Feeling Triggered Over “Diversity”


Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by a trio of social psychologists raised fresh doubts about whether corporate diversity initiatives really work. To be sure, this isn’t a new concern. Various advocates for civil rights and greater workplace diversity have critiqued many diversity programs as really just “window dressing.” Moreover, legal scholars and other researchers have pointed out cases where diversity programs have actually given companies cover for discrimination against women and people of color.

But the HBR article made a splash in the mainstream press and twittersphere because it put the racial anxieties of white men at the center of the discussion.

The researchers conducted an experiment where young white men interviewed for an entry-level job at a fictional tech firm. Half of the “applicants” reviewed recruitment materials that briefly mentioned “pro-diversity values” but for the other half, the materials made no mention of diversity. According to the researchers, the young white men “interviewing for the pro-diversity company expected more unfair treatment and discrimination … they also performed more poorly in the job interview … and their cardiovascular responses during the interview revealed that they were more stressed.”

Some might doubt that a small cue like a paragraph about valuing diversity could really shake the confidence of white men in a job interview. But the experiment is reminiscent of a body of research on “stereotype threat” that has focused for decades on understanding how negative stereotypes about women and people of color can lead to under-performance. For example, when a group of women engineering majors were told that the results of a math test would reflect their gender, they did substantially worse on the test compared to men in their major. The same held true for Black students. But when women and Black students were told that gender/race would not be a factor, they did just as well on the tests as men/whites. This phenomenon isn’t just about “psyching” ourselves out.

People’s everyday, lived experiences with racism and sexism mean that their fears about being discriminated against are confirmed over and over again. The research shows that people of color –Black people in particular – regularly experience racial bias at work. Multiple studies have shown that when employers are given otherwise identical resumes, they are much less likely to interview job applicants with “black sounding names,” and that the chance of African American applicants WITHOUT criminal records getting their foot in the door is as low as white applicants WITH criminal records.

If diversity initiatives aren’t working, we need to figure out why and learn how to reduce barriers and discrimination against people of color in our nonprofit workplaces. A 2010 survey by CommonGood Careers of employees of nonprofits found that more than a quarter of the respondents of color reported having left a job “due to lack of diversity and inclusiveness.”

And just as corporate “diversity” seems to trigger the fears of white men, I am sure I’m not the only one to have heard white colleagues in the nonprofit sector express worries about whether they will receive fair treatment because of their perception that organizations in our sector value diversity. We need to learn from organizations in our sector that are truly inclusive where diverse teams of women and people of color and white men work together. Maybe one way to counter the perception that opportunity is a zero-sum game, is to lift up those positive stories. It’s something we have to figure out – and soon.

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