February 2018 Uncategorized

The Design of the Everyday Diversity Industrial Complex

We must cast a critical eye toward the diversity conversation within the tech industry as it impacts who’s employed in that industry, the types of products they produce, who writes about those products, who those products are made for, and who benefits from those products.

This essay is the second part of a two-part series on the “diversity industrial complex.” You can find the first installment, which appeared as part of our special issue on the #MeToo movement, here.

by Kimberly Springer

“I don’t have a diversity problem. This place has a diversity problem. I don’t have a diversity problem.” A former colleague, still friend, made this declaration when asked whether she was going to put her hat in the ring to be selected to join a workplace diversity task force. Overlooking the inappropriateness of asking for volunteers who are then selected by a fully white managerial team, I was initially taken aback by this refusal…at first. Okay, “initially” actually turned out to be more than a year to understand what my friend was saying. “How can you not be invested in diversity efforts in a predominately, unremittingly white workplace?,” I wondered. I knew I was disillusioned by decades of hearing and watching organizations say the same things about diversity.[1] But how could someone 15 years younger than me have given up on workplace diversity efforts already?

For two African-American women, one GenX and the other a Millennial (in fact-of-age, if not media-hyped disposition), to firmly reject workplace diversity initiatives was the initial rupture in how I perceived decades of my own participation and belief in these machinations. As I detailed in part one of this two-part series of articles, the latest and most significant rupture in my allegiance to workplace diversity occurred working in the assumed-to-be progressive public radio industry. Dubiously constituted diversity task forces, ignored diversity assessments from “the mothership’s” (NPR) key diversity advisors, warped perspectives on how to implement diversity recommendations (“FIVE out of our last seven hires have been people of color!”), and a host of other missteps in the name of diversity made the Diversity Industrial Complex more than a notion for me.

The Diversity Industrial Complex is, in fact, the gatekeeper for what film director Jordan Peele designates in Get Out (2017) as The Sunken Place. [2]

Speaking the Language of the Diversity Industrial Complex

In my last article, I offered a rationale for using the phrase “Diversity Industrial Complex” from Dean Spade’s Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law: “When movement organizers, activists, and intellectuals use various terms that end in ‘industrial complex,’ like ‘military industrial complex’ or ‘prison industrial complex,’ they are pointing to this kind of multivector analysis of law, power, knowledge, and norms [emphasis mine].” Based on this inclination toward multivectored, and I’d add intersectional, analysis, here I define the Diversity Industrial Complex as “organizations and individuals invested in framing discrimination as an apolitical tolerance for difference through linguistically downplaying bigotry, social norms, and business practices, while avoiding historical contexts of power and oppression.” The Diversity Industrial Complex is, ultimately, not interested in diversity for the sake of ending discrimination or social justice, but merely for the sake of a harmonious workplace free from harassment complaints and discrimination lawsuits (though such lawsuits are notoriously difficult for plaintiffs to win).[3]

The Diversity Industrial Complex manifests in the U.S. workplace as cultural awareness trainings and, more recently, anti-bias training. In Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman, a business leadership trainer and consultant, observes:

There are two reasons to do diversity training. One is to prevent lawsuits. The other is to create an inclusive environment in which each member of the community is valued, respected, and can fully contribute their talents. That includes reducing bias and increasing the diversity of the employee and management population.[4]

But Bregman’s title, and the conclusion of numerous retrospective studies on diversity training in the last 30 to 40 years, is “diversity training doesn’t work.”[5] These trainings can be expensive endeavors that are lucrative for diversity trainers and consultants—-a 2003 study estimated the industry to be worth about $8 million—but do little to reduce bias and little to nothing to end discrimination against marginalized workers.[6] And yet, other consultants argue that diversity training can work, but the goal needs to be toward building empathy and communicating with people as individuals. Anti-bias training, they claim, merely highlights differences and reinforces in-group/out-group behaviors, which put people at odds in the workplace; identifying difference are just symptoms of this behavior.[7]

I’m calling out these phrases and tools for their subtext, which amounts to the following: “We don’t want to make white people feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to put them on the spot.” The Diversity Industrial Complex’s intention is to manufacturer meaningful and teachable moments that ease people in the dominant culture into thinking about racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism, but in ways that don’t scare them away or make them defensive. This attempt to avoid implicating everyone in the room in white supremacy’s racist past clearly hasn’t worked because everyone is the room is not equally culpable for that past. While the Diversity Industrial Complex isn’t solely to blame for the Trump cabal’s ascendance to power, its milquetoast overtures to spreading the blame, not naming power, ignoring institutional abuses, and mollycoddling workplace racism contributed to progressive whites feeling “blindsided” by the last presidential election.

