Anti-Racism DEI Theory Ethnographic Essay

How white people talk about DEI hiring when Black folks aren’t in the room.

I am a white person and I was a finalist for a Director of Diversity position at a large non-profit healthcare provider. If you’ve ever wanted to be a fly on the wall when only the white folks from your HR office are talking about your workplace diversity agenda safely in the company of other white folks, it usually goes something like this.

First, why would a white dude apply for position like this at all?

The answer is simple— I’m a dedicated teacher. Teaching about anti-racism is at the intersection of what I love, what I’m good at, what the world needs and what I can get paid for (see: Ikigai).

I’ve spent thousands of hours in the last decade practicing the affective delivery, content, and instructional scaffolding required to move the needle with white folks. I spent the first decade of my career in a college classroom laboratory where I had the freedom to practice how to get white folks to take white supremacy seriously.

One of the things that makes me useful to anti-racism work at large is that I’ve spent so much time in rooms with low-key racist white people that (for some reason) had a lot of decision-making power— Provosts, Presidents, HR and Finance Directors. Because I am a white person, white people generally don’t know to hide their dog whistles from me, but I have no problem snitching on them as fast as I can.

Most white people aren’t explicitly racist out loud in workplace meetings, but in my experience, most have a very reductionist understanding of what a diversity agenda should be. In fact, I argue that, when predominately white organizations hire diversity practitioners (either as outside consultants or full-time hires), the first unlisted and totally invisible qualification is that the person can’t be someone who will actually challenge the organization (regardless of race, but especially if the diversity practioner happens to be Black). It’s part of the way that white supremacy functions invisibly. If you ever say this aloud, you’ll be made to feel crazy. But it’s true. I know this because I’ve spent a decade in the belly of the beast in higher education. If the school didn’t like one trainer, they moved onto the next that would be less threatening.

September 9, 2020 / Topeka, KS

Both of my interviewers were also white people, the two highest-ranking HR employees at the company. I recognized that this was a red flag immediately. They apparently did not, otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened.

The interviewers functionally described their organization as “midwest nice” — “everyone is a little unsure around the subject, but we know it’s time,” they said repeatedly. During the course of our meeting, neither of my interviewers could tell me even basic facts about the BIPOC employment numbers at a health care company that produced 34 million dollars in revenue in 2018.

“You know, we actually don’t know, that’s partially why we’ve created this position, we’d like to start keeping better track of that,” they said (for some reason) very confidently.

“Well, you don’t have any Black folks on the executive team or at the Director level or above, do you? I’ve done my research. That isn’t just a coincidence, it’s likely the result of decades of at least subtly discriminatory hiring practices,” I said.

“That’s exactly why we’re hiring this position,” one of the interviewers said.

“Just so you can hire a Black person?” I blurted out.

Immediately realizing the implication of my statement, they said, “No, not necessarily a Black person, but we are hoping to add some diversity in this role.”

I’m neurodiverse, but I wasn’t going to pivot there. I knew exactly what they mean. They want to add visible diversity. I usually don’t talk about my neurodiveristy in any diversity-adjact space because I think my neurodiversity is actually a competitive advantage. I’ve seen way too many white folks (specifically CIS white men) wield neurodiversity like it’s their ammo against blackness in some kind of bizarre diversity measuring contest.

But my neurodiversity did cause me to laugh audibly before I said, “Well, I’m a white person, obviously. So, if you hired me, you don’t get any immediate diversity right off the bat. But one of the first things I’d do to increase diversity is to ensure that we don’t do any more job interviews where it’s only white people like us in the room.”

When the time came for me to ask questions, I asked them what they thought a good diversity training or workshop looked like — a question they should have asked me but didn’t.

They both looked stumped, so I reframed the question bluntly.

“Have you ever been to a DEI training that was valuable to you?” I said thinking that surely they had seen some workplace training that seemed worthwhile in their combined twenty plus years of HR experience.

“No,” they said in sync.

“Never? Not one?” I replied.

“Nope,” they said, once again, nearly in sync.

“The last time we held a harassment training, one of our employees actually said they felt harassed by the training and we had no idea what to do.”

Would they have admitted this to a Black candidate? Absolutely not.

This is what happens when only white people are in the room — they inadvertently speak candidly about using DEI positions (first-and-foremost) as a vehicle to fabricate an image of diversity. They admit that they think workplace diversity training is dumb while also repeatedly low-key admitting that they’re only doing it because they have to.

May god have mercy on the person they hired.