On diversity fatigue

30 May

In the NY Times article “Racial Diversity Efforts Ebb for Elite Careers, Analysis Finds” (see Tuesday’s post), John Page, president of the National Bar Association notes, “We’re at a precipice. There is diversity fatigue. We could fall backwards very quickly.”

Just reading about diversity fatigue fatigues me. But as it rears its tired head once again, I feel compelled to say a few things:

First, the fact that we even have the term “diversity fatigue” says a lot about how we continue to think about diversity. Do we talk about “economy fatigue”? “Middle East peace talks fatigue”? “Job creation fatigue”? “Partisan politics fatigue”? While we may feel them, to my knowledge, those haven’t become phrases common enough to generate multipage online searches. It seems to me that we have more respect for the importance and/or urgency of those pursuits to complain of being tired of them, even when we wish the conversation would change.

Second, of course we’re tired. Any social change takes sustained energy and effort, well beyond the exertion required to maintain the status quo. Valuing diversity means continuously, ingeniously and vigilantly recognizing, rethinking and transforming our systems, policies, everyday habits and ways of seeing ourselves and the world. It means interrogating pervasive biases and prejudices that are all too easy to lapse into. It means being awake, present and aware. But in my experience, the effort diversity requires is worth it. The greater connectedness with yourself and others and the bottom-line better performance at whatever you’re doing make the fatigue a good investment.

Finally, my “yes, and” is that I’m glad we talk about diversity fatigue because that’s the only way we can challenge the idea of it, and effectively address it. All too often, the immediate response is to try something new(!), as if we need to keep people entertained. And while I agree that presentation matters, if the purpose and the vision aren’t compelling, all the caffeine you can pump into people won’t hold fatigue at bay.

As far as triage for “diversity fatigue” goes, I believe that more organizations need to name and talk about it to get clear on why they’re invested in diversity, what exactly people are tired of (are they exhausted by equity? overwhelmed by social justice? or just tuckered out by having to remember that other people may have different ways of seeing and being in the world that matter as much as our own perspectives and ways of doing?) and how much institutional tolerance there is for deciding that one has had enough of diversity.

With a clear sense of their why, what and because, organizations can have more effective conversations about how to implement diversity values and achieve diversity goals. Conversations in which normative hurdles, challenges, opportunities and responsibilities are part of diversity work, not superficial reasons to give up.

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