This questioning sticky note was actually about a potluck, but it’s a perennial American workplace question with too many applications.

A phrase that white liberals in the workplace are fond of deploying when called out on issues of discrimination is, “We can do better.” The problem with this platitude as a starting place is that it presumes that these same workplaces were doing anything at all of merit when it comes to diversity in the first place.[8] “Better” assumes an acceptable baseline. To assert “we can do better,” an organization should be, minimally, statistically matching the diversity of qualified employees in their workplace with the diversity reflected in their local community.

Another popular concept was theorized in the 1970s, but did not gain momentum in its popular use until almost 30 years later. Why? I’d hypothesize that the Diversity Industrial Complex can take some credit for the popularity of microaggressions.

Psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce coined the term “micro-aggression” to account for the slights and indignities that people of color face daily. In 2007, Derald Wing Sue classified micro-aggressions to further delineate microinvalidations, micro-assaults, and micro-insults.

The “micros” acknowledge discrimination’s cumulative effects, much like feminists’ resistance to men telling women to “smile” acknowledges the effect of repeat assertions of patronizing patriarchy on women. In white collar workplaces (Sunken Places) where people of color, LGBTQI, differently abled, working class, and people with multiple identities are in short supply, opportunities for miscommunications, cultural appropriations, missteps, and racial slights are inevitable. Naming them micro-aggressions ostensibly helps marginalized people feel not-crazy within systems and structures that refuse to recognize difference. Tellingly, white reactions to the existence of micro-aggressions have mostly been denigration and attempts to categorize marginalized people as “too sensitive.”

Google trends for the concept “micro-aggression.”

Resultant resistance to a term such as micro-aggressions does the work of the Diversity Industrial Complex. While meant to focus on the experience of marginalized people, approaches and concepts that only operate at the micro-level to the exclusion of the structural pull focus from the discriminatory act. Instead, these terms zero in on the experience of people in dominant groups and skirt accepting any culpability for dwelling comfortably within the realm of white privilege. The “micros” offer a continuum for behaviors to be characterized as “not that bad” instead of plain and simply wrong. Positing to companies that they can “do better” to combat “micro-aggressions” via anti-bias training has merely, as some studies maintain, reified difference and categorization. I would add, this Diversity Industrial Complex formula or consultant go-to in the toolbox is just the later-2000s iteration of the 1980s and early 1990s tolerance for difference. Operationalizing bigotry gives the appearance of advanced thinking while keeping the industry profitable and seemingly necessary. Parsing discrimination into micro-components might be helpful in quelling individual dissonance, but this line of analysis is ineffective institutionally and is likely, if ever brought into a court of law, a losing argument.

Scrutinizing the Diversity Industrial Complex in Tech

The tech workplace is not immune to white supremacist thinking. Racist stereotypes and tropes shape the algorithms that influence our internet searches, apps that dictate the terms of our relationships, and predictive models of misbehavior that increasingly surveille and monitor citizens. Neither is the tech industry outside the Diversity Industrial Complex’s machinations. As Safiya Umoja Noble notes in a Logic magazine interview on the “Problems of Platform Capitalism,” “one of the things that we know from information science is that the signal is not neutral [emphasis mine].” No amount of rebranding will disguise the reality of inherent bias in the structures, hiring, representation, and language of tech and engineering.

