A breakup letter to diversity work

Divya M. Persaud
14 min readJun 15, 2022

We’ve been together for a while. In fact, for my whole career: eleven years spanning two countries, six institutions, and countless committees, panels, and volunteer groups. But…it’s time.

Let’s be real

The truth is that you, Diversity Work, even when you start out in earnest — typically as grassroots efforts by the people who most need it, before you slip from our fingers for a number of reasons, in a number of ways — end up having the primary purpose of serving institutional liability. It comes down to HR. And you’re a racket (I defer wholly to Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s excellent enumeration of the de facto rules of the “D&I racket,” and Indigenous Action’s zine on accomplices vs. allies). People like me are a free source of labor that is now dictated by state or national law, and HR would love to have some free help. And isn’t this why HR bites back at us and not the harassers when we complain too loudly?

“When you expose a problem, you pose a problem.” Ahmed (2017)

“#27: There is nothing more dangerous than a woman or non-binary (enby) person of color who knows what they are about and refuses to sell themselves to you. Literally, they are very dangerous. Shut them down.” Prescod-Weinstein (2019)

I got involved with you because others started signing me up. A lot of people do genuinely want inclusion, equity, and diversity to be happening, but academic housework typically falls to women/of color (Mcfarlane and Burg, 2019). Or, some really wonderful colleagues think you’re welcoming and that you’ll introduce us to like-minded people, which isn’t untrue (at least, not as a rule). You’re a warm hand to hold and the room you lead to is sunny and hopeful.

Until it really, really isn’t.

You have an (industrial) complex

A lot of people seek you out not for love but for a little fling, in search for fame or attention. Allyship has become a cottage industry in STEM and beyond. In STEM, the real labor and expertise (that of minoritized scientists) can be hidden, the duck’s legs doing all the work, so Allies TM can rake in accolades, grant money, [ETA: protection from allegations of predatory behavior] etc., based on our work while we’re just trying to make a workplace better. And, unfortunately, the power dynamics of career stages as well as identity can easily be leveraged to enable this wholesale theft.

But, oh, don’t they thank us for knowing you better than they do. Won’t you introduce us? allies will ask. Won’t you give me a reading list? Won’t you write this survey for us for the hundredth time? Won’t you explain this again? Won’t you write this application for me? Won’t you say that more nicely? Won’t you give? Won’t you give? Won’t you give? Won’t you shut the $%#@ up?

“You can now pay hundreds of dollars to go to esoteric institutes for an allyship certificate in anti-oppression. You can go through workshops and receive an allyship badge. In order to commodify struggle it must first be objectified. This is exhibited in how “issues” are “framed” & “branded.” Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency.” Indigenous Action (2014)

Before we know it, we are heading enterprises of you: writing grants, making policies, all usually unpaid, un-credited, and unrelated to the work that does pay and cite us. I sell trauma testimony for someone else’s couple thousand dollars for an initiative that is usually yet another survey of white women in the field — while the trauma is ongoing. And oh, aren’t you exaggerating about the harassment, bulling, and discrimination?

You eat gratitude, but I don’t.

You’re a leech

All of my time with you has been about theft.

My tweets about diversity of a speaking panel find their way into an ally’s lab-wide email that doesn’t cite me, not even after an accomplice points out that I started the conversation — but I’m privately, racially harassed while the ally looks like a hero. When I go to my department to report months’ worth of toxic and abusive behavior that is affecting my work and health, the conversation gets redirected to you, and I find myself doing work for a committee I’m not a part of, unpaid, without credit. My work for my conference — run by two women — starts cropping up on other websites without citation, and it takes numerous emails to wrench a proper citation from the thieves.

If it’s not “allies,” it’s real accomplices who get the accolades and gratitude for saying the same things I do, sometimes at the same time and using the same words while citing me. If I co-organize a conference with a white accomplice, they get cited and I don’t, and our emails get replied to without me copied. If I speak out and an accomplice backs me up, they get pats on the back and congratulated for taking the risks that I took as someone more precarious than them — while I’m left in the toxic situation I’ve described, without any checks on my well-being. It’s more important that the white man accomplice is thanked than I get any alleviation of what I describe as terrifying enough to keep me from coming in to work.

But when it’s not about my work being stolen, it’s about my energy. Sometimes, as mentioned, my work with you leaves me working from home, afraid to go into the office. It’s a costochondritis spell that feels like a heart attack or COVID. It’s avoiding common spaces at my institution for fear of being confronted by people who hate you and me. It’s having alt-right accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers writing hit pieces about me for something I had to deradicalize and water down anyway.

I’ve also left a number of diversity committees and similar after highly stressful experiences about you, from having my asks on racial and disability equality measures dismissed leading to my social media replies being stalked (I was then pressured to leave said committee), to being told that racism simply doesn’t exist in our halls despite nearly half of students experiencing bullying and material evidence of racial discrimination. (ETA: a couple years later the people who told me this won a grant to address racial inequality, “inspired by” my reports and complaints. They never apologized.)

