rapper?

I’ll also confess that I get tripped up by people-first language more than I’d like to admit. For instance, we’ve gone from saying just “disabled” to “disabled people” to “persons with disabilities.” This change in language feels superfluous to me because it hasn’t done anything to change how I view this group of people at all. I still, as I always have, believe in their God-given dignity and fundamental humanity.

Of course words are powerful, and communication is really hard (especially in the English language). We must do the best that we can to ensure we do things like write inclusive job postings or corporate communiques. But I believe we cross a line when we overemphasize and judge people based upon the specific words they use. Being nitpicky about terminology can be unhelpful, annoying, and get in the way of helping build bridges of understanding. 

4. Excessive politically correctness

Piggybacking on the last point (no offense to pigs for any PETA representatives reading), I’m not aware of anyone who doesn’t find excessive political correctness nauseating. Beyond just the language employed, political correctness is also about the actions and policies that bend over backwards to avoid offending anyone to the point that very few people actually benefit. It leads to a culture where people eventually become too afraid to say anything at all if it doesn’t resonate within the cultural echo chamber.

I remember reading a news story about Denise Young Smith, former Chief Diversity Officer for Apple. She was quoted as saying that a room full of “12 white blue-eyed blonde men” can be diverse. Despite the fact that she was absolutely right, and despite the fact that she had achieved a long, storied career as a trailblazing black woman in tech, the internet was ready to have her head.

The problem with political correctness is that it makes it difficult for people to have honest, genuine conversations about tough issues. I obviously believe that we should be tactful and thoughtful in how we talk about sensitive issues. But sometimes hard truths are hard truths, and sometimes it really is up to the listener to choose to not take offense.

Communication is hard. Organizations must foster a culture where people are encouraged to assume good intent and develop the patience to listen even when things aren’t said perfectly. It almost never is.

5. Naive idealism

Anybody who’s been in the D&I business for long enough knows that this is messy, tiring, hard, frustrating work at times. But you would never know that from the marketing brochure. Behind those pictures of people from different races, genders, and nationalities holding hands and smiling are people who have real opinions and real divisions.

The natural result of putting people together with different backgrounds is that they will not easily see eye to eye on a great many things. Add to that the fact that tech is full of know-it-all, self-entitled engineers who love to argue for the sake of it, and you’ve got a storm of contentiousness that looks like, well, the tech culture we have today.

So many people are quick to talk about the benefits of diversity without acknowledging the destructiveness it also causes. But just think it through for a moment.

If you build a culture for a group of people who are largely homogenous, and you then add new people to it who are significantly different from that group, then you will invariably put the culture itself under stress. Aspects of the culture that don’t work well in a more heterogeneous group will begin to change and perhaps, over time, disappear. The goal is that those aspects of the culture that are good and enduring will remain.

My hope is that the tech culture of the future will be more inclusive and representative in a way that benefits everybody. But it will be a culture forged by fire, purified of the dross of discrimination that prevented it from being all that it could be.

6. Impatience

I can remember the first time tech companies began releasing their diversity numbers in public in 2014. It was my first year working at a big tech company, and I was both shocked and glad that companies finally had the courage to shine a light on a significant issue.

That next year, I just knew that the numbers would change significantly since companies were making a determined push to focus more on hiring diverse talent. Lo and behold—the numbers largely stayed the same.

Stepping back, I learned to begin thinking about D&I within the framework of human history. I realized that change in this area would be as slow as it always has been. I’ve always said that tech sometimes gets unfair scrutiny as a relatively new industry. Sure, tech companies have invented things that have changed the world several times in relatively short order. That doesn’t mean they can fix diversity and inclusion overnight though.

If you’re going to do this work, you have to have an incredible amount of patience. You have to be ready to sacrifice today for an outcome that you may not live to see. I often draw upon my ancestors, the black inventors and activists of prior generations who suffered much so that I could occupy my seat. My encouragement is that they patiently endured so that I could see the change that I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime, and I must be ready to do the same for the next generation.

7. Reverse discrimination

I don’t care who you are, I can tell you that reverse discrimination is absolutely a thing. And so is reverse racism.

I realize that many tie the idea of racism and discrimination to cultural power held by those in the majority so as to suggest that those in minority can’t be charged with racism due to their powerlessness. 

