When I was growing up, a staple in our home and many homes across America was a bowl of artificial, decorative fruit that sat in the middle of the dining room table. The bowl would be overflowing with replicas of apples, pears, bananas, and grapes. Some of the fruit was crafted so exceptionally well that if you did not know it was fake, you would pick up an apple or pear and bite into it only to be shocked with a mouthful of hard, dry, Styrofoam. The fruit was simply decoration. Fake. Artificial. The fruit was an illusion, merely something to dress up an ordinary dining room table. No one ever believed that anyone would enter the house and want a piece of fruit. The illusion was enough. The fruit was just there to look pretty, to give the space a little décor, and for nothing else. The fruit could sit on the table 365 days out of the year, and no one would have to worry about the ugliness that comes with real fruit sitting out on a table over a long period. No one would have to think about it starting to spoil or growing mold if it sat out too long. No one would have to deal with the inevitable fruit flies circling the bowl or the smell of rotten fruit. That was a lot of work, and why deal with the ugliness of it all when people could just put fake fruit on the table and be satisfied with the illusion?
This is how I feel many organizations treat diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are satisfied with the illusion of inclusion. They are satisfied with artificial fruit bowl diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Recently several White men, in powerful positions, (former (God I love typing that) Governor of Kentucky Matt Bevin, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and the husband of Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg), posted images on social media to reflect their idea of diversity and inclusion.
They posted each of these pictures proudly with a write up as if they shared something above mediocre level inclusion. (How is Chasten Buttigieg having a talk with young people about a more inclusive future with mainly White people in the room? Does it ever enter his mind that Black people may want to speak about how an inclusive future should look for them?)
These images are NOT images of diversity and inclusion. These are simply images of a group of White people – both White men and White women with few Black people or People of Color sprinkled in. And before anyone tells me that Women are a minority, White women benefit from the same racist policies that benefit White men. Having a group of White men and White women does not mean you are being diverse and inclusive. It means you are continuing a power structure that benefits White men and White women.
This is not inclusion. And the thing is, they are secure in the photos and words they have shared. For them, this is good enough. They are satisfied with the illusion of inclusion. And many people and organizations are happy with the appearance of inclusion.
Recently, I found myself in a space that has all the accouterments of an organization that is concerned about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Throughout the space, they have several Pride flags, transgender flags, unisex bathrooms, and all the ‘things’ that say, “We are a company that cares about diversity, and everyone belongs here.” On the surface, seeing all the decorations, it is easy to assume that this company is forward-thinking and genuinely concerned about inclusion. However, when I look around this company, I struggle to find anyone that looks like me. White people dominate the space. Despite the decorations, when you search beneath the veneer, the truth becomes evident. In fact, I can count on one hand how many times I have seen someone Black inside the space. While all the decorations are in line with a company that says, “We care about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” most of the people in the space are predominantly White men followed closely by White women. Newsflash, you are lying to yourself if you state you care about diversity and inclusion and everyone around you is White.
The CEO of this company, like Bevin, Cook, Butteigeg, have bought into the illusion they have created, which is a scary thing. Believing the illusion of inclusion makes it easy to point to your flags, your buttons, your t-shirts with catchy slogans, or post a photo with one Black person or Person of Color and say, “Look, we really care about inclusion,” when in fact you have done nothing. You have simply decorated your space and have become complacent with surface-level inclusion.
I challenge companies to stop being satisfied with the illusion of inclusion. It is time to move beyond the accouterments of inclusion. I do not care about your “inclusion stuff.” If you really want to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, show me a picture of your board. Does your board reflect an organization that cares about inclusion? Tell me how important it is to the CEO that their company is reflective of the diversity in the world? How is your company moving toward equity? It is not enough to be diverse and inclusive and not think about equity. Is it vital to the CEO that the employees at their company feel as if they belong in the space? Show me a picture of those in leadership positions that can make decisions to impact their department and/or the company. Are any of them Black people or People of COlor? Show me more than one Black woman that is a leader in your company outside of the obligatory Black woman over your diversity, equity, and inclusion division.
Then show me the breakdown of your employees. How many employees are Black People or People of Color? How many of your employees are women? How many of those women are Black women or Women of Color? How many of your employees are disabled? How many of your employees are LGBTQ?
Then move beyond the numbers and have REAL conversations without employees fearing repercussions. Ask Black employees, do they feel they belong in the space? Ask them how often they come to work and feel they are leaving a piece of themselves at home? Ask them, do they feel their voices and concerns are being heard? Ask them how often they rewrite and email or silence themselves merely based on not wanting to be perceived as the angry Black person? Ask LGBTQ employees how many of them feel safe to be open about their partner at work? How many of them avoid using their partner’s pronoun in day to day conversations? How many of them are afraid to have a picture of their partner on their desk or in their cubicle?And then ask the CEO what they are willing to do to impact the wellbeing of their staff?
It is not enough to have a Black woman as a figurehead in the diversity, equity, and inclusion department. It is not enough to have an organization with catchy socially aware slogans on the wall and roll out the Pride Flag once a year. It is not the decorations that make a company diverse and inclusive. Inclusivity is a culture, and it is one that takes intentionality. Inclusivity doesn’t just happen. People who care and have the ability to impact the organization have to make it happen. Inclusion starts at the head. Real inclusion cannot be like a bowl of artificial fruit. It can’t be for decoration. If you really want to deal with diversity, equity and inclusion move beyond the “stuff” and start doing the work.