Stop the diversity cash grab.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Take Action

  • Encourage companies or organizations you’re part of to take concrete, material steps towards active anti-racism, even when they come with a cost.
  • Push back against tokenism by insisting on impactful policies and increased inclusion and diversity at all levels.
  • Advocate for credible DEI training led by people of color.

In the past year, many corporations responded to renewed attention to issues of racism and racial justice, some setting aside significant amounts of funding earmarked for distribution to groups working on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and promoting the economic inclusion of Black Americans. We might wonder why it took widely-publicized murders and a nation-wide uprising for what’s typically a “drought stricken funding landscape” for diversity initiatives to change. We should also consider who actually benefits in a time when it’s “raining diversity dollars, and everyone is outside with a bucket” (Lightship). Sometimes, so-called “diversity” is actually tokenization that falls short of actually fostering inclusion.

Tokenism or tokenization “results when institutions make performative efforts towards the inclusion of people from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of equity,” like appointing a few BIPOC or LGBTQ+ people to leadership positions in order to deflect critique. The only token members of a team have little power to actually effect change, and they’re moreover “often unfairly asked to speak on behalf of their entire community” (Wexner Foundation).

Token representation often doesn’t extend to the highest positions of power. Though companies supporting racial justice in the wake of the Black Lives Matter revolts “have been quick to adopt the movement’s hashtag, they don’t appear to show the same enthusiasm in their boardrooms: as of 2020, only four out of America’s 500 biggest companies had a black chief executive (BBC). Despite press releases, advertisements, and internal diversity programming, the number of Black men on corporate boards of directors actually dropped in the last two years. Carey Oven of Deloitte’s Center for Board Effectiveness found that the lack of progress is due to a lack “of corporate will, rather than a lack of qualified minority candidates” (CNBC).

Many of the same successful companies that utterly failed to diversify management and board positions now contract with external DEI consultants in what is now an $8 billion industry (Forbes). Incredibly, this same tokenization happens in the diversity consulting industry, as well. White-led organizations are seeking federal and foundation grant money, jumping in line ahead of long-standing BIPOC-led groups. According to Lightship Capital, which exclusively supports companies founded by people from marginalized identities, they were approached by a white-led group to co-apply for a grant. The inquiring organization would keep 80% of the money for themselves, leaving only 20% for Lightship Capital “to do the actual, in the trenches work” (Lightship).

Instituting token representation is easy compared to actually creating the changes necessary for authentic inclusion. But actual inclusion is the only solution to systemic oppression and exclusion. There are organizations making honest attempts to change for the better, and there are DEI initiatives led by people of color with experience and skills. One, but by no means the only, is Anti-Racism Daily, which offers courses, workshops, and subscription packages for workplaces and teams (ARD).

North Coast Organics publicly posted their pay scales and demographic information for employees and management, making a commitment to equitable pay and hiring practices (Instagram). Fashion company Nisolo included a commitment to donate monthly to Black Lives Matter and Gideon’s Army of Nashville in their statement in support of Black lives (Nisolo). Sea to Sky Removal made a public commitment to “cut ties with customers, partners, and suppliers that do not share our commitment to battle racism in all its forms” (Sea to Sky).

Awaken offers diversity and inclusion workshops facilitated by a multi-racial team from a variety of professional backgrounds, from community organizers to communications specialists (Awaken). And Leesa Renée Hall has worked with thousands of people to interrupt unconscious bias with questions she first used to think through her own race, gender, religion and ancestry (Leesa Renée Hall).

What distinguishes sincere attempts to foster diversity from tokenism and cynical diversity cash grabs is that the former takes work but the latter takes the easy way out. Cutting ties with suppliers that aren’t actively anti-racist or taking the time to find a credible DEI consulting firm may cost time, energy, organizational resources, and money; promoting a single person from a marginalized group does not.

Key Takeaways

  • Tokenism is including one or two people from marginalized groups in order to deflect legitimate criticism.
  • Some organizations wish to capitalize on interest in and funding for racial justice initiatives by taking the easy way out and deploying tokenism in lieu of substantive change.
  • Real diversity, equity, and inclusion means changing policies and practices, even when it comes with a cost. Tokenism is easy but harmful.
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