Should the DEI Industry ‘Check Its Privilege’? An Interview with Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic
In a May 31st article, “The DEI Industry Needs to Check Its Privilege,” Friedersdorf argued that many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs likely do little to further the cause of social justice, even as they help enrich the DEI experts who champion them.
Jonathan Kay: I’m going to start off by reading this text you have at the beginning of your article: “Now and forever, employers should advertise jobs to applicants of all races and ethnicities, afford everyone an equal opportunity to be hired and promoted, manage workplaces free of discrimination and foster company cultures where everyone is treated with dignity.”
Are you old enough to remember when this kind of colour-blind language was considered to be a progressive way of speaking—as opposed to something that’s now seen as risqué to say in progressive circles?
Conor Friedersdorf: It was pretty recently, I think. I wouldn’t have thought that saying that would have been at all controversial as recently as, say, 2012, 2013, or 2014.
JK:Most places wouldn’t have published this kind of article. So props to the Atlantic for publishing it.
CF:It’s striking to me that we’re even having that kind of conversation, and we’re a bit uncertain about who might or might not publish this kind of piece—because I don’t see it as having made any claims that are at all out of the mainstream for members of any race. I don’t think that there’s any racial or demographic group in America where you’d find a majority of people saying that [what I’ve written] is totally unreasonable.
JK: Right. But you know that that’s not the criteria that a lot of newsrooms now use. It’s more of a tribal thing: Is this author on the right side of history, or is he on the wrong side of history—especially after the George Floyd moment in 2020.
CF: About this post-George-Floyd moment—obviously it’s about the constellation of race and identity, and the great awakening. But I’m also old enough to have seen the United States right after 9/11, and other kinds of exogenous shocks that frightened and outraged people. Americans said, “This is a terrible thing”—a depravity and injustice that caused a kind of groupthink and a discomfort with making certain kinds of arguments. In hindsight, we wish we would’ve made those kinds of arguments a bit more—more skepticism of the Iraq War, or of the panic around Sharia law.
And so I guess I’ve been around enough of those [panic] moments in the media, where there’s a kind of hard-to-define shift in what the public is ready to hear, in what publications are ready to publish, in what feels brave and what feels heterodox and what’s common sense. I tend to see [the post-George-Floyd discussion of race] in the context of those other things; and not as a unique identity-politics thing.
JK: In your article, you talk about a racial-equity consultant named Tema Okun, who has said that a “sense of urgency” and certain beliefs such as “individualism” are traits of “white supremacy culture.” I’ve seen similar materials in Canadian schools, which talk about how “perfectionism” is a white quality. Which is to say that a lot of the qualities we associate with high-performing professional and academic culture are somehow now characterized, in some circles, as artifacts of white supremacy. On these doctrinaire fringes of the DEI movement, is there a kind of weird progressive racism going on?
CF: The way I would put it is that it’s extreme racial essentialism and stereotyping. It was infamously part of that big Smithsonian webpage and exhibit a while back, and it upset a lot of people. We could quibble over whether that’s “racism” or not. But it dovetails with some of the debates about gender going on now, where you see some progressives defining “man” and “woman” in ways that are tied to stereotypes that many progressives would have [questioned] 10 or 20 years ago.
I see this [racial essentialism and stereotyping] in the slide decks that different people send me, from different corporations and institutions of higher education. But it’s difficult to find someone who will actually defend it. When you press people, and you say, “Wait, you really believe this? What’s the grounding for this?” As you saw from [Okun’s] quote in my piece, it’s not based in any scholarship. She described it as just coming into her mind one day. And to me, it’s a kind of quintessential example of the lack of rigour that informs a lot of these DEI presentations and trainings and curricula.
JK: The second half of your piece has a thumbnail summary of some of the actual more rigorous controlled studies that have been done on diversity training. And you cite one, published in 2012 called Diversity Training Doesn’t Work, in Harvard Business Review. Amazingly, it reported that, “a study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had ‘no positive effects in the average workplace.’”
CF: A further problem with the whole industry is there’s often a reluctance to even say what the positive effects might be—because then you would have to measure them.
One of the things that seems to trigger a person’s latent predisposition to authoritarianism is exposure to difference, and thinking of someone as the other. And in the work of Karen Stenner and other research literature on authoritarianism, it makes the point that what we consider the other is actually pretty malleable.
Diversity training raises the salience of race, of gender, of whatever attribute it is that you’re talking about in training sessions with your coworkers. And I think that the people who advocate for this kind of training are excited by, or are favourably disposed to, diversity. And they imagine that they have the same psychology as everyone else, where if you tell people more about these other people who are different, then everybody will get along better.