This latter incident was shattering, and I think has led us directly to this break-up. I was finally asking, what was it all for? And does speaking out, reporting, making complaint, and striving for better have to do with you? Do I even need you? What is your purpose when a year later, all the promises departments made to address anti-Blackness in STEM have not come to fruition in immediate and concrete enough ways? What have you done to prevent every major research institution in the UK and US abandoning disabled and Black workers during this pandemic? Have you done more than the independent, grassroots efforts led by and for the people who need support?

You make everything about you

Even when you’re not in the room, you ruin things: first, because the industrial complex means that “allies” are out “lifting up voices” without an accompanying dollar or citation; second, because these toxic incidents inevitably spill over to other work we do; and third, because you set an expectation that our institutions are really doing something when they absolutely are not.

Recently, I tweeted a question to a scientific workshop hashtag and later found that my words were nearly copied verbatim two months later for an abstract for a conference about you. I wasn’t cited, but a white collaborator of mine was. Since I’m attending conferences virtually indefinitely, does this mean I simply stop participating? The conference I attended was about my field, not just the research — so am I shut out of any activity relating to shaping the field? Do I just stop saying anything, because someone will turn it into a DOI, grant money, an award? What does that mean when virtual options suck for those of us who need them? How do I advocate for you when you’re just a lie?

This workshop is meeting again this week and I’m simply not participating, just watching. This month, I quietly left a diversity committee where the perpetrator has influence. I had to disclose this situation to my boss so as to check that this person wasn’t going to be present at a work meeting, for fear that my words would be copied again. The diversity committee I was pressured to leave after they had stalked my Twitter replies has ties to public engagement funding in Europe that I can no longer consider.

Two years ago, when I was undercut on and had my work stolen for a paper because I was too ill to work after hours and over a three-day weekend, I was told not to report this discriminatory behavior and attendant verbal harassment, because that’s just the way it is, but can I justify what racism actually happens in my department? Isn’t that too strong of a word? We have a diversity committee, have you joined it? We’re really trying; isn’t that enough for you?

When “diversity” means my simply existing in the room — while for others, it’s a hobby — you and your failures are a drain on my professional activities regardless of their nature.

Why aren’t we working?

When we live under systemic white supremacist capitalist patriarchy+, when work is about hegemony, when research glorifies these power dynamics, when allyship becomes a fun label more than an ethos, much of what we do will slip this way. We might make improvements in law around sexual harassment, while profession-wide initiatives tackle hostile workplace culture, and, on the smaller scale, accomplices actually do their job and are effective bystanders; all of these make important changes, but when these efforts focus on the microcosms of research, academia, space science, and so on, disconnected from any broader, justice- and solidarity-based vision, well…what is the goal?

I find the model of state co-optation to be useful to understand how this disconnect happens, especially as universities and other research institutions become more and more corporate. Every genuine grassroots, justice-driven initiative will have to comply to institutional policies once it becomes attached to institutional effort. This attachment might be through official channels; it might be a financial award your group wins from the institution, or new leadership that is tied to institutions.

This may not seem intrinsically bad, but institutions have to watch their bottom line and how they look to stakeholders, protect the endowment, and consider liability. So when you’re organizing around something as specific as racial discrimination in hiring practices, or student rights, HR will sit up in their seats and try to undermine and redirect you. This is why diversity committees, even with the most genuine, crystallized visions, will be made to be more generally about a liberal vision of “equality” without specificity. It’ll turn into constantly setting, meeting, and re-setting often vague benchmarks that aren’t about results but about assessing the problem. I think this embodies Toni Morrison’s description of racism as a distraction:

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” (Morrison 1975)

This is when they make you, Diversity Work, about trading immediacy for the long-term con. Let’s go back to the example of my trying to report a series of incidents of bullying that was redirected to “diversity work.” Ideally, it would make perfect sense; the bullying I was experiencing was absolutely an equity issue, relating to ableism, racism, sexism, and the hegemony of academia. But the work that I was tricked into doing was about a biannual survey that serially shows that this workplace is toxic, without meaningful attached action to alleviate that toxicity. Many organizations do just this: sanction yet another demographics survey to “capture the problem” and, rarely, to “see if our efforts are working.” Suddenly ten years have passed, and projections show that it’ll be centuries before you achieve gender and racial equity in physics. No one will have been fired. No one will have lost funding.

“Co-optation also functions as a form of liberalism. Allyship can perpetuate a neutralizing dynamic by co-opting original liberatory intent into a reformist agenda. Certain folks in the struggles (usually movement “personalities”) who don’t upset the ally establishment status quo can be rewarded with inclusion in the ally industry.” Indigenous Action (2014)

Meanwhile, Ph.D. students will get sexually harassed for decades by a single perpetrator who is still allowed to supervise students. Serial harassers will get a pass because of their “mental health,” i.e., an institution not wanting a lawsuit about ableism (but pay no mind to the mental health of the survivors). Survivors will become mentally and physically ill out of fear and stress and be pressured to leave their programs or take other types of leave that could threaten their funding. Professors who have records of failing student after student get even more students; grants and grants and grants. A department will mob to protect a bully and gaslight victims about it, waiting for them to quit or graduate to avoid the problem. Disabled staff are put through endless loopholes to get simple fixes in their workplace or have their conditions circulated as rumors.

