Diversity and Inclusion and the Rise of the Alt-Right

Diversity refers to the variety of similarities and differences among people.

Inclusion is a dynamic state of operating in which diversity is leveraged to create a fair, healthy, and high-performing organization or community.

The above definitions were taken from the Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World, an 80-page tool created with the insight of 95 experts, largely consultants and organizational development professionals. Today, diversity and inclusion rhetoric and practices permeate corporations, academic institutions, city governments, and non-profits. For many, this meant a process of organizational restructuring to create Diversity and Inclusion departments and Chief Diversity Officer positions. Yet, in an era where diversity is gaining global legitimacy, we are also witnessing the rise of the Alt-Right and a Trump Presidency fueled by white ethno-nationalist sentiment. It is this historical moment that calls upon us as scholars, educators, and diversity practitioners to reframe the discourse around inclusion as one that rejects whiteness and aligns with the most marginalized and historically oppressed communities in the United States.

Increasingly, inclusion is inseparable from the practice of diversity. Since 2014, I have been asking diversity consultants to explain “the turn,” which shifted diversity management from a practice based on awareness of racial and gender discrimination to one that focuses on the strategic organizational potential for workplace “belonging.” Many agreed on why diversity trainings of the 80s and early 90s failed: they excluded white men from the process of diversity, while making them feel guilty to a point of shame and counter-productivity.

Today, however, we’ve reached an impasse in the American discourse on race. While scholars and practitioners—ourselves included—have created the framework and the rhetoric to be globally inclusive, regardless of difference, we have also failed to be clear about our political intent. Diversity and Inclusion is about taking personal responsibility for our violent historical past. Particularly, in the face of the rise of the Alt-Right, we need to draw a line in the sand: heteronormative whiteness is based on its supremacy and de-humanization of others, and is unacceptable. And, while identity politics is a means to achieve equity and dignity, is not an end-goal in-and-of-itself. Rather, we must continue to deconstruct and destroy the very real, but very socially constructed categories of race, and in the process denounce whiteness as illegitimate.

Protesters at N.P.I. Conference 11/19/16.” Susan Melkisethian

In the days following Trump’s election, the mainstream media and leftist publications pointed to a serious political oversight of the Democrats failing to attend to and advocate for the needs of the American white working-class. I mentioned this in an interview with a pioneering diversity consultant. He responded, “Well, white is a diversity category, [because] racial and ethnic is, [and] certainly class is also a diversity category.” At this moment I realized that I had been working within my own cultural assumptions: I had taken for granted that “race and gender” rights would not mean white and male.

An interview that Richard Spencer, a prominent leader of the Alt-Right, did with CNN correspondent, Roland Martin, exemplifies the paradoxical quality of the Alt-Right’s attitude toward whiteness:

Martin: Are you white nationalist?
Spencer: I don’t use the term white nationalist, I like the term Alt-Right first off, and I also like the term Identitarian,
because it gets to what I am and what I believe.
Martin: And what is that?
Spencer: Identity is at the heart of my ideology
Martin: What is an identity?
Spencer: Race is a foundation of that identity, undoubtedly.

Subsequently, Spencer asked Martin to define his identity. Martin did not take the bait and said, that he identified as a man. I admit that, under different circumstances, I would have expected him to identify as a black man. Such a disruption in my own cultural assumptions, however, made me think: Could it be that the Alt-Right is legitimizing its existence by playing into the diversity and inclusion rhetoric? That is, if in the United States, we accept the right to self-determination and celebrate communities that aim to preserve their heritage, biological roots, and cultural identity, why do we renounce the right for white people to do the same? The Alt-Right wants to know. And, this is the rhetorical paradox that the diversity and inclusion discourse has trapped us in.

I dare us to admit that diversity and inclusion needs an unapologetic political agenda. I make this claim with all possible sincerity and seriousness to professionals and scholars who attend to diversity issues in their workplaces and their careers. Some might fear taking this stance, arguing that it is a commitment to abstain from partisan politics. Yet privately, those same people often expect the Democratic Party to address the concerns of discrimination, systemic inequity, and equal opportunity. It seems elementary—but necessary— to have to point out that having a political agenda, does not equate to relying on national political parties. Rather we have a moral obligation to historically marginalized and oppressed communities to create and enforce boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable speech and behavior.

 There is consistently a disconnect between the language and rhetoric used to advance diversity and inclusion, and the very personalized and contingent practice driven by these same scholar-practitioners.

To be clear, many diversity practitioners already have political approaches to their practice. My point is that there is consistently a disconnect between the language and rhetoric used to advance diversity and inclusion, and the very personalized and contingent practice driven by these same scholar-practitioners. Many practitioners draw on their personal experiences with discrimination to advance diversity and inclusion, including referencing how they grew up: as a Latina in the Bronx, under apartheid South Africa, being the first Black officer in the Army or the first woman or African-American executive at major multinational corporations. Yet often it is the case that while we preach inclusion, race enters in the backdoor. When race and historical discrimination is not center to how we create inclusion, we depend on individuals to make this connection. By allowing this to happen, we have assumed that people will always identify with the most marginalized. The Alt-Right has shown this is not the case, and we must correct this.

 Under a Trump Presidency, we cannot afford to limit the work we do with diversity to a political affiliation, or in the other extreme, to a denouncement of diversity as a political project.

Rather, it is more evident than ever that the Alt-Right has benefitted from diversity discourses in ways that have not aligned with the interests of historically marginalized communities in the United States, and around the world. In fact, they have done just the opposite. Their white separatist claims are consistently justified by a nostalgia for colonial greatness. Under a Trump Presidency, we cannot afford to limit the work we do with diversity to a political affiliation, or in the other extreme, to a denouncement of diversity as a political project. Rather, our very affective and social justice driven practices must reflect the language and discourse used to talk and think about diversity. That means drawing the political line and sticking by it. The Alt-Right has comfortably built an identity based on a historical legacy of supremacy, and we as scholars, educators, and advocates of diversity (read: anthropologists) must transgress a discourse that renounces hate and advocates belonging, to one that unapologetically renounces whiteness.

Luzilda Carrillo-Arciniega is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is writing her dissertation, Making Corporate Inclusivity: Discrimination and Expertise in Post-Affirmative Action America. @luzildac

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