The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) industry has exploded over the last several years and despite widespread criticism, organizations across industries have realized the value in investing time, money, and energy towards DEI programming and initiatives. With this evolution, a healthy debate about what acronyms we should be using to effectively communicate the guiding principles of “DEI” has ensued. Recently, there was a rich discussion between influential content creators who have dedicated their social media platforms to creating awareness about the topics of inclusion, equity, anti-racism, and justice. As I tuned in to this conversation narrated by some of LinkedIn’s top voices debating if our work should highlight Justice (JEDI), Belonging (DEIB), or just be focused on the original three guiding principles of the field (DEI), I was surprised that this debate did not include highlighting anti-racism (DEIA). I believe that DEI work should and MUST include anti-racism in today’s increasingly racially diverse workplaces.
In almost two decades of working in organizations as a DEI practitioner, I have found that racism and racial disparities are at the heart of the DEI challenges most organizations face. Because of this, I strongly feel that it is imperative to center racial diversity, racism, and racial inequalities in the work of DEI. DEI initiatives have proven to be successful in achieving gender parity, but organizations continue to struggle with cultivating a racially inclusive workplace culture in which BIPOC employees feel valued and have a sense of belonging. The “Great resignation” and “quiet quitting” are often the direct result of a racist and toxic workplace culture that threatens the psychological safety of BIPOC employees. The overt and covert racism paired with the invisibility of White supremacy culture that thrives in most U.S.-based organizations is exhausting, creates racial trauma, and causes employees of color to look for employment elsewhere. This conversation on race and racism is layered and becomes extremely complex when leaders of color become the perpetrators of racial bias and gatekeepers of a toxic workplace culture. If you are shocked to read that BIPOC leaders can be gatekeepers of a racist and toxic organizational culture- you shouldn’t be. This is something I have seen repeatedly in my work as a DEI practitioner and have even experienced it myself as a long-term employee of my own institution. As Zora Neale Hurston famously said, our skin folk are not always our kinfolk. The complexities of racism in the workplace make this topic challenging and intimidating to address- but instead of being bystanders, we must realize our role in being disrupters of racism if we want to succeed at creating culture change.
Even though racism and racial disparities are often at the center of an organization’s DEI challenges, the topic of race is often swept under the rug because it is a messy and uncomfortable conversation, especially in professional settings in which we have been socialized to avoid conflict or dissonance when possible. Silencing race in the DEI conversation does nothing but create further harm to an organization’s culture and helps to create the sentiment that the organization’s DEI initiatives are performative and just a bunch of talk without any walk. When we fail to center race and racism in our DEI conversations and initiatives — BIPOC employees, White employees working towards racial inclusion, and organizational leaders are all negatively impacted. The costs of brushing race under the carpet are hefty, both to company morale and to the company’s bottom line. Organizations that are serious about cultivating a racially inclusive workplace in which BIPOC employees feel a sense of belonging and are represented at the leadership levels must be able to face the topic of race. As James Baldwin wisely said “You cannot fix what you cannot face. That is, to challenge racial inequalities, we need to be able to face race and talk about it.”
I personally don’t care if you use JEDI, DEIB, or EDI to describe the DEI work you do — just don’t forget about the important role that anti-racism has in working towards cultivating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization. Regardless of what acronym you choose to align with, make sure that you know the guiding principles and desired outcomes of your “DEI” work. When we are clear on our “why” we will be more likely to have an anchor that keeps us focused and resilient to continue the challenging and complex work that DEI practitioners take on. The acronym debate will likely continue to evolve as our industry continues to grow, but I am, have always been, and always will be a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-racism (DEIA) practitioner.