On “diversity hobbyism”
The diversity debate is filled with passion, then why is progress lacking?
I have been teaching and researching diversity-related topics for more than a decade. Over time, I have become aware of its complexity, messiness, and immense power of lived experiences. At the same time, I have also grown weary of drifting in its messaging, from social justice to a business case and a strategic choice that has led to recycling piecemeal and decades-old approaches.
Post George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, racial awakening appears to have intensified yearning for social justice. I have observed renewed passion in my classrooms/ workshops and interviews with diversity practitioners. Social media has also been abuzz with corporate announcements pledging support and influencers posting their appeals and publicly calling out. I am sure to an outsider the diversity debate appears filled with passion, appeal, and rhetoric. Still, there seems to be a lack of progress. Why?
We know that diversity work is arduous and changing the company culture or shaping the national debate is a long-term commitment requiring concerted effort. Research indicates that pledges without meaningful actions alone cannot address systemic racism. However, a vigorous debate on social media could easily give the impression that the public is woke and organizations are finally embracing changing inequitable structures and practices. A closer look at this noisy and socially connected environment proves otherwise and sheds light on an interesting phenomenon. Borrowing from Eitan Hersh, I call it “diversity hobbyism.” Let me explain what diversity hobbyism is and how it may be further contributing to persistent unproductivity.
In his book entitled “Politics is for power: how to move beyond political hobbyism, take action, and make real change,” Eitan Hersh argues that our political stagnation is because of political hobbyism, whereby we treat politics as a hobby like sports. We cheer for our favorite team, boo the other team, and look for excitement and entertainment. He describes political hobbyists as follows:
“They follow the news — reading articles like this one — and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”
He argues that the political hobbyists are disproportionately college-educated white men who excel at debating national and global issues while staying disconnected from the local issues. A 2018 survey indicates that more than 88% of their time is spent on news consumption and politics contemplation- reading, talking, and thinking about politics. However, they spend less than 2% of their time actively participating in grassroots efforts. On the other hand, black and Latinos, feeling a greater sense of obligation towards the under-served, spend significantly more time volunteering and addressing local issues. Person-to-person contact helps them build empathy and empowers communities.
Political hobbyists might be allies on social media and display visible welcoming signs in their yards. However, since they are comfortable with the status quo they are less committed to fighting for basic human needs and local causes. Not only is political hobbyism a waste of time, but it has created a culture of instant gratification and outrageous political behavior, where national politics and big-ticket celebrities overshadow local action and hardworking volunteers.
Hersh’s description resonates with my understanding of stagnation of the diversity work. Diversity hobbyism appears on social media or parlor discussions as a passionate reaction, announcement, or story. It is, however, not supported by a solid commitment and platitudes of action to changing systemic and structural inequities. This, accompanied by a short attention span, hollow promises, and celebrity-struck culture, has further reinforced (rather than break) the cycle of exclusion and disadvantage within organizations and on social media.
Diversity is neither entertainment nor a hobby, and it is not getting on the bandwagon. Instead, it is deeply embedded in social justice and shows up in our commitment, positive intentions, and the positive impact we create.
For organizations, it should be much more than creating a brand image or making a business case for some profitable ends. For individuals, it should be more than gaining a handful of followers and some additional popularity. It is examining your privilege and not just crying ‘DEI is my life’ because that only ends up silencing others and commodifying social justice. It is relating with others with a deep sense of humility. It is genuinely caring for socio-economic inequities and transforming cultures to promote human dignity and well-being.
So, what can we do to move beyond passion to make a positive impact?
Whether you are an individual interested in DEI or an organization building DEI systems, making a positive impact begins with approaching diversity work with greater curiosity and deeper authenticity.
Curiosity helps us seek new information and explore novel possibilities and relationships. Research indicates when curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and come up with creative solutions. Curiosity allows us to examine our inherent biases and challenge our assumptions. It also helps us connect with others and develop more trusting and collaborative relationships by fostering open communication.
Authenticity refers to engaging with diversity work with integrity, honesty, sincerity, and courage. It is rolling up the sleeves to do the hard work emotionally and physically. It allows us to move beyond debates — ensuring our words are consistent with our actions and our actions match the passion we speak with. It helps us embody our beliefs to inspire trust and create a positive impact.
When overwhelmed with the complexity of diversity (as in its hobbyism and the multifarious causes of inconsistent progress), I like to remind myself that the solution is surprisingly simple; but requires consistent inner work. Authenticity and curiosity are natural human tendencies, proven drivers for learning, and they are also the key to connecting with others, building communities, and challenging the status quo.
Shaista E. Khilji, Oct 5, 2021
This article has emerged from the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate humanistic leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com