But in fact, for the minority of people who have a latent predisposition to authoritarianism, if you raise the degree to which they think of another group of people as the other—as a them and not an us—they’ll become less comfortable and more hostile to that group.
If journalists understood this insight, then when refugees came from, say, Afghanistan, and moved into a small town in the United States or Canada, the local newspaper reporter who wants them to be accepted, instead of going out and writing an article about, “Oh, their food is so different from anything I’ve ever had, and their music is so atonal and interesting, and aren’t there all these unique differences?” they would write a story that said, “I went and I ate with these people, and even though their dress is different and their customs are different, it turns out, at the end of the day, they love their kids just like we do, and they want them to get an education. That was the most important thing. And we have so much in common as humans.”
These are both true stories. One emphasizes sameness and one emphasizes difference. To me, the literature convinces me that for at least 10 to 15 percent of the population, emphasizing sameness would reduce prejudice and intergroup conflict a lot more than emphasizing difference. I don’t say that as a moral statement, I just think that is what the situation is for this subset of people.
Emphasizing the salience of race as an important factor in who someone is, and singling out people who are of a different race or ethnicity or national origin or sexual orientation and saying these people are importantly different and it’s imperative that you treat them differently—I don’t think that’s going to work out very well in a lot of cases. And I don’t understand why the proponents of these [DEI] trainings don’t ever grapple with this kind of research literature at all. They think that diversity is a good in itself, and they just assume that other people’s psychology works just like theirs does.
JK: I think there’s a charitable premise embedded in your analysis—which is that they’re thinking at all about the effects of these trainings. My own sense, from doing a lot of stories in this area, is that the real goal, in many cases, is for companies to peacock their own progressive views.
CF: I actually think there’s a kind of bridge between my relatively charitable explanation of motives and yours. I would say that there’s a lot of people advocating for these trainings, and doing these trainings, who are earnest in their advocacy, and think it’s going to make the world a better place. But what I would also say is that one of the problems with the approach that they take is that they’re operating with a set of DEI ideas that are vulnerable to being manipulated by bad actors.
And what I mean by bad actors is a couple of different things:
(1) people who are, as you put it, peacocking, virtue-signalling, self-aggrandizing more than anything else. And I do think that there are some of those people, though I don’t think it’s a majority. But even a few of those people can really distort things because there’s a backlash to them, which is then followed by confusion about what the backlash is responding to.
(2) I think that there are some people who abuse these moments to grab power and get rid of the co-worker that they don’t like for other reasons, or to try and advance their careers in a kind of mercenary way.
And again, I don’t actually think that this describes most of the people who are advocating for [DEI trainings]. I just think that this is a practice that doesn’t have many safeguards against these kinds of [bad actors].
And I would say that my relatively charitable view of this is informed partly by talking to a bunch of people who do diversity trainings for a living, and hearing how critical many of them are about their own industry. They don’t want to get rid of DEI training entirely. They just think there’s a better way.
As I also say in the article, some things that come under the DEI umbrella are utterly defensible. I don’t think that it never makes sense to hire a diversity consultant. Some companies have racially discriminated for years. If they find that they’ve been doing that, and that their hiring procedures are all messed up. and they bring someone in who is an expert on conducting fair interviews et cetera, that is fine.
This is part of the maddening thing about the conversation on this subject: “DEI” is a bundle of three goods that are hazily defined. They encompass practical things that almost everyone would agree to—along with other things that almost no one wants.
JK: What we’re talking about here helps explain why there are even some leftists—and maybe even self-described socialists—who are expressing these concerns. I’m thinking of Catherine Liu, who has written a book describing how some aspects of DEI have basically become a socially acceptable ideological template to allow the existing managerial class to reassert its moral authority over the workplace.
Here in Canada, it’s not uncommon for university DEI vice-presidents to make $250,000 a year, at a time when adjunct professors are getting paid peanuts. By traditional class analysis, it’s difficult to sustain that difference unless you say, “Oh, well, this person is an enlightened prophet of diversity and inclusion and equity. And how else are we going to solve these existential problems?”
CF: Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Although I don’t think he made a pyramid out of it, that’s how it’s generally represented. At the bottom, there are things like air and food and water; and until you’ve met those needs for air and food and water, you can’t, according to this theory, meet any other needs.