We must cast a critical eye toward the diversity conversation within the tech industry as it impacts who’s employed in that industry, the types of products they produce, who writes about those products, who those products are made for, and who benefits from those products. Morgan Debaun notes, “[Seventy-six] percent of jobs in the technology space are held by men, but yet and still, only 5 percent of jobs in the space are held by blacks and Latinos. Women of color shockingly make up less than 3 percent of the space.”[9]

Take, for instance, the sharing economy, which really isn’t a sharing economy since much of it is predicated on good ol’ capitalist transactional exchange of products or services for cash. The Diversity Industrial Complex reaches people who work toward the center of companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter. They are being cared for under the new-age rubric of “People Operations” that rely on data, analytics, and patterns derived from a predominately white and brown, foreign-born workforce.[10] It’s not that these workers don’t deserve that care, but those same considerations don’t apply to contract workers, such as Uber drivers, or Amazon’s CamperForce workers who are, for all intents and purposes, the new grape-harvesters in the information plantation fields.


In the non-tech corporate milieu, diversity work is assigned to human resources departments as a legal concern. In the New Economy’s people operations, the Diversity Industrial Complex coalesces in the role of high-profile diversity and inclusion executives who, presumably, speak the languages of both diversity and tech. They are ushering in a new phase of diversity and inclusion work in tech that may or may not filter down and out to other industries as the newest business trend to emulate. This phase grapples with how to monetize or ascribe value to difference in significant ways that are meaningful to a nation waking up (once again) to inequality. It’s a type of accountability that requires both internal and front-facing finesse since, due to the tech they’ve created, everything is public and everything is news.

On the backend we have James Damore’s 10-page sexist screed against diversity and empathy training.[11] Notably, unlike my argument here about such trainings, Damore’s argument was rooted in long-ago debunked biological essentialism and determinism. His outspokenness and audacity in writing down and circulating his bigotry resulted in his firing. Both Damore’s actions and Google’s reaction might indicate progress to some in his naked antipathy for diversity and the company’s intolerance for his open bigotry.

On the front-facing side, we might observe what went down with Uber when the Trump Administration first attempted its travel ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. When the administration announced the travel ban in January 2017, The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance went on a strike of sorts, refusing to provide rides to John F. Kennedy Airport from 6pm to 7pm.[12] They were doing so in support of immigrants who’d been detained at JFK as lawyers and judges figured out whether the travel ban was even legal. As protestors mobilized at the airport in support as well, some using Uber to get to the airport, the ride-sharing company suspended its surge pricing. Whether by algorithm or human-choice, it appeared to protestors and observers that Uber was attempting to increase its share of riders in the absence of taxi competition. Backlash to this perceived reality was harsh, with a #DeleteUber campaign that reportedly resulted in Uber losing more than 200,000 users who deleted their accounts.[13] Realizing their gaffe, Uber attempted to make amends by creating a $3 million legal fund to help those impacted by the ban and pledged the company’s support for its drivers impacted by the ban and for lost wages. It only took massive public outcry and public embarrassment for Uber to declare the ban “unjust”—all the while continuing to fight drivers’ attempts to be recognized as workers, not just people who are “gigging” for extra cash.[14]

I raise these two examples as a gesture to the transformations in racism and discrimination that the Diversity Industrial Complex must attempt to keep up with. Like technology, bigotry is on a steady march, but not necessarily one that means progress. If innovation remains the buzzword that drives start-up culture and neoliberal manifestations of entrepreneurship, tech companies need to apply that same drive to increasing inclusion inside their wraparound service campuses so that the tech and products applied to our lives do more than offer convenience in exchange for our data. Let the Diversity Industrial Complex become a thing of the past, not a profitable but ineffective behemoth offering little by way of real inclusivity and justice.

ks_npr_photoKimberly Springer is Curator of Oral History at the Columbia University Center for Oral History Archives. Her publications include Living for the Revolution, Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 (Duke University Press, 2005), Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African-American Women’s Contemporary Activism (New York University Press, 1999), Stories of Oprah: the Oprahfication of American Culture (University of Mississippi Press, 2010) and articles in several journals and edited volumes. She’s worked in public media and the government sector for National Public Radio, Michigan Radio, St. Louis Public Radio, the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the U.S. State Department.

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Works Cited

Anand, Rohini and Mary-Frances Winter. “A Retrospective View of Corporate Diversity Training from 1964 to the Present.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2008, Vol. 7, No. 3, 356–372.

Ben-Shahar, Omri. “Are Uber Drivers Employees? The Answer Will Shape The Sharing Economy.” Forbes. 15 November 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/omribenshahar/. Accessed 20 February 2018.

Bregman, Peter. “Diversity Training Doesn’t Work.” Harvard Business Review. 12 March 2012.

