by Kate Deibel, PhD, Inclusion and Accessibility Librarian

I was recently asked a great Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) question from a colleague at the University of Massachusetts: “Do you have any resources on approaching someone and asking them directly to share their DEIA story?”

To put it more bluntly, the question is about calling upon an apparently “diverse” person to speak about diversity, either in general, or about the “diversity” you think they represent. Examples include asking the one woman on a software team why more women don’t do programming. Calling on the Black kid in class to speak about the impact of slavery. Asking the one Asian staff member their thoughts on the Hong Kong protests. Appointing the person in a wheelchair to assess the accessibility of a website. Such questions or requests are fraught with problems and assumptions.

The first is to recognize misuse of the phrase “diverse” person. Diversity does not apply to an individual. It is a description of the way a group of people are heterogenous. A person’s sense of diversity comes from the identities, backgrounds, cultures, labels, etc. they have adopted as part of their sense of being. An individual is an individual. When with a group of people, the person’s identities may increase the diversity of the group. Note that some aspects of diversity may be more visually evident (race, language, etc.), but others may be outright invisible (sexuality, gender identity, disability, etc.). The only way to get 100% certainty about a person’s “diversity” is for them to openly share that information with you.

Next, recognize that identity does not necessarily confer expertise. In the provided examples, many assumptions were made, such as assuming the Asian staff member is Chinese or that they have they been following the protests. That the the wheelchair user has knowledge of accessibility testing or using a screen reader, let alone computer expertise of any kind. That the Black student is expected to give sociocultural commentary on history and society. The point here is that DEIA work is not simple and you can’t expect a person to fully know about or be able to speak about it because they live some aspect of it.

Even after recognizing that a “diverse” person may not have the expertise to speak deeply on the subject of DEIA issues, you might still want them to talk about their lived experience. Although everyone is an expert on their lived life, the act of sharing those experiences is not a neutral, cost-free activity for the person. Since the 1990s, the term diversity fatigue has referred to exhaustion that organizations and individuals can develop in regards to ongoing DEIA conversations. While study of this phenomenon has taken several directions, one important aspect to understand is the fatigue experienced by those who engage in DEIA advocacy directly.

Fatigue is a common symptom of “diverse” people. If your day is filled with tracking attempts to file new laws restricting your rights, facing accessibility barriers to enter buildings, or reading reports of another racially-motivated attack because of your race, you are absorbing stress. Being a member of an underrepresented group in America today means that DEIA, good and bad, is an everyday, lived experience. Mindfulness, compartmentalization, attempts to block it out, and other coping mechanisms can help, but it’s a daily occurrence you experience. A recent book on the topic, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit by Mary-Frances Winters describes this ongoing fatigue felt by black people in America, and it is on my to-read list.

Now, let’s take that fatigue and add the onus of having to educate your peers about your lived experiences. Your peers may be quite enthusiastic to learn and engage, so it’s hard to say no. But look at what that teaching will entail. Will your time be compensated? Quite often, being asked to educate one’s peers about DEIA issues is unfunded service work. Black employees are reporting that they are tired of being tasked to do work that they were neither hired for nor have expertise in. The pressure to assist in DEIA efforts are difficult to refuse because the cause is important. But will you be rewarded for the work? The belittling of service work as less important is a well-known problem and has been cited as a significant barrier for women professors in STEM due to female professors typically having higher service expectations than their male counterparts. This can be due to the desire to create a diverse committee, which forces the few women on staff to serve in many roles. Furthermore, the expectation that women are more caring and have a helping mentality pushes them into service work that may not be as valued in tenure calculations.

Assuming the above concerns are addressed, are there any other reasons why someone might still feel uncomfortable speaking about their “diverse” life? Absolutely! The reason is tokenism.

Tokenism typically refers to highlighting that a “diverse” person is part of the group for the ability to claim diversity. This means showing the same student in a wheelchair in almost every photo on a college website. Or having the Black woman who is a middle manager appear in the background at every big press event. Or having a “diverse” speaker present at a meeting. It’s wishful thinking to think that one person can solve DEIA issues. And a person representing a group likely does not want to be taken as speaking for everyone in that group. Will your remarks perpetuate stereotypes or fight against them? This burdens the person with added stress and pressure to not “mess things up” for others in their community.

Although this is a long response to the question, as I indicated, we cannot expect simple, single, silver bullet solutions to the complex questions and challenges that must be addressed to achieve DEIA in business, education, and society. In summary, the reasons you should not directly ask an apparently “diverse” person to speak on DEIA topics or their lived experiences as a “diverse” person are:

  • An individual is only “diverse” to a group in context
  • Not all diversities are readily apparent
  • Discussing DEIA issues is an area of expertise not held by everyone
  • A person may have ongoing fatigue from their lived experience
  • A person may not want to perform unfunded, unrewarded labor
  • A person may want to avoid being a token representation and enforcing stereotypes

When seeking out speakers to talk about diversity topics, you can look for people who have an established reputation of talking about their culture, identity, heritage, etc. You should plan to compensate them for the time and effort they provide. You can also attempt a general forum and invite attendees to speak on their own accord. But remember, not everyone may feel safe, comfortable, or have the energy and wherewithal to contribute. Hopefully someday everyone will be able to share about identities. That’s the goal of DEIA work.