Diversity & Anti-Racism: Unspoken Tensions & Opportunities for Progressive Changes in the Workplace

Diversity & Anti-Racism Graphic

Dec 12, 2015
During 2015, there have been several news articles, LinkedIn posts, professional and scholarly articles about diversity and gender representation in different fields, specifically in sciences, technology, and legal fields. There have also been high profile conversations about the lack of women (1) and racialized professionals on private sector corporate boards, in executive and senior management positions, and in leadership roles.

These high profile public conversations about diversity tend to bypass, side step, and in some cases negate the existence of intersectional forms of racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Thus generating what I refer to as unspoken tensions between diversity and anti-racism, as strategies for progressive change in workplaces. Often these strategies are pitted against each other. On the side, diversity is packaged as a friendly, welcoming, and more acceptable approach to building cohesive, high performing professional work environments. On the other side, anti-racism is packaged as simplistic, divisive, emotive (therefore not objective) and too challenging to implement in contemporary ‘post-racial’ work environments.

However, one only has to pay attention to human rights complaints, review academic research on workplace bias, and media reports about the existence and impact of intersectional forms of racial discrimination and harassment on employees, managers, and some clients to understand that substantive changes have to occur.

Some of you may ask:”if a workplace has a robust diversity program in place, why do they need to consider integrating anti-racism?” “whose interests will be served and whose ignored?” Drawing on my previous experience as a Workplace Legal Compliance Consultant, specializing in integrating diversity and anti-racism strategies, I understand these questions. What I have witnessed occurring in some work environments with diversity programs is an overt discomfort and disconnection from effectively handling incidents of racial discrimination and harassment.

As we are rounding the end of 2015, and the beginning of 2016, we have a lot to consider. First, the changing demographic diversity of Canadian and American workforces. Second, some businesses have spent millions of dollars investing in developing and implementing complex diversity strategies. However, I ask you to consider the following simple, yet complex question, “are private sector businesses interested and equipped with the strategies to invest in a full scale integration of intersectional anti-racism policies, procedures, and protocols?”

This question is meant as a launching point for us to critically reflect on the ways we can address the unspoken tensions between diversity and anti-racism strategies in the workplace.

I argue that most, if not all, workplaces will require substantive, and sustainable intersectional forms of anti-racism strategies that work in tandem with diversity and inclusion strategies to achieve progressive changes for employees, management, and their clients.

I believe that it is no longer possible to have unintended errors of omission where workplace diversity programs are thriving on the surface, yet some racialized employees are experiencing discrimination and harassment, with limited recourse because existing diversity policies may not, or did not, contemplate the ways racial biases (conscious and unconscious) operate in workplaces with robust diversity strategies.

For those readers who have both robust diversity and anti-racism strategies in their organizations, please share some of your insights.

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(1) A point of clarification: When I use the term women, I am referring to groups of women with diverse and intersecting identities. It has been my experience that most mainstream discussions about gender and diversity in leadership implicitly refer to women who are members of dominant ethno-racial, English speaking groups in Canada and in the United States, with few exceptions.

Workplace Relations
Diversity & Inclusion
Leadership Management
Tomee E. Sojourner, M.A., LLM Candidate
Written by
Tomee E. Sojourner, M.A., LLM Candidate