That’s baloney.

This idea is not helpful. Why? Anytime someone acts or believes that they are better than someone else because of their race or identity, they perpetrate the same behaviors that rob the “other” of their due dignity. And when they have their day to lead, they will be sure to build the same institutions of power that oppress people who are considered the other. That’s one lesson that human history teaches us over and over again.

Now of course I believe that there are some groups of people who need more help from society than others. I totally advocate for programs and policies that seek to help lift up those who have been unfairly marginalized. Want to form an employee resource group for black employees? Fantastic, I’m in!

However, we must be aware that the attitudes that drive the powerful to mistreat the powerless are attitudes in which we all share and participate, to varying degrees. It’s just jealousy, envy, pride, hate, and all the usual suspects typical of us humans. Sure, we fight against it all the time. But it’s what we do. The sooner we realize that, the easier it will be for all of us to demonstrate empathy and compassion for one another.

8. Politically left-leaning

It’s not hard to see that tech is a largely politically left-leaning industry. Just ask pretty much anyone who’s in tech and identifies as politically conservative or libertarian. The struggle is real.

I could feel the damp thickness of despair hanging in the air when President Trump was elected to office. I’ve lived through a few elections in my lifetime working outside of Silicon Valley tech, but this one felt particularly heavy for my colleagues. So much so, in fact, that people seemed to need professional counseling to deal with the news. For weeks, I heard that there was an enemy and that he had a name: the white male Christian conservative evangelical.

Make no mistake, I’m certainly not aware of any policies employed by any tech company that I could label as definitely politically biased. That’s not to say they don’t exist, I just don’t know of anything. However, the feeling “on the ground” is that people who consider themselves right of center or in the middle don’t feel very much like they belong.

Not much is made of the issue of political inclusiveness, but I believe that it is a real issue. It’s just not at the top of anybody’s priority list. If companies don’t do something to address this, I fear that there will be a significant contingent of people who will never truly participate in the work of pursuing more inclusion.

9. Religion unfriendly

Religious inclusiveness is another one of those things that aren’t that high on the priority list for many organizations. It still feels like the third rail of D&I practice. Touch it, and you are likely to find yourself in a world of hurt.

As a Christian, I totally get it. I’d rather not have tech companies starting to choose their favorite religion and parading it around in hopes of attracting the faithful to their ranks. Plus, with religion usually comes more socially conservative world views that stand at odds with the more liberal mindsets of Silicon Valley citizenship.

However, people are just as religious as they have ever been, and what they believe about God, life, and the universe certainly plays a role in how they see themselves and others at work.

I wish that companies would do more to ensure that people who are religious don’t feel excluded. But even I acknowledge that it’s very tricky to balance that with other more “attractive” inclusion priorities.

As I’ve remarked before in other articles, I’ve never felt more like an outsider than when I think about how my Christianity is received by my peers. I’m not surprised by that, but suppose it’s worth calling out as a thing nonetheless.

10. Missing data

Back a couple of decades ago, diversity and inclusion seemed to be limited to the realm of legal compliance to Equal Employment Opportunity. I don’t know that anyone was really doing anything to positively advocate for increased diversity and inclusion beyond whatever the government mandated. They certainly didn’t care about the numbers. Only recently have companies invested in D&I as a bottom-line issue, not just one of social responsibility.

Because of government policies and regulations, I perceive that it is still difficult for companies to obtain data around race, gender, and other attributes to understand how policies impact underrepresented people. Plus, the data on underrepresented groups are hard to measure because, well, they are generally small by nature and difficult to compare to groups where there is more representation. This poses a real problem for unlocking the power of people analytics.

There’s a second aspect to this issue of missing data as well. There are only a handful of research papers I ever hear referenced when it comes to discussing the case for pursuing more diversity. Most notably, the McKinsey report entitled “Why diversity matters” is one I hear most often cited, along with that Credit Suisse study. Are there not more studies that speak to the proven effectiveness of increasing diversity? 

I would suggest that, if we’re going to say that diversity and inclusion “makes all the things better,” that we should have specific, measurable outcomes that correlate with that claim. I believe that the data is already there, it’s just not measured as well as it should be. We should also be honest about where data doesn’t align with our expectations so that we can make informed decisions about what is working and what isn’t. 

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