A Cure for the Common Whiteness: Diversity Recruitment

I want to talk about diversity recruitment.


“The Empire Wants You!!!” by leg0fenris via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’m on all kinds of listservs for librarians and academics of color and I’m frequently on Twitter and the like; and I’m constantly getting messages like these:

Our [organization/program/conference/group] needs more diversity! We are serious about diversity! We are recruiting diverse applicants! Please apply if you are diverse! Yes, that means you, [person of color, queer person, transgender person, poor person, immigrant, disabled person]!

I’m really getting tired of these messages.

I’m tired of them because they are lazy. They are a passive response to what is a very active, systemic, and institutional problem—capitalist, cis-heternormative, white patriarchy.

I’m tired of them because they are burden-shifting. I see these messages go out; and then several months later when no “diverse applicants” successfully apply—inevitably happens with such slapdash recruiting efforts such as these—I see the recruiting leaders bemoan how “difficult it is to get diverse people” because they “tried really hard and everything and no one was interested.” These lazy messages allow those responsible for recruiting to shift that responsibility to the marginalized communities they are supposedly trying to reach.

Finally, I’m tired of them because they are not solutions to the problem of lack of diversity. They are panaceas. They are Spongebob bandaids on gaping, festering, gangrenous wounds of oppression and bias.

So what should these recruiting efforts look like?

First off: Before anything else, you need to be ready to address both diversity and inclusion. You need to aim for recruitment while maintaining an eye on retention. Diversity gets folks from different backgrounds into the organization (recruitment); inclusion creates an environment in which they can remain and thrive (retention). Both are equally important upfront.

If your organization/program/conference/group struggles with homogeneity, then one of the very first questions you should be asking is “Why?” What is it about your organization/program/conference/group that is keeping people from diverse backgrounds away? When people from underrepresented groups show up, why don’t they stay? What is going on in your organizational culture that is not conducive to a person from a marginalized community?

Think of your lack of diversity as a cough (I’m really feeling the medical analogies today; go with it). There are many reasons why you may have that cough. And while you can down bottle after bottle of cough syrup to suppress it for a time (like sending out those lazy messages), in the end, your cough will still be there. And it will likely get worse because you’ll have grown inured to the cough medicine; meanwhile, the underlying cause of the cough will still be there, getting progressively more problematic. You need to find out if you’ve got emphysema or bronchitis or an inhaled piece of broccoli, so you can figure out how to get rid of the cough for good.

Likewise, you need to figure out what kind of barriers to entry and success exist in your organization and organizational culture, in order to meaningfully address your lack of diversity.

Second: Once you’ve uncovered the roots of the problem (and there will be many), you need to begin taking steps to fix them. This is going to take a lot of candid, brutally honest discussions. You’ll have to confront a lot of individual and organizational biases. So be ready. It will also take a lot of time. While you don’t need to have things fixed before recruiting, you should at least have started addressing your organizational issues.

Third: Now you can start sending out messages, but those messages should make clear that diversity is important to the organization/program/conference/group without being tokenizing or causing unwarranted and unwanted visibility. (Hey, you’re gay/latinx/disabled/etc! And you do the stuff they want! You should apply to that thing!) This can be a fine line but it can be done tactfully and respectfully.

Our [organization/program/conference/group] is recruiting. Also, we are very serious about diversity and inclusion* and welcome applicants from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Our goal is to maintain a non-oppressive work environment where diverse perspectives are accepted and valued.

Finally: You need to accompany those messages with proactive, off-the-beaten-path outreach. If you want diverse applicants, you HAVE to go outside the pipeline. Think of folks from underrepresented groups who may be in your professional networks. Reach out to them and ask if they know of specific people who may be interested in your organization or program.

Note: If you can’t think of any folks like this in your networks, then go back to the first step above and do that same work on an individual rather than organizational basis: Why don’t you have diverse folks in your networks? How are you further marginalizing already marginalized people in your professional life? What biases are at work in your professional networking?

Once you have a list of specific people to approach, approach them, but make sure you do so professionally and fairly. Don’t expect them to jump at the opportunity to join your organization just because you “need” them for diversity. Their work should be fairly and adequately valued just like anyone else’s, while still acknowledging that some accommodations, not otherwise thought of in a oppressive normative environment, may be called for.

If they refuse, ask them if they’d be willing to provide you with feedback. (But don’t assume they want or are able to do so!) Take note of their critique, don’t defend or justify, make the necessary changes.

You’ll also want to ask them if they’d be willing to share the names of other potential applicants or to spread the word about your recruitment effort.

You may find that you need to run through this process several times before successfully recruiting people from different backgrounds to your organization. That’s okay. It is an iterative process.

You may have also noticed this process is labor-intensive and time- and resource-consuming. It is not easy. And it shouldn’t be. Oppression didn’t arise overnight; correcting for oppression likewise takes time. But if you’re really serious about brining diversity into your organization/program/conference/group, then you will do what it takes.