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Higher Ed Institutions Push Diversity to Avoid Dealing with Justice

Working as a chief diversity officer or diversity, equity, and inclusion administrator was not part of my plans when I began a Ph.D. program in philosophy and education. While discrimination and cultural marginalization had characterized my own life experience and what I had observed throughout my time in higher ed, the professional field of what is now called DEI was only emerging in the early 2000s, manifested in multicultural-affairs departments and equal-opportunity-employment offices.

The microaggressions and microinequities that I had experienced as a young Puerto Rican woman studying philosophy made me feel either overlooked, not smart enough, or the object of sexual harassment. I never felt as if I belonged or had power. I had just enough access to understand the rules and abide by them in order to gain a faculty role somewhere. But I never felt smart enough, male enough, or rich enough to operate in the seamless, unconscious way that many of my peers seemed to. I was not alone in this feeling, and it was often clear that the presence of “difference” worked to legitimize the institutional belief that the institution itself was egalitarian, meritorious, and just.

I became a chief diversity officer, hired in inaugural roles several times, because I was interested in systematic change, I needed work in the academy after the bottom had fallen out of the tenure-track job market in my field after the 2008 recession, and because I was interested to see up close whether the inequities that seemed to surface year after year could be tinkered with, changed, or hot-wired to work in the service of racial equity. It became quickly apparent that one could work on diversity so long as one did not too dramatically unsettle the institution’s traditions and seek to reassemble them, or to open up the arteries of inequity and dig around to find what needed to be abolished.

Having done this work for over a decade, I have come to realize that despite the best efforts of highly competent people, diversity efforts often function as a decorative shield. A defining feature of what we call diversity work has always been the institutional exploitation of “difference” for the benefit of the institution — to symbolize its antiracist commitments and to protect against lawsuits. Indeed, the conceptual container that is “diversity work” is poorly understood. (Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included, which became a life raft for me, is an exception — it accurately captures the experience of diversity workers in higher ed.)

I began to see clearly that few people really understood what they meant when they talked about “diversity, equity, and inclusion” work, although lots of people had strong ideas about what they thought it should and shouldn’t do. They either didn’t understand what they were after or they believed that formulaic, mandatory workshops are what is needed to overcome racism and bias.

The administrators I worked for and alongside often said that they didn’t believe chief diversity officers did anything effective at all; that I was there to manage the discontents of the nonwhite members of their institution; that my role would hinder free speech; that I would become the bias police. Few people I encountered had come to terms with what diversity work would mean in practice.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education