Is DEI a cop-out?

What does DEI truly entail? Graphic courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. 


Diversity, equity and inclusion — DEI — efforts within corporate and academic institutions have dramatically increased over the past few years. Creating an environment where individuals of all backgrounds and identities can feel supported and comfortable is crucial. The systems we currently have in place are designed to disenfranchise the marginalized through the various obstacles they pose.   

It is undeniably true that we need programs and initiatives that support diversity, work toward equity and promote inclusion. When barriers and systemic forms of oppression have been in place extensively, it is imperative that steps are taken to provide underserved communities with opportunities and resources.  Legislation that bans DEI efforts is thoroughly unproductive and dangerous. However, the DEI efforts of many institutions are not always fully genuine. An increase in DEI initiatives — whether it be through DEI offices, new job positions or other programs — is important to make progress toward establishing equity, but it is equally as important to consider the effectiveness and genuineness of these DEI efforts. 

Randall Ojeda, director of the Efroymson Diversity Center, shared that DEI work is not always taken seriously. 

“[DEI] work feels disingenuous relatively often,” Ojeda said. “I think one thing that feels very common across the country and [with] folks I’ve connected with is [that] DEI often feels like an ‘add on’ to a lot of the other parts of the work that we do, when a lot of us in the field would say that [DEI] work needs to be woven into all of the components of our institutions.” 

DEI, however, is often an acronym that many institutions like to throw around for performative purposes. It is easier for many universities and colleges to make bold claims about diversity than to actually support and promote the voices of underrepresented and marginalized students. 

Entrepreneurship and innovation lecturer Anthony Murdock II shared insight on how DEI plays into the systems that we already have in place. 

“Diversity, equity and inclusion …  has become a complex — just like the prison industrial complex or the nonprofit industrial complex,” Murdock said. “There are now systems that [have] figured out how to generate a profit, and that profit oftentimes comes to the demise of the very people that it was initially designed to serve … The concept of ‘how do we increase education and access in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion’ was the origin, but what it has become is very similar to … checking off the [DEI] box.” 

DEI has become something that some institutions have begun to manipulate and use as a tool against students of color to prevent genuine dialogue about systems of oppression from taking place. It is profitable for corporate and academic entities to engage with DEI, regardless of how inclusive or genuine those DEI practices are

Institutions that have been built and sustained through systems of imperialism, colonialism and slavery cannot be the determiners of what diversity, equity or inclusion looks like, especially not when white people make up over 75% of chief diversity officers within corporate America as of last year. Implementing genuine equity and inclusion within our institutions will never happen when performativity and disingenuous efforts continue to persist. 

Sophomore political science major Claire Shaffer shared their thoughts on how minority students are often treated on college campuses. 

“Diverse students are disposable,” Shaffer said. “If you’re a diverse student, you have to be grateful. You have to be grateful to be here. And if you’re not grateful, we’ll find a different diverse student who is grateful and who wants to speak out.” 

In some cases, students may even be punished by their institutions for their beliefs and advocacy. That punishment may be directly through penalties or through a lack of support or safety measures for these students, as has been the case with many students’ recent activism surrounding Palestine. 26 students at University of Chicago were arrested for protesting against the university’s investments that assist in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Columbia students were attacked with a dangerous chemical substance by other students, and some were hospitalized. While the university has since expelled the students who perpetrated the attack, the students who were attacked were initially faced with skepticism from the university and NYPD. Chapters of pro-Palestinian organizations have recently been banned at various universities. 

“I think that it really shows how plainly DEI is a smokescreen to divert attention away from most colleges and universities … being dominated by racism and prejudice of all kinds,” Shaffer said. “With Palestinian activism, it has become really, really apparent that colleges want, in this case specifically, brown people and Muslims [and] Jewish people who aren’t Zionist to be there to be on a pamphlet and shut up. And they don’t actually want to hear diverse opinions … You are literally punishing diverse students for speaking.” 

Underrepresented students have repeatedly shared that they feel uncomfortable and unsupported at their academic institutions. Academic institutions currently have a unique opportunity to support these marginalized students by protecting their free speech and allowing them to safely engage in activism and advocacy work that embodies DEI at its core. 

“[Instances when students are not protected or supported] are prime opportunities for an institution to practice what it is they preach,” Murdock said. “These are prime opportunities for their institution that is taking [students’] time, talent and … their tuition dollars, to champion [these students] and to create space — not just for dialogue, but for direct action — that meet students where they are … This is a prime opportunity for the institution to learn from the stories and the narratives and the research and the lived experiences of the students talking about this … but then it’s also an opportunity for them to act in response and give them [a] voice.” 

DEI exists as a paradox of sorts; far too many DEI efforts lack sincerity, but simultaneously, there have been major attacks against all forms of DEI within many states. There is a target on the back of every DEI effort, whether genuine or not. 

“We’ve come a long way in the world of inclusion work in the past several years,” Ojeda said. “I think it is clear that a lot of our work is under threat and attack legislatively …  Students who identify as underrepresented and faculty and staff and community members who identify as historically minoritized are really hurting. And it’s in everyday life and it’s in significant crises that are going on locally and around the world. So it’s really important that our work is protected.” 

Implementing genuine equity for the purposes of diversity and inclusion means supporting marginalized voices, regardless of the obstacles that may stand in the way. Institutions that make bold claims about supporting minority students need to start making honest efforts to support the students who are putting in the work to be advocates and activists. 

Marginalized students and accomplices have been on the front lines of demanding our institutions to hear us. The time has come for our institutions to start taking our concerns seriously. 


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