I am an expert on DEI. I am not sure why it started, but once I embraced it, I learned more. As I learned more, I was better able to help leaders forge a path that includes diversity in considering the best ways to create equitable workplaces. These workplaces foster creativity and innovation.
The study of race in America, critical race theory or CRT, has been an academic discipline that looks at history and law. The topic made headlines last September when former president Trump denounced it, however the academic study began in the 1940’s as scholars began piecing together events and timeframes that led to inequalities in post-emancipation United States.
I wrote recently about DEI and the confusion it can create. CRT is an addition to the alphabet soup that is bitter and uncomfortable to talk about—but we must talk about it. Not talking about it is what has gotten us to where we are, and it isn’t hearts and flowers all the time. In order to get to where we’re going, we need to understand DEI, CRT, and, to be poetic, what they mean to me (the DEI expert).
DEI a Recap
Diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a nutshell it is seeing differences and accepting those differences—some will call it being woke. When we address our differences, we can ask the natural questions: what is your culture (African American, Caribbean, Mexican, Pacific Islander, Chinese, Cambodian, Honduran)? Inclusion is not lumping all cultures into large generic buckets and accepting the stereotypes about them, not all Asians are good with numbers and not every Cuban can do magic with pork.
CRT, which we will get to, focuses on race in America, but DEI looks at gender, ability, age, religion, and other differences among people. Learning the unique things about a person allows them to be who they are without trying to fit into a prescribed box that either doesn’t belong to them or that may be true of other people of their culture but is not true of them. When people can be fully who they are, they are able to produce their best work and isn’t that what we as leaders want to provide?
Getting Critical (in Theory)
Critical race theory takes an accurate look at American history. It studies painful parts of US history, primarily the ways black people, descendants of slaves as well as black immigrants, are treated in the US.
As you might imagine, that creates some tension within the race whose history has been predominant—Anglo Saxons aka white people. It also creates a necessity to unlearn what we’ve been taught and relearn things like Reconstruction, violence towards black people, and how practices like convict labor created new forms of slavery.
CRT got its push into the forefront of academia in the mid 1980’s when scholars began researching governmental policies and legal cases. The research led to a difficult realization in research-based spheres, a truth many of us knew for a long time—the law is not neutral and that there is more than one correct answer for legal cases. CRT looks at post-abolition systems in the United States, how they favor whites, and how seemingly good intentions changed to bend the arc of justice back to where it always was.
This challenge to the status quo opens the door for people of color to consider their status and work to improve their cultural value and social standing. The very idea is contentious. The truth, however, is that history is written by the victor. CRT is looking at US history to identify places where liberty and justice was not for all and to empower people to move forward to create the country of equality alluded to at the start of our nation.
Intersectionality—Big Word, Important Mission
The convergence of race in US history and embracing diversity is the place of another academic word: intersectionality. If diversity is so great and critical race theory is an integral piece of DEI—which we’ve agreed is leadership goals–then shouldn’t we encourage CRT? At the intersection of these 2 ideas is the hard work that needs to be done. CRT forces us to face our dark past and accept that our history is not the amalgam of people lifted from the jungles of Africa to come to the new land where their mistreatment was rewarded by freedom.
The biggest debates are happening in Board of Education meetings across the country. Parents want to prevent the ugly parts of history from being taught before their students can understand it or they simply do not want it taught at all. By the time we see it in our workplaces, how we got to this moment matters little. What matters is how we address it and what we do to move forward in our common humanity, providing inclusive and equitable workplaces for everyone (enter the words of your HR DEI statement here).
There is nothing new about DEI or CRT. When CRT became soundbites taken out of context, it became the critical focus of our divided political state. In truth, we have been working on the move forward since the mid 1980’s. Maybe, though, we have been trying to be too easy on ourselves. We have tried to do the work of DEI without looking at why we need it. CRT focuses on race, but the questions at the intersection of the two are the same: How have we historically treated people? Have we used laws to validate our action or inaction? Have we let what we’ve been taught lead our thoughts, right or wrong? Ouch. Are you more afraid of losing your power to gain equity? Or, do you have to work to overcome beliefs about your culture before you can even begin to begin to create your best work? Are you exhausted? I’m a DEI expert and I’m exhausted—but the work must go on.
This is where honest, uncomfortable conversations need to happen. They need to happen with you to prevent the kind of heated arguments that we are seeing in the news now in your breakrooms.
- You know you. Consider what you think you may need to unlearn.
- Accepting our past in its entirety is the key to moving forward together.
- Everyone has overcome something. Be vulnerable enough to hear and to share with others.