Excerpt of an illustration by Shebai Rao

DEI, Bitch

Can everyone hear and see me okay? No? Oh, I was on mute, let me just … There we go.

Okay! Thanks to all three of you for attending this webinar. I hope you will find it was worth the $45 in registration fees, which we determined was the most equitable price point.

I’ve decided to skip the traditional PowerPoint today in favor of something a little more … interesting — my boss did tell me to "spice it up” after all. She probably meant that I should add some stock photos here and there, but I went in a different direction.

Instead of telling you how to do DEI work, I thought I’d show you. We’re going to do a little role-playing exercise where you pretend that you just got hired as a “DEI coordinator.” I’m going to talk you through your experience, from the perspective of a seasoned DEI professional. Lucky you!

This is an entirely one-sided activity. If you could, please go off-camera and refrain from putting any comments in the chat. Okay, (deep breath), let’s begin.

Congratulations on your new job, and welcome to the world of DEI (or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)! — Or wait, is it DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice)? Or DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging)?

Regardless, your job is to make a big, racist organization “racially equitable.” Your starting (and forever) salary is less than all of your white coworkers’, who comprise the majority of your new “work family.” But this kind of thing is exactly why you were hired!

In your first meeting, you mention race. Rookie mistake! Your boss (white, shops at Ten Thousand Villages) pulls you aside and asks you to “recalibrate” your approach because it kind of sounds like you’re accusing the company of being racist (?!) But also, she hopes you don’t feel discouraged — you’ll find your footing eventually! You issue a formal apology, cc’ing every meeting attendee for “transparency.”

After submitting twenty-nine requests, you receive the company’s demographics data in a Google doc named “in case of audit.” Everyone’s listed race has a question mark after it, with comments from the HR lady, Diane. One entry says, “I think?” Another: “Oriental??”

You ask if the process by which we collect this information could be changed to something that isn’t Diane’s Racist Impressions. Unfortunately, “at this time,” it cannot, because your company just transitioned to a new system, or is about to transition to a new system.

You create a slide deck for your first presentation, which demonstrates that women of color are the least compensated cohort in your company. You send it to your boss for review. She has you delete most of your slides, then add one that says: “Racism is historical, structural, and most of all, not our fault,” a message she recently read in an Instagram post. But she hopes you don’t feel like she’s censoring you!

Your coworker (white, trendily tatted) texts you before your presentation to inform you that she’s an Ally. She promises to support you because the organization is “so fucked up.”

It’s presentation day! Despite your heavily edited slides, your coworkers are outraged. What exactly are you accusing them of?! Your boss cuts in, saying you didn’t mean to imply that there was any inequality in wages, even though your presentation is titled “Inequality in Wages.” Everyone calms down. The Ally is silent.

You suggest higher compensation packages to improve the PWMA (Perceived Wage Misalignment— that’s what you must call it now, pending approval from Legal). Unfortunately, the budget’s tight this year, so no one is getting raises, except for the people who were already getting raises. Instead, leadership creates a Morale Committee, which you are invitold to sit on. The Committee’s big idea is to start an office snack box. They send you to Acme to buy granola bars. You’re still waiting on your reimbursement.

Someone drops by your desk to ask how to make the layoff process “more inclusive.” You point out that getting laid off is kinda the opposite of inclusive? “Trauma-informed, then,” they reply.

Uh-oh! Your organization is being sued in a discrimination lawsuit. To save face, they pay a consultant five times your salary for a one-day training on implicit bias. Your boss asks you to take notes, reminding you to dress professionally, even though you always dress professionally. The training consists of doing trust falls with your coworkers and describing how it made you feel in your body. The Ally drops you. You’re not sure what to take notes on.

Racial justice protests roil your city. Your boss calls you at night “to check in,” but mostly to give you a bunch of new assignments. “Did you know people felt so angry about race?!” She wants you to draft a press release about all the inclusive, supportive things the organization is doing. “But we’re not doing anything,” you say. Long pause. She asks you to please reframe that and to try to have a more positive attitude.

Fast-forward two years. Racial equity is trendy now, which means donors are asking about it, which means everyone’s got to look like they’re doing it.

You get another DEI gig, and now you’re paid too much. You sit on task forces and volunteer for the subcommittees that the task forces spawn. Your current subcommittee spends several meetings drafting a mission statement. When you’re close to a final version, your colleague asks if what you’ve come up with is “actually more reflective of a vision statement?” Mmmmmm, everyone unmutes themselves to concur in unison. The combination vision/mission statement takes another eight weeks to compose.

You have a team meeting about how best to decenter yourself, using TikTok. Your account name is Ch00sing_2_listen.

Your coworker is name-dropping again. She’s not the only one who reads Mariame Kaba! (You’ve just skimmed the beginning of We Do This ‘Till We Free Us, but still.) One day you ask her how to set up the printer, and she responds with an Audre Lorde quote and “<3 <3 <3.”

Today you learn that if you don’t refer to your colleagues as “friends” or “co-conspirators,” you’ve internalized white supremacy culture (womp, womp).

At the weekly “Brené Brownbag” lunch, which involves eating a catered meal while listening to her latest podcast episode, everyone is asked to share a bud, rose, thorn, stem, soil, roots, and surrounding foliage in response to the episode. You say that you’re not sure this is the best use of company resources, and your co-conspirators are devastated. Your boss calls you out by calling you in. Everyone cries.

Your team has referred to “the space” seventy-two times this week.

Now you’re at your monthly team-building retreat. “What do we mean by ‘uplifting marginalized voices?’” your boss prompts. You struggle to think of voices you’ve uplifted recently — or even heard, besides those of your team. You scrawl “Whose stories are told, and by whom?” on a Post-It. Everyone beams.

You add your Post-It to a giant poster board crowded with Post-Its from your friends. These Post-Its are sorted, grouped, and labeled with explanatory Post-Its. The new Post-Its are transferred to a secondary board, intended to encourage reflection, the highlights of which go on a tertiary board, also via Post-Its. It’s already been five hours into the healing-centered, paradigm co-shifting activity, and your boss is stressed. She doesn’t want to cut short the fruitful conversation! There’s an additional board. Your boss encourages everyone to place colored stickers corresponding to how you each feel about the day.

You select vomit-green.

This meeting has been ended by the host.

Illustration by Shebani Rao
Headshot of Shabani Rao

Shebani Rao is a comic artist, writer, and visual artist based in Philadelphia. Her illustrations and comics have been published in LitHub, The Margins, Buzzfeed, Buzzfeed India, Tides, and others. Her visual art has been featured by Philly arts organizations like Twelve Gates Arts, The Resource Exchange, and the South Asian American Digital Archives (SAADA). Shebani has worked in nonprofits, foundations, and local government for the past decade. Her day job, art practice, and identity all inform each other. Across mediums, her artwork deals with themes like race, identity, mental and physical health, and structural inequality. You can check out her daily comics on Instagram: @shebanimal.

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