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DEI Work: Stressful, Embattled, and Necessary

Louwanda Evans, associate professor and chair of Sociology and African American Studies at Millsaps College, in Mississippi. Photo courtesy of The Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.

After centuries of ordering women to fetch coffee, U.S. work spaces are just now beginning to tackle stubborn bias and discrimination in and around office cubicles. But the fight is far from over. Even as tasteless Black and LGBTQ+ jokes quietly go underground, more covert forms of bias are hard to recognize and dump. Until very recently, companies and government divisions were eager to laud their progressive growth and their hiring of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) contractors and staff to help employees distinguish between a good joke and bad racism. DEI-specific roles more than doubled in the last decade, particularly after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Nearly half of U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies have a chief diversity officer or executive specifically responsible for DEI. Organizations also filled HR departments with DEI trainers.


Now that trend is changing. Utah is the most recent state to follow Florida and other white leaders into a culture war by protesting diversity and inclusion. Anti-diversity attorneys won a case in President Trump’s new U.S. Supreme Court last year with a ruling that race-conscious college admissions policies at two universities aimed at maintaining racially diverse student bodies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This is the same amendment designed to prohibit discrimination based on race.


Paul Meshanko, founder and president of Legacy Business Cultures, told BGX in 2020 President Trump and his team were personally intervening in federal diversity training and dropping training contracts in the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense—the very same year of George Floyd’s death. Now virtually any state or federal leader can bang the drum against diversity and curry favor with a very specific kind of voter.


“When even (something) like ‘inclusion’ becomes tricky, well, then what are you supposed to do, or say?"

A new Harvard Business Review report, “Why DEI Leaders are Burning Out,” reveals diversity trainings were already a difficult field to operate, however, and diversity officers frequently abandon the effort.


“Despite being high-status, well-compensated jobs, those doing DEI work endure extensive burnout, resulting in high turnover, and have an average tenure of only three years,” the report states.


The emotional labor involved in teaching employees how to reverse a lifetime of callousness (and steer the mindless gears of a corporate machine) takes a toll. Diversity, equity and inclusion trainings take many forms, from prodding employees to widen their circle of friends beyond a handful of like-minded, identical individuals, to training employees to slow their conversation down and carefully consider statements before they speak. This can also include showing companies how to tweak inherently racist hiring practices by allowing a third-party to strip cultural and racial identifiers—like names and schools—from resumes and focusing on an applicant’s skill.


But the people DEI professions are trying to help can’t seem to ditch their contempt for the assistance. According to the report, this work requires “near-constant emotional regulation” in the face of employees’ apathy and negativity.


“My emotions are a roller coaster, with lots of highs and lots of lows, and that’s OK,” one Black male diversity officer told report authors. “But … also, my emotions are oftentimes stifled, and that’s not OK.”


A Black female diversity officer told authors, “I can’t tell you how many times in training, somebody will say something, and I have to keep on my game face. I just nod, and I go ‘hmmm …’ Because I focus so much with my associates on neutrality, I have to model that … I have a very expressive face, and I work really hard at work not to let my face show my emotions.”


The report doesn’t specify what “something” was said, but hiding horror in the face of thundering ignorance or racism is an act of “surface acting,” and it wears down resolve. Most companies expect employees to put on a happy face and suppress negative emotions as policy. But even before a CEO demands it, U.S. culture is looking for the next opportunity to call a Black employee or a woman “too sensitive” or “emotional.” And guess who typically finds themselves in the role of DEI officer..


The report offers some helpful hints for combatting the workplace temptation to chuck your DEI duties and go back to the cubicle. “Creating a Learning-and-Effectiveness Model to Support DEI Leaders,” “Conduct[ing] regular DEI climate assessments,” ensuring top management leads by example and demonstrates “consistent, enthusiastic DEI support,” are some examples. But the national trend of denying the existence of hundreds of years of generational racism and general wooden-headedness is threatening to send the nation into a 1950s backslide.


“Many of these programs are being defunded in lots of ways. The environment is very hostile,” said report co-author Louwanda Evans, associate professor of sociology and chair of African American Studies at Millsaps College, in Mississippi. “It contributes to the burnout. It carries the awareness that there’s some devaluation in your job, with the people you work with, the company you work for, and within the larger social and cultural landscape.”


Evans told BGX the growing wave of national opposition may harden the resolve of some individuals and drive them on rather than out, but legal moves by anti-inclusive politicians are giving even these stalwarts a headache and making their jobs difficult.


“I got a phone call the other night from a (Southern state) dean of education and she was getting some backlash from some southern governors about a course on anti-bias, and she’s like, ‘I want to keep this course, but I’m incredibly tired. Do you have some suggestions for name changes?’ There are lots of places now that have banned certain words.”


Last year, The Georgia Professional Standards Commission voted to delete words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” from rules that guide colleges and educator-training programs. At the time, DeKalb County teacher Chris Andrews described the vote as “a travesty.”


“Without some sort of diversity, equity, inclusion training, or even mention thereof, are we even able to interact with each other in effective ways?” he questioned.


That’s what Evans and others are having to deal with. When book-burner types make one name legally toxic, a new name must be found. The problem there, of course, is encroaching ambiguity.


“When even something like ‘inclusion’ becomes tricky, well, then what are you supposed to do, or say? You’re seeing people moving from RDI (relevancy, diversity, and inclusion) to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) to DIB (diversity, inclusion and belonging), so they’re trying to make some changes to stay afloat. But we want to make sure we don’t get to a place where the intent of it all is lost completely trying to satisfy others,” Evan’s said. “What tends to happen is new words become a catchall for everybody, which can mean anybody, for the most part.”


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