What do you do when you are called a ‘diversity hire’?

BY Nii Ntreh May 2, 2024 3:48 PM EDT
Diverse hiring practices by corporations have shone a critical light on employees of color, sometimes unfairly. Photo Credit: Raconteur

As American political theatre churns out some of the most contrived understandings of racial equality, we often do not spare a thought for the fallout of these conversations on persons. When the Black Lives Matter movement became a shortlived global force, it was able to compel corporations to find room for overdue specific investments in Black and minority individuals. This was mostly about hiring individuals from diverse racial backgrounds to complement traditional corporate and business outlooks. But the backlash to this was also immediate, with America’s mostly conservative commentariat and politicians questioning the point of positive discrimination based on race.

Nevertheless, the practice of diversity hiring is not a recent concept. Since the 1960s, American businesses and other institutions have attempted to retain employees for certain positions not solely on competency but also on considerations of ethnicity. With time, other markers have also been added but the hope was to give equal opportunities to all. Even then, institutions were accused of tokenism because some hirings were not an authentic commitment to equal opportunity but to advertise a kitsch portrait of progress.

Since the 2010s, however, diversity and inclusion hiring has come under even more fire as dialogues on race, class and gender have grown in volume, depth and audacity. Political partisans have even adopted diatribes for high-profile African-Americans in public and private employment, referring to them, among other names, as DEI hires. These tactics are meant to undercut African-American competency and to allege that American meritocracy has been sacrificed on the altar of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The obvious flaw in saying that for-profit organizations are dishing out jobs solely based on race or gender is that these organizations have not been known to put people before profit. The belief that businesses will hamper their gains because they would prefer some social outcomes is frankly ridiculous.

But when the above happens, a person’s work ethic, suitability and ability for the job are questioned. What then can you do if you find yourself in such a situation? Here are three tips to deal with when you are addressed as a diversity hire:

  1. It is a distraction. Do not feed it.

In a memorable analysis of American racism, celebrated novelist Toni Morrison said that the “very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” That is a helpful conceptual framework with which minorities can appreciate being called diversity hires. Essentially, the name-calling is an attempt to goad you into justifying your inclusion, and once you start, you will not see the end of it.

The danger lies in responding to the name-calling because dedicating your energy to that can keep you from delivering results. This is not to oversimplify the emotional and psychological toll the name-calling can take on an individual. But to give in to the temptation of a response is what many detractors are looking for. It is up to you not to give them that satisfaction but to produce what matters.

2. Trust in your abilities.

Closely connected to the first point is the need to believe in yourself more than ever when the detractors cast aspersions on your abilities. This is because, as illustrated earlier in this piece, your competency is being attacked. You must dig deep within yourself and find a reason to hold on.

The self is bottomless, as many psychologists would tell you. Thus, the drive to succeed comes from an ever-flowing stream within you. You are not limited by external doubts but most likely by your own imposition. More often than not, you attain your present position because you succeeded at multiple and even similar positions previously. It is time to remind yourself of that.

3. Seek community.

Being called a diversity hire is a consequence of toxic politics. It is borne of racist expectations but it is pertinent to remember that racism is not some interpersonal animosity, Racism is a result of multiethnic imbalances executed by power on a communal level. So even as you deal with the name-calling, you must do well to tap into communal support.

Networks exist for your professional defense and fulfillment as an employee facing racist challenges. You may need family and friends too. What professional networks do, however, is to be involved in the larger civil rights struggle that confronts the undercutting of Black competency. Liaise with these groups and join them for the support they can offer as a community member.