“Diversity” has become a buzzword. It’s almost trendy.
Every organization has to have it and fears being called racist or prejudiced without it.
But marginalized people, the colorful folks who come to mind when someone says “diverse,” are more than skin colors that can be used to brighten the page or make a company look better. The diverse people you proudly feature on marketing materials and who work beside you every day, as well as their families and friends, are in danger.
As a Black female writer, landing a job at a well-known literary publication seemed like everything I had ever wanted. The number one thing that stood out to me about the magazine was how wonderfully diverse it was.
Authors from all over the world with different racial, ethnic, and sexual identities were proudly featured throughout the magazine, website, and even within the office. Seeing this proud display of diversity filled me with hope and joy – a sentiment that I eagerly shared during the hiring process.
For the next three months, I proudly tweeted and posted about the books and readings of diverse authors. My posts were prescreened, and I was restricted to an out-of-touch corporate voice, but I was happy to play some small part in uplifting diverse authors, even if I was just the person who clicked “Tweet.”
No one could have predicted the painful and traumatic summer that marginalized groups have been experiencing here in the U.S., and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the way that it made me see my work.
When the Orlando shooting happened, the office was abuzz with talk of the tragedy. Everyone was shocked by the violence, and eager to express outrage and sadness. My manager, the head of marketing, issued a single retweet of an article on the tragedy and that was it.
A single retweet was not nearly enough, but when it came to representing the company on social media, I was definitely not the decision maker.
Did this event warrant more than a single retweet from a publication that regularly features LGBTQ authors? Yes. But at least there was a dialogue around the office, and at least the organization had publicly done one thing to show support in a timely manner.
Before I was able to wrap my head around the Orlando shooting, there came the week of July 4th:
Two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in addition to five Latinos – Melissa Ventura, Anthony Nunez, Pedro Villanueva, and Raul Saaverda-Vargas, were killed by the police.
The silence on this topic in the office was deafening. At my desk, I was glued to online news outlets, watching the stories unfold in a complete state of grief and bewilderment.
I was unable to focus, unable to function, and in a state of mental, physical, and emotional pain. All around me, people were carrying on as if nothing had happened. Every time I spoke to a colleague, I wondered if they could see the devastation in my eyes. Even if they could, they were too uncomfortable to address it. Brexit, Hillary, Trump, those topics were all on the table – part of the daily chatter and routine.
The loss of Black and Latino lives, well, I guess that made everyone too uncomfortable.
I felt my skin color.
I felt conspicuous in the office’s silence.
My community was being erased and forgotten, and it felt as if I was just another Black woman being told once again to maintain my silence; that this, too, shall pass.
Friday, July 8th, when five white police officers were shot, one co-worker finally made a vague, brief comment about how horrible “everything” is in this country.
It took horrific violence against white law enforcement officers for one of the most traumatic weeks of my life to become an appropriate topic for discussion.
In an organization that uses Black and Latino faces at every opportunity, I found it appalling that there would be such a strong culture of silence around these killings. There were no social media posts on the shootings and no effort made to acknowledge the traumatic events within the office.
An organization that supposedly cares about diverse writers had a Black, female writer in their own development department who was crying during lunch hours over the killing of her people.
A marginalized writer felt lonely in her own workspace where the discussion of race and police brutality was thought to be too taboo for open discussion.
On Tuesday, July 12th, I addressed the head of marketing, a white woman, about the culture of silence both in the office and on social media. The conversation was gut-wrenching. I tried to explain to her that when organizations choose to stay silent on the topic of institutional racism, they are implicitly reinforcing the racist status quo – a stance that is contradictory to the values of any organization that relies so heavily on diversity as a part of its image.
My critique of the organization’s silence was taken as a personal slight. When I told her that marginalized people were more than just skin colors to decorate magazine pages with, that making a stand against white supremacy meant public and private expressions of solidarity with people of color, and that the very authors that the magazine features have families, friends, and a culture to protect, she responded with:
“I have a culture too!” As if I had ever denied this.
She went on to tell me that the magazine battled racism by featuring diverse authors and that she had Black relatives, so she understood my pain.
None of this answered my question as to why an organization that supposedly supports diversity chose silence while the police brutalized diverse people.
The very fact that I, a Black employee, had to come to her office to try to break the silence is the very embodiment of what #BlackLivesMatter really means: if we don’t speak about the systematic oppression of Black lives, no one else will.
Certainly not the white leadership of supposedly “diverse” organizations.
A simple acknowledgment of the organization’s silence would have sufficed, but she became very defensive. I decided to disengage. Even though I kept repeating that this was not a personal attack, she kept addressing it as such.
“I have to go now,” I said, moving towards the door.
“Are you quitting?” she asked angrily.
Overcome with emotion, I gave her the answer she wanted. I had not intended to quit that day, but it became clear to me that this was a space in which I could no longer be comfortable.
“Yes, I am.”
The organization finally posted something on Facebook about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (with no mention of the Latino lives lost) a day or two after I quit.
It’s hard to tell which day.
Since I thoroughly checked the organization’s social media pages on Tuesday before confronting my boss and found nothing, I know that this post was predated to show Monday’s date. The post finally acknowledged the men who died and referred to a collaboration with Claudia Rankine, a critically acclaimed and well-known Black writer.
During our meeting, my boss heatedly revealed that the project with Rankine was not supposed to be announced until the fall, but I guess the date was conveniently moved up.
She still believes that using a Black face can make up for complicit silence.
Predating this post was not only a way to discredit me but also a way to silence me.
Boasting about diversity, but being unable to address the trauma and tragedy in those communities is not enough.
If you don’t want us when we’re dying, don’t rush to share in our talent and success.
Any organization that wants to proudly proclaim themselves diverse should not be silent on issues surrounding race – afraid to upset a white, male, cis-gender base.
Diversity is a necessity. It is a lifesaver, not a pageant with prizes to be doled out for the sake of appearances. It is beneficial to everyone, white or non-white because inclusion ultimately creates space for dialogue and progress.
If an organization doesn’t really care about the lives of diverse people, the only thing that I can call such an organization is parasitic. The fact that such organizations want to be lauded for their progressive attitudes towards race but then stand on the sidelines as passive witnesses to oppression is sickening.
The very same people whose dark skin has been branded and commercialized as the look of liberalism are being killed, their murderers going unpunished.
All for the same drop of melanin.
A failure to acknowledge this is a failure for diversity.
No one has the privilege of silence when it comes to racial violence, but some still think they do.