A few weeks ago, comedian and social commentator, Jon Stewart had some strong words for the DEI industry. Speaking with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria (clip from CNN here – about 2mins in), Stewart argues that so-called “diversity and equity” efforts are, “a salve to pacify and mollify because we won’t actually do the real thing.” He goes on to talk about how essentially meaningless DEI efforts are because; “We won’t actually dismantle the vestiges of all the systemic racism and all the systemic classism and all the systemic gender issues.” It’s a special kind of heartbreak, like when the woke uncle you’ve been mostly proud of somehow goes so far left that he ends up back on the right. That’s not exactly what’s happening here, but it does provoke the same kind of visceral, “Oh, c’mon, Jon!”
While I don’t want to spend too much time talking specifically about Stewart, his comments are worth addressing. Television media is designed to be pithy and provocative, regardless of the harm that sort of information-sharing can cause. Jon Stewart has built a name for himself by leveraging a talent for finding humor and irony in those corners of society we often like to keep hidden. In fact, I’ve found that a lot of what he unearths is well-aligned with the goals of this work, to make visible to the whole what is only visible to some, in the hopes that people are better positioned to align their actions with who they claim to be.
What Stewart shared is not a particularly new stance (especially if you are on the other side of this particular mailing list). Whether you’re someone from the outside looking in—as he is—or you are someone on the inside who has seen your share of trainings, initiatives, and equity-centered action plans. That said, Mr. Stewart, I have notes. What he shared and the way that he shared it has the potential to do great harm. This has been made clear by the fact that one of the main distributors of the interview are conservative media websites that have taken it and run.
Reductive at best, harmful at worst
Stewart kept using the words diversity and equity initiatives as though that means some single thing. So-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work represents three distinct concepts linked together to cover an extremely large area of work. Despite a wide working platform, he displayed no real understanding of the layeredness of DEI work. Regardless of his purpose, the impact is that an entire body of work is reduced to a single tool that either works or doesn’t. Those of us who do the work know how hard it is to counter the skepticism that accompanies it. It’s often like pushing a boulder uphill, which is only possible when groups of committed people push together. Stewart’s comment haphazardly casts doubt on not only the work those groups have done, but progress they feel they may have made. In essence, his words target the fortitude of spirit necessary to do this work from within institutions.
Targets those it claims to support
The hustle is real ya’ll. Consulting and other freelance work is an extremely difficult path to go down and especially at the beginning of one’s career. But there are smart, passionate, talented and effective practitioners out there working within the constraints they are given to transform key areas of organizations in order to create meaningful change. When a white man with the reputation of Stewart diminishes that work without any real nuance, he diminishes the people who have stepped forward to do that work. The irony here—if you haven’t already caught it—is that most consultants whose expertise in some branch of DEI are BIPOC and/or represent other identities and communities that have been marginalized. The ripple effect of such statements are undeniable and, in this case, hurts the very people he says are being oppressed.
The illusive “we”
Stewart says: “We won’t actually do the real thing. We won’t actually dismantle the vestiges of all the systemic racism…” Have you ever heard anything that feels both true and nonsensical at the same time? There is an undeniable truth embedded in what Stewart is saying. Racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression are so deeply rooted in our systems and institutions that, for some, the idea of pulling up those roots feels almost inconceivable (especially when there is so much benefit for those privileged by those systems). This mindset, which operates at the conscious and unconscious levels, is one of the major reasons our work exists. However, Stewart’s rhetoric points our attention toward the abyss — the collective “we” for whom we can blame for our refusal to take real action. Passionate as he may be, that kind of speech creates an ‘all or nothing’ paradigm in which generations of people who have worked to chip away at systems of oppression at all levels of society have done so for naught. It makes invisible the efforts and progress we can attribute to those individuals, and darkens the outlook for those who might follow their footsteps.
DEI is intervention, not a cure
While there is no single or aligned vision that outlines the purpose of DEI, like anything else, it has inherent limitations. A more nuanced diatribe might have illuminated those boundaries in such a way that we can better understand what we can and cannot expect from DEI as an area of work. Stewart talks about oppression as though it is a disease that we refuse to cure. The problem—at least in the US—is that systemic oppression is not a disease, but rather a purposeful design. The operating system has not been hacked, it was coded this way. As I view it today, DEI practitioners are the hackers. We work to help decode the ways in which current systems create inequitable outcomes, and partner with organizations and institutions to recode those areas in order to align their values with their actions and desired outcomes. The hope is that by recoding enough areas, we can serve the larger transformation of the entire system. We serve alongside activists, policy-makers, educators, abolitionists, leaders, and a plethora of other stakeholders who may or may not fall under the DEI umbrella, but are working toward a unified goal.
True North EDI uses a community health model as our primary equity framework. It allows us to make visible what is present and design what is possible holistically. Like any health model, it recognizes that balanced health requires a variety of interventions that address the needs of the body, mind, and spirit. White supremacy thrives by making things flat and one-dimensional. It will continually be up to those who have stepped forward as champions in this work to push for nuance. We are allowed to be critical of things we care deeply about. But criticism must be accompanied by curiosity and a desire to understand the existence and the purpose of what is present. From there, change comes not from any one individual, but a collective of committed people who honor each other’s passion and contributions.