These things are dire. They break laws, but universities don’t care about equity lawsuits against either themselves or wealthy professors. They will hit you with a gag order. They will “investigate themselves” for funding councils, and find nothing wrong (cf. Table 1). They will ask you what you were wearing. They will turn the press against survivors. They will invest in a charter, survey, committee of well-meaning people, whom they will then cut down at the knees, or to whom they give a little cash and stipulate how it can be used. Prove it all over again! in the right ways. It’s “diversity” then it’s “diversity and inclusion” then it’s EDI, DEI, DEIA, IDEA, JEDI…when will you fire the harassers?

So it’s about abstracting what equity actually might look like into an asymptote, unreachable and unspecific, but also about individualizing every single case so that trends in workplace culture, a perpetrator’s behavior, and discriminatory practice cannot be tracked — such is neoliberalism of universities, about itemizing as much as it is about obscuring. I mean, what’s better than a class-action lawsuit than simply not retaining staff and students of color? Just don’t have exit interviews, and make sure any reports they’ve made are covered by NDAs.

The corporation — and allies — will deradicalize efforts that become institutionalized, and then we do it to ourselves because of the red tape all around us. Despite pressing issues that have incredibly easy fixes, many of us have to water down our visions to mete out the tiniest wins, a constant cycle of sacrifice that we consider worth it because we believe in you, and we need any wins we can get. You defang us so summarily that we end up marionettes for institutions so that they can win awards that attract new hires and students, brush away cases of serial sexual and racial abuse, and check a box for the government cheese all in the neoliberal rat race. Some institutions manage to not trip on the bar, but most do not, leaving cycle after cycle of employees and/or students thinking they’ve made tiny gains when in reality they end up eroding almost immediately. I’ll think I made a difference and find out weeks later that someone else is in the same exact boat as me, due the same people, having undergone the same hostile and toxic tactics I experienced.

“In many cases the academic maintains institutional power above the knowledge and skill base of the community/ies in struggle. Intellectuals are most often fixated on un-learning oppression. These lot generally don’t have their feet on the ground, but are quick to be critical of those who do. Should we desire to merely “unlearn” oppression, or to smash it to fucking pieces, and have it’s very existence gone?” Indigenous Action (2014)

You’re all about opening doors, as long as we fit into tidy boxes of politeness, respectability, moderacy, deference, legality. Speak only when we’re spoken to. Complain to the official channels, and gracefully accept — and advocate for — our complaints being dismissed. Apologize for taking up the minimal space we have. Sign up for the free work to get the alumni donations you’re really about.

So…what were we?

I’m tired

And I’m tired! Tired is a diagnosis for me and I don’t have the space in me to choose to be even more tired. I don’t have the energy to be something I’m not just for you, and then to have our work together be stolen anyway.

Let’s be real, again. I’ll probably continue to see you, sometimes. Because you need me. And, despite all of the ire, the plagiarism and the personal cost, I’ll come back to you because science is unlivable. When I do outreach and public engagement, and feel the love and joy I have about my field, and see that reflected in the eyes of children who look like me, children I would never invite into this lion’s den, I know that I have to do this. When my friends and colleagues who are more precarious than me, who face more barriers and twice the BS from the institution, find it even more unlivable. When I am harassed and face constant microaggressions. When I have to constantly be on the defensive during a pandemic killing mostly disabled people like me. When I, like 18% of women of color in my field, avoid conferences and meetings so I don’t have to face harassers or people who steal my work, to the detriment of my research. When every day for three years of my Ph.D., I wanted to quit, even up to the day before I submitted my thesis, for the extreme emotional cost of my hostile work environment.

But there are alternatives to you, when I need unconditional love. The networks we build, around solidarity and untied to official institutional structures or even academia, are where we find restoration, strength, and understanding. Out of the eye of surveillance, talking and making community with people who share our experiences, identities, and backgrounds — and those who don’t, but who understand how we’re all tied up together, and will fight like hell all the same.

It might look like a Twitter group chat. A whisper network. Meeting the eyes of a young butch or Desi student at a conference, and going over to their poster. Unconferences, ad hoc meetings, the marginalia of Slack, Discord, a hallway, a Facebook message, a gushing email. Sit-ins, die-ins, strikes, and unionizing. We spin these moments of chance into collaborations, campaigns, events, late-night calls, love or merely professional support, recommendation letters, commiserations, tears, and belonging. Authenticity, fangs and all.

You are not hope. You are not even a necessity. You are something I can pick up and hold and say something to, even if you don’t listen. Like a seashell that holds the ghost of the ocean. Just sound waves caught in some calcium carbonate, pretending. Don’t mistake this for love.

You can cite this article with the following:

Persaud, D. M. (2022), “A breakup letter to diversity work,” Medium. https://divyamper.medium.com/a-breakup-letter-to-diversity-work-4381454ceb92

References

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Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex,” Indigenous Action, 2014.

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Persaud, D. M., 2021. Don’t delete me from science just because conferences suck, Medium.

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