Diversity & inclusion is not a topic. It’s my life. It’s the lives of my ancestors. It’s 400 years of unspeakable brutality that one cannot major in at university or set aside at 5 p.m. The truth is so ugly and cruel it’s not even taught in schools. So Brand X, casually asking me to come to your company and speak on your "Diversity & Inclusion" panel for free, to a largely white audience, for your benefit, is perpetuating the very problem you claim to be working on. It is disregarding context and history, overlooking the centuries of free labor that black folks have already performed, and minimizing the extent of the injustice, inequity, and trauma that we continue to endure. So in the rush to convince consumers and employees that you stand in solidarity with Black lives, please dig a little deeper and recognize the gravity of your requests.
To be clear, it is one thing when we initiate the labor, like me writing this article, which I was not paid to do. But quite another to be asked to perform this labor for free by a company comprised of a white majority that suddenly wants to “learn about our experience” and “show they care.”
“But even CEOs speak for free for exposure, so what’s the difference?” The subject, who is asking, and how. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: For those of us living in Black bodies, Diversity & Inclusion is not a topic. It is not comparable to finance or marketing or discussing how to craft a winning SEO strategy. It is our life and all too often our death. Despite the smiling faces that you may have seen at your last Inclusion workshop, every time we talk about anything related to the daily subjugation, oppression, and marginalization that we suck up and swallow for survival (politely called "Diversity & Inclusion"), it is extensive emotional labor, even for those who do it for a living.
“So does that mean we should find somebody else?” No, that’s not what I’m saying, and despite it all, I still have hope for a better tomorrow which is why I do this work. If something I say makes life better for even one person, then my labor was worth it. What I am asking is that you acknowledge the history of slavery and its aftermath. And from there, honor the labor you’re requesting and recognize the heartbreak, fear, and tremendous vulnerability involved in talking about the experience of living in a Black body, especially to a white audience—and that you, Brand X, are the primary beneficiary of us doing so. So when you approach me and others to assist you with this work, do so with grace and integrity. Acknowledge what you are asking and ensure that the value exchange is clear. Money is not the only form of compensation, but come prepared with something. Especially now, when we have to carry the extra burden of white America suddenly realizing a fraction of the brutality that we’ve been surviving for generations. Especially now, when we have to endure the realization of just how ignorant and indifferent to our pain and experience most have truly been. Especially now, when you need us to yet again do the heavy lifting to support your capital gains. Recognize your request.
The assumption also persists that we should be glad that these conversations are happening and be grateful for the chance to speak. Put another way, we should stop being uppity Negroes and stop expecting more. I am glad these conversations are happening, but only when they are done with respect and sincerity and tied to efforts that go beyond just talk.
“But it feels like no matter what we do, it’s never good enough.” Stop looking for pats on the back and instant gratification. Let go of the expectation that a few programs and panels will quickly solve the racism and white supremacy that are woven so deeply into this country that watching children get shot, fathers get choked to death and daughters gunned down while sleeping isn’t enough to immediately declare a state of emergency and enact broad sweeping legislative change. To expect any efforts to untangle this without a mess is unrealistic. The point is that you keep trying and listening and working to do better. That work includes a willingness to exhibit a fraction of the patience we continue to give you every minute of every day. A willingness to acknowledge the depths of the inequity and change it. For years you’ve seen the data in graphs, charts, and percentages, so they bear no repeating here.
But what about, say, the fictional Henry and Nicole, they didn’t have a problem talking about these issues without getting paid? Let’s pause here and discuss "whataboutisms." They’re defined as a conversational tactic in which a person responds to an argument or attack by changing the subject to focus on someone else’s misconduct, implying that all criticism is invalid because no one is completely blameless. In sum, it is a deflection technique, commonly used to shirk responsibility and avoid taking meaningful action. What Henry or Nicole did or did not do is irrelevant to the point I am making. I do not know Henry or Nicole’s situation. I do know that just because someone has done something in the past doesn’t make it right, and I also know that because of systemic racism, we have all repeatedly done things to get our foot into whatever cracks, crevices, and door jambs we can. Nancy Green spent most of her life enslaved, so calling her out for agreeing to be Aunt Jemima to make a little money for survival in the Reconstruction-era South is preposterous and a prime example. "Whataboutisms’' are particularly evil when applied to racial issues because they’re also used to justify killing people. For instance, Eric Garner, for selling cigarettes, or Rayshard Brooks for running from the police, and on and on.
So again, this is not a topic, it’s life. For years my very presence was the Diversity & Inclusion at the ad agencies I worked for. Yesterday I dug up a presentation I had put together 14 years ago for a prominent New York City-based ad agency that shall remain nameless. The title of the presentation was “The Critical Need to Embrace the New General Market.” The presentation reflects hours and hours of my own time spent crafting an airtight business case, complete with data, testimonials, and support for why it was in the agency’s best interest to take an active role in ensuring that “multicultural marketing” opportunities did not get overlooked or ineffectively executed.
I argued that an investment should be made in assembling an interdisciplinary team whose responsibility it would be to stay in the know on issues pertaining to non-white ethnic groups and their influence. I explained the "spillover phenomenon"—that non-white ethnic attitudes and behaviors were influencing white American culture at an increasingly rapid rate, making it even more critical to understand and communicate with “these populations.” I made it clear that this was a great opportunity to offer a front-end marketing service to our clients that could effectively help them tap into “new” markets and the changing cultural landscape. I even explained exactly how this internal group could work and broke down the roles and responsibilities.
I was entertained with one meeting and nothing more. Oh, and guess what? Everything outlined in the deck has unfolded exactly as I said it would, so now there are tears staining that deck. I’ve been doing this work and doing it well— for free—for a very long time. And I am not alone. So Brand X, if you want to hear me now, pay me.