January 29, 2020
“This is how it ends for many women of color in the workplace: They are hired as CDOs or otherwise tasked with addressing bias, racism, and inequity within the company culture. They are ignored, undermined, and/or attacked for attempting to do so. They leave, or they are pushed out.” —Nadia Owusu, on why “racial equity requires ongoing, daily practice and commitment from all employees.”
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Chief diversity officers, or CDOs, are often hired to “respond to an existing problem, clean up an organization’s image, or publicly signal [an organization’s] commitment to diversity and equity.” In practice, though, many female CDOs are set up to fail, according to CDO and writer Nadia Owusu. One CDO reports being asked to “tone down the incendiary language” after discussing topics like white privilege and unconscious bias as part of her job. Another CDO was called a “race zealot” for raising the issue of anti-blackness in the workplace. Still others are met with resistance, denial, and retaliation in the form of getting fired or pushed out.
Such experiences exemplify a common cycle for women of color working within predominantly white institutions. First, “a woman of color is enthusiastically hired by white leadership.” But once she begins pointing out inequities and experiencing marginalization, the honeymoon period ends. The burden of solving a company’s “racism problem” ultimately falls on the CDO’s shoulders, rather than being an organization-wide effort.
The experiences many CDOs face are indicative of diversity resistance, which can seriously undermine an organization’s diversity plan. Owusu makes an excellent point when she says, “Racial equity requires ongoing, daily practice and commitment from all employees, especially those at the top.”
When women of color point out inequities in your organization or school, notice your internal and external response. If you tend to feel discomfort, shame, or guilt, check out this post for tips on how to navigate your reactions. And if you’re committed to addressing problems within your organizational culture, consider how you might be an ally to CDOs and colleagues of color.
Last week, Amtrak attempted to charge two wheelchair users $25,000 for a two-hour trip that usually costs $16. The riders were part of a group of five people heading to a disability advocacy conference, but the train only had space for three wheelchairs, in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act.
Amtrak stated that adding space for two additional wheelchairs would require taking a train car out of service to unbolt extra seats. They explained that starting in 2019, Amtrak could no longer absorb that cost. Amid fierce pushback, most notably from Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost her legs while serving in the Army, Amtrak reversed their stance and agreed to charge the riders for regularly priced tickets.
This is a classic example of tasking marginalized individuals, rather than the institution or organization, with accessibility accommodations. The disability advocates were not asking for something outrageous, but they were asked to pay an outrageous ticket price.
As a businessperson or administrator, you may be wondering how Amtrak will absorb the $25,000 cost, especially considering the Trump Administration’s recent cuts to the public-private company’s government subsidies. But consider the alternatives: unjustly expecting two individuals to absorb that cost, or flat-out denying them access to train service.
The Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview at least one diverse candidate for each head coach or executive position. However, throughout the 17 years of the rule being in place, it hasn’t been very effective. This year, only four out of 32 head coaches are people of color. In fact, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave the NFL Ds and Fs for their hiring outcomes.
As an unnamed, Black NFL assistant coach points out, the lack of diversity within the top ranks is especially disturbing given the fact that the majority of players are people of color. He says that the “NFL has finally shown it’s not the place for black men to advance...We can sell tickets and make plays, but we can’t lead.”
When asked to justify their hires, NFL team owners said things like, “He gives us the best chance to win,” and, “I just knew he was our guy” in reference to whichever white man they hired. This is an example of using “cultural fit,” or vague, unspoken criteria, to obscure one’s biases.
To address this issue, advocates may need to resort to legal requirements that expand on the Rooney Rule. Ideally, those in the upper ranks would be committed to increasing diversity, but if that’s not the case at your organization or institution, as it’s not the case with the NFL, consider how you might push for similar legal requirements.