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Diversity Programs Inadvertently Stir Controversy: Inclusion is for Everyone

Diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice movements have picked up tremendous steam in recent years—and in recent months. The rapid evolution and expansion of these movements have brought the underlying topics front and center, in both the national discourse, as well as in smaller communities, like businesses and schools.

There is no consensus on the “right” way to discuss diversity and inclusion, and as attitudes change and evolve, there is ample opportunity for missteps, controversy and backlash. This is particularly true when organizations focus on specific groups or culture as a source of societal problems.

Some recent examples highlight the importance of carefully planning training and educational programs that focus on sensitive topics like race relations and racial identity. The best intentions, unfortunately, may often go awry.

The Smithsonian

Last summer, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture released some guidelines for talking about race. In one graphic titled, “Aspects and Assumptions of whiteness in the United States,” a number of values were labeled “white values.” These included things like “objective, rational and linear thinking” and “hard work before play.” Another section asserted that white people have, “no tolerance for deviation from a single god concept.” Newsweek reported that Smithsonian later removed the graphic.


Coca-Cola recently came under fire after an employee leaked screenshots of material the company provided as part of a seminar it offered to staff titled “Fighting Racism,” given by Robin DiAngelo and presented through LinkedIn Education. In an article for Entrepreneur, Mairem Del Rio reported that the course was offered to the general public by LinkedIn, although not free of charge, and that Coca-Cola acknowledged it invited workers to take the course but did not make it mandatory.

The content of the material sparked swift condemnation from many on social media. One portion read, “To be less white is: to be less oppressive, to be less arrogant, to be less trusting, to be less defensive, to be less ignorant, to be more humble, to listen, to believe., break with apathy and break with white solidarity.” Another read, “in the United States and other Western nations, whites are socialized to feel that they are inherently superior because they are white.” The material ended with a call for participants to: “Try to be less white.”

Buffalo Public Schools

In an article for City Journal, Christopher F. Rufo reported on a controversial curriculum change for Buffalo Public Schools instituted by the school’s diversity czar Fatima Morrell. Rufo reports that under the curriculum, students learn that American society was designed for the “impoverishment of people of color and enrichment of white people,” that the United States “created a social system that had racist economic inequality built into its foundation,” and that “the [current] wealth gap is the result of black slavery, which created unjust wealth for white people,” who are “unfairly rich.” The curriculum also teaches that, “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism.”

The controversial diversity programs of the Smithsonian, Coca-Cola and Buffalo Public Schools are all examples of organizations attempting to address racism and promote inclusion. But, in doing so, they however inadvertently manage to make sweeping generalizations based on race.

Efforts to attribute qualities to an entire racial or ethnic group should always raise red flags, especially when trying to promote inclusiveness. Such generalizations often backfire by making some people feel targeted or threatened by the very efforts designed to encourage inclusion.

Diversity, inclusion and equity efforts naturally tend to focus on greater appreciation for, and recognition of, traditionally marginalized groups like women and people of color. But it’s important to remember that inclusion means being inclusive of everyone, even those that haven’t necessarily experienced discrimination in the past.

Be inclusive!

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Are you tired of workplace diversity training that does not link to business? Are you tired of tactics that don’t drive business results? InclusionINC has inclusion training solutions and strategic consulting that link inclusion to employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention, moving inclusion beyond tactics to a critical business strategy.


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