By Luke Lara, Ed.D.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are often conflated. These are three separate concepts that are inextricably connected. Many leaders confuse these terms, treat them as one concept, or only focus on one at a time. A great leader will work on all three at the same time, understanding the nuances of how they interrelate, and engage in equity-minded practices. – June 2018
I want to further reflect on the natural tensions between these three concepts.
More colleges are beginning to explicitly value diversity, equity, and inclusion in mission statements and board policies. Many are genuinely changing procedures and practices to transform their institutions to truly reflect the diversity of their communities, create equitable outcomes, and foster inclusivity. Few know how to achieve these goals: move from written policy to social justice in action.
To better understand and acknowledge the tension and often contradicting nature of these three concepts, we need to apply a critical framework. For example, critical race theory acknowledges that race and racism are ubiquitous and are problematized even more when looking at the intersectionality of race with class, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities; it challenges the dominant ideology; and it centralizes the experiential knowledge of those who are oppressed. Applying CRT, we can then ask interrogating questions to understand the complexity of these terms. The current dominant ideology centers the white, heterosexual male. It is through this dominant ideology that diversity, equity, and inclusion are traditionally defined.
Diversity refers to representation based on myriad individual/group identities (e.g., counting the population). We should ask ourselves: As we add different people to the group, at what point is the group diverse? How many women do we need? How many people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds do we need? A common myth is that diversity is a zero-sum concept. For example, if we were to hire more African Americans, then this inevitably means we hire less of another racial group (i.e., white people – those at the center). This misconception stokes fears of “reverse discrimination” or “bias” from the dominant majority, which contradicts their own orientation of inclusion. Proponents of diversity argue, as I do, that representation needs to be responsive to historic and contemporary needs of the community that is being served. For example, if your institution is designated a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), and your Hispanic student population is 33%, then there should be at least a proportional representation in the faculty, staff, and administration of that same demographic. By the way, a white person actually asked me this question, “Does this mean the institution should not hire more white people?” No. What it means is that the institution should be gathering and evaluating data and being responsive to the rich diversity of its community. Decisions will need to be made to increase the diversity of faculty, staff, and administrators. Also, it may have been acceptable thirty years ago to hire someone who is “sensitive” to diversity, but current equity gaps and inclusion efforts require higher standards, beyond sensitivity.
Inclusion is the notion of welcoming all people. It implies that “others” are “allowed” to participate. The dominant group still controls the rules and the culture of the group or organization. However, from a CRT perspective, it means that everyone in the community has a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the decision-making and learning process. Thus, a new ideology is created through a collaborative process, uplifting formerly marginalized voices and experiences and centering them in the process. In relation to hiring, being inclusive means that the composition of the search committee not only has a meaningful representation of racial and ethnic members, but that each of these members is respected and whose contributions are validated and equally weighed alongside those of others (i.e., white members). The token person of color on the search committee is indicative of a diversity framework centered in the traditional definition of inclusion. An inclusion framework expands on diversity to truly create the conditions and culture within the search committee to allow for meaningful participation and perspective. For example, an inclusion framework allows for a diversity of perspectives to engage and challenge the dominant ideology, thus allowing a new and co-created culture.
While diversity and inclusion can be superficially achieved, it requires conscientious effort and action to achieve equity (not to be confused with equality). The PolicyLink research and action institute define equity as, “Just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” Equity work is about removing barriers. It is about possessing equity-minded competencies such as being culturally competent, implementing race conscious principles, analyzing disaggregated data, approaching equity systemically, and taking responsibility as an institutional agent to remove barriers. In this respect, equity-mindedness is a characteristic that can be learned; a skill that can be assessed. Equity work leads to results that transform students, institutional agents, and institutional structures. If we are looking to change inequities, we need to apply an equity framework to address historic and contemporary issues for our diverse student populations. This work is both individual (e.g., practices) and institutional (e.g., policies, procedures). This work can be practiced by anyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background. Someone asked me, “So, when it comes to hiring, does this mean that we don’t need to worry about diversity? No. Although the concepts of diversity and equity are seemingly different and contradictory, they in fact interact. For example, while the race of an applicant should not be the determining factor of whether they should be hired, a search committee that seeks equity-mindedness will more likely hire a candidate that is not in the dominant majority (i.e., white) based on equity-minded competencies.
In education we are very concerned with the performance of minoritized student groups. We tend to frame education through a liberal lens, where everyone is treated equally, and everyone has the same opportunities. Yet, the reality is that minoritized students are not experiencing the same outcomes. In another example, if we look at the racial diversity of faculty in higher education, we see that despite the commitment of colleges and universities to diversify their faculty, there is little success of the past several decades to significantly increase racial representation. In both cases, we frame the problem around diversity. That is, we blame the outcomes on the minoritized students and faculty. Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon makes the case to reclaim the racial justice meaning of equity, because this will allow us to reframe these racial issues through a racial action-oriented and systemic approach. She states that race is missing in equity conversations and definitions because leaders take an “ALL! Students matter” approach and avoid discussing race, even when the data clearly show a racial opportunity gap in outcomes.
While it is all the “buzz” to say “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” think twice before you string these three words together. I have noticed that some college leaders have created the acronym DEI to further conflate these concepts, which ignores their tension, and simplifies their significance. We tend to create acronyms in higher education, which is detrimental in this case, if leaders do not fully comprehend these terms. Understand and acknowledge the tensions between these terms. The three concepts can coexist and help you achieve your goals, but there are too many misunderstandings around these concepts to effectively advance your mission. Clearly communicate the complex nature and relationship of these three concepts to your constituents. Utilize a critical framework to interrogate these concepts. Help everyone understand the differences between these concepts and how these three concepts will strengthen your capacity to serve your community.