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  • Eli Keery

Diversity & Exclusion: ED&I’s Privilege Problem

One of several aims of our new Diversity & Confusion report is to explore why diversity efforts haven't led to widespread inclusion across the UK workforce. While investigating the issue of exclusion, our report highlights a prominent sentiment of dissatisfaction within society from the Black/Black British community. This study provides an opportunity to examine privilege; how it interacts with Blackness, and its responsibility for creating an environment of discontent.

Blackness: A Determinant of Life Chances

We found that 53% of the working Black/Black British population believe that opportunities are determined by background (the highest of all ethnic groups surveyed and 8% higher than the average).

As a young mixed-race (Black African and White-Irish) man, these findings resonated with me. Among other identifiers, my perceived Blackness has caused me differential and unpreferable treatment throughout my life. Growing up Black in the UK, one quickly learns how Blackness is not something people associate with financial success, career progression and social mobility.

Whether it is a warning from our own family members who have had to shoulder the systemic burden of racism for years longer; learning of the harrowing statistics and unequal outcomes for Black groups through the news and/or from personal experiences and encounters with discrimination, this knowledge is forced upon us one way or another. Such awareness of negative racial bias is a reasonable explanation for Black individuals to be more believing in social determinism.

ED&I: A Tool To Reinforce Privilege?

In the workplace, Blackness is characterised by a lack of privilege; carrying negative associations that impact experiences. This is completely opposite for Whiteness, whose positive associations and benefits allow for privileges at the expense of Blackness. We found that 36% of Black groups felt excluded from discussions about ED&I (15% higher than average) which is indicative of major processes that maintain White privilege: entitlement and ignorance.

Supporting diversity and other ED&I measures has become increasingly attractive from a social and commercial perspective following the murder of George Floyd and prominence of Black Lives Matter (BLM). Subsequently, predominantly white-run entities engage in virtue signalling and performative allyship, visually and verbally showing interest in racial issues for the purpose of proving their own righteousness socially, rather than engaging in any meaningful actions. This weakens the force of condemnation for ED&I issues and cheapens it when it is actually necessary.

ED&I measures are shaped at the top of organisations, in positions disproportionately held by White people. This includes senior diversity positions, reflected in a recent survey highlighting that White employees represented 76.1% of chief diversity officers in the US, compared to Black employees at 3.8%. By centring their own ideas they, even unconsciously, preserve their unfair privilege and sense of superiority, acting as if they are more capable to deal with ED&I issues, despite a lack of inclusive understanding. To me, the high percentage of Black people feeling excluded is an expression of how frustrating it is trying to be heard as a marginalised group.

‘Wokeism’: Positive or Negative?

Black people have always had to account for stereotyping and negative attitudes, but now additionally have to deal with unsatisfactory dynamics due to the mainstream focus on ED&I. Here, tokenism surfaces as a significant issue.

There is a harmful perception that Black people only exist in a professional workplace to satisfy a ‘diversity agenda’. Despite being qualified, we can be made to feel like imposters. Our character, talent and achievements in the eyes of others, and even ourselves, matter less. The ED&I measure that has been useful for rectifying privilege and unequal outcomes for our community becomes a double-edged sword as our presence in the workplace is scrutinised and we are diminished to our racial backgrounds and their negative connotations. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the report found that Black people are 15% less likely than the average (51%) to feel comfortable around colleagues in the workplace with Blackness consistently being harshly examined.

Back in 2021, we observed the extent of people’s lack of confidence in what they can and can't say in the workplace. Many worry that not having the ‘right’ perspective on identity and speaking ‘wrongly’ about it in the workplace can affect their employment and social life which isn’t untrue in this current climate. Whilst this has held people accountable for discrimination, it also restricts dialogue about identity and ED&I. Difficult but potentially fruitful discussions about significant topics are completely avoided out of fear, preventing others from gaining understanding.

The Diversity and Confusion report findings highlight the need for open, honest dialogue about ED&I. There must be genuine consideration for the perspective of those affected and accountability regarding the perpetuation of racism, privilege and negative stereotyping. By creating safe environments where difficult conversations can be held between different communities respectfully, we can challenge the oppressive structures that maintain racial inequality and power imbalances in the workplace.

This article was written by Eli Keery, Associate at The Unmistakables, following the launch of the Diversity & Confusion 2023 report. Surveying 1600 UK workers, the state-of-the-nation report explores how conversations and sentiments towards ED&I have evolved, and how confusion and delusion are holding back progress. Download your free copy of the report here.


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