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Monday, May 14, 2012

Diversity and the Commodification of Non-Whiteness

As the Supreme Court prepares to confront affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas next term, a careful examination of some of the consequences of the diversity rationale seems timely.  In a forthcoming article, I argue that the diversity rationale has had the effect of reducing non-white racial identity to a commodity.

How and why does non-whiteness function as a commodity?  I argue that the diversity rationale and diversity thinking more generally has fueled an intense legal and social preoccupation with diversity.  As the result of this preoccupation, non-whiteness has become something to be desired and displayed.  In a previous post, I wrote about the incentives that the diversity rationale creates for predominantly white institutions to display their racial diversity.  For both educational institutions and businesses, this might involve calling attention to non-white individuals in promotional materials -- even, at the extreme, by photoshopping them into such materials.  Both educational institutions and businesses often feature pictures of non-white individuals prominently on their websites, or include links to statistics regarding the institution's diversity.  Indeed, most large companies have an entire section of their website devoted to diversity.  All of this contributes to the commodification of non-whiteness.

And such showcasing often has quite tangible economic benefits for the predominantly white institution.  For a business, hiring and displaying non-white individuals can improve relationships with potential clients who value racial diversity.  Likewise, showcasing non-white employees can facilitate recruitment of other talented non-white individuals or of white individuals who, for any number of reasons, value racially diverse work environments.  A similar phenomenon can occur with colleges and universities: diverse student bodies often please influential trustees or donors, and racial diversity is often a selling point in attracting a well-qualified student body.  The presence of non-white individuals throughout an employer's workforce also yields more concrete economic benefits by helping to provide a defense against ongoing employment discrimination suits or by preempting future suits.  And apart from this litigation benefit, an employer's demonstrated efforts to diversify its workforce can help to protect the company's image and reputation in the face of litigation.  One notable example of such successful image management is that of Wal-Mart, which undertook a well-publicized initiative to diversify its workforce with the result that even in the face of various sex and race discrimination suits the company received an array of awards and recognition for its efforts at achieving diversity.

This commodification of non-white identity presents a range of troubling consequences.  I'll raise one here, and discuss others in future posts.  One problem with thinking of non-white identity as a commodity is that it values non-whiteness in terms of how it can benefit predominantly white institutions.  This fosters an institutional view of non-whiteness as something from which the institution can profit -- while obscuring broader concerns of racial justice whose benefit to the specific institution may be less clear.  That is, showcasing non-whiteness prioritizes the aesthetic appearance of diversity over tangible improvements in racial relations both within particular institutions and in society at large.  So an educational institution focused on finding photographs of non-white students for its brochures may give little attention to the fact that its campus is highly segregated by race, or that the campus is plagued by interracial tension.  Or a business focused on improving its diversity numbers may give little thought as to whether its non-white employees are thriving, or to whether its workplace culture is one in which many non-white individuals feel subtly unwelcome.

None of this is to say that racial diversity is a bad thing.  Indeed, I think that the presence of racial diversity and with it the opportunity for interracial interaction are important steps in improving racial relations in America.  But fostering racial diversity is a necessary step rather than a sufficient one.  And I am concerned that the way that the diversity rationale is presented sometimes makes racial diversity -- or even just the appearance of racial diversity -- an end in itself, rather than a means to a much more complex end goal of progress toward interracial understanding.

Posted by Nancy Leong on May 14, 2012 at 05:59 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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Thank you for these very thoughtful comments.

@ An Interested Student: I agree that what is happening in many institutions is a move toward the appearance of diversity rather than diversity itself. Of course, this varies by institution, but I tend to think that you're right about the big picture. You've also raised an important point about the role of identity performance in diversity. Schools and companies want diversity, but they also want candidates who conform to white norms of behavior and self-presentation. It's something of a balancing act for non-white individuals -- the institution wants them to be identifiably non-white (so it can include them in its promotional materials, etc.) but not TOO non-white (because that makes people uncomfortable). I'm planning to write more about identity performance later this week, so I'll look forward to hearing any thoughts you might have.

@ Sean Oliver: You're pointing out a dilemma that I struggle with myself. There are certainly instrumental advantages to diversity, so from a practical standpoint, why would I question the practice? I think that the distinction between diversity and inclusion that you point out is critical. Perhaps if people point out the shallowness of some/many diversity initiatives, institutions will engage in self-reflection and, eventually, implement more robust diversity practices that actually result in meaningful inclusion of non-white people rather than merely superficial diversity.

Posted by: Nancy Leong | May 16, 2012 12:59:21 PM

If we could convince US corporations and universities that social justice was a good enough reason to foster inclusion (which is different from just diversity; inclusion seeks to make non-majorities into stakeholders and leaders within an organization, and to change the organizational culture itself), then it wouldn't be an issue. Unfortunately(?), we do have to rely on ROI and metrics to make a business case for inclusion for most organizations. Social justice isn't part of the mission statement of many organizations, so what other option is there? While some of what you describe above is just "diversity theater", I think that inclusion of non-majorities in our workforce (at all levels), universities and government is vital for the long-term success of a country that will soon be a majority-minority one. If the means to that end are a little messy, then so be it. Pointing it out as problematic is fine, but there is no other solution that I've ever been presented with. We need diversity and inclusion, and making a measurable business case is the most effective way to do that, for most organizations.

Posted by: Sean Oliver | May 15, 2012 12:25:31 PM

Professor Leong,

I will be very interested to see your follow-up posts on this topic as well as your upcoming article. While I largely agree with your analysis, I am not sure that what is currently happening in schools and businesses around the country is really a move towards racial diversity. Instead it is a move towards the appearance of racial diversity. This is particularly acute in the arena of law firm hiring. Many major firms have "diversity initiatives" through which they seek to hire "diverse" candidates. However, the term diversity has lost almost all meaning, as it has been narrowed down to one's physical appearance or sexual orientation. Firms are more than willing to hire "diverse" candidates, so long as they walk and talk like everyone else. While this type of hiring preference is not as overt as it was sixty years ago, it is in and of itself a subtle type of racism. It is the notion that we can hire Bob because he is a very "articulate" young black man. Or we can hire Joan, because she is a "hard working" daughter of immigrant parents. While I agree that organizations should be striving for racial diversity, I question the value of this "diversity" when it runs no deeper than providing the right pictures for marketing material. I would argue that in some ways this does more harm then good, as instead of actually increasing opportunities for minority candidates, it simply exploits a small percentage of candidates who fit a predetermined mold. While this exploitations not gives organizations the warm fuzzies for their "forward thinking diversity initiatives," it also places there minority employees/students in the position of having their credentials consistently questioned by their peers. At the same time–because a relatively small number of minority candidates can give an organization the desired "feel of diveristy"–these programs do nothing to force organizations to look beyond the same constituencies from which they have traditionally sought candidates. Therefore, this "make the picture look good" type of diversity is, in actually for the benefit of the majority, and does nothing (or at best, very little) to increase opportunities in minority communities.

Posted by: An Interested Student | May 14, 2012 8:57:07 PM

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