And then you go a level up, and it’s things like safety and shelter; and you level up once more and it’s family and friends and companionship. And then you level up once more and you’re at, I think, self-esteem or something like that. And then you go toward the top, and you’re looking for self-actualization. And I’m struck by how much of what goes under the banner of social justice is now in that self-esteem-to-self-actualization tier: the idea that everyone should feel a sense of belonging at work, and that they can bring their whole selves to work, for example.
Look, if I ran a company as a CEO, I would want my employees to have self-esteem and self-actualization. And so I’m not discounting them. I’m not saying, insofar as there are reasonable steps that can be taken to facilitate that, they shouldn’t be taken. But when we’re talking in broad strokes about the need for real social justice, the need to have a reckoning with America’s past, it’s striking to me that there’s a lot of people at the bottom of that pyramid who are struggling to meet the very basic needs of life. And so shouldn’t our efforts to improve the world be mostly directed at those people, and not creating multi-billion-dollar [DEI] industries to facilitate the self-actualizing of people who are already very privileged?
And when I read statements from people selling diversity training, and they invoke George Floyd’s name, and then they say, “Because of this terrible tragedy, you need to bring me to your company, and I will help you retain more employees by getting rid of microaggressions and making everyone feel that they belong,” I can’t help but think: Okay, impoverished man [killed by police brutality] on one hand … workers suffering occasional slights on the other hand …
JK: … Yeah, and the selling point for these courses is often so that management can retain talent and increase profits. Oh, and this other thing, which you hit glancingly in your article, this business about bringing your “whole self” to work…
CF: It’s totally disingenuous. At the very least, they haven’t thought it through. No one wanted James Damore to bring his whole self to work at Google.
JK: I’m in Canada. So here is a hockey example. A few months ago, the NHL wanted hockey players to skate around the ice before games in rainbow-themed pride jerseys with sticks wrapped in rainbow tape. Which, okay, it was a nice thought … but then a bunch of Russian-born Orthodox players were like, “I’m bringing my ‘whole self’ to work at the arena, and I’m not going to be doing the rainbow thing.” When people say, “bring your whole self to work,” what they mean is “bring your whole self to work … through the prism of what we imagine to be officially sanctioned indicators of diversity.”
CF: Any company, if it were being honest, would say that there are all sorts of ways one could bring their “whole self” to work that will cause the HR department to come down on you pretty hard …
JK: … And rightly so! I mean, if I bring my “whole self” to work and start talking about sexual fantasies or whatever, people will be like, “We absolutely do not want that part of your whole self at work.”
And this is part of a more general rule: In most cases, 90 percent of proper workplace training could be covered by simply telling people, “don’t be a dick.” And of course, part of being a dick is telling racist jokes.
CF: Insofar as these DEI trainings are based on [that kind of] common sense, they’re often done by the existing HR apparatus of a company, or, you know, they’ve bought some training video from an outside vendor or some computer thing or whatever. And it’s very straightforward. It’s not like this mystical thing where they need to bring in a special consultant who has this body of secret DEI knowledge and terminology that we all have to learn, right? It’s not hidden priestly knowledge.
I think it’s perfectly fine for a company to target people making racist jokes, or who are making fun of their co-workers’ ethnic food, or basically any kind of assholery that is going on among their employees, and tell them to stop being jerks. I don’t think that anyone who is on either side of this controversy actually objects to that kind of very basic common sense stuff.
JK: One last question, and this goes to your status as an Atlantic staffer. Did you think that when you were writing this, that maybe in a few years, you’ll have to take some DEI course at the Atlantic, and the other people will be looking around the room and see you—and know you are someone who’s already expressed skepticism about these trainings in print, so that might make it awkward?
CF: I’m not really worried about that hypothetical. In fact, I’m actually very curious about these courses. You know, for intellectual and reporting purposes, I’ve consumed many of them! And I guess my personal attitude toward these things is kind of twofold.
On one hand, I bristle against the idea that anyone at a workplace should impose on others the demand to train them in their wisdom and worldview. That is something I would not want to do to others, even with my most dearly held beliefs. I wouldn’t want to force my co-workers to sit through a training that I designed for them.
On the other hand, I do think that collegiality is a good thing; and that people at workplaces should be good to one another. And if one of my coworkers said, “I really think you’ve got this wrong”—on any subject under the sun—“Could you read this thing? Could you watch this video?” then I would be happy to do that.
I think that a posture of easygoing forbearance on all sides is a pretty healthy way to go forward. We don’t all have to be at odds all the time in culture-war fights. And thankfully, the Atlantic has never been that way.