Since 2020, there has been an unprecedented level of interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). DEI is not a new industry; diversity education has been around for decades, but the term “DEI” is a newer acronym. The rise of diversity education in the United States is thought to have begun in the 1960s following the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. In other parts of the world, diversity education has been utilized in some form within businesses. With the increased spotlight on the DEI industry, physicist Brian Nord dubbed it as the equity-diversity-inclusion industrial complex. Many are seeking to create DEI consultancies to cash in on a growing and unregulated field. There has been a capitalization and commodification of DEI and anti-racism. A disturbing trend that deserves further exploration is why it’s so easy for white-led DEI firms to receive funding, while consultancies owned by non-white founders have received less interest and financial investment. There seems to be report after report highlighting this discrepancy. Inequities exist in every industry; the irony is that within a space that was erected to dismantle inequities, the very same systems recreate themselves. White investors flock to what makes them feel comfort and are more likely to invest in white-led companies. It’s paramount to investigate these inequities, and how they are able to persist in an industry that was designed to dismantle them.
Dr. Samantha-Rae is the owner of a boutique DEI consulting firm, DSRD Consulting. When reflecting on the racial gap in funding, Dr. Sam shared, “this level of access to financial resources allows firms to acquire more resources for scaling, access to clients, access to marketing, access to things that make their companies thrive. When non-white people doing the same work don’t have the same access, this perpetuates the fact that white DEI practitioners benefit from the oppression of non-white folk. I think it also suppresses and silences the hard work that people who are actually facing oppression do…it sends the message that these white DEI firms are more knowledgeable about oppression and marginalization and deserve more resources and investments. The same things we are working to change…are being reinforced in the DEI space.” Given the ease at which oppressive systems recreate themselves often without us realizing it, it is imperative for white-led founders doing anti-oppression work to assess the ways that they’ve internalized oppression. Audre Lorde once wrote “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” White founders who are engaging in anti-racism and DEI work must ask themselves continuously what they are doing to check their unconscious biases and increase awareness about the experiences of racialized communities. “Am I causing harm?” is a question that should constantly be assessed.
It is imperative to not only interrogate the founders of DEI-led start-ups, but to also examine the tools that are being used to help companies diagnose their DEI pain points. Many companies are starting to lean on artificial intelligence to help them mitigate their DEI issues. One problem that is often undiagnosed is the fact that the algorithms themselves can be biased. Intellectual property attorney Whitney R. McGuire asked an important question: “how can you identify [DEI] pain point[s] if you have never lived through them?” Is enough being done to ensure that human biases are not replicated in our AI systems? Apparently not nearly enough; similar to people, algorithms are regurgitating the same biases they were designed to mitigate. Dr. Sam shared, “leaders barely understand how to be equitable and create psychologically safe spaces for those they lead. We cannot shift that level of responsibility to software. The only role that software should play in DEI is analyzing quantitative data during the strategy development process. DEI work is very comprehensive and has intersectional nuances that account for cultural differences…software cannot capture those nuances. Human beings with knowledge and experience with navigating these nuances [are] needed.” When reflecting on how those who access have to resources can contribute to the solution, Dr. Sam shared, “they should use their level of power, privilege, and access to help marginalized people through sponsorship and donations [which can entail] time, money, [and] services.” If the goal is to propel DEI in the workplace, we must disconnect ourselves from whiteness and recognize the ways that it shows up, even when we are seeking to dismantle it.