Why I don’t believe in diversity & inclusion.
Ayebatonye Abrakasa talks about the problem behind white-washed strategies and how we can create actual change.
Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has become big business in Australia and globally. When I recently checked, there were over 7000 D&I jobs advertised on job-seeking platform SEEK. It is said D&I began in the US, in the ‘60s, to create more equity for Black and First Nations people as well as to ease racial tensions following the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, it has evolved into a watered down, whitewashed “numbers game”, centred around making the business look good through KPIs, diversity data clout, and “increased productivity.” And sure, it’s important organisations are transparent with the public about who is working for them. Having said this, if there isn’t constant evaluation on how organisations prioritise the lived experiences, safety and wellbeing of all their staff and how action is taken to address the way in which they perpetuate systems of oppression within, then what is that a D&I strategy can really achieve?
I only learnt what the words “diversity and inclusion” meant in late 2017, when I started my first “official” corporate job, working in community engagement for a nationally recognised “multicultural” media conglomerate. Soon I began hearing of Diversity and Inclusion officers, managers, and strategies within the various industry sectors I worked across and beyond. “Diversity” had become the hot new ticket, and I have to admit, for a while there, I definitely got caught up in the hype.
I became a staunch advocate, championing diversity on boards. I got involved in internal committees to advocate alongside “diverse” staff and attended forums to learn about how to embed diversity and inclusion processes to improve my own work. There was a point where I truly believed that by hearing more of these conversations about D&I strategies around me, there was actionable, positive social progress soon on it’s way.
Over time, the cracks in this contemporary dream of diversity and social inclusion/cohesion began to show. First, seemingly small issues: someone using the word “diversity” as a placeholder for “other”. A hairline crack that I would stop to ponder on, thinking about how I’d never noticed that there before. I would dismiss it; I was overthinking. Soon the honeymoon period was over, and the cracks had become a gaping hole where the words weren’t aligning with actions. Where people -including myself- who were working in an environment that claimed to prioritise their needs and safety, experienced bigoted abuse, with our safety disregarded time and time again. I realised it felt like the myth of “diversity and inclusion” was just that. A widely held but false belief that was akin to the corporate version of spiritual bypassing and was sometimes Machiavellian in nature. A pretence that always gaslit its casualties by stressing the “good intent” rather than addressing the impact.
I began to question why it had begun to feel like watching the umpteenth coming of the white saviour, manifesting as yet another white organisational figurehead preaching a regurgitation of the merit of their D&I strategy and data, while simultaneously dodging accountability and ignoring the harm inflicted onto the same individuals the strategy claimed to protect and advocate for.
"I realised it felt like the myth of “diversity and inclusion” was just that. A widely held but false belief that was akin to the corporate version of spiritual bypassing and was sometimes Machiavellian in nature." - Ayebatonye Abrakasa
Collectively, as a country, we have never provided the space for true reflection and reckoning of our atrocious colonial past. There is no true action or acknowledgement to rectify the genocide and continuing maltreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Systemic issues continue to be blamed on individuals without any interrogation of the root causes. In her song Doo Wop(that thing), the inimitable Lauryn Hill raps “how you gon’ win when you ain’t right within”, a line that has been echoing through my mind of late as it really does apply to everything. I can’t speak to what was going through Lauryn Hill’s mind as she wrote those lyrics, yet the core message of those words resonates with me. In the context of a D&I strategy, how can they truly create change if the systemic and institutional issues that are the reasons these strategies have to exist are never addressed? This idea that the workplace is separate from the world is ridiculous - it’s virtually impossible to “leave your personal problems at home”.
After all my years of high school English, I never once imagined I would be one to quote William Shakespeare but maybe this will come across clearer to some in the words of a hero of the colonial tongue “That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet”. I’m no expert in white culture, but I take that to mean that we can call D&I whatever we want, to make it sound as great as we want it to, but without creating environments that are built upon taking action, accountability, prioritising safety, unlearning and challenging our internalised bigoted behaviour, words are just words.
Rather than leaning into misinformed colonial narratives of “future unity and social cohesion” through D&I strategies, how do we instead focus on proactivity and action that is underpinned by active listening, regular community consultation, capacity building, safety, accountability, and reflection?
I’m asking too, as I don’t have the answers and continue to work to find these out for myself through those who have come before and those who exist now, who continue to pave the way and spark actions that instigate local and global positive social change.
As Black queer feminist, writer and icon Audre Lorde said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. If we as individuals (namely settlers), working and living within institutions and communities, cannot consistently interrogate the ways in which we are all complicit in upholding values that favour whiteness and white supremacy and cannot admit that we are all capable of causing harm, nothing will ever change. Defensiveness solves nothing. We need to actively work to be right within for the change to come. The revolution will NEVER come through white-washed diversity and inclusion strategies.🔥
Ayebatonye Abrakasa is a DJ, multidisciplinary artist, curator and Creative Director of DIY Arts Platform Irregular Fit of Nigerian heritage working and living on Gadigal Land.
Ayebatonye frequently contributes her knowledge and experience on issues within and beyond Australia’s arts community providing sage social commentary through her online platforms, speaking engagements and new podcast series Four to the Floor: Exploring the Bla(c)k roots of contemporary music.