David, Javier E. “Uber customers lash out at ride sharing service amid anti-travel ban protests.” CNBC. 29 January 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/29/uber-customers-lash-out-at-ride-sharing-service-amid-anti-travel-ban-protests.html. 10 February 2018.

DeAngelis, Tori. “Unmasking ‘racial micro aggressions’.” Monitor on Psychology, 2009, 2009, Vol. 40, No. 2, 42.

Debaun, Morgan. “Why Diversity And Inclusion In Tech Is An Even Bigger Issue In The Midwest.” AfroTech: Tech and Innovation News.12 February 2018. Accessed 19 February 2018.

Kalanick, Travis. “Standing up for the driver community.” Uber Newsroom. 30 January 2017. https://www.uber.com/newsroom/standing-up-for-the-driver-community/. 10 February 2017.

Levin, Sam, “Tesla workers claim anti-LGBT threats, taunts, and racial abuse in lawsuits.” The Guardian. 19 October 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/19/tesla-factory-workers-discrimination-claim-race-lgbt-elon-musk. Accessed 06 November 2017.

Lindsey, Alex, Eden Koing, Ashley Membere, and Ho Kwan Cheung. “Two Types of Diversity Training That Really Work.” Harvard Business Review. 28 July 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/07/two-types-of-diversity-training-that-really-work. Accessed 5 February 2018.

Lopez, David. “Why people are deleting Uber from their phones after Trump’s executive order.” Vox. 29 January 2017. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/29/14431246/uber-trump-muslim-ban. Accessed 10 February 2018.

Manjoo, Farhad. “The Happiness Machine: How Google became such a great place to work.” Slate. 21 January 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/01/google_people_operations_the_secrets_of_the_world_s_most_scientific_human.html. Accessed 05 February 2018.

Noble, Safiya Umoja and Sarah T. Roberts. “Engine Failure: on the Problems of Platform Capitalism.” Logic. Issue 3: Justice. https://logicmag.io/03-engine-failure/. Accessed 1 December 2017.

Rogers, David. “Diversity Training: Good For Business But Insufficient For Social Change.” School of Americas Watch. Winter 2001. http://www.soaw.org/resources/anti-opp-resources/108-race/1242-diversity-training-good-for-business-but-insufficient-for-social-change. Accessed 5 February 2018.

Romano, Aja. “Google has fired the engineer whose anti-diversity memo reflects a divided tech culture.” Vox. 8 August 2017. https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/8/16106728/google-fired-engineer-anti-diversity-memo. Accessed 05 February 2018.

Selmi, Michael. “Why are Employment Discrimination Cases So Hard to Win?” Louisiana Law Review. 2001, vol. 61, No. 93, 555-575.http://digitalcommons.law.lsu.edu/lalrev/vol61/iss3/4. Accessed 05 February 2018.

Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Duke University Press, 2011.

Springer, Kimberly. “Dear White Workplace.” Medium. 15 November 2016. https://medium.com/@thekimbos/dear-white-workplace-22fbf6bd897d.


[1] Springer, 2016.

[2] Think of the Diversity Industrial Complex as the Westworld Programming Division and diversity workplace initiative enactments as the amusement park in HBO’s Westworld (2016). Only no one is amused. End of film analogies.

[3] Selmi, 555-556.

[4] Bregman, 2012.

[5] Ibid; Rogers, 2001; Anand and Winters 2008.

[6] In a recent example, while Tesla drivers and Space X fans are beside themselves praising Elon Musk’s intentions of colonizing Mars, those same fans dismiss reports of egregious racism and heterosexism against Tesla plant workers as misinformation manufactured by union organizers. I’m sure diversity or cultural sensitivity training will be a prescribed corrective.

[7] Lindsey et. al., 2017.

[8] As editors, Lauren Angel and William Horne, rightly point out, this phrasing also assumes that, “we” are all white and that it’s a slippery engagement in “both-sides” as culpable. We saw this latter rhetorical move in the President’s comments around the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017.

[9] Debaun 2017.

[10] Majoo, 2013.

[11] Romano, 2017.

[12] David, 2017.

[13] Lopez, 2017.

[14] Ben-Shahar, 2017. David, 2017; Kalanick, 2017.

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