Stop “Playing” Diversity Games with People of Color

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

When I interviewed for my most recent position, I sat with a senior leader and asked if the organization was sincere about diversity or if they “played” diversity. He looked at me somewhat strangely, asking for clarification about what I meant about playing diversity.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, play is associated with a game. Games are recreational, fun, and light-hearted. Games offer opportunities to deviate from the norm and to take a break.

Playing games with people of color happens all the time, but I don’t think people always realize how it is happening. What I have observed and learned over my fifteen years as an engineering professor is that some people are fascinated with the idea of me as a Black woman but are offended by my presence as a Black woman.

Although the trope of being an angry Black woman is well known across industries, I push again that stereotype to say that I am not an angry Black woman but am a Black woman who asks questions that make people angry. There is a difference.

I see myself as Dr. Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman,” a no nonsense, unapologetic woman who handles her business with confidence and authority, recognizing her rights and expecting others to honor those rights also. Knowing who I am mandates that I not play games about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) because my well-being depends on being able to do my work effectively so I am the best colleague and leader I can be for those with whom I work and that I am the best wife, mother, and daughter I can be for my family.

Not playing games means that people do not take advantage of the instant diversity that I bring to an organization. I refuse to be viewed as a“twofer,” a buy one get one free (BOGO) race and gender deal with a lower price tag than a man (meaning that it could take me 19 months to make that same salary as my White male counterpart).

Economically, I make sense, I am a bargain, and I am good optics.

Although this may be the case, if you capitalize on that without recognizing that I require nurturing, support, and resources to be my best self, you are exploiting me. You are playing games with me in a context where I want to be taken seriously and want to be treated equal to any man, any White person, and anyone in a similar position as mine. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone to respect me, to respond to my concerns in a timely manner, to investigate my complaints about racism and sexism, and to step in when systemic racism is at play.

Hiring diverse people in organizations that previously were not diverse means that someone is going to be uncomfortable. There is a cost for infusing DEI practices in the workplace, and many people are not aware of the fiscal and non-fiscal price tags associated with this infusion when they make their initial diversity hire. Costs may include reviewing and revising current policies and processes; addressing biases and prejudices; changing infrastructure; educating everyone about the new norms of the system; engaging in conflict; making tough decisions to eliminate discrimination; listening to disheartening stories of oppression; and having conversations that have never occurred in an organization.

Although these changes may be an inconvenience to many who benefit from systems where diversity is not present, it is important to emphasize that promoting diversity in an organization is everyone’s responsibility. It is possible to be diverse and excellent. It is possible to share power and remain powerful. When people are not willing to step up to lead efforts associated with these costs, a person of color often ends up having to educate people while focusing on doing a job in an environment that may or may not be welcoming.

It is likely that many people of color are working in environments where playing diversity is the norm. It is often difficult to assess if the organization is serious about DEI efforts prior to joining because the dog and pony shows of recruiting diverse faculty are real. There are ways to remain sane, to not suffer, and to be strategic in organizational playgrounds.

Establish your personal and professional boundaries.

Boundaries are important, because they help you maintain order and sanity in your life. When you establish boundaries, it is easy to realize when lines have been crossed. Dr. Maya Angelou writes, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Your job is not to be a martyr but to do your job, especially since you will be evaluated as such. Educate people once, twice, maybe three times if you are patient. At some point, if you are educating and talking, yet people are not listening or are not able or willing to facilitate change, you have to try a new strategy. This may include changing the circle in which you engage or transitioning to a different environment. Abuse (as you define it for yourself) is not acceptable, and if you experience it, do something to protect yourself. If you leave your job next week, you will be replaced quickly. Your well-being, however, is not so easy to replace. Remember, your job description does not require you to become a martyr for your job.

Engage in self-care.

If people are willing to work with you to promote DEI, the road ahead may be a bumpy one. Create and call on your village, which may include family, coaches, spiritual advisors, counselors, personal trainers, etc. It takes a strong community to support professionals of color, and it is your responsibility to ensure that your village is a strong one. You can’t help others if you are not alive and well, so take care of yourself first. Think of emergency procedures on airlines. Put on your mask before you put on someone else’s mask. Without doing that, both of you could perish.

No one knows you better than you know yourself. If you are in the middle of an organizational game that you do not want to play, do something different. Don’t play the game, change the game. If you don’t have the desire or endurance to change the game, leave the game. You only have one life to live, and you don’t want to live it broken down in your mind, body, or spirit.

In conclusion, academia isn’t traditionally known to be a fun place. Universities pride themselves on being institutions of rigor where serious conversations occur and where the fundamentals of knowledge are shared and disseminated. My wish for the academy is that DEI is viewed as seriously as multimillion laboratory research and effective teaching practices.

Games involve filling quotas without comprehending what it means to change a system where change is not wanted or is difficult. DEI may be an afterthought to many, but to the people who live, eat, and breathe diversity and whose livelihoods depend on equitable policies and practices, it is not a game.

If you are in a position to stops these professional games from being played, do so. Lives are at stake.

Originally published at https://preparedtobeapioneer.com on February 14, 2019. Modified July 1, 2020.

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Monica F. Cox

Monica Cox, Ph.D. is a professor, entrepreneur, and change agent with a passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion.