No, People of Color are Not Here to “Spice Things Up”

In the days after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I posted the following on Facebook:

“I wake up to a world where a black led group I was a part of told the white governor to his face: we don't trust you. I wake up to a black president who delegated a black US attorney general to give power over this #Ferguson protest to a black policeman. Yet . . . Pernicious, institutionalized bias must still be rooted out. ALL these black men are what diversity looks like -- non-white bodies in highly placed positions. But diversity does not re-imagine the system of racism. Diversity didn't keep Trayvon alive. Diversity didn't keep #mikebrown alive. Diversity won't keep my son alive.”

As I facilitate conversations about diversity and inclusion with corporate groups, faith based groups, and more, I have to keep two opposing ideas in my head at once: on one hand “diversity normalizes the normal,” making non white bodies in positions of power the standard and not the exception, but on the other hand diversity can be used to “spice up” situations to the exclusion of having real conversations about the systems we have in place that don’t create space for people of color, women, LGBTQIA persons, and citizens with disabilities.

When I encounter organizations that have international food nights and call that a keystone of their diversity initiative, the “spice” theory comes to mind. The spice theory re-centers white (mostly male and mostly cis) bodies as the default normal and names events, guests, and rare appointments and hires “diversity. The spice theoreticians believe that non-white bodies provide spice, visual diversity, ethnic cuisine, and enhance atmosphere. They do just enough to write down: “Dear D&I committee, we have one Latina counselor out of thirty as a response to our now 25% Latina/o population. We’ve also created a slate of activities for Hispanic Heritage month.”

This is not the real work of Diversity and Inclusion. The real work involves (to continue with the educational example I began) imagining you are that Latina student and enrolling. What do the marketing materials say about the value you bring to the campus? Does the marketing department operate with a philosophy that Latina/o students aren’t just brown white people? What about counseling? Has the counseling staff had cultural competency training? Implicit bias workshops? Moving to the freshman university college or the orientation system: Have students been trained to mentor? What about the roommate selection process? Is there a first generation college student support system in place?

“Diversity nights” are just part of an authentic strategic plan for D&I. Relegating diversity to the realm of “spice” only serves to keep our workplaces stagnate, and our leaders unaccountable. Rather than spice, which is something one adds after the dish is done; let’s re-conceptualize the recipe.

[By the way, the picture up top is of the fantastic Reverend Traci Blackmon and other clergy praying for the Governor of Missouri, just 5 days after Michael Brown’s death.]

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